Disc-Golf Course Design

As one of the nation’s fastest growing sports, a well-designed disc-golf course can have a significant impact on a local community.

Disc golf uses discs inspired by the original Frisbee flying disc, but modified for weight, rigidity, and aerodynamics to optimize flight characteristics.

Disc-golf courses resemble golf courses in that players start at tee pads and progress through fairways to greens.

More urban in nature, the first disc-golf courses were established in open spaces on college campuses, which had been designed by landscape architects for overall park use. Early disc-golf course elements were rudimentary, and targets included light poles, flagpoles, or Hula Hoops.

In 2001, there were only 1,250 disc-golf courses worldwide. A decade later, more than 4,200 disc-golf courses are in operation.

The sport’s rapid expansion is easy to understand, particularly given the current economic climate. The initial investment in equipment (one disc) is minimal, and the rules are easy to grasp. There is no need for expensive clubs, exorbitant greens fees, or memberships to country clubs. All that is required is a willingness to go outdoors, move around, and have fun.

The pace of disc golf tends to be relaxed, casual, and family-friendly. As players progress and refine their skills, tournament play is increasingly available, and can be highly challenging as well as competitive.

On the professional disc-golf circuit, sponsored by the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), the total tour purse has increased from $800,000 in 2000 to over $1.9 million in 2009.

Municipal parks and recreation departments looking for low-budget additions find disc-golf courses a valuable investment. For the comparable cost of a set of bleachers on the sidelines of a ball field, recreation departments can add a disc-golf course that players use daily, year-round.

Local course enthusiasts walking the fairways help keep undesirable vegetation at bay, reducing mowing expenses. Additionally, thoughtfully constructed courses utilize broad areas of a park, encouraging foot traffic that can serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior in typically less-traveled areas of larger parks.

Effective Design

While it is a simple matter to place a random series of baskets in an expanse of park property, the optimal design of a disc-golf course is the natural province of a trained landscape architect, particularly one versed in the strategies and nuances of the sport.

A high-quality course is accessible and challenging to players of all levels, provides interest through variations in distance and topography, makes thoughtful use of natural and man-made obstacles, and maintains tight integration with other features of the park, including allowing for future expansion.

Through formal site analysis and the design process, a skilled landscape architect can design a unified course that highlights and protects desirable plant species, and reflects a sense of place. The architect can prepare graphic signage for the course that relates to the particular character of the site, and can prepare a set of drawings to allow a contractor to build the course in harmony with the client’s vision.

A truly great course considers and embraces the unique physical and cultural characteristics of a site and region, consciously and creatively immersing players and spectators in the beauty of a particular natural setting.

A professionally designed disc-golf course adds value to a community in an aesthetic sense, creates a safe environment for recreation, and can even generate income for the community by attracting tournaments through providing novel destinations for the sport’s growing number of enthusiasts.

For Example

The Sinks course in Chattanooga, Tenn., makes the most of the natural landscape. While many developers would consider the site undesirable due to its steep, bluff-riddled terrain, wetlands, streams, and dense vegetation, the course designers--Jake Nye, Randy Hollingsworth, and Scott Humberg--created an aesthetically pleasing, challenging course that works with the environment rather than against it.

Boggy and wet most of the year, sinkholes of various sizes, some large enough to require stairs for access, pock the course. Each hole is different and offers organic features that are unique to that hole.

The Mounds at Groves Park in Oak Ridge, Tenn., had very different environmental constraints. Previously a landfill for building debris created during the development of the “Secret City” during the Manhattan Project, the owner converted the site into a traditional golf course in the mid-1950s.

Underutilized and expensive to maintain, the city converted that course in 2006 to a community park and commissioned the design of a disc-golf course. As a designer and landscape architect at Barge, Waggoner, Sumner, and Cannon Inc., I worked with the city to create mounds on certain holes to introduce variety and create a sense of enclosure to the open course. I also helped design no-mow zones to establish landing areas and fairways.

Just five years later, sycamores, willows, and tulip poplars soar 30 feet into the air, creating challenging obstacles for disc flight.

Idlewild in Burlington, Ky., is one of the first courses to incorporate artificial greens. Designed by Fred Salaz and Bob Herbert, the greens provide a practical and durable playing surface that stabilizes the soil and minimizes erosion into nearby creeks.

Cylindrical concrete-core test samples line the greens, clearly define the playing area, and delineate out-of-bounds. When playing the 18-hole, par 69 course, players can easily accumulate strokes due to water hazards and heavily wooded, technically challenging holes.

Despite its difficulty, recreational players and families eager for immersion in a tranquil, natural setting constantly occupy the course.

As disc golf evolves, private investment continues to grow and to develop sites other than public parks and college property.

Flyboy Aviation in Atlanta, Ga., is a solo-destination course where players pay to play in a “disc-golf experience” environment. Accessible by private plane or car, the development also includes a bed and breakfast. Designed by Kelly Leggette, the course has fairways that meander among level grass taxiways, and finish with epic shots along the grass runway where small planes practice “touch-and-go” landings.

The future of disc golf appears to be limited only by the imagination and creativity of designers. Interesting courses can be developed in a seemingly unlimited number of sites, each with its own particular attraction. The ranks of enthusiastic players will only continue to grow as professionally designed courses become more available.

Daniel Boutte, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner, and Cannon, Inc., in Knoxville, Tenn. He is an avid disc-golf enthusiast. Boutte has played over 120 disc-golf courses in the last 15 years, and has personally designed seven disc-golf courses. He can be reached at daniel.boutte@bwsc.net.

Bryan BuchkoComment