September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

Building for the future

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

There has been a sticker at the top of our living room entrance for well over a decade that reads "The best way to predict the future is to help create it." I don't consciously read those words every day, but I do like to think I have embodied that way of thinking. The things I wanted to see in the place where I lived were the things I went out of my way to create. It's a simple enough theory: even if the steps are small, each conscious action gets us closer to the future in which we want to live. This whole theory is especially true in the disc golf world.

Now, I am well aware that disc golf is a relatively inconsequential thing in the grand scheme of things. It's a trivial game, really: no life or death consequences, even if you have an elevated putt with water behind the basket. However, disc golf holds the key to all things related to happiness, at least in my opinion. When you build a great course, you use the elements which you are given. When you are playing, you are playing only against yourself. Your happiness comes in how you are able to accept each of the challenges with which you are faced. Satisfaction comes in all shapes and sizes, and it's up to you to find it.

I've thought a lot lately about how much the game of disc golf has changed in the 20 years I have been playing and building. At first, we would take any land we were given, regardless of what else was happening on it, and we would do our best to get 9, or--if everything lined up perfectly--18 holes into the ground. As disc golf slowly evolved, we were often seen as an "add-on" to any local infrastructure piece. Many of the courses I designed (and that other people have designed) needed to work around all of the other things in the parks (or green spaces) that were seemingly given more of a priority. It seemed that disc golf was never the ideal development, but always something that could work. Then came the pandemic.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed that any and all things outdoors were given a green light to go forward. Many of these "fringe" activities were prioritized, and were viewed as a key piece of safe and healthy strategic plans for the population. Those of us who have been singing disc golf's praises from the roof tops already knew we had a real gem; now, the rest of the recreation world was starting to take notice.

Which brings me to the crossroads we are at today. The seeds that have been planted for the disc golf world are now starting to bear fruit, and it is worth taking a moment to think about the direction forward for our game. The are two main aspects I would like to focus on here: the places, and the play.

First off: when you picture a disc golf course in your mind, what's the first thing you see? For many of us in the northeast, that might be a tree. For a lot of people, it might simply be a basket. The fact that disc golf does not have to abide by any hard and fast rules about dimensions or course concepts is something I have always found very liberating. I was in a city meeting recently where they talked about a piece of land that was deemed "undesirable," and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, "Disc golfers would love that spot!" The fact that this piece of land was not ideal for development or vegetation just meant that I could design a couple of really unique disc golf holes using its features. The fact that so many parcels of land don't seem to fit the traditional viewpoint for what sport infrastructure typically looks like is very liberating to me. Give me safe and unique parcels of land and I will give you a disc golf course with character. As land gets more valuable, especially in urban centres, we will have to expand the parameters for the places in which disc golf can thrive. It's not that we are only looking for old garbage dumps (although I have built on those): it's that disc golf can take lumps of coal, and turn them into diamonds.

When we are lucky enough to be given forests and disc golf-specific parks, we need to up our game there, too. In my opinion, our main focus should be sustainability. I know that's a buzz word in a lot of circles right now, but it has some specific aspects to it that we can implement in our game. The first is sustainable forestry management. This is basically the way we harvest (i.e., cut) the standing trees on any lot, and how we process the "waste." Instead of clearcutting large swaths of land, we cut a few and leave a few. Our goal should be to leave shade cover on the ground, and to keep as much organic matter on the forest floor as we can. The trees we select to harvest should not be randomly chosen either. The healthiest tree stocks will make for the best regrowth and the healthiest forest will make for the best course. If we mulch (instead of burning), and find places for our bigger slash piles to decompose, we are creating habitats for wildlife and giving the forest some long-term nutrient sources. Identifying wetlands and other sensitive areas in our forests, and building around those or working with them, is the best way to ensure a healthy ecosystem for decades to come. Obviously, I am oversimplifying the process here, and one paragraph cannot summarize all the nuances of sustainable forestry, but being mindful of these principles is a great starting point.

When it comes to more park-style courses, planting trees is a great way to shape the site for years to come. Localized climates are changing, and so too are the tree species that are going to thrive in the future. Identifying those trees and planting them in micro-sites that allows them to be successful is a great way to meet that future. Finding native plant species and encouraging their growth can help keep your course green. Planting edible plants around the course might even get people thinking about other ways that disc golf courses can be productive. (Not that they necessarily have to be productive beyond a disc golf course, but I do like eating a fresh apple on hole 10 if that's available to me!) Simply put: when we design for the future, let's try and be mindful not to waste any opportunity we have. Budgets can be small, and it might not be possible to do everything we want all at once, but even just planning out what we want our quality courses to look like in the future will give us the space we need to grow into things.

Although building the physical disc golf course is the direct way to influence the future of our game, thinking about the way we play is important, too. In some ways, this part of the article is in direct response to a blog I read a few weeks ago that lamented the fact that professional disc golf lacks real tension between players. There are no true "heels" in the game, and the top pros are often seen as friends who will congratulate each other after a good shot, even in a playoff. I am well aware that professional disc golfers only represent about 1% of the people who play the game and I can see the point the author was trying to make, even if I don't agree with it. I am almost certain everyone over the age of the 40 or so has had some kind of issue with the new "participation trophy" mentality of sport, where everyone gets a prize no matter how well they played, or how involved they were in the game. There are pros and cons to this new approach for sure, but again, I think disc golf is in a unique position to walk a fine line going forward. At the heart of it, disc golfers are only competing against themselves and the course. It doesn't matter what someone else shoots; each player is trying to harmonize their body and brain to execute the shots they can see in their mind. A great competitor wants their opponent to play their best. Navigating the course in the fewest amount of shots is always the goal; it shouldn't matter how someone else plays. Disc golfers can actually lead the way in camaraderie and positivity. It's okay to want other players to be quiet when necessary on the course, and to not talk to your opponents, should that be your style, but we don't need the "I'm going to destroy you" mentality that other sports may possess. Disc golf is a deeply personal pursuit. Your successes are not proportionate to your opponents' shortcomings. Playing the game is its own reward.

I could certainly go on here, but I think I've planted the seeds. Disc golf is amazing. We already knew that fact, but in order to take it where we want it to go in the future, we need to think about the things that make it so special. Now is the time to build the future that we want as players.