Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things. Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession. To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog. He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG. And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.
I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment. When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.
So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be. It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian. And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).
I know what you’re saying. “Uh, Scott? Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?” Well, like I said, OCD. But I’m getting there.
Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf. But not just any golf. About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf. Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.
From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge. An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole. An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass. A castle’s door teased and blocked. And, of course, there was that T-Rex. Challenging? Yes. But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat. Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.” And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out? Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.
In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf. But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.” What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt. Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing. Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.” But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.
So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses. To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s. My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought. I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?
Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead. Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land. Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area. Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear). And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.
This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party. I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory. It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills. Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.
So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes. At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course. But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.
Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf. In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner. When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way. Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle. And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly. And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.
You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it. One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition. The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team. The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out. It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.
Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long. I agreed, and we did it every third hole. That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going. Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window. So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.
The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting. Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better. When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier. Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.
That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool. Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit. But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game. Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them. And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2. Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).
The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes. Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself. It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate. It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational. So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment. And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.
And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.
And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.