For golf fans, certain holes need no introduction—the landing-pad-island seventeenth at Sawgrass, for one, or the eleventh through the thirteenth at Augusta National, aka Amen Corner. With time, perhaps this list will include one of Durham’s own: the first hole at Bull City Mini, a wicked little par-two known as the Can Opener.
It’s a replica of Durham’s low-hanging Gregson Street bridge, infamous for its propensity to peel the tops off of trucks that try to broach its eleven-foot, eight-inch clearance. The putt seems straightforward: Just use the ramp of the truck bed, which ought to deposit your ball close to the hole. Any imprecision, though, and you’ll be trawling underneath the railroad overpass and limping toward the six-stroke maximum.
“We didn’t want to be like what you see at Myrtle Beach, where [the course] is super kitschy, pirate-themed,” says Ben Owens, who cofounded downtown Durham’s new mini-golf course with his wife, Julie Bryce. Instead, on the American Tobacco Campus, Owens and Bryce created a seven-hole journey through the city’s history and lore, complete with inside jokes, puns, and debris from a truck that once found itself outwitted by the bridge. The course, says Owens, is “by Durhamites, about Durham, and, really, for Durham.”
The inspiration for Bull City Mini, which opens Saturday, May 11, came two years ago and thirteen hundred miles away. On the first vacation Owens and Bryce took with their newborn, they found themselves at the Peter Pan Mini-Golf course in Austin, Texas, where Owens had played in his youth. There, they experienced the joy of a summer family activity supplemented with snow cones and a liberal B.Y.O.B. policy. A native of the Triangle, Bryce vowed to replicate the experience in Durham.
“The great thing about a crazy idea,” she says, “is you have the whole drive home” to make your point. Through conversations with mini-golf consultants and community stakeholders, the couple developed a plan for a course, soliciting designs for “Durham landmarks in miniature” and eventually choosing winners from sixty-five submissions.
Owens and Bryce met while he was earning his engineering PhD at Duke. He handles operations and data; Bryce is the brains behind marketing and business development. It’s tricky to fit this in around their day jobs (Owens is a business-insights manager; Bryce is a fractional chief marketing officer) and parental duties, but they manage. Bull City Mini, Bryce says, is the “last thing on our lips at night and the first thing we talk about in the morning.”
Eight days before opening—which falls on National Miniature Golf Day, of course—we hit the links. The indoor-outdoor layout is vibrant: The fourth hole sports the primary colors of the Durham flag; the fifth is bathed in the Eno River’s serene blues. Absent are any rubber mats designating where to tee off; Owens and Bryce wanted to allow players flexibility and showcase the sleek aesthetics of the holes.
This decision stems from their belief in promoting the work of locals, a fact demonstrated not only by the (non-B.Y.O.B.) menu, with its Triangle craft beer and Locopops and Wonderpuff cotton candy, but also by the back of each scorecard, which highlights the people who made Bull City Mini a reality. Hole designs came from area artists, professionals, school kids, and medical students; Candy Carver painted the silhouetted streetscape mural, “Lady Durham,” while Britt Flood painted the Duke-Gardens-themed “Fore Get Me Not.” Point Concepts of Raleigh constructed the quaint-but-challenging holes.
“I hope that when people come in, they see some part of Durham that they love, and they are reminded why they love living here,” says Bryce. Affordability and inclusivity are also paramount. Having spent almost half his life in Durham, Owens, wearing a “mini-golf is for everyone” T-shirt, says he’ll be disappointed “if we look up and we’ve created another thing that’s for twenty-something yuppies”—a valid concern for any venture with a frosé machine.
To mitigate that risk, Bull City Mini is focused on offering equitable jobs. They’ve applied for Living Wage Certification, and they hired many workers through StepUp Durham. They’re also intent on keeping prices reasonable: Mini-golf, Bryce says, “should be less expensive than a movie ticket.” For players five and up, a round costs seven dollars.
Each hole comes with a placard that provides an opportunity to learn Durham history. Owens and Bryce worked with Pierce Freelon, the founder of Blackspace and former Durham mayoral candidate, to make sure they prioritized the right stories. On the sixth hole, which commemorates the famous shot that Duke’s Christian Laettner made to beat Kentucky in 1992, the majority of the text focuses on the 1944 “Secret Game” between North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) and the Duke School of Medicine, one of the South’s first recorded racially integrated sporting events.
“[Freelon’s] point was, ultimately, what’s more important: that Laettner and Grant Hill had this fabulous shot, or that the Secret Game happened and was a crack in the wall of racism in the South, and it happened in Durham?” says Bryce. “What should we celebrate?”
Bull City Mini’s lease runs through October; if successful, Bryce and Owens want to eventually become “corporate America dropouts” and expand the operation to eighteen or twenty-seven holes.
“For that to be possible,” Bryce says, “this needs to be beloved by the community.” The creators’ enthusiasm is infectious—there are Easter eggs all throughout the course, with new ones already being brainstormed. On the baseball-themed seventh hole (“Batter Up”), a replica “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign serves as a backdrop. The design resembles Skee-Ball more than a putting green; sinking a hole in one requires a carnival game’s confluence of skill and luck. None of us ace it on our first or second attempts; finally, after half a dozen tries, Owens gets the angles just right to score the grand prize.
Bulls fans might already guess what follows. I won’t spoil it, but whether it’s a surprise or just a reminder of the city’s charms, it’s a fitting cap for this passion project. As Bryce puts it, “This is a love letter to Durham.”
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