Lessons from The Old Pro

Old Pro Golf founder Herbert J. Schoellkopf, Jr. shares how he built a legendary resort business through a combination of imagination and engineering

Written by Jonathan Westman  |  Photography by Grant L. Gursky

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in our July/August 2013 issue. We remember
the Old Pro himself, Herb Schoellkopf, as Ocean City’s iconic Old Pro Golf celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2023.

In Ocean City, you can take a journey through magical, medieval castles in which daring knights guard hidden treasures. Do you like the circus? You’re invited under the big-top tent, where dozens of smiling clowns perform in front of hundreds of wide-eyed children every hour. In the mood for something more adventurous? You can become the leader of a great African safari expedition on the lookout for wild predators, or you can navigate through a maze of pirate-infested waters in search of endless riches.

There’s only one catch: You’ll need to take a putter and a colored golf ball with you.

These quests, and many other explorations of fantasy, are the creations of Herbert J. Schoellkopf, Jr., who founded Old Pro Golf at the resort. His miniature-golfing wonderlands have been a part of family outings and vacations by the millions (literally) for 50 years.

With eight golf courses in Ocean City, each with its own unique theme, his works have an unmistakable connection with the creations of Walt Disney, and for good reason.

“My ideas mostly come in the middle of the night, when I am awake but not up,” Schoellkopf said, “though Walt Disney’s imagination has definitely inspired our courses. People can think of the wildest things, but they have to work. Mechanically, they have to be feasible and practical and yet still use imagination.”

The “Old Pro,” now 92, Schoellkopf refers to Disney’s unique ability to create fantasy worlds “imagineering” – the combination of imagination and engineering. Over the years, Herb frequently traveled to Florida, to the homes of Disney’s original Magic Kingdom in Orlando and his own animated character maker in Naples, for inspiration. Each dinosaur, clown, animal and knight is handmade in the Sunshine State and brought back to Ocean City by Schoellkopf himself.

The largest and most popular miniature golf location sits at 68th Street. Two courses, one outdoor, a second indoor layout in a building designed by Schoellkopf’s oldest son, Jeff, entertain children and adults alike. The outdoor course is home to prehistoric, man-eating giants reminiscent of Spielberg’s blockbuster dinosaur movie, Jurassic Park. The largest stationary character in the Old Pro Golf course collection lives here: a 15-foot-tall, 30-foot-long, 1.5-ton Tyrannosaurus rex, and he’s always hungry.

“I built this course two years before the movie came out,” Schoellkopf said. “I jokingly talked about suing Disney for taking my idea.”

Schoellkopf, who admits to being a less-than-average putter, said the indoor facility at 68th Street is his favorite. The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea theme comes complete with underwater caverns, a monstrous ship that provides shelter to six golf holes and, of course, plenty of water.

“This course incorporates some of the best features I’ve learned over the years,” Herb said. “You need moving obstacles, not too many, to maintain interest throughout the round. You start with easy holes that gradually become harder as you move along but then become easy again, and you start over. The bank shots have to work from an engineering standpoint.”

The concept for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” motif, one of three courses located at 136th Street, was “borrowed” from Disney as well, according to the Old Pro. Complete with sword-brandishing buccaneers and chests of riches, golfers embark on fun-filled quest to score low and live to tell about it. When he decided to built on this property in 1971, he had his detractors.

“The land was swamp back then, and the street wasn’t even paved,” Herb recalled. “People told me that Ocean City ended at 33rd Street, but Calvin B. Taylor was building a bank at 142nd Street, and I knew they studied the demographics. I always tried to follow the banks.”

Over the years, Schoellkopf has seen several miniature-golf competitors take up shop in Ocean City. At last count, the Old Pro said as many as 30 such courses exist up and down Coastal Highway and the surrounding areas. In order to remain on top, he believes staying creative and up-to-date with designs are important, but so, too, are the people who play his courses every day.

