I remember what it felt like the day I planted my first baskets and opened up my area's first disc golf course. It was early spring in 2008. There was a feeling of deep satisfaction that bordered on relief when I finally stepped back and looked at them. The thought that I had been able to bring disc golf to a part of the world where there wasn't any before me was humbling. The truth was it was equally a selfish and benevolent venture. I built the course for myself and my best friend but I also knew it could change the lives of many untold people. At the time getting the baskets in the ground was all that mattered, I didn't care what shots we threw, how it looked, or what kinds of signs and tee pads were on the course. Baskets in the ground was the goal and we had made that happen.
Fast forward 15 years later and I found myself in a part of the world where people were living that reality all over again. Northern Ireland and Scotland were experiencing what the Maritime region in Canada went through a decade and a half ago and I found myself in a unique position to be able to help.
You might ask yourself why pick these places? That is a question I have asked myself at least a dozen times in the lead up to this trip. The truth is one of our good friends, Niall McGinty had put a bug in our ear a few years ago. Niall has been a core member of our group in Atlantic Canada since somewhere around 2015. He is originally from Ireland and has been in a unique position to see the game grow here and see it start in the UK. After years of passive replies to his request of coming I finally asked myself, 'why not?', and when I couldn't find a reasonable answer I booked the trip with my family to see a part of the world unknown to me. The idea was that I might be able to offer a bit of help as the game took shape there. As the days passed and our trip became formalized a few wonderful things fell into place. Our good friends Zoe Andyke and Dustin Keegan from Uplay decided to join us and a new friend, Paddy McCauley from Scotland reached out to see if we would consider adding a few days in his country at the tail end of our trip. I created a workshop called, 'The Art of Course Building' that I delivered to both clubs while I was there. The hope was that if my experience in building the game, both behind the scenes and in the ground could help save them some time and energy and shape their future in a positive way the trip would be worth it. In creating my workshop I realized that over the last 15 years I have built 40 permanent courses and over 80 temporary installations. I also came to realize how lucky we are in North America to have vast amounts of wild space that can be shaped into incredible disc golf destinations. I left Nova Scotia on a Sunday with almost no expectations on what the trip would bring other than an opportunity. I would run 1 event, two workshops, and help Uplay teach at least 3 sessions. After that almost everything was unknown.
Let me divert away from the disc golf section for one minute to talk about the places from a slight historical / tourist perspective. From the most basic standpoint Ireland and Northern Ireland are two different countries. There is no official border or check point that you would cross to denote one from the other but rest assure they have their differences. For one, Ireland still uses the Euro for currency while Northern Ireland uses the pound (more on this later). There is a long and fascinating history between these countries dating back 100's of years. The history many people may be aware of centres around 'The Troubles' and the fight for Irish independence. I read a fascinating book on Michael Collins before I went and it made me want to read 10 more. I don't want to get too deep in the weeds on political / religious divides as I have only started to scratch the surface but there are still things that Ireland and Northern Ireland do together, and there are things the do apart. I had some context for what the country side of Ireland would look like. The rolling hills, rock walls, lush green landscapes, and incredible geological features were all things I wanted to experience. The giants causeway was high on my list of things to do and lucky for me our traveling party all felt the same way. The four of us in our party all landed in Dublin, took a cab to the city centre and tried to go visit the Trinity College Library. Unfortunately for us tickets for entrance were sold out so we generally just wandered around the city until our train ride to Belfast where we met Zoe and Dustin. Belfast was exactly what I expected (and hoped for). It was filled with beautiful old building, great food, and incredible live music. Although we only spent one night there I would gladly go back at anytime to experience it more in the near future. On the second morning we rented our van for the week and set course for the North Coast. I took first session on the driving and can happily report that I only drove on the wrong side of the road once. I did have to consciously say 'left turns are free' every time I came to light or a yield sign. I say yield sign because in all of the driving we did we only saw 1 stop sign. I loved it. It's like the Europeans had 100's of years of experience to say, 'nobody wants to stop anyways lets just make everything a round about or a give way (yield sign)' and be done with it. It certainly doesn't help that everything in Europe is built to have exactly enough space and not an inch more including roads, driveways, doors, and everything else you can image. Not only that but cars seem to park on any side of the street in any direction and at any angle so if you are about to turn a corner and don't see any road signs there is almost no way to know if you are looking down a one way street or not. It's also very lucky that people don't seem to mind U-turns in the middle of the street.
