For golfers, the picturesque Oakmont Country Club is among the holiest of holies (sorry). But for mini-golf fans, some of the best courses are found along decidedly un-picturesque Babcock Boulevard, tucked into a hillside in Carnegie and scooped out of a twisting road through South Park.
Pittsburgh is just that great a place for miniature golf. It has three courses that are as creative and weird as any that you’ll find anywhere, and a bunch of others that are also pretty fun. Aside from tourist trap towns like Myrtle Beach, Pittsburgh may be one of the best places to play mini-golf in America.
These are courses that go beyond the usual windmills and ponds to deliver a truly original game, full of puzzling challenges and surprising quirks.
The best courses are tricky enough that some combination of skill, luck and concentration is required — and everybody has a chance to win. (I haven’t played real golf in decades, but always have a chance to beat the three extremely experienced golfers in my family at mini-golf).
Here are Pittsburgh’s best mini-golf courses. The first three are the best of the best.
Kniess, as the name indicates, is just really nice. This course — which features a pleasant creek on one side and a busy stretch of Babcock Boulevard on the other — opened in 1930 as Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, making it one of the oldest courses you’ll find anywhere. Instead of being primitive and simple, however, most holes in the two 18-hole courses come with a theme, which is often taken to extremes. In one, there are actual bumper cars as obstacles; in another, bowling balls. In the nautical-themed hole, there’s a giant fiberglass shark; in an aerial-themed hole, a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter plane. For the pirate-themed hole, there’s an entire scene of pirate skeletons marooned with their hoard of gold doubloons.
If you want a mini-golf course that’s perfectly Pittsburgh, you can’t skip this spot in Carnegie. It’s carved into the side of a hill and takes full advantage of its challenging topography. There’s one hole that goes “off the grid” entirely, where you just have to hit the ball down a rough hillside and hope it hits the green. Most courses have the “hole of doom” which wrecks your score. Forsythe has more of those than regular holes. However, you can salve your wounded ego with sweets — candy and ice cream sandwiches — from the shop out front. At night, it’s illuminated by strings of tiny lights threaded through the trees.
This one is a pain to get to from the city, but that’s the only drawback. Sunset is filled with quirky mischief. One hole has you putting through Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry’s pads (once, it was Marc-Andre Fleury, sigh). Several others have secret squirt guns that blast you with water while you’re trying to putt. There’s a giant pirate ship that you climb aboard for a few holes and a Wild West-themed hole that propels your ball through a maze of mineshafts with rushing water. The challenge level here ranges from easy to “just be lucky.”
This is a nice little, inexpensive course that happens to have two remarkable features. One is that it’s attached to Glen’s Frozen Custard, which is a must-visit place for anyone embarking upon a summer ice cream tour of western Pennsylvania. (Seriously, try the Banana Custard and the Limoncello ice cream Cookie Sandwiches). It’s also literally in the shadow of the staggeringly massive Cheswick Power Plant, long one of the region’s top polluters, which is scheduled to close in September. It’s a startling juxtaposition between the tiny mini-golf course and the massive reminder of Pittsburgh’s industrial past. The course is easy and quick, with two sections separated by a hill and a parking lot. On a recent visit, the main water feature seemed to be broken — the bubbling brook was dry, and the pond was murky and nasty (so avoid hitting your ball in it at all costs). Don’t forget to pick up a few pints of custard (try Georgia Peach) to go.