Standing on a putting green five stories above Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the wind blows through my hair as I struggle to line up my shot. How can I think about golf as a sea monster eyes my every step, and giant Venus fly traps stand ready to snap at the sky?
Those stirring sights await players at Mt. Atlanticus, a miniature golf course so clever, so devious, and frankly, so weird, that my son Harrison and I had to return for a final game before wrapping up our weekend getaway.
The course stands as a tribute to designer Jim Bryan, a former English professor and expert on J.D. Salinger. It’s his masterpiece, a Southern landmark, in the same league—to me—as Graceland, Biltmore and—dare I say?—Augusta National.
Others share my enthusiasm. The course regularly tops local and national “best” lists. Its fans include people like blogger Dan Caprera, who undertook a fifty-state, seventy-eight-day pilgrimage in search of the nation’s best miniature golf. He too gave top honors to Mt. Atlanticus. “It had some of the most clever, expansive holes I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. “It was massive. It was manic. It was majestic. It was madness.”
Bryan, who died in 2002, was a Myrtle Beach native whom Sports Illustrated once called the father of modern miniature golf. His vision saw courses evolve from flat putting surfaces occasionally enlivened with a loop or windmill to faux mountains laced with waterfalls and decorated with dinosaurs, wrecked airplanes, and other fascinating, quirky spectacles.
He built hundreds of courses, but Mt. Atlanticus was his last, his Sistine Chapel. It quickly became our favorite as Harrison and I putted our way around the miniature golf-saturated vacation town to celebrate the end of his junior year of college, hitting ten courses over two-and-a-half days.
Mini golf was the obvious way to reconnect after a long semester. We had been whacking around colored golf balls together most of his life. I remember leaning over him as a toddler, our four hands working together to steady a putter nearly his height. Over the years, we hit the greens on vacation in Galveston, Texas; introduced his cousin to the sport in Gulf Shores, Alabama; and celebrated my birthday in Dallas when, quite by accident, an armadillo emerged from the woods to trot across the artificial turf in front of his putt.
But nothing had prepared us for Mt. Atlanticus. The course rises from the Grand Strand like an opium dream: thirty-six holes that snake their way over, around, and through a former department store building. The course’s full name: Mt. Atlanticus, Minotaur Goff—not golf—only begins to hint at its eccentricity.
The design centers on a legend dreamed up by Bryan that my son declared “more complicated than Tolkien.” It involves the lost continent of Atlantis washing up on Myrtle Beach, bringing an alien race that worships UFOs and is ruled by a minotaur named Goff, a mythical Greek creature that’s half bull and half man—and presumably can hold a putter.
Yeah, I don’t quite get it either.
Sarah Bryan, the designer’s daughter and now executive director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute in Durham, says Mt. Atlanticus was her father’s favorite. “Daddy considered it the culmination of his career,” she says. In the design he experimented with bounce boards to ricochet putts down the green and made liberal use of decoy holes to fool players. “He liked for people to have to figure it out as they went along. That’s why it’s fun to play multiple times.”
Mt. Atlanticus ends with a potentially life-changing proposition. Anyone scoring a hole-in-one on the last green wins a lifetime pass to the course. As I lined up my shot, I envisioned retiring to South Carolina just so I could putt here every day. But like so many dreams, my shot lost its way. I watched with resignation as my previously lucky periwinkle ball plopped unceremoniously into a water hazard.
Harrison’s effort failed as well. But neither of us complained. Miniature golf, as we both knew, often mimics life: Sometimes the terrain is confusing and frustration is inevitable, but each day offers the promise of another round.