Disc Golf Book Excerpt: The environmental impact of disc golf vs. ball golf


In this excerpt from a soon-to-be-released disc golf book targeting non-disc golfers, the considerable environmental impact of ball golf course development and maintenance is contrasted with the relatively invisible footprint of most disc golf courses. Consider the resources demanded by a ball golf course located in the middle of a desert wasteland. A disc golf course on the same piece of land, on the other hand, would involve nothing except strategically-placed targets and tees. Virtually no manipulation of the landscape whatsoever. And no watering.

I hope you enjoy the read, follow the links and post comments below.

As shown on this shot from the fairway of hole #3 at Pinto Lake DGC in Watsonville, CA (site of the 2011 PDGA World Championships), disc golf can be played on severe slopes and any type of ground cover- in this case bare dirt.
As shown on this shot from the fairway of hole #3 at Pinto Lake DGC in Watsonville, CA (site of the 2011 PDGA World Championships), disc golf can be played on severe slopes and any type of ground cover- in this case bare dirt with a severe right-to-left slope.

The Environmental Impact of Golf

Traditional golf attracts criticism from environmentalists for two primary reasons: water and pesticides. Prodigious amounts of both are used each week by U.S. golf courses to keep fairways and greens lush, green, and free of weeds. The more radical line of thinking is that the environmental impact on such large areas for the benefit – and recreational benefit at that – of so few is unconscionable. Even a good percentage of golf enthusiasts polled on the subject of golf and the environment tend to agree that course owners and greenskeepers need to modify maintenance practices.

As part of a comprehensive report on golf and the environment in 2008 written by John Barton, Golf Digest magazine conducted a survey with the purpose of determining the opinions of golfers as compared to the general population. When asked if Pesticides used on a golf course creates a potential health hazard for humans, 40 percent of the golfer group responded yes (compared to 66 percent of the general population group). That says two things: Two-thirds of the general population think that the pesticides used on traditional golf courses are likely hazardous and even close to half of all golfers are willing to admit it; yet their reasons for wanting to play the game are so compelling that they don’t care. They’ll take their chances!

To the poll question “Should the amount of water used on golf courses only be enough to keep the grass alive, not make it green and lush?” 44 percent of golfers said yes. Pay attention to this one not only to the reply (most golfers still want their course green and lush, whatever it takes) but to the particular wording of the question. ‘ . . . enough to keep the grass alive . . . ” How much is that, exactly? And why is keeping the grass alive necessary if it isn’t going to be esthetically pleasing? Dead grass comes back every Spring.

The answer to the first question is hard to nail down, as the difference between ‘alive’ and ‘lush and green’ is entirely subjective. But the answer to the second question is more illuminating and goes directly to why golf will always be a concern – and, therefore, a barrier – to certain environmentalists.

Thick grass, mowed (emissions from maintenance equipment are another concern of environmentalist) at a consistent height is essential to the game of golf because players hit the ball from wherever it lands. They expect a reward for keeping the ball in the fairway in the form of a clean shot at the ball as it lies atop the perfect grass. And greens, where players putt the ball at the hole, are supposed to be kept so short and uniform that the ball will roll straight and smoothly with a slight tap of the club. To get a better idea of how important this manipulation of the land is to the game of traditional golf, think of your favorite natural open space park. Now imagine people trying to play golf there, hitting their balls from amongst the dirt, brush, tall native grasses or bushes and clustered trees. Not to mention finding the ball after each shot.

In the Golf Digest story mentioned above, five different people with different perspectives on golf and the environment were interviewed. One of them was a noted environmentalist named Brent Blackwelder, who is also an avid golfer. According to Barton, Blackwelder is one of America’s most prominent environmental advocates and has testified before Congress more than 100 times. He is also past president of Friends of the Earth and now president emeritus of the same.

Blackwelder answered asked a number of questions, but his response to the final one was the most illuminating in the context of this book. After touching on specific issues like pesticides, energy use, and genetically-engineered grasses, Barton asked, “What would golf be like in a perfect world?” Blackwelder’s reply:

“You’d be playing on an organic course. The maintenance equipment would be charged by solar power. Recycled water would be used for irrigation, and used efficiently and sparingly. There’d be a great variety of wildlife habitats. This idea that you’ve got to make everything look like a miniature golf course with a green carpet is crazy. It’s the same problem that we see with these lawn fetishes—all the water and chemicals and energy that are used for a lawn that just sits there. So let’s get back to the rugged qualities of the game. People ought to read the history of golf.

