Ball Golf Course Design Offers Hints for Better Disc Golf Courses
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of Disc Golf World News
As many of today's top disc golf pros have discovered, there's a lot to be learned from watching top pros in ball golf. Even more so, our course designers can get a near-complete education from the great designers of ball golf's 600-year history. In essence, the principles of designing a disc golf course are identical to those of ball golf, and anyone who is serious about architecture for our game would do well to study the concepts and luminaries of theirs.
One of the ideas that can help us the most is a very basic one: the balance between risk and reward. The first time I became aware of this idea was at a doubles tournament when my partner, Mitch McClellan, said, "That's what I like about Bartholomew -- there's a lot of holes where you can birdie... or you can bogey." Unfortunately, as I recall, we had a few too many of the latter that particular day, but it did open my eyes. Any good golf hole should demonstrate this principle: good shots are rewarded, while bad shots will cost you.
Unfortunately, on many disc golf courses, this is rarely the case. Play your favorite course in your mind. Can you hit a tree 75-feet in front of the tee and still get an easy three? Or if you throw a drive 45 degrees off course, will you still have an easy up shot? Then your course does not punish bad shots. If a good player having a bad day doesn't rack up a bunch of bogeys, your course has a problem.
On the other hand, do you really have to control the angle, direction, and speed of a shot to get a birdie, or can you just throw a mediocre shot out there and still land 20 feet from the basket? If a throw that demonstrates great skill results in the same score as a throw that shows average skill, then your course does not reward great shots.
One of the great disappointments of courses that don't punish bad shots is that we rarely have the opportunity to make great "saves." Ideally, a bad drive would be stuck behind a bush, or in a group of trees, or down a hill, and you would have to make a terrific second shot to get near the basket. To make up for your mistake on the previous shot, you would have to demonstrate great power, control, or versatility (sidearm, upside down, scoober roller) to reach the basket, or you would lose a stroke.
It is so rare to see a top disc golfer have to make a skillful shot in the 75 to 200-foot range, and this is something our sport really lacks. William Flynn, whose credits include great courses like Shinnecok Hills, spoke of "the recovery shot, perhaps the best shot in the game."Author Geoff Shackelford says, "You want to give golfers a chance to recover from a hazard, otherwise skillful and imaginative players go unnoticed... It should require creativity and talent to recover from a hazard, not complete luck."
Disc golf course designers should look for opportunities to put tees and baskets in places where these principles can come into play, but remember that a good shot should also end up by the hole. (Also, you want to minimize lucky shots that get to the hole.) It should be clear at each hole where you want to be, and what you want to avoid. In general, open holes should have thicker rough, while tighter holes should have less brutal rough. The easier the shot, the greater the penalty for missing it, and vice versa.
The other key aspect of the risk/reward principle that too infrequently applies to disc golf involves strategy. The classic great holes of golf offer options. You can play it safe and go for par or bogey, or you can try what golfers call a "heroic" shot (or generally two heroic shots) to score a birdie or eagle. In disc golf, there is often one way to play the hole, and you make it or you don't. We need to develop our courses so that golfers have to make strategy choices, so that a champion will have to demonstrate mental skills as well as physical skills. Ken Climo understands this, and he has made good decisions when he's had the chance.
The balance between risk and reward is central to ball golf course design, and the resulting element of strategy is one of the things that make golf so popular. That's also why more than 75% of ball golf holes are par 4 or par 5. But we'll discuss that another time. In the meantime, disc golf designers who learn to apply these concepts will make courses that are more fair and more enjoyable.