Cheap Day of Fun Turns into Career for Mark Ross
Businessperson of the Month
By Gary Kauffman
A day of inexpensive entertainment more than 40 years ago has turned into a long-term occupation for Mark Ross.
Ross, owner of Putt-Putt at Martinez Boulevard and Baston Road in Martinez, has been the face of miniature golf in the CSRA since 1987. But he first came across the game as a high school student in Arizona in 1972. He’d never played miniature golf before but that Putt-Putt course offered all-day play for only a dollar.
“I thought it was pretty neat,” Ross recalls. “It was good, inexpensive entertainment.”
Soon he became a regular there, which led to employment and eventually a career with Putt-Putt. It’s a bit of a departure from the career Ross had envisioned as a music promoter.
“I didn’t expect to be in this business,” he said. “I always thought I’d be in promotions and the music business.”
For a time, Ross did live that dream. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s he toured the country promoting such acts as REO Speedwagon, Head East and Chuck Berry’s daughter, Ingrid.
“But stardom only lasts a little while,” he said.
That left him with Putt-Putt to fall back on, and he played on the Putt-Putt professional tour for many years. Eventually he was one of the featured players on an ESPN special in which the players competed for $1,000 per hole on the Augusta course.
“They filmed it all here,” Ross said. “I only made $1,000 but it was fun.”
He admitted that it didn’t exactly make for riveting television viewing.
“It’s not real exciting to watch,” he said. “Most people just want to play the hole.”
The 36-hole Putt-Putt course in Martinez was built in 1987, the second in the area; a popular course on Gordon Highway had been in the area for about 20 years but has since closed.
“As the population was growing in Columbia County, the founder of Putt-Putt thought he should build another one here,” Ross said.
Originally it was a corporate-owned course with Ross as the manager. Eventually he leased it from the corporation, then bought it.
By the time it was constructed, Putt-Putt had discovered that 36 holes was the perfect number to accommodate golfers, although Ross said that on some Saturdays he wishes for 54 holes.
About two years after the course was constructed, the arcade area was added and the batting cages came two years after that. About 10 years ago Ross added laser tag, and this year he added bumper cars and upgraded the batting cages.
“I just try to keep it beautiful and playable,” he said.
One big addition yet to come in 2016 is changing the ice cream concession to Rita’s Italian Ice.
Putt-Putt has remained popular through the decades because virtually anyone can play and have a good time.
“With Putt-Putt, everyone plays from little to old, whatever their makeup,” Ross said. “It doesn’t require any athleticism. Everyone is pretty much on an even scale.”
He added that with Putt-Putt, a hole-in-one is possible on every hole, unlike many miniature golf courses that have holes with various unique obstacles like windmills.
“Those holes are fun but they’re not competitively fun,” he said.
One thing Ross has observed is that good putters on the golf course are also competitive on the Putt-Putt course.
“In the old days of Putt-Putt people would say, ‘Oh, that’s not golf,’ but now they realize that putting is putting,” he said.
The Martinez course has even seen pro golfers, in town for the Masters, play a round or two.
“We had a lot of the golfers in the ‘90s,” Ross said. “The young golfers would bring their families along. But then the money got so good the guys got more serious and no longer come here.”
What are you passionate about in your business?
Providing good, clean, wholesome fun – that’d be it in a nutshell. Keeping the experience as consistent as possible, making sure they have a clean golf ball and a clean golf club and a clean hole to play on. It’s a place where families can come together and have good quality family time. They can talk while they’re having fun and bonding can be happening. Our saying is “it’s all about fun,” so if we’re practicing that mantra, we have to be all about fun.
What have you learned about yourself as a business owner?
This is not a get-rich-quick business – it’s not a get-rich business – but it provides a nice working environment. There was a point in my 20s and 30s where I thought I was going to be wealthy. But the goals I did set for myself – managing and then owning Putt-Putt – I did accomplish.
Some people are meant for different things. I just enjoy the outdoors. The customer loyalty we have is welcome because I’m still doing this after 30 years.
Did your years in music promotion help you build this business?
Most definitely. In whatever business you’re in, promoting what you do best is important. Because Putt-Putt is so universally played and liked we have tried to get into all walks of life. That’s different than some businesses. If you’re talking music, you wouldn’t promote country to rock-and-rollers.
How do you unwind?
Playing golf (on local golf courses). I’m not a big movie person, but that’s fun. My vacation every year is going to Orlando in November – it’s a working vacation. There’s a big industry show there.
Would you recommend this type of business to other people?
If they get into it at an early age. I’m pretty much aging out. I don’t enjoy the late nights like I used to and some areas of the business are not as fun as they used to be. But I do enjoy always being around people who are having a good time.
Who are some of those people?
We have a lady who is 95 years old who comes out with her 76-year-old daughter. They come about once a month to play. They’re so vivacious and excited. I think people can still find fun in their 60s and beyond instead of just doing the same-old, same-old.
How do you give back to the community?
Giving back to the community is a big, big part of this. We try to do it every day. We have a few churches we work with that we have a great relationship with, and almost every fundraiser we’re giving something. I was a member of the Columbia County Exchange Club for 10 years, the Jaycees, Kiwanis, different clubs that give back.
What does the future hold for you and your business?
The steps we’re taking now by updating things so they don’t show their age are to take the business into the next generation, whatever that might hold. I don’t want to be here then. I hope I’m at a point where if I continue to own it, it’ll be someone else’s legs running the steps.