“We’ve not been very good stewards of the earth as a species. We should be a blessing to the rest of life, not such a curse. The whole idea of living with and appreciating and understanding our surroundings is something we need more of. We have this incredible nature-deficit disorder worldwide. We’re sitting all day in front of a computer in an office and not getting out for a walk in the woods. Golf is a great opportunity to be outdoors. It should be a fun, interesting, great walk out there; a healthful, salubrious experience.”

The utopian golf experience that Blackwelder describes as “golf in a perfect world” is already a reality, and it’s even better from an environmentalist’s perspective than he’s imagining. It may not be the golf he grew up playing, with clubs and balls on 150 acres of heavily manipulated land. But it can be played on virtually every type of terrain with hardly any alteration required, and zero watering or pesticides. As this book aims to demonstrate indisputably, players get the full golf experience – the mental challenge, the constant risk/reward equation to solve  – while in an entirely natural, native, organic environment.

They may not realize it, yet, the growing number of people like Blackwelder who see great value in the game of golf but also feel a strong obligation to minimize human impact on the planet.

Disc golf is the Utopian golf experience.

It requires one-third the land of a ball golf course, and rather than being carved out of a local natural habitat, a disc golf course can completely conform to it. No watering and no pesticides needed.


“Okay, everybody take a knee!” (and putt)

The DeLaveaga Disc Golf Club is hosting a 145-player C-tier event in December called the Faultline Charity Pro-Am. The tournament director, your truly, wanted to include a nice, unique prize for the person in each division that carded the fewest bogey strokes and opted for a great new disc golf product called a Sew Fly, made by a company of the same name.

Sew, er, I mean, so what is a Sew Fly? It’s a round pillow of sorts that is made of tough, waterproof material on the outside, but filled with plenty of soft padding on the inside. It’s primary purpose is to serve as a knee pad to keep pants clean and knees protected, but the Sew Fly also flies remarkably well and is perfect for a game of catch.

All Sew Fly products can be customized with a great deal of detail. Shown here are 'Small' Fly's with the DeLaveaga Disc Golf Club logo embroidered in a variety of different colors.
All Sew Fly products can be customized with a great deal of detail. Shown here are ‘Small’ Fly’s with the DeLaveaga Disc Golf Club logo embroidered in a variety of different colors.

Much like the Sew Fly, this post will serve double duty as both a product review and instructional post. I set out to put the Sew Fly through its paces against a very wet and muddy DeLaveaga, and it occurred to me that I’ve never dedicated a post to the benefits of getting in a lower throwing position when the situation calls for it. More on that shortly.

When my Sew Flys arrived in the mail, I naturally tested the flight characteristics. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I tried it out by playing catch with one of my kids in the house. The verdict: these things can really fly! The design provides a decent amount of float and glide, and hyzers and anhyzers can be crafted as with any other flying disc. The larger Sew Fly flies the best, not unlike a golf disc compared to a mini. They’re soft and light enough to not dent, scratch or smash, but they are heavy enough to send knick-knacks scattering or knock over a glass of grape juice. No that didn’t happen to us, but as my wife anxiously pointed out, it could have.

Next up was the test of it’s more utilitarian function of disc golf knee pad.

Once again the Sew Fly performed the job admirably. The padding is more than adequate to absorb whatever it’s sitting on top of, and the bottom is made of an extra tough material that seems like it will hold up for a long time without tearing. Also, there is no way moisture is penetrating the bottom much less reaching the player’s knee. It does everything you’d want a knee pad to do.

I was pretty excited when I heard about the Sew Fly because I throw from one or both knees, my butt, and on rare occasions my back whenever a lower release point can help me execute a shot. I sometimes put a towel down to kneel on, but usually don’t bother- especially when the course is dry. As a result I’ve suffered painful jabs from rocks and sticks many times. I plan to use my Sew Fly all the time now.

Let’s talk about why I feel so strongly about getting down and dirty (and I don’t have to get dirty now!) on the course.

Throwing from closer to the ground can open up a shot and allow a player to obtain more loft. which in turn makes it easier to throw an accurate layup shot.
Throwing from closer to the ground can open up a shot and allow a player to obtain more loft. which in turn makes it easier to throw an accurate layup shot.