“You have to make the holes fun and exciting so that everyone is enjoying themselves,” Herb said. “A hole-in-one is still the biggest thrill in golf. If a young kid can get as many as his old man, that’s great. I’ll tell you a little secret: We make our cups a little bigger than normal. We cheat a little bit. That gives everyone the chance to make a hole-in-one from grandmas who can’t walk very well to little kids just learning to putt. Everyone screams and hollers when they make one. There are high-fives and big smiles. I like that; I love to see people get them.”

After college in 1948, Schoellkopf began his professional career as an educator. He said he spent one year as a school teacher and then discovered miniature golf. He assisted in the creation of a course in North Carolina where a football coach was building one to raise money to offset the costs of his team’s uniforms. The rest, as they say, is history.

Herb built his first miniature golf course in his hometown of Cherry Hill, NJ, on a shoestring budget consisting of the modest honorable-discharge stipend he’d earned from the military. Over the next two years, he would construct five additional courses and began to theme each one to provide additional interest and appeal for its players. The Old Pro has built over 150 miniature golf courses, from Connecticut to South Carolina, and at one time operated 13 locations in five states simultaneously in the 1960s and ’70s. He relocated from New Jersey to Ocean City almost by accident, saying that life is full of turns and that he was lucky enough to make the right one.

“I chose to build a course in Ocean City because it was growing,” he said. “There was a fork in the road for me, and I was fortunate to have chosen the right direction.”

“Herb and his family are pioneers in the miniature-golf industry,” said Maryland State Senator Jim Mathias. “It is my hope that every city can be blessed with someone like Herb. Someone who is committed to the best family fun and very deeply committed to the community.”

Herb & Judy Schoellkopf

Old Pro Golf is a family business through and through. Herb serves as president and chairman of the board, while sons Scott, its general manager, Jeff and daughter Nancy all work for the company. The term “family” extends to the employees as well. Ken Wood, who manages the 136th Street location, has worked for Old Pro Golf since he was a young boy. He and sisters, who were also employed by the company, essentially grew up at Old Pro Golf because their parents both worked for Herb. Today, Ken’s son, Mason, is continuing the family tradition as an employee.

“Think about the use of the word ‘work,’” Herb said. “Too many people use it as a dirty word. I love to work. It should be treated as a privilege.”

Think he’s kidding? Herb and Judy have nine grandkids, and their “Pop-Pop” makes each one interested in working for the family business fill out an application.

“He still wakes up with new and fascinating ideas,” said his wife, Judy, whom he swept off her feet 22 years ago, while renovating one of his properties. “He tells me, ‘If I were just 20 years younger, I’d be building new courses.’”

The Schoellkopfs are also leaders in the community. Herb and Judy have spearheaded many local endeavors and were recipients the prestigious “Spirit of Ocean City Award,” by the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. Judy was a founder of the first Eastern Shore Women’s Golf Association and was at the head of the grassroots effort to start the Pink Ribbon Classic in support of breast-cancer awareness. Today, there are eight local events that exist to raise funds to combat breast cancer through the American Cancer Society.

Herb built a miniature golf course in Georgetown, Del. for Easter Seals so that handicapped children in the area had a course to call their very own.

“When you give back to the community, you are rewarded tenfold,” Judy said.

Visitors of Ocean City are quite fond of the family business, too. A family from New Jersey was about to tee off when they met Herb just as the interview for this story had concluded Upon learning who he was, they enthusiastically told him how much they love Old Pro Golf and that his courses have been a part of their family vacations for decades.

“We have so many families that come to town who played as children and now have children and grandchildren of their own,” Judy said. “They can’t wait to get here. This is the first place they come when they arrive on vacation in Ocean City.”

On each of the eight Old Pro Golf courses, the Old Pro himself greets his guests on the first hole, dressed in attire that coincides with the course’s theme. When asked if he was the Old Pro depicted here and in the company logo, Herb said, “I’m getting older by the minute!” followed with his hearty, trademark laugh. Something tells us he’ll be surveying his greens for many years to come, to ensure his guests are creating memories that will last a lifetime. CS

Listen to our interview with Herb Schoellkopf for this story from May 24, 2013.

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