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Design Matters

I’ll admit it, I’ve never come across a disc golf course I didn’t like. There are a few that I won’t actually PLAY, usually out of safety concerns, but I always applaud the effort that someone went through to get a course built. Exhibit “A” for course I won’t play is nine hole course in a nearby town park. The town eschewed professional disc golf design advice (and even some good amateur advice) and essentially put in the course where the town officials thought it fit.

The second and third holes put parked cars in peril of an overzealous hyzer. The fourth hole is terrifying to me: a usually crowded playground, designed for toddlers and preschoolers, is less than 100’ from the tee area, and not far off what would be a “normal” hyzer line on a 270’ hole. It’s a tee shot I’m not willing to take if there is a child anywhere near that fairway.

The rest of the nine-hole layout plays way too close to neighborhood houses, including a curious dogleg AROUND a park neighbor’s yard. I sure hope that neighbor likes disc golf.

For this park, a horrible design made what could have been a nice neighborhood course unplayable. Nothing worse than seeing nine gleaming new Innova DiscCatchers going to waste.

In contrast, great design can transform marginal land into a compelling disc golf experience. John Houck’s design in the Nantucket State Forest is built on a gnarly overgrown sandbar of poison ivy and ankle-catching vines on a flat sunbaked part of the island. Houck somehow carved out a PDGA “Blue” level course and by careful pruning of the forest offered multiple interesting lines to each basket, and compensated for the lack of elevation change by having a few “tunnel holes” and a couple of holes where the one of the optimal lines would require an “over and around” shot. With numerous par four and even par five holes, Nantucket is a course that will challenge both the throwing and thinking skills to top golfers.

With various lines to the holes, many “risk / reward” options especially on the par 4’s and 5’s, and the ever changing island weather (after all the island is several miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod and has its own microclimate), this is a course that can be played over and over and not ever be “boring”. John Houck even put in short tees that make the course manageable for rec players, a layout that even beginners and the island’s summer influx of tourists can enjoy.

DESIGN makes the all the difference. A well designed course will deliver a positive experience for the player every time they play. Every round, across the seasons and in various weather conditions, will give a chance to try a new line to the hole. Par four and par five holes force players to make strategy adjustments on the fly… Did your drive drift to the left of the first landing area? OK, now you have to adjust your strategy accordingly, re-calibrate the risk/reward options after each shot as you approach the hole.

Even some of the best designed courses in the world have to make some compromises due to limitations of the land available. Nearly always a course will have to “target” one or two skill levels, such as a “White” level course for intermediate level players, and a “Blue” level course to advanced players and regional professionals. For more information on the definition of various course levels, see the PDGA course design guidelines: and

This all brings me to why I’m so excited about the New England Disc Golf Center in Southwick, Massachusetts. As I write this (January, 2017), I’ve had the opportunity to walk the course a couple of times with the designer Chris Barden and his co-creator Drew Gardner.

The property they have to work with is spectacular: classic New England woodland, rolling hills, ancient stone walls, some towering hardwoods and pines, patches of Mountain Laurel, a meandering stream, old logging roads, and best of all, a really big piece of land to build on.

But it’s the plans for the property that really excite me:

  • A giant layout, with multiple par 4’s and 5’s, with a good mix of challenging par 3’s and maybe even an occasional ace run.

  • At least three (an ultimately four) tee boxes per hole, to allow for a true Red Level, White Level, Blue Level, and ultimately a Gold Level course to offer an appropriate level of challenge to everyone from novice and rec players to top touring pros. From the Golds, this course will play at an epic 12,000 feet. Don’t expect a quick walk-in-the park round, even from the Red Tees.

  • Options for multiple basket placements will give potential tournament directors the option to “fine tune” the course to tournament. Elevation changes and vegetation will create some dramatic pin locations.

  • Multiple lines and landing zones will make this a true “thinking persons” golf round, with an infinite number of possible routes around the course that will require thinking as well as throwing skills.

It’s been a thrill to watch the course emerge out of the backwoods off John Mason Road. Most of the front nine is now rough cut. Despite the slush, snow, ice and mud it’s easy to visualize how these holes will play. Work will continue through the winter, and I’m looking forward to the grand opening this spring. Can’t wait to fly some plastic at the NEDGC!

Drew Gardner, measuring the par four opening hole, 600' or so from the Gold Tee.

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