YOU MIGHT THINK OF DON CLAYTON as the Mozart of miniature golf. There were no goofy geegaws in Clayton’s primly carpeted world—no kitschy snapping crocodiles, no spinning outhouse doors and certainly no windmills. That was all B.C., Before Clayton. It was Clayton who believed that golf could be mini without being child’s play. And so all across America in the late ’50s and ’60s, cornfields were paved over and covered by synthetic green turf, and teenagers in the hottest parts of the country suddenly found something to do outside that was both fun and wasn’t at a drive-in. When Clayton died of an aortic aneurysm on April 17 at age 70, his idea, Putt-Putt Golf, had grown into a $100 million-a-year sport—and he insisted it was a sport, since it depended on a steady eye and sure putting stroke. As Joe Aboid, Putt-Putt’s national tournament director, told The Washington Post, “Putt-Putt is a game of skill; miniature golf is a game of chance.”
The son of a single mother who worked as a nurse in Fayetteville, N.C., Clayton was a hard-driving 28-year-old insurance salesman on the brink of a breakdown in June 1954 when his doctor ordered him to take a month off from work. Clayton tried to relax at a local miniature golf course—and became disgusted at the wackiness of the whole thing. He decided to design his own game, with hills and geometric obstacles, something more akin to real golf but much, much tinier. “We drove by a vacant lot,” says his daughter Donna Clayton Lloyd, 46, who took over from her father as board chairman of Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America last year. “My dad and his brother said it would be a perfect location.” Lloyd, one of three Clayton children, recalls helping pack tailgate suppers for her father as he worked past dusk each day, laying out the first Putt-Putt, pounding stakes and stringing twine to build the 18-hole course.
Nearly 200 people, paying 25 cents a game, turned out for the opening later that summer. Since the land for the course was costing him only $100 a month, Clayton soon made his $5,200 investment back. He never sold insurance again, and he never again, despite doctor’s orders, slowed down in his promotion of Putt-Putt. By 1994 he and his franchisees had more than 400 locations in six countries. He told the Fayetteville Observer-Times that he wasn’t sure of the precise number. “It’s like having hundreds of relatives,” he said. “Someone’s always dying; someone’s always being born.”