The Daily Heller: Will Disc Golf Become an American Pastime?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

What is disc golf? And why, as The New York Times recently reported, is it growing in popularity? Like Pickleball, it is an outdoor sport that is thriving thanks to COVID. With similar rules to traditional golf, players use a variety of plastic discs (like frisbees, but heavier) that are thrown down fairways, and eventually into a goal. The main objective, as in traditional golf, is to complete each “hole” with the fewest amount of strokes.

The brainchild of “Steady” Ed Headrick, disc golf was born in Huntington Beach, Pasadena, in the mid 1970s. (There is so much more to learn about the sport’s inception and growth; check out the Professional Disc Golf Association for a detailed history.)

Aaron Knickerbocker, a landscape gardener in Northwest Connecticut, has become so impassioned by the sport that he’s devoted a large part of his time to clearing out land, managing invasive plants and designing courses in the verdant countryside. I asked him to talk about the phenomenon that’s a grassroots alternative to the country club experience.

Photos courtesy Aaron Knickerbocker

How’d you get involved with the sport, and why did you begin designing courses?
I unfortunately only found out about disc golf for the first time through friends in about 2014. One day I was asked to go “Frolfing” (frisbee-golfing, both of which are incorrect terms for the sport but which casual players sometimes use). My friend took me to their little three-acre course they made at their parents’ home, lent me discs to try, and it was on from there. I was instantly hooked. Within a year or two, I heard news of a volunteer project to install a disc golf course in Canaan, CT, where I live. I found out more info and I showed up to help on the first volunteer day. I started to care about the project greatly and helped every opportunity I could. After some time passed, the person who began and ran the project decided they didn’t want to do volunteer work anymore and abandoned the project. I had the tools and skills and design prowess needed, so I took over the lead. The initial design was very rushed and uninspired, so I redesigned the large majority of the course, and over the course of five years (thousands of volunteer hours), completed the course. The success of that course taught me that I was able to render a valuable service to the public, and my disc golf course designing and building continued from there. 

How different is it from golf?
Disc golf courses can be in the forest, in open field areas, and anywhere in between. Wooded courses are known to be “technical,” as you are throwing through corridors of trees and there is often elevation change. Open courses are also known as “bomber” courses, as players have the opportunity to focus on distance throws. Open courses are still technical as there is often “out of bounds” areas, elevation change, possibly bodies of water to throw around or over, and various trees, bushes and other natural bunkers. Some of the best courses have a good mixture of wooded and open holes. The main differences in disc golf courses from traditional ball golf courses are that they can use forest areas; there is no end to the variances and creativity because of the open-ended ability to use so many different kinds of natural areas, and most importantly, a disc golf course causes much less natural disruption. Ball golf courses are landscaped and manicured to a degree that they are almost useless to native natural life. Disc golf course have much less environmental impact, and in some cases, a disc golf course installation can save the environment, which was the case with my course in Canaan. The installation process involved years of extensive invasive plant management to save the forest from imploding in on itself under the overgrowth of vines, poison ivy and prickers. 

How do you design a course?
My design process doesn’t involve blueprints or landscape design drawings (although some of the biggest higher-end courses may have such things). I establish the property boundaries and then just familiarize myself with the land. Depending on the size of the available parcel and the characteristics of the property, I generally try to decide what my intention for the course is early. (Small and simple for recreational locals? Large and challenging to attract touring professionals? Fun and epic to create a destination-worthy course for amateurs to take a day trip to?) When the intention is clear, I walk the property and discern “course flow,” how the course will wind through the property. If possible I like the front nine to come back toward the parking area again before the back nine heads back out into the depths of the land so players can take a break, access their vehicle, refill water, have lunch, etc. Alvord Park DGC is a perfect example of this design. As you work on the course flow, you start siting disc golf holes. I use common property marking flags, tree tape and wooden stakes to mark out potential disc golf holes as I pass through. Consideration is made to not plan holes that require removing large healthy trees or disturbing nature and the environment in a negative way. After a rough design is complete, there is a long period of play-testing and making tweaks. I often let the public participate and chime in with feedback. Once the public and I are fully confident in the design, the course can be installed.

Do you have a special kind of layout?
The four courses that I’ve designed that have been or are being installed all vary in design greatly. Each design is different based on the qualities of its individual property, and what the intention for the course is. The design I am the most proud of is at Alvord Park DGC in Torrington, CT. It is set on 64 acres of land that is shared by a volunteer-run BMX bike park, and soccer fields. Alvord Park is right off of exit 45 on Route 8, making it very easy to access, and it has the parking needed in order to be able to host large high-level tournaments in the future. Because of all this, my intention was to design a long, challenging course that would give professional players a worthy track to compete on. I am still in the last finishing stages of completing it, but after five years, it is exactly as I’d have hoped to see it come out. It has been by far the most time-consuming, challenging project of my life, but so worth it. I am also making a “short” layout that will make it accessible to recreational players of all skill levels. 

You are a landscaper—is there a lot of gardening involved in this?
The skill from my career, aside from design, that has been most helpful in disc golf course creation has been invasive plant management. It was entirely instrumental in the creation and preservation of Camp Brook DGC, Alvord Park DGC and my little private course on my land (my entire property needed advanced invasive plant management to be useful at all). I have done minor horticultural/landscaping projects like tree plantings, stone steps, etc. The gardening aspect is much higher on my private course. There are beautiful gardens and plantings throughout. The land is turning into a little paradise!

You’ve designed four disc golf courses, taking up countless hours. What is the fascination?
I have indeed spent thousands and thousands of hours, as well as thousands of my own dollars on volunteer disc golf course design and installation. When asked why, the simplest answer is “Because I can.” I have the necessary design skills, tools, and work ethic to do it. It’s very rewarding, as it gives me a sense of purpose, and it has created quite a following. I am passionate about my courses and about the design aspect, and I’m very proud of my work. As disc golf is a growing sport, certain communities would never get a course unless someone was willing to head it up on a volunteer basis.

I can see the appeal of a communal gathering, but is disc golf projected as an ESPN kind of world champion sport?
In short, yes. ESPN has featured disc golf aces (a hole in one) on the SportsCenter “plays of the week” segment for many years now. Within the last few years, one of the ESPN networks has aired the DGPC (Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship). So it’s on its way. The overall governing organization is the PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) and currently the Disc Golf Pro Tour is the elite professional tour. The DGPT is making huge strides forward annually. Money is starting to flood into the sport, players are getting major sponsorships, and some of the first multimillion dollar player contracts have been signed in the last few years. Disc golf has been known to be one of, if not the fastest-growing sport in the world for some time now, but this elevated drastically during the pandemic. New players flooded the sport, as it is a healthy way to safely spend time with your friends outdoors.