The spin of a windmill. The artistry in the design. The story being told. It’s the little things.
Make that the mini things.
A love of mini golf has been at the heart of Tom Loftus and Robin Schwartzman’s lives. From fond childhood memories to later having their first date on the course, to eventually getting married at the same spot and ultimately playing the game in five different countries, the couple has seen a little bit of everything the sport has to offer. The pair has turned their passion and knowledge of the game into the website A Couple of Putts that offers course reviews and consultations, and they’re now bringing The Miniest Mini Golf Open to Lilli Putt in Coon Rapids Sept. 18-20.
Participants can compete from the start of play Friday, Sept. 18, to the close on Saturday, Sept. 19, and the top six scores will be invited back for a championship round Sunday, Sept. 20.
“We have a winner’s jacket, trophies, medals, prizes and more,” said Loftus, who grew up in Coon Rapids. “Who could resist?”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise their roads led to here. Mini golf has been a lifelong pursuit for both, with some of their earliest memories coming on the course with family. The charm never faded.
“I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, and my family would play mini golf every year on our vacations to the Jersey Shore,” Schwartzman said. “I have fond memories from that time. As I got older, I started working as an artist, and a lot of the work I was making was inspired by places like miniature golf courses and amusement parks. They are just such fun, transcendent spaces that take you out of the day to day.”
“I grew up in Coon Rapids and played mini golf at Goony Golf in Spring Lake Park and at Lilli Putt with my family since it was the closest course to home,” Loftus said. “Growing up with three siblings and constantly being around sports, I grew to love athletic competitions. Mini golf also tapped the part of me that loved the adventures and stories that were in video games and board games. Our family always had a rousing time and close rounds when we were kids. As an adult, I continued to play semi-regularly with friends and during travels. It’s a game that I always associated with joy and play.”
As they grew up, both retained their love of mini golf, holding also a love for art. That led to them crossing paths, and a natural destination for a first date.
“I asked Robin on a date to Big Stone Mini Golf in Minnetrista,” Loftus said. “I had started revisiting childhood mini golf courses like Lilli Putt and Goony Golf around 2009 and heard stories about Big Stone. I had been involved in the art world, so the idea of an artist-designed course like the ones I had played at the Walker Art Center was incredibly appealing. I had met Robin while we were both working on the all-night North Spark Arts Festival in June 2011. We had stayed in touch all summer and it was clear we were both interested in each other. I had never been to Big Stone and thought since she was an artist that she might think it’s a good date spot. On Sept. 11, 2011, we had our first date on a scorching hot day and had a magical experience playing the course.”
Mini golf is a light-hearted endeavor. Yet it is also one that has created a deep and lasting bond for the couple and many others, a common ground all can enjoy regardless of skill level. For Loftus and Schwartzman, it set a foundation that would eventually lead to them getting married.
“We both have very different interests and personalities,” Schwartzman said. “Tom is a pure extrovert, and I’m more introverted. Tom loves music, and I don’t know anything about it. Tom has a knack for being social and bringing together communities. I am creative, technical and a professional artist. Mini golf is a big thing that we share in common. It’s an activity that we can enjoy together on an almost weekly basis where we’re outside and away from our phones. It has given us a purpose in planning our travels, something to have — mostly — friendly competition over and a community of friends to share together.”
“The first date sent us down a long and deep adventure that we’re still savoring,” Loftus said. “We started playing often on early dates and travels. Now it has evolved to a significant endeavor. We’ve played hundreds of mini golf courses in multiple countries and across nearly half of the U.S. The experiences both of us have had together via mini golf are surreal. In 2014-15, we traveled to Doha, Qatar twice. We worked with art and design students to conceptualize and design a mini golf course and then returned to Doha for an international conference on art and design with talented creatives from across the globe. We’ve taken on build and design projects as well as business clients to create numerous mini golf holes that, in some cases, remain in the world and are still playable. Mini golf has become an indelible and joyful part of our lives.”
Still, the couple noticed something was missing.
For all of the courses available to play, there were very few places for players to find reviews. A Couple of Putts was created to fill the void.
“From over 20 years of activity in the music, arts and the creative world, I was able to easily find information and criticism of new and old creations across the internet or in books,” Loftus said. “As the two of us started looking to find mini golf courses that had a similar magical quality as Big Stone, we found very little information. There is a book from 1989 and a handful of websites with not a ton of visuals. This wasn’t around the turn of the 21st century. This was 2012. I thought at the very least it would be fun to create a social media identity or website that would document our adventures for ourselves. I figured we’d include what we liked and found challenging about courses to share with others who may be looking for more information before they play.”
Those trips across the country and world have led them back home this weekend, inspiring them to host the Miniest Mini Golf Open.
