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Dear Diary by John Houck

Not long ago, in a place not to far away, a guy named John Meeks saw a golf disc in a Jumbo Sports store and wondered what it was. After a little internet research, he knew a lot more, and soon he became a player. When he saw boy scouts throwing a Frisbee-type disc at the Garland Scout Ranch, he put two and two together: he wanted a disc golf course. Soon John, who is Executive Director of the Norwela Council, had convinced his board to let him raise the money and build the course. He called me to design it, and off I went. Here is the story of my course design trip to the Garland Scout Ranch.

Day 1.

John takes me out for breakfast on our way to the camp. While we’re waiting for our orders, he whips out his Palm Organizer and starts taking notes for a press release. He’s hoping he can get one of the TV stations or newspapers to come out and do a story while I’m in town. We talk about what on my resume might be appealing to a reporter who knows nothing about disc golf, and we try to find a good way to plug the course. I recently verified that there were a few other Boy Scout camps that have courses, so we decide on “the first scout camp in the country to have a championship disc golf course.” John is hooked on disc golf. He wants to make sure he can host big PDGA tournaments someday, so he wants me to make it challenging for players of all skill levels.

We decide to throw in "9th disc golf course in Louisiana.” When we get the bill, he comments on how cheap his oatmeal is. The guy at the next table clues us in to the fact that he’s a truck driver, that he’s eaten oatmeal at plenty of truck stops and restaurants, and that a lot of those places charge a lot more for oatmeal. I guess we done good.

I follow John to the Garland Scout Ranch, which is maybe half an hour south. On the way I wonder what the property looks like. Does it have nice grass and huge beautiful trees, like the course at Clyde Fant? (Yes, you can play there at night. We did it.) Will it be hilly, like Highland Park, the other Shreveport course? It could look like a lot of things, because this camp has 1600 acres. It’s huge.

When we get there, John drives me around the civilized parts of the camp. We look at the big open “field.” It’s shaped pretty much like a big “O;” it circles the dining hall, the trading post, the administration building, the medic shack, the blacksmith shop, and several acres of woods. There’s a pine grove that they planted to help raise money for the camp. It’s maybe an acre. And there’s the keyhole, kind of an appendix to the “field,” cut right into the middle of it. It’s about 200 yards long, and it’s shaped like a keyhole: long and thin, with a 40-yard circle at the end. The showers are in the circle part of the keyhole. Outside the “field” is hundreds of acres of more woods. Nearby, there’s also a good size lake. I like water. So the field has really nice grass, but no trees for the most part. It's almost totally wide open. And, like Clyde Fant, the woods has lots of huge beautiful trees. But between them are thousands of small scraggly trees. This is going to be interesting.

John says it’s up to me to decide where the course goes. He suggests that it might be good to start near the water tower. It’s fairly close to most of the action, and he thinks the woods back there have some decent hills. We notice that the water tower is spewing about a gallon of water a second, creating some wet spots and a small stream. Strange.

As always, my first task is to look at everything that’s available and decide what area will be best for the course. Glad I brought my long pants. I walk around through the woods, find a path that takes me I don’t know where, ending up at the rifle range. The dining hall is a few hundred yards ahead. I’m not lost yet.

It’s almost lunchtime, and the scouts are having their 3-day Camp Turkey. I duck into the dining hall to find Jim Babcock, who’s in charge. Jim tells me that I’ll be sleeping in the medic shack and that they’re looking forward to my demonstration. (John has arranged it so that I’m here while 200+ scouts and leaders are here, and while the board is meeting. Besides designing the course, I’m here to get the troops pumped up about disc golf.)

I’ve already walked at least 5 miles, but I decide to take a look at the lake before lunch. It’s very nice, and it’s got a nice big dam at one end, but it’s a little inaccessible. We’ll see.

I get back just in time to set up a basket and talk to the assembled masses about disc golf. Boy, these scouts sure are attentive. Amazingly, close to half of them are already familiar with disc golf. We go outside so they can throw some discs and putt at the basket. After about 20 minutes I have to call for all the discs to come in. They probably would have played all afternoon otherwise. That’s a good sign.

There’s no more food left, but I think I have an apple and a banana in the car. No problem.

Now that I’ve had a quick look at everything, I give myself the rest of the afternoon to make a decision. I break the camp into 5 pieces. If I look at each piece closely for about 45 minutes, I should be done by dark. I start in the woods by the amphitheater. Some good possibilities, nothing spectacular. Then the woods behind the water tower. John was right: there are some decent elevation changes there. I follow the trickling water down that path. There’s even some real creek water down there. I like that. I follow the trail uphill; and when I get to the place where I forked left this morning, I fork right.

