Miniature golf fans have three challenging courses in Howard County

It's just after 2 p.m. on a triple-digit summer day, and Tami Schiavone, who lives in Laurel, has arrived at the Columbia SportsPark with her son, Jason, who is 9, and his 9-year-old friend, Kate.

"They wanted to come," she says, sitting in a shaded chair with her Anita Shreve book and her telephone. "They love mini golf."

Miniature golf fans have three choices in Howard County — the Columbia Association Sports Park, in the back of the Harper's Choice Village Center; Rocky Gorge, which opened in 1965 off of Route 29 near the Montgomery County line in North Laurel; and the new kid in town, an indoor, themed franchise called Monster Mini Golf, off Route 175 in Jessup, which opened in November 2010.

The Schiavone family has been to all three, but chose the SportsPark on this particular day because it's free for Columbia Association Package Plan Plus members, said Tami. She also likes that the youngsters can play 18 holes in just under an hour, and so won't be out in the broiling sun for too long.

"They wanted to do something outside," she said. "It's a good outside activity."

For many people, miniature golf is the stuff of summer vacations, an unserious way to amble through an hour or two of friendly, non-strenuous competition after a day at the beach. But with three miniature golf courses in Howard County, all with arcades, this simple pleasure is around the corner and needn't be reserved for special occasions.

Over the course of several days, I played each course with my 12-year-old son and his friends, who gave their opinions on each one. They liked them all, in different ways.

The oldest miniature golf course in the county is Rocky Gorge Golf Practice Range and Miniature Golf, started by Gus Novotny and now run by his daughter, Carol Wolfe. According to Wolfe, her father partnered with landowner Frances Robinson to build a driving range in 1964, adding the miniature golf the following year and batting cages in 1978.

Novotny will be inducted into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame this October for his contributions to golf, miniature golf and batting cages, including the invention of machines to separate softballs from baseballs.

The mini golf course, which boasts "the longest mini golf hole in the world," costs just $4.50 for unlimited play during the week, and $6.50 per game after 6 p.m. and on weekends. It has an old-fashioned feel, with a brick path leading from one hole to the next and a different theme and challenge for each hole. One has a windmill that will trap a ball or send it back to the start, another has a "grotto" with water pools of water.

The par for each hole is clearly marked. That long 19th hole is a par 2, with a long downhill that plops the ball close to the hole for an easy putt. Overall, our experience at Rocky Gorge was low-key and enjoyable.

A very different experience awaited us at Monster Mini Golf, a cavernous, dark space, throbbing with rock music and dappled with light from disco balls. Those purple lights that make teeth, socks and light-colored clothing glow gave the air-conditioned space an otherworldly glow, which fit the "monster" theme of the amusement center. A game costs $7 for kids and $8 for adults, and starts under a sign that says, "Cemetery. Enter at Your Own Risk."

The space, which has separate party rooms, was easily large enough for a group of about 40 youngsters and 15 adults who were visiting as participants in the Mis Amigos Cultural Camp, for families with children adopted from other countries. The group chose Monster Mini Golf so they wouldn't be outside on a brutally hot day.

"It's a nice activity on a hot day," said Marc Bluestein of Columbia, who was there with his 14-year-old son, Michael, as part of the group.

Several other families were there as well, yet crowding was minimal.

As the youngsters played, the parents mostly sat in chairs along the perimeter of the golf course, chatting over the thump of the music as they watched the animatronic witch stir her brew and the life-sized Frankenstein jolt to life again and again. While the golf course lacked variations in terrain, Michael Bluestein praised it as "creepy." Once the golfing was finished, arcade games and glow-in-the-dark air hockey seemed to occupy both children and adults.

"It looks like they're having a good time," commented Margarita Clark, who had brought three youngsters as part of the Mis Amigos camp.

From there, we went to Columbia SportsPark, where several families were working their way through the course on a hot and humid day. Shade and a few splashing water features mitigated the high temperatures.

The course is part of a Columbia Association-owned SportsPark that opened in 1998 and includes batting cages, a SkatePark and a clubhouse where Icees and other snacks are served. Each hole has a name and a specific challenge. For example, the challenging par 4 Hole 3 is called Thread the Needle, and it has a water trap. Hole 6, a par 2, is called Big Bank, and has an uphill slope with a rock positioned at the top.

People who play miniature golf say it has absolutely no relation to real golf. It's fun and challenging in its own right, and each Howard County course offers its own fun and challenging experience.

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