“Growing up, I remember the 1980s Tom Thumb gas station sponsored tournaments at Lilli Putt that were advertised when our family was at the course,” Loftus said. “I never played in the tournaments, but the idea of playing at Lilli Putt competitively stuck with me. As we expanded our mini golf endeavors, we wanted to find ways to get people together around the game of mini golf in a variety of ways. We had done one-off events celebrating the national annual miniature golf day (second Saturday in May) and had been thinking about a way to celebrate the international mini golf day on Sept. 21. Given it was the end of the summer season and people would have had an opportunity to play a lot from May to August, a tournament made the most sense. We were encouraged by friends in the mini golf world like The Putting Penguin that host tournaments on the East Coast in September each year as well. We started planning this tournament at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The Miniest Mini Golf Open was an idea we had been thinking about since the end of the 2019 season. We talked with Ed at Lilli Putt about our idea of doing a tournament at Lilli Putt, and he was incredibly supportive. We initially thought the tournament could take place over a single-day event where people would sign up in advance to play multiple rounds in pairings of three to four people in a group. This is the traditional golf/mini golf tournament setup that I had observed at the Masters of Mini Golf in Myrtle Beach in October 2019. After COVID hit, we wanted to keep the competitive concept simple, open and accessible. Come out, play a round, get some mini golf goodies from A Couple of Putts and if you end up in the top six, you’ll get to play an additional round for prizes and mini golf glory.”
Pirate ships and castles, moving obstacles and trick holes, glow-in-the-dark setups and basement greens — the possibilities are endless when it comes to mini golf. And they are a big part in why it has a global appeal.
“We played mini golf in Iceland, Japan, Qatar, Canada and even on our safari honeymoon in Tanzania,” Loftus said. “We’ve played over 50 courses in Minnesota alone, along with courses in half of the states in the U.S. Courses like Par-King Skill Golf outside of Chicago, Around the World in Lake George, N.Y., and the Universal- and Disney-owned courses in Orlando are completely immersive and magical. The suburban Chicago funeral home that has a death-themed mini golf hole in the basement is probably the most unique course I’ve played. All of the artist-designed courses we’ve either contributed to or designed have had some of the most unique takes on both the form and function of the game. Competing on Holey Moley gave us the opportunity to play multiple holes on a course that less than 200 people ever got to play. We seek out the unique mini golf experiences all the time and have been wildly fortunate.”
here are many different elements that can make for a good mini golf course. At the core of all of them, though, is a passion put forth that welcomes the players into a new world.
“Sense of wonder, play and joy,” Loftus said. “A good mix of being fun, functional, and contains excitement on repeat plays. We’ve come to appreciate a variety of styles of courses from heavily themed kitschy courses to visually straightforward challenging putting spaces. The best courses offer an escape from reality and a sense of adventure where you’re following the path of the ball along the course and towards the hole. While the game has a lot of common tropes we’ve come to expect and love like windmills, loops, castles and waterfalls, there is still a lot of fertile ground to explore within mini golf in regards to gameplay, design and interactivity.”
“A good mini golf course really shows off the personality of its owner,” Schwartzman said. “There are so many things from hole design and signage, obstacles and decor, maintenance and upkeep that can make a course stand out, and we’ve found that these elements are often a direct reflection of the owner’s passion and commitment. A lot of the ‘big box’ mini golf courses just don’t have the same feel.”
The couple doesn’t just play and review courses, however. They have gotten into the design game as well, providing ideas unique to various locations.
“We’ve designed so many holes! Some include: a giant watering can, a giant gumball machine, a beehive and an oversize slice of cake, a nine-hole course inspired by local landmarks of the city it is in,” Schwartzman said. “Holes inspired by things like toy blocks and color wheels. First we come up with the theme and idea, and then we think about the game play and how we can tie those two things together seamlessly. Then comes a lot of sketching, 3D modeling, prototyping and finally the build! With every new hole we build and design, we are always learning.”
The couple has seen almost everything mini golf has to offer. But not much can compare to the wackiness they experienced on the ABC TV show Holey Moley, a comedic mini golf competition.
“During the fall of 2018, we saw a post on social media about casting for a competitive mini golf show by the people that made Wipeout,” Loftus said. “We responded to one of the posts online and received an immediate response from a casting person who wanted to hear more about our story. A couple that designs and plays mini golf courses around the world that got together after a first date of playing mini golf seemed in line with the type of passionate putters they were looking to put on the show. At that time, we were also engaged to be married at the same mini golf course where we had our first date. We sent videos and had communications for months and eventually went out to film in late March/early April 2019. The experience of playing that course is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. For the months leading up to being on the show, we practiced our putting even more frequently because we knew there would be some competitive element to the show. On our drives out to courses, we speculated on what a major television network would make for ‘the wildest mini golf course ever.’ We were not told how the competition would work or what the scale of the course would be. The first night on set was surreal. The course was the perfect distillation of what we love about the best mini golf courses we’ve ever played. This was the first time we would be physically following the ball through harrowing obstacles. Easily one of the most memorable and unique experiences in my life. We got to share it together and, for better or worse, had the exact same outcomes. Advanced out of the first round and lost in the second round on Teed Off. Both of us were dropped 20 feet into freezing cold water in the middle of the night after missing a 4-foot putt.”
“It was amazing, exhilarating, exhausting and terrifying,” Schwartzman said. “It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
“We believe that the game of mini golf provides a variety of opportunities to tell new stories,” Loftus said. “And take the ball on wildly new adventures.