Inside Urban Putt, the minigolf course of your dreams

By Nick Mediati (@dtnick) · Published June 13, 2014 at 1:08am.

It’s 10:55am on a warm, sunny morning in late May, and I’m standing outside Urban Putt, a new indoor minogolf course located in San Francisco’s Mission District. The place doesn’t open for a few hours, so I call up Steve Fox, Urban Putt’s proprietor and head greenskeeper.

“Hi, Nick?” I hear Steve say, over plenty of rustling and noise in the background.

“Hey Steve, I’m out front. Should I come right in or…?”

“Yeah, give me like three minutes,” Steve replies. More stirring in the background.

I came for an interview, but I was about to get a crash course in what it takes to run a small business. And apparently it takes a lot of creativity, a group of talented people, and some ridiculously good multitasking skills.

Urban Putt logo.
Welcome to Urban Putt.

Three minutes later, Steve walks out from the back entrance and greets me. I peek around back—a cadre of workers is busy painting signage, installing equipment, and putting the finishing touches on the course, which opened about a month earlier.

Just then, his contractor flags down Steve and explains that he needs more paint to complete the signage in question, so Steve whips out his phone and calls a local building supply outlet to see if they have it in stock.

“The life of a business owner,” Steve quips as he dials. The next thing I know, I’m conducting my interview from the passenger seat of a beat-up Toyota pickup truck as Steve and I ride off in search of the required paint.

A 20-year odyssey

As hectic as the scene at Urban Putt was this particular morning, it was only a tiny part of an effort that’s been years in the making.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Steve for a while. Steve and I worked together at the tech publication PCWorld for about four years, where he served as our editorial director. In July 2012, he announced that he was leaving the company to try something crazy and exciting and cool—his own indoor minigolf business.

My coworkers and I all knew that Steve loved minigolf, but even so, the announcement came as a bit of a surprise to all of us. Leaving a reasonably stable job to do something that might not work? That takes serious guts. At the same time, though, we were all looking forward to seeing what Steve would come up with. (The night before Steve’s last day, a group of us coworkers got together and turned his office into a miniature minigolf course. It was the only sensible way to send him off.)

Steve Fox, Urban Putt's proprietor, stands at the Earthquake hole, which puts a minigolf spin on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Steve Fox, Urban Putt’s proprietor, stands at the Earthquake hole, which puts a minigolf spin on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

But you can trace Urban Putt’s genesis all the way back to 1993, when Steve and his wife held their first minigolf event at their San Francisco home. They would invite friends over and together build various minigolf holes, effectively turning the house into a makeshift game of putt-putt. Eventually, the yearly get-together grew into a larger charity event, and the holes became more and more elaborate.

It took Steve nearly two years from his last day at PCWorld to open Urban Putt. He spent most of the first year looking for a suitable building, further developing the business plan, and jumping through the standard assortment of regulatory and zoning hoops. The second year was primarily focused on designing and building the course itself, and on construction of Urban Putt’s bar and upstairs restaurant. The finished product is unlike any minigolf course you’ve ever seen.

Not your average minigolf course

When you think of miniature golf, you probably think of fake grass, funky bumps and angles, maybe the obligatory windmill hole. Urban Putt replaces those tropes with levers, Archemedes’ screws, and earthquakes.

“The idea here is we did not want to do your standard miniature golf course,” Steve explained. And Urban Putt is far from ordinary. Instead, it’s a steampunk wonderland where putters meet circuitboards, and golf balls meet CNC machines.

Urban Putt is housed inside an old mortuary that had sat empty for at least a decade. The space isn’t huge, but between the hardwood floors and early-20th-century architectural floruishes, it all works nicely with Urban Putt’s retro aesthetic.

Steve and his team of 30 designers, artists, programmers, and craftspeople constructed all 14 of the course’s holes on site with the help of a massive, room-sized ShopBot computer-controlled milling machine hooked up to a laptop.

