Over the River, Through the Woods, Past Grandmother’s House We Throw: An advocacy for less “Championship Level” Courses
As with every article I write I like to give my readers a frame of reference for who I am and why I’m writing this article. First let me begin by saying I am not a Pro Disc Golfer. I don’t even compete in higher amateur levels. So why do I feel the need to write about disc golf? Simply because I have a passion and platform for the sport. So now that I’ve given this perspective I want to spend this article addressing a concern I have for the sport going forward. That concern is an increasing emphasis on the perceived difficulty of new courses and designing courses that are “Championship Level.”
This concern could certainly be from a sampling bias of my own making. In Northeast Indiana and its associated tri-state area where I play there are a number of 18+ hole courses that each host a variety of tournaments. The gem of this, is a tournament that has been played for over 30 years and is currently a pro level A-tier. In addition a course that is currently under construction is supposed to pair with this to give the local area two different high caliber courses. Additionally this past week we saw Eric McCabe’s Jones Supreme thoroughly challenge the best players in the world. While I personally enjoyed watching the pros be challenged in this way, it also raised concerns for me about the future of the sport.
So now that you know where my concern is coming from let me tell you what I’m not concerned about. I don’t think it’s a bad thing these courses exist nor am I criticizing the designers. In fact I would love to feel comfortable enough to take on these monster courses and others like the BEast. I think these courses and their continued creation is important for the sport going forward. They provide a healthy level of competition for players of advanced and intermediate caliber and can provide some fun and exciting challenges for all players. However, I’m worried that I see so much emphasis on the objectively difficult courses. I’m also not advocating that the par on these courses be softened to make scores look better. These courses are designed to be difficult and playing them well should be a challenge and an accomplishment.
What does concern me however is that these courses are being designed by and for the top level players. While this is good for the growth of top end talent it is a concerning sign for the growth of new players. Research has shown that kids stop playing sports because they aren’t fun. In addition kids leave a sport because of pressures to perform and their own perceived ability at the sport (1). While these things apply specifically to kids, I think it is a good lesson to apply to adults too. I took approximately a two year hiatus from the sport after starting because I didn’t enjoy playing by myself. Why was this: I wasn’t having fun because, quite frankly, I sucked. Losing discs, having to play impossibly difficult lies, and hoping to score a par during a round destroys confidence and makes the sport, simply put, not fun.
What does this have to do with course design? While course design might not be the end all be all for encouraging the growth of the sport it can play a huge role in transitioning people interested in trying disc golf into disc golfers. If a majority of the courses around a person are designed for intermediate and advanced skill level players, where are novice and beginner players supposed to grow and develop their skills and confidence. On the most recent episode of the “Half in the Bag Disc Golf Podcast” my co-hosts and I talked about what it would be like to try to play EMac’s Jones Supreme. While we would enjoy the experience, even the most talented of us has no delusions that we would play well on the course (2). Now take that into the context of someone who is not a disc golf enthusiast like the hosts of a disc golf podcast. Yes, there is the possibility that the course might be fun for a beginner, but more than likely they would find it impossibly challenging, incredibly frustrating, and downright intimidating. Obviously, this is an extreme example. Most local clubs don’t have an elite series championship style course designed by a world champion to challenge the best players in the world. But I’d argue the point still stands. Even after playing regularly for a couple of years, the top courses in my area still intimidate me. But bringing a point like this up to the local club Facebook group when they bemoan that more people don’t enjoy playing the course is akin to blasphemy.
The continued growth and development of demanding courses such as Jones Supreme, WR Jackson, The BEast, Eagle’s Crossing and many others is important to the growth of disc golf as a competitive professional sport. However these courses strengthen the top end of the talent pool and do nothing for the bottom tiers. It is important that course designers don’t just look at what will challenge them, but also how they can utilize space to truly grow the game. This is done by designing courses that encourage youth and beginner players to pick up the game and keep playing. This includes focusing on courses that are partially open or have generous fairways, courses without significant hazards and courses that are not overwhelmingly long. These three components allow for fast paced play, have low likelihood of discouraging players with errant shots, and allow them to still feel accomplished when scoring well. Additionally while these courses may be designed for beginners it is still possible that more advanced players can get something out of these courses. They may be ideal for working on shot shaping, form work in the case of putter rounds, or even putting in work on specific types of shots while also not risking too great of punishment from poor shots.
Courses that are built for newer, younger or less advanced players will strengthen the depth and breadth of the pool of disc golf talent at the recreational level. This is important as it not only expands disc golf as a recreational sport for people of all ages and abilities, but may also provide a gateway to future higher level players as a starting point. The rise of “Championship Level Courses” is exciting for the future of the sport from a competitive standpoint. Expecting the game to grow by providing more disc golf versions of Augusta National Golf Club is failing to set up the sport for success in the future. Thus, it is my opinion that, while it’s important to see courses that force you to throw over the river, through the woods and past grandmother’s house; it’s just as important that we see as many or more courses that aren’t designed to make Paul McBeth sweat the cut.
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