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Modern Times: Still crazy

Since its heyday, when it rivalled cinema to its present faded charm, crazy golf has caught the imagination of leisure-seekers and architects. Photographer Liam Bailey tours the cream of Europe's courses. Text by Andrew Martin
Almost everyone has played crazy golf, yet the game has received little formal recognition. There is no Association of Crazy Golfers (which is probably just as well), and newspaper coverage is rare. Although the tabloids couldn't believe their luck two years ago, when it was announced that a crazy golf course was being built at Broadmoor. "Obviously," a spokesman was reported as saying, "not all the patients are well enough to be given putters to play with."

The game - and this novelty spin-off from straight golf can hardly be called a sport - is rumoured to have British origins, but what is known for certain is that it achieved its zenith in Depression-era America. It was cheap entertainment, and provided levity at the time of Prohibition. Crazy golf became so popular, in fact, that it rivalled movie-going, and the big Hollywood studios banned their stars from being photographed as they addressed a ball before some mini switchback or little windmill with fiendishly positioned sails.

American Crazy Golf faded somewhat in the Fifties, when many courses were turned into car lots, and television began to take hold. But it has endured - in slightly reduced circumstances - on both sides of the Atlantic. Brighton has four courses, and there is one in every Butlin's. It has also made its mark all over the world, as Liam Bailey's pictures testify.

The game's popularity is not hard to fathom. It has an appealing absurdity. The slightest breeze can send the ball bobbling away before one has started one's backswing, and the obstacles often allow so little margin for error that a score of, say, 107 for a single hole is not unusual (purists say you should move on after six shots). It is a parody sport, in which nobody cares who wins, a valuable corrective to an increasingly competitive world. The only way you can make a fool of yourself whilst playing crazy golf is to resist being made a fool of.

"It's good fun," says Nigel Clarke, golf professional at Burgh Hill Valley Golf Club near Hereford, in an only slightly condescending tone. "And, let's face it, you've usually had a couple of drinks when you play. Of course, the equipment is the very worst available. The balls are out of shape and the clubs - well, if they were any good, people would steal them." Is he aware of any professional who's come up through crazy golf? "No," he says, suddenly severe. "I am not."

The other part of the game's appeal is the witty architecture of the courses. Traditionally, the first hole of the 18 will be fairly plain: just a keyhole-shaped area of concrete, say - hardly crazy at all. But thereafter the fun begins. Liam Bailey has photographed one hole, in Hemsby, East Anglia, in which the ball must pass through an ice-cream van; and another, in Margate, where the ball engages with a dry waterwheel. But that's nothing compared to some he's seen. "At the Sheraton Hotel, Cuncum, Mexico," he recalls, "there's a hole where you've got to get the ball up a Mayan god's bum."

Bailey particularly likes the Henry Moore-ish primitivism of a boulder- cluttered course in Grotte de Gargas on the Franco-Spanish border, and the stark, East European brutalism of a course in Bratislava, one hole of which is surrounded by a miniature, modernist Stonehenge. His particular favourite, though, is a course in Hove, which has the luminous hues of Pop Art.

Bailey has yet to encounter a course which is consciously created as art, he believes, but he intends to put that to rights. For next year's Photo '98 festival, he is proposing to supervise the building of a crazy golf course in York, which will refer to "the 12 organic systems of the human body. One hole, for example, will represent the digestive tract."

Bailey also recently proposed to Channel Four the idea of Pro-Celebrity Crazy Golf, and the suggestion came dangerously close to being accepted. "Lee Hurst was up for presenting it," says Bailey, "and, for the first game, we'd pencilled in Ian Wright against Lady Olga Maitland." But Bailey's concluding thought on the game is surprisingly sombre. "A nuclear wind," he says, "would erase everything above 10cm in height, which means that crazy golf might survive, and it could end up as the only pan-national evidence of our existence. Extra-terrestrial visitors might be confused".