"Disc-overing" Disc Golf

By Janelle Drach and Gavin Sacks

Having trouble deciding what to do with that underutilized piece of park land that doesn’t fit into any specific programming niche and no money to alter the site? Why not consider a disc-golf course?


In the spring of 2012, the city of Geneva (pop: 13,000) in western New York and a crew of volunteers turned an underutilized park area into an inexpensive, family-friendly recreation hub.

Define Disc Golf
Disc golf is like traditional golf, except that players use specialized discs similar to Frisbees in place of golf balls, and attempt to throw the discs into above-ground basket targets in the fewest number of throws.

Interest in the game has boomed in the last 15 years, with the number of courses worldwide increasing from 560 in 1995 to 3,276 in 2010. The popularity of disc golf stems, in part, from its affordability. A golf disc costs as little as $8, and although experienced players may own dozens of discs, the game can be enjoyed with a single disc.

Cattails And Woodchuck Holes
The 20-acre northern portion of Lakefront Park offers beautiful views of Seneca Lake, but its rolling terrain, cattail marshes, isolation from other park amenities, and frequent woodchuck holes resulted in the area being lightly utilized.

However, many of the features that made the area unacceptable for ball fields or playgrounds made for ideal “natural hazards” for disc golf. Unlike traditional golf courses, disc-golf courses do not require significant alterations to the land to be playable.

Janelle Drach, Geneva’s director of recreation, having learned about disc golf at the New York State Recreation and Park Society conference, returned with the idea that a disc-golf course might work at Lakefront Park. The problem: Drach had little knowledge of disc golf, a tight budget, and uncertainty as to whether the community would embrace the game.

Getting Things Spinning
Committed disc golfers are a passionate but frustrated bunch. Unlike the availability of basketball or tennis courts, which can be found at the parks of even the smallest communities, most towns don’t have disc-golf courses. Disc-golf lovers routinely drive an hour (or more) in search of a course.

As a result, they are often eager to volunteer time and money to help establish courses within their own communities.

But there is a “chicken-and-egg” problem—how does one find passionate disc golfers to serve as community partners when the city doesn’t have a disc-golf course?

One idea is to contact regional disc-golf clubs in nearby cities. These groups can be found through a web search, or may be listed on the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) affiliates page ( www.pdga.com/affiliate_club/club-list).

Another option is simply to ask around. In Geneva, Drach came into contact with Gavin Sacks, a professor at a local university, through discussions at a neighborhood association meeting. He grew up near several courses, and in subsequent years had not lost his enthusiasm for the game. He and a few other local disc golfers were thrilled to hear there was an opportunity to establish a course in their backyard.

A Trial Balloon
Drach and Sacks agreed to first establish a temporary course to gauge community interest and evaluate the appropriateness of the site. Sacks reached out to regional disc-golf clubs in Syracuse, Ithaca, and Rochester.

Through these contacts, the club was able to borrow portable disc-golf baskets for a weekend event as well as secure volunteers to help prepare the course. Several local businesses donated prizes and gifts for the weekend, and Drach and the recreation department assisted by promoting the event and loaning supplies.

Course Design: Trust The Pros
The next step was to design the course. Historically, disc-golf courses were designed by park officials or local players with little design experience. In many cases, this led to courses that lacked challenge or variety, and in the worst cases led to environmental damage or dangerous playing conditions.

The PDGA has recently begun a certification process for disc-golf designers, a list of whom can be found online. In Geneva, Sacks contacted Pat Govang, a certified designer living in Ithaca.

Govang considered several features during design. Two sets of tee pads were included to ensure the course would challenge a range of skills. To limit damage to the bird-friendly cattail marshes, the areas were declared “out-of-bounds,” and paths were created at regular intervals to minimize disturbances.

Similarly, golf holes were routed to avoid areas with a high density of woodchuck holes. To avoid a busy road on the north and a walking path on the south, holes were designed so players would be throwing towards the center of the course.

Finally, “blind” shots into walking paths were avoided so existing passive-recreation activities like dog-walking would not be disturbed.

Political “Disc-ourse”
The temporary course event was held in August 2011. More than 100 people from the community and nearby cities came out to play, including several community leaders and city council members. The publicity surrounding the event gave Sacks an opportunity to speak with individuals and local businesses interested in sponsoring a permanent course.

Drach, Sacks, and the Geneva Disc Golf Club (GDGC) used the 6 months following the temporary course event to prepare a proposal to city council to install a more permanent course at Lakefront Park.

The following points were stressed during a city council presentation in April 2012:

•The course would provide a fun, inexpensive recreational opportunity for both the Geneva community and visitors.

• No monetary support would be requested. Course materials could be purchased entirely through sponsorships by individuals and businesses, and several sponsors had already been identified.

• Existing land uses would not be affected, and the course could be readily removed and then re-installed. Passive recreation, like dog-walking, would not be affected. The baskets and tee signs would be installed on lockable sleeves so they could be pulled when the space was used for other events.

• Significant alterations to the area would not occur, and no additional work would be created for the Department of Public Works (DPW). Baskets and tees would be positioned so as not to interfere with routine DPW maintenance, and the GDGC would assist in maintaining the area.

Throwing Around Cash
The proposed course was unanimously approved, and the GDGC shifted its focus to fundraising. The total budget for the 12-hole course was $6,800, which included basket targets, tee pads, tee signs, and a message board.

Some funds were raised from private donors, but the majority was raised from local businesses through $350 “tee sign sponsorships.” In addition to the sponsors who had already committed to the course during the temporary course event, attracting additional sponsors was facilitated by stressing that the sponsorship would last for the lifetime of the aluminum tee signs (5+ years).

Course installation began in May 2012, with GDGC volunteers collaborating with city employees to dig post holes, set baskets and signs in concrete, and lay down rubber matting for tee pads. The grand opening for the course was slightly more than a year after initial discussions between Drach and Sacks.

Throughout the summer of 2012, up to 50 players a day used the course on some weekends, and the owner of the local hobby shop reported selling more than 400 golf discs in the 5 months after the course opened.

The Secrets To “Disc-overing” Success
Designing, approving, funding, and installing a disc-golf course is not an overnight activity, but the Geneva example shows that success is possible through partnerships between city officials and community disc-golf enthusiasts. Hosting a temporary course prior to proposing a permanent one is recommended to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea as well as to recruit volunteers and sponsors.

Equally critical to the overall success of a disc-golf course is proactively addressing concerns of community members (e.g., getting buy-in from the DPW, working with a certified course designer, and considering impacts on the environment or existing park activities).

The end result—beyond some very confused woodchucks—has been the revitalization of a poorly used piece of park land and a new recreation opportunity for both the city of Geneva and the region.

Janelle Drach is the director of recreation for the city of Geneva. Reach her at jdrach@geneva.ny.us.

Gavin Sacks is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University, Cooperative Extension in Geneva in the Department of Food Science.

For more information, visit www.genevarec.com.