September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

Disc Golf's Secret Sauce

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

Now is the most important time ever to be a disc golfer.  I say important because if you're a disc golfer you already know it’s the most exciting and interesting time to be a part of the game, but what you may not have considered is just how crucial this next period of disc golf is going to be. I believe the key for the long term sustainable and successful growth of disc golf is play.

What do I mean by play you might ask.   In the simplest terms possible I believe our game will continue to thrive for a very long time as long as the majority of people involved with it are players first.  This seems like a simple, and very obvious statement, but give me a few minutes of your time to explain.  As we prepare for the 2022 calendar year and the new disc golf season that comes with it, it’s a great time to take stock of where we are at as a collective group.  Disc golf has had an explosive growth in my area since the start of Covid with many of my local courses showing sustained growth of upwards of 300% in terms of new players joining clubs or playing events.  Although our local numbers may be a bit high, anecdotally I hear stories from several places where disc golf thrives that all confirm the same thing; disc golf is booming like nothing we have seen before.

With this boom has come some not-to-unsurprising new challenges.  Courses that were sparsely played before now have back ups, discs that were easy to find at your local vendor might be back ordered now, and tournaments that you used to be able to sign up for on the day of are now selling out online.   Although all of these could be framed as problems we can also see them as opportunities.  The flip side to all of these challenges can be easily experienced in the abundance of coverage, both live and edited, that exists online where none was before.  New courses are also dotting the landscape giving players several options and in many cases having particular local layouts that match their skill level vs times gone past where it was one course and one set of tee pads for all.  The bevy of tournaments now come in all shapes and sizes and give players everywhere local options.  I think most people would agree that although the PDGA and DGPT have done a great job of adding consistency to the organized portion of the game there is still an abundance of variation that exists in all of the people who play the game.  Which leads me to where we are today.

The majority of people involved with the game at this moment in time play disc golf.  Again, this may not seem like a remarkable sentence but when you compare the amount of people who watch other professional sports like football, to the amount of people that play it, you get a drastically different result.  Some simple google search results indicated that about 5.1 million Americans play football and about 100 million Americans watch or follow the game.  Even in my homeland of Canada my guess is that only somewhere around 50% of people who are involved with hockey ever lace up the skates and still play a game.  The fact that the overwhelming majority of people involved with disc golf are players first is, in my opinion, where the magic is at.

I say this is a critical time because the decision and standards we set today will have lasting effects for years to come. 

Take for example Canada’s track record with hockey.  I’d like to share with you a story of my youth, which I believe is similar to many other people my age.  Hockey has run deep in my family.  My grandfather played competitive hockey in his youth and for a while he had serious dreams of making it to the big time.  By all accounts he was an above average player who excelled at every level he played.  Eventually, because the world was a much different place in the 1940’s, he had to make a decision to work and raise a family or continue his dream of playing some level of professional hockey.  He took the path of work.  Hockey was never far from him though.  He eventually became the head referee for our area and gained quite a reputation as a bit of a hard ass.  My mother was the first girl to play boys hockey in our area, and again for the time she grew up in that made quite a splash.  The introduction to hockey was a natural thing for both my mother and grandfather.  Free, outdoor rinks were prevalent and there was always some kind of game of ‘shinny’ that you could play.  Basic wooden sticks and entree level skates did not cost a small fortune and it was a shared experience for most kids in Canada to spend at least part of their winter on the ice.  By the time I began to play in the 1980’s hockey was beginning to become a business.  Outfitting yourself in the latest gear would cost a few hundred dollars when I started, and by the time I was playing on high level travel teams it had risen to a few thousand dollars.  It did not help that I was a goalie, but even regular skaters started to have to shell out a few hundred dollars just for a stick.  The lowest level of hockey you could play was called ‘house’ league and it still had a cost of a few hundred dollars.  Competitive teams could be away for multiple weekends a season and it was not a stretch to see some parents spend a few thousand dollars a year on hotels and gas to just get their kid to games.  Eventually hockey started to price itself out of the hands of many kids and by the time I had children hockey was less of a ‘rite of passage’ and more of a privilege sport.  Not only that but due to our changing climate outdoor rinks that would have been frozen in November from time immemorial now might not freeze until January.  Eventually the powers that be (Hockey Canada and the corporate world) saw that the game and player base was changing and tried to institute initiatives to help more kids find access to the game.  The ‘First Shift’ program was started and kids could get all their gear and 5 ice times paid for for only $75.  It has slowly paid dividends but much of the damage had already been done.  Parents opted to put their kids into soccer or basketball in the wintertime as cost effective alternatives to hockey.  Many of the kids who would have thrived in hockey never got to play the game simply because the cost prevented them from doing so.

