“You’re gonna die, clown!” In the movie “Happy Gilmore,” Happy screams this at a huge, shrieking, robotic clown face that has thwarted his attempts to hit the ball past an obstruction. It is one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies, and one of the only movies my dad and I could agree on. He was more of a Turner Classic Movies guy, I’m an indie/A24 snob.
I played golf as a kid and, like Happy, I was impatient and therefore my short game always sucked. In a halfhearted attempt to rectify this, I spent a lot of time on the chipping and putting greens at our local course but also a lot of time on mini golf courses. Summers were dotted with trips to Ocean City, where my grandparents had a condo, and 10-year-old me yelled my way through all of those old-school mini golf courses, dinosaurs and pirate ships looming over the infuriatingly difficult holes. Eating Fletcher’s caramel popcorn, I tried not to stomp my feet or throw my club into the water features.
I look back on that time with fond nostalgia. It didn’t matter if I was terrible, it was kitschy and fun.
Though the city has largely opened up, times are still challenging. Between the pandemic, working from home, juggling family responsibilities and other stressful adult stuff, we could all use some more fun. And mini golf is just that: pure unadulterated fun. No matter what your speed or personality, there is a mini golf course in the area for you. Here are my picks.
East Potomac Park
970 Ohio Drive SW
For the traditionalist, the course at East Potomac Park is the OG of miniature golf courses. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it opened in 1931 and is one of the longest continuously running mini golf courses in the country. Its 18 holes are located on Hains Point, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a more bucolic setting within the city to play a round on a crisp autumn day. It’s a straightforward course ‒ not a bell, whistle or robotic clown face in sight. You’ll get gently sloping hills, tricky turns and neat stone features. It’s challenging enough to entertain but not so much that inexperienced players wouldn’t enjoy as well, making it a perfect spot for kids or a date who has never picked up a club. If you want to make a day of it, head to the driving range and pick up a snack at Potomac Grille.
H Street Country Club
1335 H St. NE
For those who are still kids at heart, H Street Country Club is a dream combining the features of a fun bar with the old-school arcades and games that many of us older millennials grew up with: skeeball, arcade basketball, boardgames, shuffleboard and, yes, a mini golf course. H Street Country Club has been a beloved staple since 2008. Its course is probably the closest to the kind that I grew up with: uber kitschy with many a weird and wacky feature, like creepy protruding former-president heads (I’m looking at you, mildly terrifying Teddy Roosevelt), a gorilla scaling the Washington monument and a huge pewter-colored body sunk into the middle of one of the holes, all set against colorful walls depicting things like Godzilla. After a round of mini golf, hang out on the large roof deck or downstairs for more country club fun. Grab some friends, order tacos, drink some beer, play throwback mini golf. Easy!
Swingers | 1330 19th St. NW
The cheekily named Swingers Crazy Golf opened in June in the cavernous former Buffalo Billiards space in Dupont Circle and offers a particular brand of miniature golf: “crazy golf” – maybe because a trip to Swingers means you’ll have a crazy good time. A London import, the team behind Swingers pulled out all the stops to ensure maximum entertainment. Swingers was designed to evoke a 1920s English golf clubhouse and is truly an immersive experience; at two stories, it’s replete with four distinct, stylish, colorful bars, a huge menu filled with delicious craft cocktails, four local gourmet street food vendors and two nine-hole mini golf courses that are sure to dazzle and delight.
Offering various golf, food and drink packages, a trip to Swingers might involve sipping the signature G&T (this is no regular G&T; we’re talking garnishes like pink peppercorn, star anise and a sprig of rosemary) while sinking your teeth into a gloriously melty, piping hot pepperoni pizza from Kneadza Pizza or a “Sirena” crispy cod taco from tuTaco. Not a bad way to wait for your tee time at either the Clocktower Course or the Watertower Course.
The courses themselves are highly creative, lush and meant to challenge, with loop-de-loops, tunnels, precarious lines, moving obstructions (like the giant lit-up neon watertower), both nestled downstairs between the bars. But fear not, there is always a golf “caddie” nearby to offer tips and fill your drink order. A DJ spins the kind of music no one can help but sing to (think remixes of Whitney Houston and the Spice Girls). And of course, there is many an opportunity for photos; snap a pic at the photobooth or on the vintage-inspired golf cart.
Everything at Swingers is extremely well curated, and these fun details really make it transportive, which is a blessing after the slog of a long work week. While there’s no robotic clown on either course, they do offer a frozen cocktail called the Happy Gilmore (it’s Crown Royal and Coke).
I may have outgrown the urge to chuck my putter in the water, but I haven’t outgrown miniature golf, and if you haven’t either, I hope this gives you some options.