Cover Story

COVER: Disc golf grows in popularity, provides ‘healthy addiction’ for players

GhostTownBy Jennifer Pund
If you’re looking for a fun time and some moderate exercise while being outside with friends, disc golf can be the answer. Similar to traditional golf, the object is to get a disc in a specially designed goal using the fewest number of throws.

Although popular as an underground sport for decades, Colorado has seen an increase of interest in disc golf in recent years creating a demand for public and private courses that provide hours of entertainment for all ages and abilities.

Ed Headrick, a pioneer of the sport and regarded at the “father of disc golf,” coined and trademarked the term ‘Disc Golf’ as well as patented the disc pole hole, the first target to incorporate chains and a basket on a pole. He designed and installed the first standardized target course and founded the Recreational Disc Golf Association for family oriented play and the Professional Disc Golf Association  for competitive play, to which he eventually gave full rights to the trademarked term.

The PDGA is the governing body for the sport and says disc golf can be played from school age to old age, making it “one of the greatest lifetime fitness sports available.” Because disc golf is so easy to learn, no one is excluded, players merely match their pace to their capabilities and proceed from there. Being a sport of precision and accuracy, the group also reminds participants that disc golf shares the same joys and frustrations as traditional golf, including sinking a long putt or hitting a tree half way down the fairway.

Disc golf has seen tremendous growth in popularity over the last decade. The game’s exact beginnings are somewhat disputed, but what is agreed upon is that although disc golf took a while to catch on, it’s now a popular activity contributing the rise of courses and players all across the nation.

Front Range residents and visitors have a choice of several challenging, technical and unique courses to play close to home in the mountains. There are, of course, numerous options in the flats, too, but without many trees, hills or other obstacles, most courses are completely different than those found on a mountain.

ghosttown2Brian O’Donnell, owner of Ghost Town Disc Golf in Russell Gulch, was introduced to the sport at an adult night school program in Nederland. “It was 1975 and to get out of the house one night a week during the winter, a friend and I signed up for the Frisbee class together. It was taught by a free-style champion living around the area at the time. She was one of those, behind-the-head and under-the-leg, kind of performers,” O’Donnell said. On the last night of the class, the group went outside Nederland High School to play what the instructor called Frisbee Golf. “I immediately went back to the cabin I owned on South Beaver Creek Road. [The area] adjoined the National Forest, so we instantly put in a course for us and our friends.”

At the time, the beginnings of what is now disc golf was called Frisbee Golf and there were no baskets. The game consisted of hitting a targeted tree or other object a long distance away. “Today, it’s a different animal. When we put in that course we were using Frisbees and then along came the disc. A Frisbee and a disc are completely different.”

The sport has progressed tremendously since its inception in the 1970s. The throwing objects have evolved from toy Frisbees to smaller, more precise discs that vary from drivers to mid-range, to putters, all designed with specific attributes to make them either fly longer, faster or straighter for different situations. Most serious disc golfers have an array of discs for various shots, like a traditional golf player’s set of  clubs.

O’Donnell purchased several mining claims in Russell Gulch in 1999 and, being an avid disc golfer, immediately put in a target course. At the time, there were no private courses or standard equipment, so he constructed 15 homemade baskets and in 2003 put in a complete course on his property around the “ghost town” buildings in Russell Gulch. “Private courses are becoming more and more frequent nationwide, but we were one of the very first ones,” he said.

“I’d like to say we were cutting edge in Colorado. There was one other course like this when we opened and then not long after [we opened], people started to see our success, more courses started to open,” O’Donnell explained. “I think people were watching us wondering, like we were wondering, are people going to drive all the way up here and give us money to play our disc golf course?”

ghosttownclubhouseThe answer was “yes.” He now has all professional equipment and a club house with a pool table that sells discs, cold drinks, merchandise and more. On summer weekends, the parking lot, drive and dirt road out front is packed with cars filled with groups of disc golf enthusiasts on vacation, friends wanting to get out and locals from neighboring towns.

