Smash Putt is ball-wrecking, hard drinking, cannon-shooting insanity

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Mini-golf courses, good ones anyway, always have personality. You expect tunnels and ceramic animal obstacles, general minor fighting back from the holes. So in some ways, Smash Putt: The Return of the Miniature Golf Apocalypse, now two weeks into its six-week run, is like other courses you've played. Sort of like how your vacuum cleaner is fundamentally like Voltron.

Here's what we're dealing with: Smash Putt is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest art/mischief collective the Department of Culture. They've done it a couple times in Seattle and Portland, and this year they brought the show to Denver. It's thirteen holes, some more recognizable as such than others, all crammed into a warehouse art space in the River North art district.

Again, this is basically a game of putt-putt. You pay an entrance fee (do it ahead of time on the web site for a discount) and you collect a putter and a ball. Two early signs you're in for more than a creaky windmill on some AstroTurf: You are asked to sign a liability waiver at the door, and you collect your club from the bar. You are encouraged to play the holes in any order and cheat whenever possible. At least half the fun of Smash Putt is discovering the twist in every hole, the various ways the course will be playing you. The Department of Culture folks are interested in "playing with the idea of who you're competing against," according to the DoC's Jeremy Franklin-Ross. For example: The first hole you're likely to see upon entering the warehouse is a giant sloping foosball table with constantly moving plastic, armless soccer players. The surface is a Swiss cheese of holes; your score depends on how far back your ball falls.

You are welcome to think hard about the deeper implications here, about the arbitrary insanity of sport, or how technology simultaneously enhances and diminishes our lives, or the interaction between art and observer. That stuff is all there -- the DoC did not haul all this crap here, prepared to operate with a break-even goal, simply to fuck with Denver's mini-golfers. And while they as people would love to have highbrow discussions with you and welcome it as a response to the course, they are equally thrilled if all you do is putt, drink and laugh. This is gleeful art, an anti-museum where you don't need a post-graduate degree to get it and where no one will leave feeling stupid.

To the end of accessibility: All of the holes hide twists and turns on first approach, but by playing each intuitively, you will discover the way they work. You are encouraged to experiment -- turns out that motorcycle is supposed to be sat on, and you're supposed to honk the horn right when your friend lines up a shot. That motorcycle does a few other things, but you'll have to go figure out what they are for yourself.

It's a challenge to keep score with a big group -- go smaller if you're looking to actually keep tally. The course is simply too much of a player for you to wait around while six people each get through four strokes. The temptation to just throw the balls under the drill press, for example, is too great to suppress. You could probably bring yourself to score all thirteen holes if you were a two- or threesome, but I can't say for sure.

Smash Putt, as a concept, could have turned out really lame. They could have taken away all the things that might hurt you if you're an actively self-destructive idiot. They could have taken some heat off the air cannons that launch golf balls at saw blades and cymbals and cowbells. But they didn't. Smash Putt is a daring mockery of a litigious culture. It's the punk rock, DIY answer to the general idea of "family-friendly fun" (though you can take your family to specific sessions -- again, check the website). And, as a consequence, it also pushes the possibilities of its medium. Think grown-up, self-confident science-fair projects with a wild excess of creativity and resource and no rules.

Smash Putt is only open on the weekends (including Friday), and there are only four weekends left before it's gone. Shy of a DoC return in the future, you'll never see anything like this again.

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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