The difference in a typical release point when kneeling is about a foot or so compared to a normal stance. Those 12  inches certainly make a big difference when trying to hit a low gap right in front of you, which is the scenario under which most players throw from a knee. But I’ll get down and dirty pretty much any time I’m faced with a low ceiling, because the lower release point allows me to get more air under the shot and therefore throw it harder with a lower risk of hitting the ceiling. By throwing from lower, my angle of attack is much more comfortable. Those 12 inches make a bigger difference the longer the required shot is.

One of the best examples of this advantage is when I’m throwing a low skip shot to get under continuous low foliage (branches and such). If I throw standing up, the disc is flying downward toward the ground, and energy is wasted when it hits from that downward angle. If I throw from a knee, the disc can truly skip and lose hardly any momentum, like a stone skimming and skipping across water.

The same principle applies when throwing an air shot. The lower release point and flat or even upward trajectory in essence buys me more room for the disc to fly. This in turn allows me to get more touch on a shot, preventing those ‘blow-bys’ that result from throwing the disc too hard when trying to clear a low gap.

Two thing to remember when throwing from a knee or two knees, or a sitting or kneeling position: Find a way to re-establish your center of gravity so you can maintain your balance; and try to get a good, solid foundation. The two really go hand-in-hand. When throwing from one knee, what you do with the other leg matters quite a bit. If your off-foot is behind your marker there isn’t much to think about, but if you are kneeling directly behind your marker it usually works best to splay your other leg behind you on the same line as your intended throw or kneel with both knees. The advantage of the two-knee approach is a superior, sturdy foundation, but doing so will likely limit power a little. Therefore it works best on shorter shots.

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Sometimes I need to get even lower than on my knees, and I’ll actually sit behind my mini. In most cases I’ll sit indian style as it solves the issue of what to do with my legs and gives me a very solid foundation. The larger Sew Fly is (for me) just big enough to sit on without contacting the ground.

My overall assessment of the Sew Fly is that it works great as both a kneepad and a catch disc. I personally prefer the smaller one for use on the course as it’s easier to store, but the larger one is better for playing catch. The small one flies fine too, but is harder to catch. These make great gifts for the disc golfer that already has everything disc golf-related. Check out all the ways they can be customized at http://www.sewflyoriginals.com/

Playing always trumps watching; Pinto Lakes manicured fairways

As a kid, I remember watching football games on TV. I’d be interested to watch my heroes perform, for sure, but when halftime came around I was much more excited about actually getting out to the street and doing it myself.

I think the same holds true for disc golf- or for that matter any sport that an average person can play well into middle age and even beyond. I love the fact that Discgolfplanet.tv enables me to see the top pros (especially Nate Doss, for whom I have a friendship and hometown-based rooting interest) compete in the top events as they happen. But if it’s a choice between watching them or heading out to Pinto Lake to play a competitive round myself . . . it’s not a difficult decision. Doing beats watching every time.

I mention this because it’s a truism that applies directly to what I believe are well intentioned but misguided efforts to introduce disc golf to the masses that have yet to discover its charms and benefits.

Pick any sport that people watch en masse – either live or on TV – and they fall into one of two categories: Either they have spectator appeal because they are difficult and/or dangerous, like cliff diving, downhill ski racing, or (people DO watch it) figure skating; or, on the other side of the spectrum, it’s a sport we can all play, or have played at some point in our lives, like baseball, soccer, football, basketball, tennis, or . . . golf.

In the case of the second category – into which disc golf falls – there needs to be a critical mass of people that play the sport before there can be any hope of it being attractive as a spectator sport, since the only reason we’d watch such a sport is the fact that we identify with it – however remotely – as participants. Yet the overwhelming majority of disc golf promoters seem to be approaching their promotion with an exactly opposite approach. They keep trying to gain major sponsorship for our sport which is neither dangerous or difficult, in the hope that that will then generate the attention and/or funds required to get it broadcast on television, which will then make it appeal to the masses. Puzzling, no?

Speaking of Pinto Lake (I spoke about it in the 2nd paragraph of this post, if you didn’t notice), that course is now my clear and away my favorite in Santa Cruz county- despite (and in part because of) the aggravation that several of the holes routinely bring. The upper meadow holes are now being mowed regularly, thanks to a donated riding mower and an obsessive course patron saint. The fairways are carved out of natural grasses and brush, and each one is bordered with OB markers and rope on each side. They are as pleasing to the eye as they are displeasing to the score. For disc golfer on the Central Coast they offer quite a different type of challenge. Check it out:

Pinto Lake: 18 holes of (choose your own hyperbolic statement)

