Western Pennsylvania got a taste of the rapidly growing sport’s potential economic benefits when the world championships were hosted north of Pittsburgh in 2015. A lot of participants stayed in Cranberry Township hotels, but the township itself didn’t have a course, and that caused officials to make plans for one of the world’s longest, which is now scheduled to open this spring.
One of the longest disc golf courses in the world will soon open at North Boundary Park in Cranberry Township, near Pittsburgh, Pa., reported 90.5 WESA (Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station).
The new course is the product of a rapidly growing sport, but playing it won’t be just another walk in the park, WESA reported. In fact, participants will end up trekking through four miles of forest and grassy fields, plus several hundred feet of elevation gain as they snake their way up and down a hillside.
“Yeah, it’s a workout,” course designer J. Gary Dropcho said on a recent afternoon devoted to building a retaining wall around one of the holes.
The sport’s also pretty fun, as many people realize when they pick up a disc for the first time.
Disc golf is like regular golf, but instead of whacking a ball with a club, players take a few quick steps across a tee to build momentum. They toss a disc resembling a Frisbee, though it’s smaller and heavier and can travel further, WESA reported. The goal is to get the disc to land in a metal basket.
Playing a round is generally free, though a disc costs about $15, WESA reported.
The number of courses nationwide has tripled to 6,000 over the past decade, according to data from the Professional Disc Golf Association. The one in Butler County, Pa., set to open in the spring, requires players to shoot across a whopping 10,700 feet in total length, WESA reported.
Participants will need to aim carefully when playing the course, so that trees don’t cut their “drives” short. And along the way, they’re likely to encounter wildlife.
“We see tons of deer running through here; we’ve seen hawks, we’ve seen turkey,” Dropcho told WESA.
Pittsburgh-area disc golfers consider Dropcho a legend, WESA reported. He’s played for decades and designed multiple courses with his company, Grip It and Rip It Disc Golf. He’s even in the sport’s hall of fame at the International Disc Golf Center in Appling, Ga.
Dropcho has seen the game change a lot since Pittsburgh’s first course went in at Schenley Park in 1988. Discs didn’t fly as far in those days, and players weren’t so skilled.
“The courses are trying to keep up,” Dropcho told WESA. “We are trying to stay ahead of them, but I’m predicting the top players will come here and they’ll probably shoot 10 under par, even though this course is way bigger and longer than anything else we’ve done. They’re just that good.”
Dropcho got to work designing the new course by spending a lot of time walking through North Boundary Park’s woods with a topographical map, WESA reported.
“Some holes are very obvious,” he said as he pointed to the first tee, where players shoot over a grassy area and around a bend into a group of mature trees.
Other holes on the new course were harder to fit into the puzzle. Dropcho knew he needed to account for a variety of shots so that players aren’t stuck with too many lengthy par-5 holes back-to-back, WESA reported.
“I didn’t want to punish players too much by having them walk up the hill all the time,” Dropcho said. “I knew there were going to be some holes like hole 3, where it’s straight up the whole way, and then everybody would be taking my name in vain when they play it.”
But players are rewarded for the climb with downhill shots where discs soar, assuming they don’t smack into a branch or a trunk.
Dropcho’s partner on the project, Doug Cloutier, is the Geographic Information Systems administrator for Cranberry Township and an avid disc golfer, WESA reported. Cloutier hopped in a cart to show off the course, driving up the hole 3 hill, which he once calculated at a 25 percent slope.
On the other side of the peak lies the basket for hole 17. It’s elevated, so it’s tricky to sink a putt. Cloutier doesn’t want to miss because his disc will barrel down a drop-off on the other side, WESA reported.
“That’s what we refer to as a ‘death putt,’” he said.
Cloutier then tossed a disc that bounced off the basket and rolled down the hill until it got caught up in some brush.
“If you’re down there, it’s not only far away, but you’ve got to put in a lot of ‘umph’ to get it back up here,” he said.
The local disc golf community hopes another course—particularly a tough one like North Boundary Park—will attract major tournaments, WESA reported.
Western Pennsylvania got a taste for the top level of play in 2015 when the world championships took place at other courses north of Pittsburgh, WESA reported.
“The excitement level when the worlds came was through the roof,” recalled Lori Merriman, chair of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Flying Disc, which promotes the sport throughout the region.
The area’s existing disc golf courses have hosted many tournaments, but the 2015 worlds were the most prestigious to make their way to the area, WESA reported.
“We had so many spectators come through just to see the top pros,” Merriman said.
A lot of participants stayed in Cranberry Township hotels, but the township itself didn’t have a course. That caused officials to take stock, WESA reported. They identified a parcel of undeveloped land at North Boundary alongside a water park, playground and soccer fields, and the Cranberry Township Community Chest jumped in to raise funds for the project.
Parks and Recreation Director Pete Geis said tourism is one benefit of creating a course, WESA reported.
“It can definitely bring pretty significant money to our community,” he said. “The direct impact for us, though, is more people using our parks, getting people outside, getting people on the trails.”
A new nature trail will weave through the course, WESA reported. Lorin Meeder, the project’s manager with the township, said its placement is deliberate, so spectators can move about the course to view different holes during a tournament.
The region’s record rainfall in 2018 caused some delay with construction, and although the tees and baskets are in and the trail’s carved out, the course is still pretty rough in some areas.
“We’re trying to get it all put together the end of April or the beginning of May,” Meeder told WESA. “We want to make sure that we have all our signage in and our trails marked.”
One of the last steps is to get to work on a learn-to-play course set aside from the rest, WESA reported. It will feature six short ADA-accessible holes and will likely host clinics for kids and new players.
“We don’t want them coming out here and trying the championship course, throwing their disc off in the woods and losing it and thinking, ‘I hate this game, this is dumb,’” Dropcho said. “We want them to have a good experience and learn the right way.”