Pittsburgh trivia, Connect Four, Skee-Ball and beer pong are not often what comes to mind when you think of miniature golf. Then again, neither are computer-tracked balls, scorekeeping televisions or a full-service bar and restaurant mere feet away from the putting green.
Puttshack’s Pittsburgh location opened in May and ties all of these things into one ambitious package.
“Puttshack is the world’s first and only upscale, tech-infused miniature golf experience,” Chief Operating Officer Chris Rockwood says. “The company takes its patented technology and integrates it throughout the experience to create a mini-golf game that is different from anything putters have seen before.”
On a first visit, Puttshack is overwhelming. Crowds mill between the bar, three separate golf courses and a restaurant seating area, all wrapped up in a contemporary speakeasy-esque aesthetic.
The front doors open to the bar, which is the establishment’s central point. It reinforces that a big part of Puttshack’s allure is meeting up with your group to have a few drinks while you putt — a concept not foreign to Pittsburgh, with the opening of Puttery in February. Additionally, Puttshack turns into an exclusively 21-plus venue after 7:30 p.m.
Currently, sessions must be booked in advance through Puttshack’s website. A friend told me he wandered into Puttshack after an evening in the Strip District and was told the earliest mini-golf reservation was in two hours. At the time of your booking, a screen near the entrance will display your party’s name and which of Puttshack’s three courses — Amber, Emerald or Sapphire — you have been assigned to.
The courses have minor variations. Sapphire, for instance, boasts the iconic beer pong-themed hole. Emerald, on the other hand, features a bowling lane hole with bonus point holes where pins should be. Other holes, like Emerald’s Trivia and Sapphire’s True or False, are similar in practice, but different in concept. At least half of the holes were repeated between the two courses I played, though.
What sets Puttshack apart from other indoor mini-golf establishments is its patented Trackaball technology. Before the game starts, each player has a ball paired specifically to them. Once teed up, sensors under the green detect whose ball is down, and an overhead screen keeps track of the number of swings, as well as point totals. Since the ball is being tracked the whole way through the game, only one player can putt at a time, removing the opportunity for ball-bumping shenanigans.
Puttshack trades golf’s lowest-score-wins point tallying system in favor of assigning points to numbers of strokes. A hole-in-one nets 50 points, with each additional stroke dropping about five points off the total.
Basing scores off of points rather than solely the number of strokes incentivizes players to go for bonuses. Each hole has a “Supertube,” which, if hit, nets the player 10 bonus points and an automatic hole-in-one. Be warned, Supertubes are not for the faint of heart, and will most definitely leave you attempting to catch up to your group should you fail the shot.
Puttshack weclomes groups of up to 12 people for a standard booking. Groups of 13 or more must be booked at least three days in advance, according to their website.
Although the site can accommodate larger groups, smaller groups seem optimal. I golfed with a group of six players. Many of the other patrons behind us were pairs, and we caused a significant stall as the computer operated scoring system does not encourage letting a group play ahead of you. We took about 45 minutes to get through the Sapphire course, but I’m sure the father and son duo behind us could have completed it in half the time or less.
The only major technical issues my group ran into were ball desynchronizations, which required that a player return to the kiosk at the start of the course and have a new ball paired to their name. This did not seem common, though, and we attributed it to how slowly we moved through the course compared to other parties.
While Puttshack’s main draw is the tech-infused golf, it does house a full restaurant. The menu showcases a wide range of different types of cuisine and countries of origin, from Falafel Cakes, Korean BBQ and a Classic Caesar Salad, to Pad Thai Chopped Greens, a Tuscan Pork Porchetta Sandwich and a Hatch Chile Cheeseburger.
What Puttshack served was good, but I find it hard to recommend over so many other culturally rich food offerings mere yards away in the Strip District. That being said, the location-exclusive Pittsburgh Tailpipes — potato, cheese, bacon, cabbage and onion stuffed spring rolls — stood out above everything else. It’s a pierogi with a crisp shell. What’s not to love?
Truly, no other mini-golf spot in Pittsburgh offers the type of experience Puttshack has. The game they have designed is more accessible than an average round of mini-golf because it places less emphasis on golfing prowess and more on the spectacle of it all.
Once I make it back to play the Amber course, though, I don’t see myself returning unless it’s with out-of-towners whose marvel I can experience through their eyes.