“The people that play are fanatical about it. Like you see guys at the airport with their golf clubs, now you see a guy with his bag of discs going on vacation and playing the local courses.” He explained that locals can choose to drop $30 at a bar or “get a six-pack and come up to the Ghost Town and get two and a half hours of entertainment,” he said. “So, we get a lot of locals and seasonal workers up here, too.”

The ghost town aspect creates a unique playing course, but the tight and narrow fairways with the sweeping views of the Indians Peaks are what brings players back. “The ghost town itself is the most unique part of it, but we are a very technical course because of the tight out-of-bounds and it plays through narrow fairways in the woods,” he said.

The course is considered moderately hilly and wooded with the first nine holes running along a hard-rock claim with groomed pine and aspen trees. The back nine are more open and pass by two original Victorian-style homes and the ruins of a mill site. It ends at a placer claim that runs along the creek. “We play in our property only and have ‘out of bounds’ on everything, so it’s vary narrow,” O’Donnell explained. “The claims form a donut, and you play around the entire donut, so it’s tight.”

The disc golf season ends at Ghost Town with an annual tournament where golfers have to be  turned away due to demand. “This year we are moving the tournament deeper into September because so many people who play here frequently and want to play [in the tournament], can’t due to the Phish concerts.” O’Donnell said. “Even with the people who can’t play, I still have to turn people away when we max out at 32 to 36 teams.”

Another option in the area includes a course at the Easter Seals’ Rocky Mountain Village in Empire. The camp opens it’s disc golf course in the camp’s off season, usually closing around late May and reopening to the public in late August. The 27-hole course starts across fishing ponds and through aspen groves then up and down through narrow pine fairways. The camp also has a 9-hole wheel chair accessible course.

Established in 2009, Winter Park Resort’s disc golf opens in mid-June, depending on snowfall and is very hilly and moderately wooded. Located at the top of the Arrow Chairlift, the course has moderate elevation changes and can take between two and two and a half hours to play the 20-hole course. When you are finished, take the alpine slide back down, which can be included in the fee.

YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park offers a challenging 18-hole disc golf course that takes players around its property while testing their skills. Disc golf discs can be rented for a $10 cash deposit. A $15 day pass required for non-YMCA members, includes access to other complex amenities.

Other nearby mountain courses include Lake Dillon Course in Dillon, Peak One in Frisco and Copper Mountain Resort in Summit County; Grand Park in Fraser, East Grand Middle School in Granby and YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch and Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash in Grand County; and Beaver Ranch in Conifer, Phantom Falls, Bucksnort, Eagles Vista and Phantom Falls Mini in Pine and Bailey Disk Golf Course in south Jefferson County.

When driving mountain roads, don’t be surprised to see a lone disc golf basket in yards and parks, like the one John Thompson owner of Mountain Man Outdoor Store, installed in Nederland’s Chipeta Park. The goal was installed for practice and to inspire community members to get acquainted with the growing sport.

When planning a disc golf outing, remember to call ahead to make reservations at your course of choice, if required. Wherever the game is played, courtesy is always appreciated. Be sure not to distract other players including holding a shot until other players are clear, pack out what you pack in to help keep the courses litter free, and expect to help other players search for lost or mis-thrown discs.

Besides the love of the game, O’Donnell like most others,  plays because it gets him out of the house with moderate exercise in nature and “its a healthy addiction,” he said.

Ghost Town Disc Golf
18 holes (+1)
190 Russell Gulch Road, Russell Gulch
Call for reservations: 303-582-3083,
$5 for one round, $7 for two

Rocky Mountain Easter Seals Camp  
27 Holes
2644 Alvarado Road, Empire
Call for reservations: 303-569-2333 or 303-946-6149
$5 donation to the Camp

YMCA of the Rockies
18 holes
2515 Tunnel Road, Estes Park • 888-613-9622
$15 day pass required for non-YMCA members, includes access to other complex amenities

Winter Park Resort
20 Holes
100 Winter Park Dr., Winter Park • 303-316-1564
$10 for Disc Golf lift access (valid on the day of purchase), or $15 to include alpine slide

Photos of Ghost Town Course by Jeffrey V. Smith; Originally published in the July 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly

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