There’s some nice stuff back there, especially some very tall pretty pines. I see some good hole possibilities. Down hill and back up, the trail turns, and up ahead I can see a clearing. A clearing would sure be nice for variety. Maybe there’s another pond there. The path ends, so I head straight for the clearing. Can’t get through, so I curl around to the left. I get close enough to the clearing to see that it’s no big deal, but there’s another area, less than 100 yards away, that looks intriguing. Oh well, no big deal there either. The path was back this way, right?

Maybe not. Must be over here. Not. OK, there are those big pines I remember. I’ll head that way. Can’t believe I haven’t crossed the path yet. I guess those were different pines. After ten minutes, I’m officially lost. I wonder how long I can sleep standing up. I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that I’m missing and send out a search party. Good thing they’re scouts -- that’ll probably cut down on the time it takes to find me. I can’t believe I did this. Good thing I never saw the Blair Witch Project, or I might be really scared right now.

Fortunately John had e-mailed me a map of the ranch. I know I’m east of the camp, so I head toward where I think the sun is going to set. I could be making things worse, but I have to try something. Nothing looks familiar, but after 20 minutes I’m close enough to know where I am. Man, that could have been embarrassing.

I jump in the car and head up the road for some coffee and some chips. Maybe I can center the course on the dining hall. Nine holes heading out into the woods by the water tower and back, and nine going down to the pond and clockwise back past the ropes course . Maybe.

I go back and check the area behind the rifle range, the area behind the ropes course, and down by the blacksmith shop. I stay on the trails. I meet John for dinner, and I take a few minutes to address the board. I explain what I’m hoping to do, how great it is that they’re doing this, how much the scouts will love disc golf, and how having a course will set their camp apart from the others in the area. They tease me about getting lost (which I deserve), but they seem to like the idea. They can certainly see how enthusiastic John is. Another good sign.

While they’re having their meeting, I head to the car. I turn on the light and the CD player, and I start making sketches of how the course might work. I realize that this is going to be really different from any course I’ve ever done. Other than two holes at Athens -- the second course I ever did -- I’ve never designed a course where we had to cut down trees. Sure, we had to take out a bunch of Cedars at Searight and Circle R, but those are more like big weeds. And we only cut down two little 2” trees at Circle R, but this is going to take some serious clearing. Instead of just looking for nice tees and greens, one of my main jobs will be to find fairways that will be easy to clear.

There’s another big difference: this property is so big, I can route it pretty much however I want and dictate where the holes go. Usually I feel like the property dictates where the holes go, and I’m almost always trying to squeeze holes in. I’ve read that ball golf designers do the routing first, but that’s never worked for me before.

Anyway, I have some ideas. It’ll probably take me three holes to get up to a pretty open area on top of the hill. Three holes up there, and three holes back down along the path, and I could have a nice front nine. There’s a nice drop-off I can use for the #2 green, and a big hill for the #3 fairway. Or maybe turn those backwards and make them #7 and #8 -- put #1, #2, and #3 going UP the path.

I have good ideas for a keyhole hole and a pine grove hole, too, probably on the back nine. We’ll see. I should still be able to finish it with three more 10-hour days -- forty hours is usually what it takes me for an 18-hole course.

When the meeting’s over, John comes by and taps on my window, but I’m so into my sketches that I don’t even hear him at first. We talk a little; then he heads for home and I head for the medic shack. It was a good day. Good night.

Day 2.

My main goal for today, besides trying to put together a good front nine, is to catch a leaf. It’s late November, but it’s still in the ‘60’s here, and there are still leaves falling off trees all over the place. I grab a 7:30 breakfast with the troops at the dining hall; then it’s off to see if I can nail down the first three holes.

I know where I'd like to to put the #2 basket, so I work backwards from there. It’s really hard to imagine what this is going to look like after it’s cleared. It’s really hard just to see clearly 200 feet in front of you. And it’s hard to find a route to this basket between all the big trees. Standing at the basket, It looks like there might be one straight back, perpendicular to the creek. From there the basket would be on the backside of the hill, with the creek bed directly behind the basket. Could be good. It’s not so easy to see from the tee. With that dead tree gone, and all the little trees gone, there might be a straight shot, and a tight anhyzer, and maybe a wide hyzer skip. Not bad. Maybe there’s a better tee nearby. I walk 100 feet in either direction, but nothing looks any better. So I spend maybe 15 minutes scrutinizing the first tee position. Yeah, I decide, this wouldn’t be a bad hole. I’ll come back to it later.

