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A Piece of Americana

Putt-Putt is as American as Coca-Cola and Snickers, and it all began right here when a doctor ordered a Fayetteville insurance salesman to 30 days rest.

Don Clayton was one of the country’s leading salesmen for Security Life and Trust Company in 1954 when his doctor told him he had to relax. But that was difficult for the competitive Clayton who once starred in three sports in high school.

“He was just not someone to sit still,” said Donna Clayton Lloyd, Clayton’s daughter. Clayton and his wife Kathryn “Cub” Clayton played miniature golf as a hobby.

“We chose simple, clean recreation like golf or movies,” Kathryn recalled.

During the first week that he was on break, Clayton and his family went to a miniature golf course on Bragg Boulevard. He noticed the green sawdust of the fairways, the strung lights and cinder blocks used at the course and thought about starting his own style of miniature golf, a game that began on a private estate in Pinehurst in 1916.

“Putting is half the game of golf,” Clayton told his family, “and I think if someone really did this right people would play.”

They challenged him to do just that on his 30-day break, and on the way home, the family picked out a pecan grove near the former Lighthouse Restaurant at the intersection of Bragg Boulevard and Fort Bragg Road. Clayton spoke with the owner of the property the next morning and arranged to lease it.

He planned to call his new venture Shady Vale Miniature Golf Course but had trouble spelling vale. The bank teller who helped him open an account brought the name into focus with a simple question: “What is it that you are doing?” Clayton told him that it was a place for people to putt, and Putt-Putt was born.

He and Kathryn drew designs on index cards and ran string to form the holes in their living room. Then Clayton got to work building the course and hiring several workers, including his long-time landscape manager, Alvin Taylor.

“He was relentless about getting that thing built,” Lloyd said. “When it was dark, we would pack a picnic dinner and go to the job site to eat because they would not leave – he was just so determined to get it finished. Everyone brought their cars around the perimeter and shined the headlights on the area they were working on so they could continue.”

The 18-hole course was finished in 30 days. It opened in June 1954, and due to the popularity of the game, a second course was built at the same location in an astonishing two weeks. Clayton’s dad, E.G. Clayton, was a partner in the ownership. E.G. Clayton, Malcolm Gillis and his brother Mac Gillis owned the second facility, a 36-hole course on Raeford Road where Applebee’s is now. The two locations consolidated and opened on Bragg Boulevard as a 54-hole course. Putt-Putt also added a course on Owen Drive. It was the first miniature golf course with a PA system.

“All of the hole designs were copyrighted and strategically designed for a person to make a hole in one,” Lloyd said. Making a hole in one could lead to a free game.

The business expanded to Jacksonville, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and eventually included about 300 franchises worldwide. The first international expansion was to South Africa. Others followed in Guam, Australia, Japan, England, Canada, Indonesia, Lebanon and Holland. Business was booming.

Brother-in-law Todd Lecka moved from the North Carolina mountains to join the business as franchise director and vice president. Kathryn was the first secretary.

Clayton and Lecka would travel around the country to help people open their courses while Kathryn ran the office. Putt-Putt was one of the first franchises.

Then Clayton decided to hold a national Putt-Putt tournament in the 1960s that later became an annual event with a beauty contest and parade in downtown Fayetteville. PGA player and World Golf Hall of Fame member Sam Snead came. Mike Souchak, a player on the PGA tour in the 1950s and early 1960s, and other famous golfers visited, too. So did Miss America Marion McKnight.

Putt-Putt would close during the colder months before the golf courses expanded to include video games and ice cream sales and was one of the first places to have rooms for birthday parties. Batting cages, bumper boats, go-carts, games and amenities were added, allowing staff to stay year round.

The game got so big that Clayton quit his insurance job to focus on the game. The Professional Putters Association (PPA) started and grew with a large number of professional players. The Putt-Putt Parade of Champions on Sunday became one of the longest-running sports shows in history, and shows made it onto ESPN in the mid-1990s.

Clayton referred to Fayetteville as the “center of the universe.” He wanted everything that was fabulous to take place in his hometown, Lloyd said, and Putt-Putt brought plenty of excitement to Fayetteville.

He wanted a wholesome atmosphere where people of all ages could play.

“Putt-Putt was intergenerational,” Lloyd said. “Everybody could participate on an even playing field. This was an experience that families wanted to share.”

“The grandfather can compete with the grandson,” Lecka said. “It was exciting. Many children in the United States had their birthday parties at Putt-Putt.”

It was the place where couples had their first date – including President George W. and Laura Bush – teenagers held their first job and children won their first trophy at Super Saturday. Many course owners started out as Super Saturday champions.

“Parents could always feel like they had a very wholesome place to go,” Lloyd said.

Fayetteville native Bill Kirby was a Putt-Putt fanatic.

“My generation didn’t have video games and so much to do,” Kirby said. “We spent our time playing sandlot baseball, basketball and football in the neighborhood back yards, or playing Putt-Putt. It was clean. It was wholesome. It was safe.”

Kirby, who shot a personal best of 19 in the 1999 South Carolina State Championship, frequented the course on Raeford Road.

“I began playing Putt-Putt at age 11 in 1961,” Kirby said. “I could walk to the course from my house, two blocks away on Arlington Avenue. Prior to that, when I was around 6, my mother and father would play at the original course at the apex of Bragg Boulevard and Fort Bragg Road. But my real involvement was on Raeford Road. In the summers, I would go to the Putt-Putt at 9 a.m. and play until 6 p.m., when my mother would pick me up. I began playing in Wednesday night tournaments, and won the third one I ever played in. I also got to meet all of the game’s great players because that Putt-Putt was site for filming the PPA Parade of Champions.”

The course regular recalls meeting Clayton, working for him and being personally inducted by him into the PPA Hall of Fame in 1994. Clayton was involved in all aspects of Putt-Putt, Kirby said.

“I met him during the filming of the PPA Parade of Champions in 1961. He was the executive producer and the television commentator. As I progressed as a player, my goal was to be the first amateur to win 100 trophies, which I did in 1972, the year after I won the World Amateur Putting Championship in Philadelphia. Don Clayton was there, and it was the first thrill of my life because I was from Fayetteville, and Putt-Putt started in Fayetteville. I worked for Don Clayton in Atlanta in 1970 and later at his course off Bragg Boulevard in the 1970s. I turned professional in 1973, with the dream of winning the PPA National Championship. I had numerous near misses, finishing third in 1987 and second in 1992. I finally won the title in 1995 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at age 45. I made the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes to win the championship by four strokes. It meant everything to me because it was my dream for so long, and because it was Don Clayton’s game. I took the trophy to the home office and presented it to him. Today, it is in my home. Wherever there was a Putt-Putt tournament, Don was there and I was there as a player.”

Clayton and Kirby’s friendship grew until Clayton’s death in 1996. Kirby, the reigning PPA National Champion, was a pallbearer at Clayton’s funeral.

Putt-Putt has a new owner, David Callahan, and is now based in Chapel Hill. While there are no longer any courses in Fayetteville, the imprint of Clayton was left here and worldwide. Although controversial at times, Clayton’s impact on recreation was felt for years to come. There’s no telling how many first dates at Putt-Putt turned into lifelong marriages and families who took their children to play the All-American game.

“He would be absolutely devastated to know that Fayetteville is a city without a Putt-Putt,” Kirby said about Clayton. “If he could come back to life for one day, I promise you this: he would build one. He made a great difference in this city because he gave my generation and other generations a game that belonged to Fayetteville.”