We spent a blissful (but freezing) day exploring the Giants Causeway, the Dark Hedges (of GoT fame), and the spectacular coast line.
On the morning of St Patricks day our entire family joined our Irish host (Chris) and his family for a quick dip in the ocean. This potential event was talked about a lot in the lead up to our trip. I for one was convinced that is was just a joke he was playing on us to see if we would do it, considering this is still the Atlantic Ocean we are talking about - in March at a latitude much closer to the Arctic circle than at home in Nova Scotia. There is no way I would jump in our waters in March let alone here. Still, on the morning in question I put swimming shorts under my cloths and jumped in the back of van to see what would happen. Now it should be noted that I have swam in the bay of Fundy (highest tides in the world), in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (on the first day of the season that their nature pool was open), and in various rivers in Nova Scotia late into the fall. Nothing, and I mean nothing was colder than this water. I jumped in, did my best to swim a full circle around our enclosed tide pool before returning to the shoreline in a matter of seconds in an almost state of shock. Was it worth it? Yes, yes it was. Would I do it again? Maybe... It should also be noted that although it was the morning of St Patricks day I was not intoxicated and I did this swim willingly. For my friends reading this you will know I am not really a drinker but I did enjoy several pints of Guinness and more than one incredible glasses of whisky on this trip. Enough to say that I might not drink again until my return visit. Ireland was everything we expected and then some. I loved it deeply and am already plotting ways to go back again.
Scotland on the other hand is a completely different story. I had no expectations on what we would find there. To be truthful I am not sure I have ever really thought about Scotland before other than the fact that Nova Scotia is 'New Scotland' I knew almost nothing about it. Our host Patrick and I had really only been in communications once and those were pretty basic. He offered us a free place to stay while we were there in return I offered him my knowledge and my time. We landed in Glasgow with a day to ourselves and no context for what we would see. We booked a bus a tour of the city and stuck out of the house first thing in the morning. What we found was a city laden with history, stone, and art that had a been born of rich and checkered history. The Glaswegians (or Glasgonians) are a cheeky a resourceful people. The architecture there was breathtaking, especially for someone who loves stonework. The history of the city extends back more than 1000 years. Much of what we see today was built on the backs of slave and tobacco money. Edinburgh is much the same with the notable difference of having a castle located in centre of the city. I could have easily wandered around each of these places for days on end just taking in all the details of each building. There are vistas in each of the cities that immediately draw your imagination to times they were built and the almost incredible undertakings that had to occur for that to happen. I left Scotland thinking that if I knew so little about these cities that had played such a huge role in modern histories what else did I know nothing about? I know I will be back to Ireland, if I am lucky I will find reasons to return to Scotland every chance I get.
Back to real reason I was there; Disc Golf!
Our disc golf plans revolved around running an event in Coleraine, Northern Ireland and workshops within their community. Our host, Chris, had been the primary builder of the 18 hole course we would be using. Over the years he had done more than his fair share of the heavy lifting associated with course building and events. I had not meet him in person before and he had not meet me so I have no idea on what his thoughts truly were about us coming there. Dustin and Zoe are (and were referred to as) the celebrities and I am just guy who is making his living in the game. Don't get me wrong, I am proud of my accomplishments, but I am under no illusions that I am anything special. I believe in myself and when I stack up the the things that I have done I think I am on the right path. Still, coming to someones else's part of the world and telling them the things that they can improve is a delicate matter. I have TD'ed (or co-TD'ed) 65 PDGA events in my history. I have developed mathematical formulas for course building and event procedure. I did this through trial and error at first and then refined it through a lot of deep and calculated thought. To Chris's credit he took my suggestions in the spirit in which they were offered. I believe any knowledge that I have is a gift that is meant to be shared and by mid week I think Chris and his entire group were inspired by what they had already done and what we could do in the future. Northern Ireland (and the entire UK) is on the cusp of their next big growth boom. I have seen it here and I you can see it coming there. I helped offer comparative studies, key outlooks, and quantifiable value to our game. Lightbulbs went on when we delivered the course building workshop, more interest was aroused when we did the Uplay teaching session (both by the kids and the teachers), and a real sense of joy was felt when we played our event together.
