There has never been a better time to be alive if you are a disc golfer. We are living in what I believe to be the start of the golden age of disc golf. Courses are popping up everywhere around the world (Courses worldwide) at a rate we were only dreaming of in the 1980s: the number of lifetime members in the PDGA is well over 100,000; the Pro game coming into its own with better payouts, events, and live coverage; and the estimated number of players worldwide is well over 2 million (Growing sport of disc golf). As we continue to grow, new avenues and opportunities are opening for us constantly. Almost every populated place in the US and Canada has at least one disc golf course within a 2-hour drive. The best part of disc golf is that it's still growing!
As we fly forward in the disc golf universe, it’s important to take note of some of the unique things that make our game so sweet. One thing that has been absolutely central to the soul of disc golf is the fact that we have free courses to play.
Many disc golfers who have been around the game for a long time take this for granted. For much of disc golf's history, free public courses were your only option. Private courses have always existed, but they would have been outnumbered 100 to 1 when compared to public courses.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a case to be made about pay-to-play disc golf. Growth in pay-to-play courses is exploding. In order to see that growth, look no further than central Maine (Top place in the USA to play disc golf). For many professionals and competitive players of all kinds, course fees--and the amenities that come with that fee--are the way to go. As our game grows, though, let's do our best not to lose sight of that magic that can come with free courses. There is, after all, a reason why they say the best things in life are free.
To start with, free disc golf makes the game accessible. Free disc golf creates few barriers for those who want to try the sport. People have a chance to interact with the course at whatever time their lifestyles permit. Early morning walkers can toss a quick round, and feel like the course is theirs alone. Glow lights at night bring you into the park when you would normally be home. A free disc golf course brings people into under-utilized spaces and gives them life.
Free disc golf courses let you learn while you play, too. They give you the time and space needed to work on shots of all kinds. They give you freedom to play: sometimes this means spending 30 minutes on the course because that’s all you get over your lunch break, and sometimes it just means tossing random shots when you have only a couple of minutes. Free disc golf lets you make some of the best Safari golf holes you can create, and then showing new players the "locals only" course. Free disc golf lets you bring your grandma out to play the few holes that are close to the parking lot. Sometimes playing a free disc golf course encourages you to do field work and warm up using odd numbered baskets while you wait for your friend who is "only 5 minutes away"...
A free disc golf course draws in public interest through visibility and random spectators. More than one player accidentally discovered the game because they saw strangers throwing discs at weird metal targets. Relying on strangers to stumble across the game and get hooked may not be the most efficient way to grow the game, but it has played a big part in our history. At its best, free disc golf courses create a space for players to feel a respectful and proud kinship for a park. Personal bonds are created with your "home course", and this feeling is made extra special by knowing that the course is free for other people to discover as well.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are always downsides to free. Not every park user likes the idea of sharing space. Nothing is ever perfect, and we are only as good as our actions. It’s up to us to demonstrate the kinds of behaviour we would like to see on the course or in any public venue. Disc golf in free public spaces has been a great marriage. Many wonderful spaces were made better by adding a free disc golf course, and I always think it is important to remember that just because you pay for something, doesn’t always make it better.
There is a case to be made that more world champions have started on free courses. That is partially true because disc golf has been historically been free to play, but I believe it's also because a free disc golf course gives you space to grow. When you go to a pay-to-play course, you are far more likely to play the course exactly as it is designed. After all, you are there to shoot the best score you can on the (often professional) layout provided. This is a huge reason I love the game: trying to better your own score, and finally par (or birdie) that one particular hole that has been giving you trouble for the last two stupid years since you hit that stupid tree off the drive, and now you can’t stop looking at it….But I digress.
Some of the best free courses out there have stories of local kids who made a few good dollars wading in the pond to find discs for people, or who started playing because they found an unnamed disc in the park, and now this game is a central part of their lives. It's wonderful that the game we love is still free in so many places, and that economics are not a barrier for our game in a world that seems to want to put a price on everything. It’s nice to know that there are still lots of disc golf courses in this world when you and your friend can go with a couple of discs, a bit of food and water, and play for as long as you like, without spending a dime.
When disc golf is free, more people get the chance to fall in love with it. We have come a long way in the disc golf world in the last few years, so let’s try not to forget some of the truly wonderful things that got us here.