Played Pinto yesterday for the first time since the “upper” nine holes were added, to make 18 holes and 8000-plus feet, not including a couple short walks between holes and one longer one (to get to the upper holes). Here are a few first impressions:

  • The new holes are not the front or back nine, but instead inserted between hole 4 and what used to be hole 5, but is now 14.
  • The new holes are the antithesis of the previously extant nine holes, which are filled with trees, severely-sloped, extremely narrow fairways, water hazards, poison oak, OB, or all of the above. The new holes are meant to appease the ‘big arms’ at the championship level, and somewhat placate out-of-towners who frankly are much more familiar with wide open, flatter disc golf holes.
  • I like them because it’s something we don’t have at any other course in the area: wide open and brutishly long with enough rough off the wide fairways to keep it interesting.
  • Speaking of that ‘rough,’ on the upper holes it consists mostly of the wild grass that grows waist-high where it isn’t mowed.
  • Where it is mowed, lovely wild California Poppies are already poppy-ing up in the fairways.
  • The upper holes have some poison oak too, but only in the wooded areas. The open areas seem to have none.
  • I was even par after 10 holes, and feeling pretty good about myself. The I lost my disc and took a 7 on the par 5, 1300-foot hole.
  • When we got back to the familiar part of the course, I felt like we had been playing for almost three hours . . . and we had! The round ended up taking four hours, and much of that was spent looking for discs.
  • When you go, I suggest you bring extra water, long pants and long-sleeve shirt, and some expendable yet dependable plastic you don’t mind losing.
  • My final tally: Six over par, and two lost Star Destroyers.

Pinto Lake has me yearning for more (punishment)

I’ve only played the first nine holes of Pinto Lake CDGC three times, and my score has gotten worse each time. This is mostly due to the fact that I’m only now fully aware of all the OB that exists on almost all the holes, but still . . .

There is also the frustrated mindset that many of the holes play much tougher for a left-handed backhand thrower, but that’s nothing new. I often go through that rationalization when confronted with a new course or hole location (like DeLa’s new spot for hole 6’s basket), then get tired of whining about it and go about solving the puzzle. So join me as I analyze each of the nine holes and try to learn from my numerous mistakes. After carding a +7 yesterday with, let’s see, four OB strokes, many are fresh in my mind.

Hole 1
One adjustment I made already was to throw my lefty hyzer far to the left and let it fade back toward the fairway. That worked well yesterday, leaving me with a 70-footer for birdie (which I missed).

Hole 2
Yesterday I tried to play it safe by throwing a mid-range down the middle and landing it short of the fence and creek. Being left-handed, however it trickled right at the end and ended up a couple feet into the OB road on the right. I guess I have to throw something with even less fade, and maybe keep it lower.
Hole 3

Not sure how to attack this hole yet. The fairway slopes down from right to left, and a wall of trees 80 feet from the tee offers no gap to aim for larger than 10 feet. It seems that drives that don’t get cleanly (and somewhat straight) past this wall will very rarely result in a par. And even those that do must contend with a narrow, tree-happy fairway and a steep green eager to suck discs away from the basket. Looking at the hole map at left, the red sqares show the OB along the left and the basket is in the upper-right corner.
Hole 4
The layout of this short hole forces me to do something I very rarely do- throw a sidearm shot off the tee. So far, though, so good, as I’ve had birdie putts every time I’ve played it.

Hole 5
Although three holes of these 9 holes use fire roads as part of their fairways, 5 and 7 so far give me fits. On both these holes the terrain slopes from left-to-right with the right side including OB lines. I don’t think it’s a whole lot easier for right-handers, but when I throw my lefty drives they have to be perfectly straight, accurate, and flat. Too much hyzer and they will fade right and go OB; turn it over or just miss left, and the disc (with its lefty spin) will hit the steep hillside and aggressively spin back across the road and end up OB. And on this hole the road-fairway climbs slightly and curves to the left, with the basket up and on the left guarded by a steady wall of trees.

Hole 6
This 320-footer is comparitively benign, and has no OB to contend with. But all along the right side of the fairway and behind the terrain slopes steeply into nast schule. Except for that, though, it’s wide open.

Hole 7
Almost as nasty as hole 5, this par four road hole presents a more difficult drive in terms of keeping it in bounds. The drive is downhill to a flat landing area (making smooth landings less likely), and the OB on the right seems to creep in even closer than on hole 5. After that, though, at least the basket is on the road itself and visible from the entire fairway.