The event itself was perfect. Their course in Coleraine has much of the secret sauce that you need to make a great course. It has fun shots, interesting terrain, and at least a few places to find trouble. The course was unseasonably wet at the time but still played great. There are only minor adjustments on the course that I offered to help the club. Most of those are associated with what will happen when more people use it. I think those suggestions were well received and I have already starting an ongoing conversation with Chris about how we can continue to work together in the future. I personally feel a kinship with him that I hope to cultivate over the remaining years of my life in our question to bring a championship course to his area. In the end we had great competition, traditional Irish weather, and a wonderful social event on the Saturday night that saw most players gather together in the university bar to watch Ireland win the Six Nations World Rugby Tournament. It was about as perfect of a setting as you could imagine.
Once we concluded the Irish portion we were on to the Scottish part of our disc golf adventure. The course building talk there had 7 people in person and 6 online. The strength that Glasgow has over many other places is that they have a strong group of devoted players and their fearless leader is willing to take on some risk. They also have an incredible film company there that is able to capture media better than many companies in established markets. Check out what they do here.
I think I was able to help them value their product much better and point them to where they should be looking for growth. On our second day there I spent 9+ hours at their two course, gently playing with their designs and offering my insight. Again, I think it was well received for some simple solutions that they can implement. On the second part of the day I designed 6 brand new holes on Ruchill, their 12 hole course to make it a full 18. All of the courses that we played are shared space, public park courses. I have designed plenty of these so I understand the limitations and the risks involved. I was able to blend a good flow and some minor changes while respecting the natural limitations that they face. No major trees have to be cut and all park users must be respected. Simple logistics like where you start, what your maps look like, and where you place tee signs are all things that can get overlooked when you focus only on the fact that getting those baskets in the ground is the most important thing. In my opinion both clubs had done a fantastic job of building their baseline infrastructure, they only needed some some refining to make their product better.
I could go for hours talking about the experience in both of these places but instead I will leave you with some final thoughts. Both groups of human beings were wonderful and made us feel at home. So much so that my brain is already thinking of positive ways to come back and make an even bigger impact. Course building is my gift to the disc golf world and I am more committed now to making great courses than ever before.
A couple more random thoughts before I depart. Paddy, or host in Scotland has two claims to fame for me; first he is the only person I know who lovingly refers to our game as 'Frolf' and second he is 1 of 14 children in his family, making his the biggest family I have heard of in this generation. He and at least 4 of his brothers all now play disc golf, sorry, frolf, and you can see how much joy it adds to his life. My time with him taught me many things but one that will stick out is when you are around a group of Scottish people and they are speaking english, you might not understand what they are saying. Their use of language is colourful and tactile and brings me a deep and satisfying joy. Some of my favourite things I heard while on our trip where disc golfers being referred to as a' magnificent group of weirdos', a speed bump called a 'sleeping policeman' earmuffs called, 'ear defenders', and the Glasgow club word of 'GIAB', which stands for get it all back, something every disc golfer can focus on when we are playing. Paddy is solid human and even better host and my imagination runs wild when I think of the things we will be able to do together in the future.
During one of the teaching sessions with Uplay we encouraged the teachers to join the students and throw their first ever discs. Two female teachers aced their first ever throw from about 70 feet away less than 2 seconds apart. It was blissful, and what made it even more amazing is that the male physical education teachers almost went wild not being able to make the shot himself. It was more than what you can ask for in a school session!
Another odd side note. The UK all uses the pound for their money however each country, Ireland, England, and Scotland all have their own 'Mint' so you can get a pound that looks different in any of the countries you visit. Each pound should be the same but there are many vendors who try to refuse the other countries minted money. It took a while for me to figure this out and always left me scratching my head.
Finally I have one quiz out there for anyone who wants to win a prize. If you read this and can be the first person to correctly pronounce this name in the comments I have a disc for you. Here it is:
Mostly I just want to say thank you to both Chris and Patrick for hosting us and making us feel welcome in your country. Thank you to all the disc golfers who I got to meet and play with. I have crazy ideas sometimes but more often than not there is a method to my madness. A huge shoutout goes to Discmania for sending us some lovely discs we used for the players pack and an even bigger shoutout goes to Uplay and Mark for joining us in what was truly a life changing event for me and my family. I can't wait to get back!