Not only that but hockey culture hadn’t always been a beacon of inclusivity.  Being taught to ‘play like a man’ usually meant covering up injuries, turning a blind eye to sexual harassment (in some cases assault), and generally rewarding the people on your team who were willing to go out there and fight someone.  I will personally say that the vast majority of teams I played on were full of wonderful people who had hearts of gold but I saw my fair share of darkness on and off the ice.   Don't get me wrong I still believe hockey, like every sport, can be beautiful when played with heart and integrity but over the last few decades the culture and the cost of the game have muddied those waters for a lot of people.

In many ways disc golf now is where hockey was 50 years ago.  I don't expect the cost of disc golf will ever be the prohibitive factor in whether or not people play but the culture could be.  Remember there was a time in small towns and villages where the people would bond together and build the rink.  When was the last time you heard of the amateur hockey players being asking to build the place where they are going to play?

It has been said many times before that disc golf is more than just a game, for some people it is a lifestyle.  There is lots of data out there to show that most people who play our game don’t play events or track their own scores; they simply play at their own leisure on a local course.  They interact with the space in a way that makes sense for them.  Disc golf is often their oasis.  Some people play in groups, others choose to play solo.  Many people play sober, some like to indulge in ‘extra curricular’ activities on the course.  The overwhelming number of players are kind and respectful, and although the game could do a better job of attracting women and minorities there are very few (if any) institutional barriers that prevent people of all kinds, shapes, and sizes from using their local course at the time of their choosing.  I personally think it is not enough to simply acknowledge that, we must be willing to put in the work to keep the game that way.

With that in mind I would like to give you another personal example of what our game is made up of.  Let me introduce you to the ‘Bruces’.  The very first public course I ever built was an 18 hole course just west of my hometown.  It was a reasonably simple build with natural tee pads and simple signage.  No trees were cut during the initial installation but the first three holes were tight, and some may say downright treacherous.  Up to this point the majority of the courses I knew about had been built mostly through volunteer hours.  This course was not much different.  The local town paid us about $400 over the cost of baskets and we had to provide the signs, concrete for bases, and much of the labour to put everything in the ground.  Building that course was not driven by profit.  We did it because we loved the game and we were certain once other people played it they would too.  Enter the Bruces.  

The early reviews on the course all read something like this; “fun course right off the highway but holes 1-3 suck”.  “I almost walked off the course after 3 but I am glad I didn’t”, and so on.  Hole 2 was only about 200+ feet, but a tee shot that was 5 feet of the fairway might result in 5… if you could even find your disc.  Hole 3 was (and still is) one of the toughest par 3’s you can ever play.  It is closer to 350 feet with a small tunnel and strategically placed island of trees about 225 down the centre of the fairway.  Many people took scores of a snowman or above on hole 3.  At the time I was still running a non-disc golf company and had a young family.  Putting together more than a few hours a week to work on the course was not something I could do, but two local guys both over 50 and both named Bruce became the heart and soul of the course.  The Bruces lived less than 10 minutes away from the course and had often walked there throughout the years.  Prior to the disc golf course going in they did not know each other but through random chance and good luck they met and instantly became fast friends.  Over the next 6 years they put in countless hours at the course, moving brush, trimming trees, eventually putting in tee pads and doing all the things required to make the players experience better.  Not once did they ask for money.  Eventually the town gave them a key to the park so that when issues arose there they could take care of them on their own.  It would not be an understatement to say that at least one of the Bruces was at the course almost every day for those first 6 years.  I would not be able to count the number of players that they introduced to the game, nor would I be able to count the amount of times one of them expressed gratitude for finding the game.  It became their passion.  Their names are not listed anywhere on that course, and unless you ran into them personally you might never know of the work they did, you would only see the results when you played the course.  The Bruces are what makes disc golf wonderful.

In the early days of disc golf it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the majority of the players were not just consumers of the game they also contributed to help grow it.  Pre-pandemic it seemed like disc golf grew on a one to one conversion.  That is to say you liked the game so you introduced one person.  That person liked it so they introduced one, and so on.  In the last 2 years numbers everywhere exploded.   It was the perfect blend of outdoor, physically distanced, and cost effective activity that allowed so many people to try it for the first time.  With that explosion came a lot of pure ‘consumers’ of the game.  People who just bought discs, showed up and played without joining a club or feeling the need to ‘grow the game’.  This is a good thing.  Projects now routinely come across my desk that have budgets 10 times bigger (or more) then the courses I installed 7 years ago.  This too is a good thing.  With these new opportunities comes new challenges.  How important is it to still have local club members come out and move brush?  How do we make sure there is a place on the course for the group of 9 who want to play 4 hour rounds together every Saturday morning?  How do we give our young athletes a pathway to making disc golf a potential career option?  How do we keep the soul of disc golf alive for all of us who use it in a different way?  My answer to all of this is to remind everyone that disc golf thrives when we play.

My desire to write and share this article is not to scare people into thinking the game that we love is being taken away from us, nor is it to suggest that all disc golfers must do mandatory free labour once a week at their local course or else lose their right to play.  I simply wish to point out how beautiful it is that our game has the unique ability to have so many people involved in each part of the process and how accessibility to all needs to be constant no matter what heights this game soars too.