Hole 8
This sub-2oo foot hole presents some challenge due to trees guarding the basket and a fairway that crosses a mini-chasm, but compare to the rest of the course it’s quite a G-rated reprieve.

Hole 9
Maybe the toughest par three on the course, or at least as challenging as #3. The dogleg right is sharp enough – with OB on both sides – that throwing a full-strength hyzer doesn’t follow the contour of the hole. So far I haven’t gotten any kind of a realistic look at the basket after my first shot.

So now, armed with this reflective analysis from yesterday’s round, I went out today with a bit more of a gameplan. I threw many more mid-range discs as drives (on all three road holes at least), and in general, and tried to value placement much more than distance. The results were on the whole positive, although #5 and #7 continue to frustrate me and I still went OB twice (drives on #7 and #9. I was shooting par until a very frustrating double on the last hole that hit a hidden high branch of an early tree and trickled a couple feet OB on the left.

Score-wise, here’s the rundown: #1-par 3, #2-par 4, #3-par 3, #4-birdie 2, #5, bogey 5, #6-pr 3, #7-bogey 5 (P), #8-birdie 2, #9-double bogey 5 (P). So the strategy worked, but I still have some figuring and learning to do before I’m shooting par or better here on a regular basis. As much as I always talk about perfection in golf being a life-long persuit, this course should offer ample opportunity. And humility.

Pinto Lake CDGC- The Course and the Community

The new course in Watsonville’s Pinto Lake County Park – or at least a temporarily nine-hole version – is now officially open, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday, March 1st. Each hole has a concrete teepad, Mach III basket, and sweet tee sign with a color map of the hole. Turnout at the Grand Opening was excellent considering the rainy conditions, and attendees includes an encouraging mix of die hard disc golfers (from as far away as SoCal), local community members, and even county officials and some of California Conservation Corps members who worked on the course. It’s hard to find the words to describe how stoked I am about this course, but I’ll try. It really comes down to two things- the course, and the community.

The Course
When I started playing DeLaveaga is the late 80’s, it was the only disc golf course with baskets within 100 miles. And except for Berkeley, there were no other courses in the Bay Area or Central Coast. And it stayed that way for quite a long time. And then other courses started popping up in Monterey, San Jose, and eventually right here in Santa Cruz County. But none of these courses even approached DeLaveaga’s combination of challenge, beauty, variety, and professional tees and baskets. The Oaks course at CSUMB Monterey probably comes closest but still falls short in a number of ways. Around Santa Cruz we’re blessed to now have Black Mouse and Aptos High, but I still choose DeLa 90 percent of the time because, well, if you have a choice between driving a Rolls Royce and a serviceable Ford Taurus, which you gonna choose?

The point is, if the first nine holes and designer Tom Schot’s description of the longer, more open back nine are any indication, Pinto Lake Championship Disc Golf Course is going to rival Dela on all fronts. Also, for those that don’t know, Tom designed DeLa 25 years ago and is in the disc golf hall of fame. Usually a masterpiece can only be topped by the author of that masterpiece.

The Community
To me, Pinto Lake is potentially a symbol of disc golf as a unique and appealing sport. Golf is a great game, possibly the greatest game in the history of the world. But due to socioeconomic limitations and to a lesser extent degree-of-difficulty barriers, a large majority of the world never gets to experience the game of ‘stick golf’.

Enter disc golf. Affordable for everyone, easy to learn, and a sport that definitely brings divergent groups together rather than separate them into the haves and have-nots, can and can-nots. I see this in the near future being illustrated at Pinto Lake as much as anywhere on the planet. The course will initially attract a majority of seasoned disc golfers as they hear about the incredible challenge that Tom Schot has built into the design. But local kids will become a bigger and bigger part of the equation as they look for something to do while their parents play on the adjacent soccer fields in adult leagues (which are a big deal in Hispanic-dominant Watsonville). Then some of those kids will get better in a hurry, and grow older and stronger, and all the while their families and friends will hear about their new obsession.

Pretty soon we’ll see disc golf spreading through an entirely new demographic group in Santa Cruz County, and then that group will mesh with other divergent groups that already play the sport . . . and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m just glad we now have plenty of courses from which to choose. I’ve got a feeling we’re gonna need ’em!

Bonus Info: Tom told me that the ‘back nine’ holes will likely be spliced into the existing nine between holes 3 and 4 or maybe 4 and 5. That means the holes now know as 4-9 are likely to eventually be changed to holes 13-18. Or something like that.