San Francisco-style mini golf is played with panache — and beer


The first hole on Stagecoach Greens mini-golf course in San Francisco’s booming Mission Bay neighborhood totally rocks.

In fact, it’s a rock – that rocks. “This hole tells the story of the Rocking Stone up in the Sierra – a place the Washoe Indians used to store their food because the rock moved when something touched it, which would deter animals.

“But with this one, you putt through the middle of it,” says Jan Stearns, who, along with her equally mini-golf-loving wife, Esther, created this 18-hole outdoor course of whimsy and history right in the middle of the city.

Golfers putt-putt their way into an Old West saloon, up the tongue of a Chinese dragon or around a Transamerica Pyramid that has somehow sprouted arms and is duking it out with the Salesforce Tower for the title of tallest building.

This is miniature golf, 21st-century style, at places like Stagecoach, Urban Putt in the Mission and Subpar in Ghirardelli Square. Gone are the windmills and the dreaded ant hills, replaced with intricate artist-made kinetic creations – kind of mini Maker Faires with golf thrown in. Plus, there are often gourmet food options and even adult beverages. Who could ask for more?

The aptly named Urban Putt on South Van Ness opened in 2014 with an indoor 14-hole course and a full restaurant and bar, quickly becoming the cool, popular spot for the tech crowd, often booked for private events by Facebook or Google. What they lack in acreage, they make up for in elaborate decor and special effects. Here, a perfect putt sends robotic fingers tickling the keys of a player piano or speeding on a journey past a pink squid and into an incredibly detailed Capt. Nemo’s Nautilus. On the next hole, watch your ball climb a conveyor belt through the eye socket of an intricate Dia de los Muertos skull.

Over at Subpar Miniature Golf, which began in Alameda but moved to Ghirardelli Square last year, San Francisco has been turned outside-in on this indoor 18-hole course. There’s a downsized replica of the Golden Gate Bridge – with a double loop-de-loop on the roadbed. You can putt down the twists and turns of a refreshingly traffic-free Lombard Street, roll around Alcatraz Island and escape to play through a sweet row of Victorians.

Stagecoach is the only outdoor mini course in the city so far. It opened in 2018 on Fourth Street, just a Par 5 away from Oracle Park and the Chase Center, and has scored 125,000 golfers in its first year. The Stearns say the project came together in serendipitous fashion – pretty much like a hole in one.

Loving mini-golf as they do, the Stearns had hatched a plan in 2017 to build their own course up in Truckee. They started researching the idea and coming up with designs.

But while the plan was still in the works, the San Francisco residents happened upon a neighborhood meeting agenda with an upcoming vote on a mini-golf proposal – just blocks from where the Stearns live. They met the man behind the plan, Carlos Muela – already known for his Mission Bay food-truck hub, Spark Social – who was planning a project called ParkLab Gardens, a family-friendly gathering spot set between Oracle Park and the Chase Center. His concept included food trucks, a beer garden, Nordic tents, picnic tables, a play area – and a mini-golf course.

“He had spent a year getting the approval and the site, but he told us he didn’t have an actual plan for the golf course,” Esther Stearns says. “We said, ‘Well that’s funny, ’cause we have a plan!’”

So the Stearns quickly reconfigured their designs for the 10,000-square-foot space. “We wanted to make it 100-percent ADA accessible,” Esther Stearns says. “Plus we wanted to tell more of a story than the old-style mini-golf courses. We wanted to do it with a high level of artistic expression. And San Francisco is great for all those things.”

They hired a stage-designing firm that worked with more than 150 Bay Area artists to create the course and tell the story of California’s “Boom and Bust,” taking guests through the Gold Rush era, on through the Summer of Love and into the tech boom. It’s a mini-golf, mini-history lesson.

“Some schools are even using it in their curriculum,” Esther Stearns says.

There are kiosks at each hole that illuminate the story, and buttons that set off sounds or motion. There’s the Gold Rush Graveyard, where you putt through the side of a pine-box coffin and, if you’re lucky, the coffin’s resident pops out for a quick hello. Instead of timing your ball to slide past spinning windmill blades, you shoot through a turning wagon wheel. Little kids try to peek inside windows of the intricate Victorian dollhouse. And there’s a mini Sutro Tower, complete with blinking beacons to warn low-flying aircraft – not this low, we hope!

And all around are birthday parties at the picnic tables, food trucks like Hookt Mini Doughnuts and Persian BBQ 415, palm trees lining the streets and strings of white lights dangling above.

And all around are birthday parties at the picnic tables, food trucks like Hookt Mini Doughnuts and Persian BBQ 415, palm trees lining the streets and strings of white lights dangling above.