The last Howard Johnson’s has now closed and I’m shocked that there were any still around. There was one near where I live that hung on for several years, then sat empty and abandoned for several more years, but its bright orange roof could be seen from the interstate and stayed in pretty good condition in spite of being left. I guess they were built to last even if the franchise itself wasn’t.
Of course I’ll always associate Howard Johnson’s with miniature golf. None of them, as far as I know, ever had golf courses, but when my family would take summer trips to Florida there was a miniature golf course called Gulf Golf on Treasure Island, and after putting through eighteen holes of windmills, concrete alligators, and around palm trees, we’d go and have ice cream. I’d get a root beer float with coffee ice cream which was the perfect combination.
I don’t miss Howard Johnson’s—I can get a root beer float any time, even if I have to make it myself—but I do miss miniature golf, which is more fun and has less pressure than regular golf. There’s still one in my old Nashville neighborhood that I would pass by regularly going from my house to the now defunct Hickory Hollow Mall. It was an expensive course, though, and had an elaborate castle, a lighthouse, and other buildings. At least it still has the lighthouse, and it may be worth playing a round. I played there a few times with friends many years ago. The main thing I remember is that the castle wasn’t part of any hole. It just stood off to one side, which seemed like a terrible waste. One of my friends said the course was really hard, but he was the only one who noticed. I don’t think the rest of us even bothered to keep score. If you’re playing miniature golf competitively you’re playing it wrong.
Even closer to my home was a, well, a weird miniature golf place, tucked away in a wooded area. The intersection of Nolensville Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard was, and still is, a major shopping center, but many years ago, just to the south, it all suddenly gave way to farmland, woods, and, for a long time, an old rundown bar with a gravel parking lot. Some time in the mid-80’s the bar finally closed and the property owners got the bright idea to build a miniature golf course there.
There were two nine-hole courses that could be played separately. One was a seemingly random assortment—a life-sized plaster gorilla, a lighthouse, because of course every miniature golf course has to have a lighthouse, and finally a tic-tac-toe board where the center square was the hole that took your ball. The other side was supposed to be a country music theme but was really just painted portraits of Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, and Minnie Pearl on wooden panels that probably came from the old bar, providing backgrounds for simple putting greens. Once we actually saw the legendary country music disc jockey Ralph Emery there with his family, and I wondered what he thought of the pictures since he knew most of the performers personally.
It was only two bucks per game which was ridiculously cheap, and at first my friends and I laughed at the shabbiness of it, but it was fun to spend a summer afternoon just knocking balls around the greens under the trees and strings of multi-colored lights. We never bothered to keep score, or worried about what we’d do afterward. The playing was all that mattered.