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Steampunk variations on San Francisco landmarks.
Steampunk variations on San Francisco landmarks.

Urban Putt (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

San Francisco, California

"I'd been thinking about this for many years," said Steve Fox, founder and owner of Urban Putt. "My wife said, why don't we move to the middle of nowhere and open a mini golf course? And I said, well, the middle of nowhere would be... not San Francisco. Everyone told us the same thing. No. You need a place with a lot of land, where you can afford the rent."

Steve Fox, owner and mastermind of Urban Putt.
Steve Fox, owner and mastermind of Urban Putt.

Opening a miniature golf course in a city with some of the world's highest real estate prices, he admitted, was risky -- "obviously what I had done was the stupidest thing of any human alive." But he reasoned that if he could keep the golf indoors, and add a restaurant and bar, then just maybe....

Steve was something of a DIY mini-golf pro. For years his wife and he hosted miniature-golf-themed parties inside their Bay Area home. "After doing 12 or 13 parties, it's constantly in your head," he said. "You see almost anything and say, 'Hmm, that could be a mini golf hole.'"

Amusement park elements at the Playland-at-the-Beach hole.
Amusement park elements at the Playland-at-the-Beach hole.

Steve had a long career as an editor in tech media: PCWorld, CNET, Popular Mechanics, and InfoWorld. He was managing editor of the popular science magazine OMNI in the late 1980s. Yet despite this, and San Francisco's proximity to Silicon Valley, he didn't want his mini-golf to be a digital attraction.

Advanced technology sorts returning golf balls by color.
Advanced technology sorts returning golf balls by color.

"As much as I like video games, I never wanted to create anything that felt like one," he said. "I wanted something physical, kinetic, that did not involve a screen."

Steve leased a Mission District building -- an old mortuary that had been vacant since 1999, then went to work. He put together a team of over 40 designers, set builders, engineers, and software experts; many of them had built golf holes for his house parties. His inspiration, he said, was a combination of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka, cartoonist Rube Goldberg (a San Francisco native), Walt Disney, old architecture, the DIY tech Maker Faire, and Burning Man. "I wanted to create something that looked like it was run by 19th century technology," Steve said, though 21st century tech might underlie it.

"Right before we opened, I apologized to my family for having ruined our lives. Squandered any savings we had, and refinanced our house," Steve said. "And then we opened, and people just started pouring in. There was a line out the door."

TransAmerica Tower Windmill.
TransAmerica Tower Windmill.

Since its debut in 2014, Urban Putt has proved popular and profitable. Subwoofers rumble, floors vibrate, lights flash, gears clank. UV lights make the balls glow as they follow domino-effect paths reminiscent of YouTube Chain Reaction videos. "While you're playing the holes, they're playing with you," said Steve.

In the building's high-ceilinged main floor, Urban Putt went vertical with many of its 14 holes. Choosing that number, Steve said, was a breakthrough of sorts. He'd fretted that 18 holes would be too crowded, 9 holes too few, then realized that Urban Putt didn't have to conform to 18-or-9-hole golf course orthodoxy. "We're different!" he realized. "I thought we'd get grief about it, but people recognize that this is its own thing."

Glowing spright traverses interactive challenges.
Glowing spright traverses interactive challenges.

San Francisco themes at Urban Putt emphasize the quirkier aspects of the city. The Transamerica Tower has been turned into a nontraditional mini-golf windmill. Golf Land at the Beach -- a tribute to S.F.'s long gone Playland at the Beach amusement park -- compels players to putt into the mouth of Laffing Sal. The Earthquake! hole winds past a swaying line of Victorian rowhouses and concludes at the Gold Fire Hydrant. A successful putt into the hydrant triggers an alarm to wake up sleeping firefighters in the firehouse.

Bulked up replica of S.F.'s Sutro Tower, a 977-ft. tall TV/radio antenna.
Bulked up replica of S.F.'s Sutro Tower, a 977-ft. tall TV/radio antenna.

If your putt makes it to the top of a reimagined steampunk Sutro Tower or the Lucky 13 Gold Mine, gravity and carefully engineered ramps give you an automatic hole-in-one.

Other holes extend Urban Putt's conceptual range. The Jules Verne Nautilus bristles with buttons to push, and levers and dials that move and make sounds. "It even smells like a submarine," Steve noted with pride.

The Dia de Muertos hole incorporates over 40 skeletons and skulls into its design, with elaborate mechanisms that reminded us of Tinkertown and Abita Mystery House (Steve said he'd never heard of either of these attractions). A skeleton invites play in English and Spanish: "Time's a wasting. Step up to the tee!"

"People leave offerings there, as if it were a shrine," said Steve. "I think that's a wonderful thing."

The final hole, Fibonacci Finale, rewards everyone who can putt into a rotating Conch shell with a ball journey up to the ceiling, along a path by the bar, to a Steampunk device that magically (if you don't want the scientific explanation) sorts each ball by color, readying them for the next group of players.

Dia de Muertos hole at Urban Putt.
Dia de Muertos hole at Urban Putt.

While Urban Putt is popular with families and kids, our Millennial-something test subjects were delighted by the attraction's bar. They'd read that Urban Putt was named the city's best place for a first or second date -- a desirable niche that classic mini-golf filled in its nostalgic heyday. Some visitors come to Urban Putt to drink and dine and watch others play, some to do all three. Steve was "stunned," he said, to discover how many of his patrons come specifically for the golf -- a far greater percentage of the business than he had believed possible.

"The beauty of mini-golf is that almost anyone can play it," Steve said, although he's learned that handing a club to an inebriated person can lead to the ball traveling to unexpected places (We had a chuckle with him about how similarly alcoholic ax throwing attractions fare). Urban Putt allows players to carry their cocktails onto the course, although it quickly revoked allowance of golfing while carrying the restaurant's finger food. "We were getting tired of digging chicken and waffles out of the holes," Steve said.

With so many moving parts, it seemed this attraction might end up on the entropic path that undoes other mech-populated roadside attractions. But Urban Putt staff assists with upkeep. "We have a course manager/master builder who oversees repairs and upgrades, and an assistant greenskeeper who assists in maintenance," Steve said. "We also employ a part-time tech wizard who keeps our digital gadgetry in order and develops new tech magic for the course."

After careful refinement of the formula, Urban Putt has expanded, opening a second location in Denver in 2019, with Colorado golf hole concepts. Both attractions deliver, he said, "that sense of wonder and whimsy. Mechanical stuff... with a good bar."

Urban Putt

In the Mission District, on the northwest corner of S. Van Ness Ave. and 22nd St.
Jan. 2024: Closed

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