Ophelia Bunuel stands at the putting green of the Riviera Country Club’s signature hole, No. 13, and prepares her swing. She hopes for a hole-in-one.
So does her mother Yvette Bunuel, who stands at her side and offers assistance. The golf club is almost as tall as Ophelia. After all, she’s just 3 years old and both mom and daughter are all smiles as they enjoy their outing.
Happily, there isn’t a line of angry adult members breathing down Ophelia’s neck or complaining about little kids on the course.
That’s because this isn’t the real Riviera No. 13 but a charming re-creation and part of the Coral Gables Museum’s new mini-golf exhibit, which plays off actual golf spots and landmarks in the city. The exhibit opened July 5 and will be open for play through September.
At the exhibit, there’s the Ole Biltmore No. 7 and its bridge traversing the Coral Gables Waterway—yes, you can walk across it as you would at the real course—and the recently restored Alhambra Water Tower sits here, too, with the golf hole just outside its center.
Other holes include a re-creation of the city’s seasonal Farmer’s Market with green frogs climbing bales of hay to get to the market. Golf pro Tracy Kerdyk, daughter of the Gables former mayor, the late Bill Kerdyk, designed a course, sponsored by her city commissioner-brother’s realty firm. Kerdyk’s vision comes complete with sand traps shaped like feet.
“She really did her research,” says museum director Christine Rupp.
At The Swamp, a massive blue University of Florida gator looms large over Sebastian, the University of Miami’s comparatively tiny stuffed mascot. Here, you putt into the gator’s yawning maw and hope the ball winds its way to the hole near the creature’s tail. This hole took Adriana Alvarez, 10, five strokes to clear. “Some of them are so complicated,” the fifth-grader said, eager to try again.
Wish You Were Here, meantime, is a collection of oversized postcards of Gables landmarks like the Venetian Pool.
On that one, a hole-in-one is nearly impossible, laughs Rupp. The cards block easy access to the hole.
But dozens of people are trying. Some are lured to the museum’s three-month, playable miniature golf exhibit to stoke memories of an activity that has largely disappeared from the South Florida landscape.
Then there are youngsters like Ophelia and her brother Augustin, 1, who are far too young to have any memories of the game, which, like traditional golf, has clubs, holes and traps and, in some cases, a full 18-hole course. The objective is the same—to sink your ball in the hole using as few strokes as possible.
“I love local history stuff, so this is great,” said the senior Augustin Bunuel as he guided his year-old son at the Gables Water Tower hole.
“My husband saw this mini-golf thing and thought it would be fun for the kids,” Yvette Bunuel said. “They incorporate art history around the museum so you are learning while you are doing [the mini- golf] so this is reinforcing the history, especially for the kids, so it’s beautiful.”
For Juan Manuel, 10, it’s a way to get a feel for the traditional game.
“I think it’s really nice and kind of cool that people can have a replica of all the golf courses and test it out and see if they like it,” says Juan, a fifth-grader at George Washington Carver Middle School in Coral Gables.
“I thought one of the hardest holes was the garden one. You have to make it through all the carrots and then make it in the hole. I thought the [alligator] one was a little hard. You have to hit the ball straight and then it goes up. If you hit too slowly it goes back down to where you started.”
Mini-golf sites once dotted the region, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when communities in North Miami Beach, North Bay Village, Sunny Isles Beach and South Miami-Dade boasted numerous venues. There are still several mini-golf locales in Broward County and at Palmetto Mini Golf, a thriving, full-service mini-golf course in Palmetto Bay, attached to the county-owned Palmetto Golf Course. And coming in the fall of 2014 will be a new mini-golf course on the roof of the Lucky Strike bowling alley on Michigan Avenue in South Beach.
Factors like the soaring land prices, staffing costs and changing tastes have largely relegated mini-golf courses to the discard pile swollen with other artifacts of a bygone era like eight-track tapes, VHS recorders and beepers.
This means business for Miami-Dade’s premiere spot.
“We do about 25,000 rounds a year,” says Tom Gibson, head golf specialist at Palmetto Golf Course, which houses Palmetto Mini Golf, Miami-Dade’s last major 18-hole, outdoor mini-golf course.
Palmetto Mini Golf’s lush tropical setting includes waterfalls, caves, a Sports Grill eatery, a pro shop and instructors. Palmetto hosts school groups, summer camp park programs, company and family outings and, of course, proves a popular teen date attraction on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We’re as busy as a regular golf course,” Gibson says. “This is efficiently operated, it’s not a stand-alone business. We’re using the same staff from the 18-hole golf course.”
The main course is currently undergoing renovation, he said, and the audience for mini-golf is different than traditional golf: Kids. Couples. Parents and kids. Grandparents with grandchildren.
“The number one thing for beginners is entertainment, enjoyment,” says Palmetto’s director of instruction, Santos Caceres, who recently ran a group of students through a summer junior camp session. “When they are practicing mini-golf they are having fun but they are learning a lot about how to touch the ball and be gentle with it. This is a real putting green,” Caceres said.
Bob Baal, a Pinecrest resident, brought grandkids Luke, 13, and Kohl Yearwood, 8, both of whom were visiting from Atlanta. “They love mini-golf and it’s a good opportunity for us to spend time with them,” Baal said. “I play regular golf but this is one of the best facilities we’ve seen here, or in Atlanta.”
Luke made it past the first hole before some uninvited rain fell. “Mini-golf doesn’t have the pressure whole golf has where you have to drive,” he said. “This is fun for me. I’m just starting to get into [traditional] golf but haven’t played it yet.”
The Gables Museum patterned its mini-golf exhibit after the National Building Museum’s ongoing exhibit in Washington, D.C., Rupp said.
“It’s a fabulous idea, given our similar focus. So we put out a call to the architectural design community in Miami and found corporate sponsors. We wanted to engage the local architectural and design community and create unique holes.”
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