The first hole at Urban Putt.
(1 of 4)
A sketch of the first hole, "1906 Earthquake," where mini-golfers putt through a trembling San Francisco cityscape.
(2 of 4)
Local landmarks like the Transamerica Pyramid, the Ferry Building, and the Painted Ladies were built with a $15,000 milling device called a CNC machine.
(3 of 4)
A rendering of the Nautilus-themed hole, which features motion-triggered LED lights underfoot, fabric kelp swinging overhead, and original sound and lighting effects.
(4 of 4)
A 14-hole indoor miniature golf course, restaurant, and bar in the heart of the Mission is a far-fetched concept any way you look at it. That is, until you’re lining up a putt on the stage-like set of the Nautilus-themed sixth hole, with oceanic lights pulsing, kelp floating overhead, and creaking submarine sounds echoing all around: Then it starts to feel pretty damn convincing. The course is the passion project of Steve Fox—basically, the Willy Wonka of putt-putt—a 57-year-old former magazine editor who, with the opening of Urban Putt (1096 S. Van Ness Ave., at 22nd St.), is on a mission to make mini-golf cool.
To Fox, a decrepit castle or a rickety windmill is a disgrace to the game, an oft-mocked pastime that he claims can actually be an “artistic” and “mind-blowing” experience. “I just hate it,” he says, “when there’s an ornamental dinosaur standing idly off to the side.” This is the future of mini-golf: kinetic sculptures, LED motion sensors, original sound effects, virtual simulations, and mechanized parts. Urban Putt’s first hole, “1906 Earthquake,” features trembling, pivoting replicas of the Painted Ladies, a quivering Mission Dolores church, and a miniature Lotta’s Fountain (the original served as a meeting point after the quake).
Fox’s putt-putt obsession began in 1993, when he and his wife hosted a modest mini-golf party in their house and encouraged guests to bring their own hole. The tradition stuck, ballooning to upwards of 200 attendees whose increasingly elaborate greens spilled over into the backyard and onto the sidewalk. One hole required putting past a gauntlet and over a pit of flames. “We were still finding melted golf balls around the yard a year and a half later,” Fox recalls.
The party’s unanticipated success spurred the business plan for Urban Putt, a quixotic conceit two years in the making. The greens were constructed by a team of engineers, product designers, sound designers, and fabricators— including a slew of eager Academy of Art University interns—while the steampunk- inspired bar and restaurant are the work of architect Matt Hollis (Mission Bowling Club) and furniture designer Tyler S. Bradford (the Abbot’s Cellar). “No one has ever attempted to do mini-golf like we’re doing it,” Fox says. “Forget windmills and dinosaurs—this is going to be a transportive wonderland.” The strong cocktails, designed by the Bon Vivants bartenders of Trick Dog fame, won’t hurt.
Originally published in the March Issue of San Francisco.