Urban Putt's ShopBot.
The ShopBot.
Drum kit
One hole features a drum kit. Your ball gets carried up by an Archemedes’ screw, travels along a track, then clangs off drums and cymbals as it falls to the ground.
San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid with a windmill attached to it.
Another hole turns San Francisco’s famed Transamerica Pyramid into a windmill.

And salvaging. Lots of salvaging. Steve and his team took to Craigslist, Amazon, and salvage yards, all in an effort to find items that could help create Urban Putt’s unique vibe.

“We found things like bed frames on the street that we were able to repurpose and use,” Steve said. And this do-it-yourself approach is evident everywhere you go. One hole makes use of a cobbled-together Archemedes’ screw and a drum kit; another features a salvaged old grain thresher.

It’s hard to pick just one “favorite” hole at Urban Putt. Is it the earthquake hole that actually moves and shakes? The Jules Verne-inspired submarine? The Transamerica Pyramid that’s been transformed into a windmill? Tough decision. But as cool as the finished product is, the tech behind it all is equally impressive.

A strong tech background

Now, at first blush, going from the world of tech journalism to minigolf seems like quite a jump—even for a minigolf enthusiast like Steve. But then again, tech plays a big role behind the scenes at Urban Putt, so it isn’t as big a leap as you might think.

“At PCWorld, there was very much a love of technology,” Steve explained. “And it’s the same at Urban Putt.”

Urban Putt's Videovision hole.
Steve demonstrates the Videovision hole.

Arduino microcontrollers power nearly everything here. In the basement, a rack holds the audio equipment that controls the sound effects for each hole.

From a technological standpoint, the one hole that really gets your attention is Videovision, which features a virtual reality component. Putt your ball into a slot, and you trigger a mechanism that “transports” your ball into a virtual minigolf hole that you view onscreen. It even has the requisite windmill.

This hole is all about timing: Putt your ball into the slot at just the right time, and it gets past the windmill blade. Putt too soon or too late, and it clanks off the blade.

Videovision came about because Steve wanted something “that bridges the physical world with the virtual one,” and he assigned to programmers with the task. The programmers came back with an idea that would’ve required you to putt using a specially wired ball and club, but Steve demanded that they devise something that you could use with an ordinary putter and ball. As a result, when you putt your ball into the slot, the ball presses a lever attached to a modified Nintendo Wii controller, which in turn controls what happens to your ball onscreen.

Living the small business life

Building something like Urban Putt doesn’t come cheap—nor is it a neat and tidy experience.

The project cost over $2 million to complete, and Steve had to rely on pledges from a Kickstarter project to get Urban Putt over the top. Kickstarter members who pledged $100 or more got their names immortalized on a plaque that hangs on a back wall inside Urban Putt, and a few Kickstarter backers even have Victorian houses surrounding the 1906 earthquake hole named in their honor.

Raising funds to build Urban Putt may have been difficult, but running the place is a challenge of a different kind.

I was with Steve for only about an hour and a half, and in that time, I stood by as he deftly handled one issue after another, whether it was a question from work crews or a phone call from his son. If anything, the work of a small business owner is never done. And right now, with a lot of punch-list items to wrap up and adjustments to make, Steve has his hands full.

“Basically everything is an exercise in crisis management [right now],” he told me. “Hopefully, one day it won’t be that way.”

Welcome to Golf Land.
Welcome to Golf Land.

Urban Putt’s first week of business was what Steve referred to as its “beta week.” That is, everything was up and running, but there were plenty of things left to tweak and adjust. And while Steve would like to get these finishing touches out of the way, that doesn’t mean Urban Putt will be by any means a static creation.

“I believe, and hope, that this place will never be finished,” he explained. “Whether it’s new tubes or pipes or submarines.”

I can’t wait to see what Steve comes up with next.

Urban Putt is located at 1096 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco’s Mission District. A round of golf costs $8 for children ages 5-12; $12 for ages 13 and up. No one under 21 is allowed on the course after 8pm. Learn more at urbanputt.com.

Updated July 13, 2017 to make clarifications.

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