I have a great idea for #3: a 300’ drive across the next creek bed to the base of the hill. Then a 150’ approach straight uphill through a bunch of big trees. Not much to clear on the slope -- it’s mostly big trees. And every time you play the hole, you’ll have to find a new route to the basket. It’s really nice -- I wish I could make more approaches like this in Texas. So the tee should be about here... that’s funny, I can’t even see the base of the hill. I walk a little uphill, then a little downhill, and I still can’t see it. I don’t remember that extra little hill from yesterday -- where the heck was I? I go to the landmark I know -- the top of the hill -- and work backwards, down the hill, back 300’ to where the tee should go. This is the spot, definitely. The #2 basket should be close, over there. Can’t see it. Where did it go?

This must be what it’s like designing courses in Carolina, and in the woods in Tennessee. I have a lot of sympathy for those guys now. This is hard. I wonder if Chuck’s courses in Minnesota look like this? OK, let’s find that #2 basket. I am NOT going to get lost today. I’ll follow the creek bed. Wow, look at that slope there -- it’s huge. Much steeper than the one I was working on, but still not too steep. It’s really dramatic, and it’s right above the creek bed, kind of side slope, too, which I like a lot more. How did I miss it before?

I can’t find my original #2, so I go back to a landmark I know -- the water tower -- and start again. I walk to the tee I had been working on, and up to the basket location. OK, now where’s that real dramatic slope? Over here? I walk 100 feet and turn around. There it is -- the dramatic slope is the same slope I was already using for #2! Unbelievable. It looks so different from this perspective. Obviously the best way to use this spot as a pin is to have the tee, not where I had it, but more along the creekbed, so you get the full effect of the slope of the green, so you’re looking at a sidehill from the tee.

So I spend another half an hour trying to figure out exactly where that tee might go, and what the routes to the pin might be. Then a quick look at #3, now I that I have some idea where I am. I’m getting a little tired, and these woods are driving me a little crazy. I’ll take a walk through the rest of the front 9 and see if I can get some good hole ideas. I find a really sweet downhill hole along the path heading back toward the water tower. This will make a much better hole going downhill than up. I can definitely say that this hole would be a great addition to pretty much any course, which is very high praise, as far as I’m concerned. When you can say that about a hole, you’re talking about a good hole.

Now I know that unless there’s a really good reason, I should run this front 9 clockwise, so I can keep this hole. That’s a major decision. I can’t believe it’s almost noon already, and I’ve only got one good hole nailed down. I sure hope I can find a way to keep it.

John has come out to see what ideas I have so far. After lunch, we walk the areas I’m looking at, and we discuss the logistics of cleaning it up. He doesn’t think they'll be able to get a bush hog down the path, because it’s too eroded, and the tractor might get stuck. If I can find a way to put some holes back near the other path, it’ll help, since they could probably get the tractor back there. He loves my ideas for the keyhole hole and the pine grove hole, but I still don’t know how to hook them up with the rest of the course. Maybe I can run three holes behind these two other campsites. After he heads back into town, I go explore that possibility.

It’s not too promising: pretty flat, and nothing more open then the #1-#3 area. They won’t be too happy if they have to do major clearing on six holes. I’ll have to think of another way to work it.

At about 4:00 I’m really bushed. Feel like knocking off for the day. But after a cup of coffee and a ten-minute nap in the car, I’m good to go again. I’m hunting for holes; I’m trying to find ways to fit everything together. I’m making sure I don’t get lost. It occurs to me that it’s not very windy, and that I haven’t seen many falling leaves. I stay out until it’s too dark to see, but just before I give up, I see a leaf falling from a nearby tree. I take 3 steps, and it drops right into my hand. Mission accomplished. By the time I get to the dining hall, they’re throwing out the leftover food. They fix me up with 3 slabs of Salisbury steak and 3 rolls. I shouldn’t eat it all, but I’m really hungry -- please don’t tell my doctor.

Well, I sure didn’t get the front nine nailed down today. All I really got was two holes, lots of ideas, and a lesson in designing holes in the woods. And I caught a leaf.

In the morning I’ll be off to the airport for a 5-day Thanksgiving trip. I should be able to clear my head, sketch out some better routing, and come back refreshed and ready to rock. This is going to be a real learning experience, but I won’t quit until I get it right. This is going to be a great course before I’m done.

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Circular Productions - Disc Golf Course Design, Disc Golf Equipment, Disc Golf Tournaments, Disc Golf Tee Signs, and other Disc Golf Services

Circular Productions - Disc Golf Course Design, Disc Golf Equipment, Disc Golf Tournaments, Disc Golf Tee Signs, and other Disc Golf Services