Putt-Putt Golf is getting a modern-day makeover as the iconic miniature golf company tries to reinvent itself for the 21st century customer.
The Fayetteville, North Carolina-based company is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer. As its popularity has waned in recent years, the company is hoping a promising new prototype will create renewed interest among both investors and consumers.
Putt-Putt Golf holds a place of special nostalgia for millions of Americans, particularly baby boomers and Gen Xers who spent summers on the 18-hole miniature golf courses navigating obstacles and competing to stay on par.
The company started in 1954—with its heyday in the '60s and '70s—and grew to more than 300 locations and emerged as a household name. As the only branded miniature golf firm in the world, Putt-Putt secured copyrights on everything from the obstacles to the type of green carpet used on its courses.
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In the '80s and '90s, things began to change. Interest in miniature golf declined, and the large properties needed to accommodate miniature golf forced the closure of many locations.
"The model of the '50s and '60s no longer works in the 21st century," said Putt-Putt CEO David Callahan. Callahan, a Fayetteville native, bought the company in 2004 with the goal of restoring Putt-Putt's image and creating a new franchise model that's profitable.
Today, Putt-Putt's size is only a fraction of its past. It operates just 50 locations as franchises.
"Golf-only no longer works," Callahan said.
Over the years, many individual Putt-Putt locations have expanded what they offer to include everything from laser tag to restaurants. Yet, this is the first time such an expansion has become part of the franchise model. In an effort to revive the former miniature golf giant, the company has introduced a new prototype that operates as what basically amounts to a mini-amusement park, which features batting cages, battery-powered go-karts and bumper boats.
"People want entertainment in a family-friendly environment," Callahan said. "And that's what we provide."
It's not just the activities that are expanding, but Putt-Putt has also upgraded its infrastructure to go digital. Teaming up with app maker wddonline, customers can now keep score on a Putt-Putt branded app on their iPhone and Android devices. The application links to social media sites like Facebook, allowing users to post their scores online and compete with friends in other locations.
Now Callahan is focused on convincing investors that Putt-Putt Fun Centers are good business. He's worked to rebuild the brand and return the golf center to profitability for the first time in years. The new franchise model has received interest from investors from as far as China and Trinidad who are interested in bringing Putt-Putt franchises overseas, he said.
"Growth has stabilized for now, but the future lies in selling franchises," Callahan said.
—By CNBC's Jessica Golden