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Have a fling: Fast-growing sport hovers in Pagosa

There’s a new sport in town, and one that players of all ages and abilities will not only enjoy, but can excel at.

The Town of Pagosa Springs has introduced a free activity to the area: disc golf. With years of planning, beginning with the formation of the Pagosa Peak Disc Golf Association in 2005, the work of a few local residents has culminated with the installation of a nine-hole disc golf course that meanders through stands of scrub oak and tall Ponderosa pines on a little-used tract of Reservoir Hill Park in downtown Pagosa Springs.

Disc golf is played on a course with players flinging Frisbee-like discs towards a chain basket target. The course can be nine or 18 holes and the goal is to get the disc into the basket in the lowest amount of throws. The game started with people using Frisbees and aiming at random targets made up of trees, trash cans, light poles, or whatever else was handy.

The sport of disc golf differs from regular golf in several ways. Disc golf courses can use a wide variety of terrain, which means land not suitable for other park activities or development is perfect terrain for a disc golf course. Also, there is no need for irrigation or upkeep on the course.

When Michael Carroll and Jeff Edens moved to the area in 2004, Michael from Taos, N.M., and Jeff from Mesa, Ariz., they brought their love of the game of disc golf with them. Jeff still travels to his second home in Arizona and practices with a group that plays every day of the week. Michael returns to Taos for frequent visits and plays on a fabulous course that was created at Taos ski area.

Armed with a desire to bring the enjoyable sport to Pagosa Springs, the pair connected with Dave Bellina, a Pagosa Springs resident who plays in professional disc golf tournaments and who created the Pagosa Peak Disc Golf Association (PPDGA) in 2005. Working together, the group approached the town recreation department with the idea of putting a course in on Reservoir Hill. Their idea was rejected. The town didn’t believe a disc golf course was conducive to the activities already on the hill. Michael, Jeff and Dave kept at it and were able to get a disc golf course included at Archuleta County’s proposed recreation complex at the Cloman area before the budget crisis and economic downturn of 2007. That idea is still in a holding pattern.

Undaunted, the three men kept playing their game on makeshift courses and gathered support from other disc golfers who live in Pagosa Springs. When they approached the town again this year, they were given the okay to plan and temporarily construct a course on a small area of Reservoir Hill Recreation Area, with several stipulations: The course can only be 9 holes, not 18 or 27 as the PPDGA had hoped; the metal baskets that catch the discs had to be mounted temporarily with no concrete; and the disc golf players had to understand that they were last on the chain of priority when using the recreation area — meaning bicyclists, hikers and horses all had the right of way.

The association accepted the challenge and working with Tom Carosello, the Town of Pagosa Springs recreation director, the group used aerial maps and walked the terrain to plot out a feasible nine-hole course, taking into consideration existing trails, roads, private property, and the physical obstacles on the hill. Without removing any trees or bushes, they managed to create throwing corridors over the scrub oak and through tall Ponderosa pines, resulting in a course that as Jeff says, “is as nice as it gets.”

Although the popularity of the sport has been steadily growing in recent years, the game of disc golf has actually been around since 1976 when entrepreneur “Steady” Ed Headrick, also the inventor of the modern day Frisbee, coined and trademarked the term “disc golf.” The sport was formalized with his invention of the Disc Pole Hole, otherwise known as the “basket,” a target that incorporates chains and a wire basket mounted on a pole. Headrick had said one of his many inspirations for the Disc Pole Hole invention was so he and his buddies could get on with playing instead of arguing over whether or not someone actually had hit one of the objects in their makeshift courses. When the hard plastic discs slam into one of the 8 chains hanging over the basket, the disc is grabbed and dropped into the basket — the equivalent of the ball falling into the hole in traditional golf.

Each hole on the course begins at a tee box and ends at a basket. All work on the course was done by volunteers, and the construction of the tee boxes is no exception. Dave Bellina rounded up friends and fellow disc golfers Kevin Kephart and Darrin Black to build the boxes, which are large pads that are graded flat and marked with rocks and large limbs to create an obvious throw area. The boxes point in the direction of the next hole, which helps when the basket isn’t visible through the trees. Dave, Kevin and Darrin spent more than 24 hours each working to construct the tee boxes, and they have also worked to ensure that the journey from one hole to the next is not too difficult. Although Reservoir Hill Recreation Area does have many marked and smoothed trails, the terrain where the disc golf course is installed is in a more natural state. The association is working to make sure the course is accessible to a wide variety of ages and fitness levels, without causing players to scramble up steep terrain, over boulders or through bushes, all while maintaining what Jeff describes as the “town park wilderness experience.”

Michael was introduced to the sport by a group of friends in their 50s and 60s and he now agrees that the game of disc golf is one of the best lifetime fitness sports. “When I turned 50,” Michael recalls, “I could no longer play softball or baseball because of years of abuse on my back from the construction trade.” Because players are hiking from hole to hole, it is a healthy activity, accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. “It is non-abusive to your body, and is great exercise,” Michael adds. The game is also easy to learn — if you can throw a Frisbee you can play disc golf.

The Pagosa Springs disc golf course is one of over 2,500 in the U.S. Although many public courses are constructed at wide-open, grassy parks, the Reservoir Hill course is fun and challenging because of the terrain and obstacles. The road up to the top of the hill is usually gated, except for special events, so the best place for players to park is at the lot off Hot Springs Boulevard, across from the community center. From there, either hike the drainage directly up, or walk on the gravel road. The tee box for Hole 1 is at the top of the drainage on the lefthand side. Players will first see a tee box on the right next to the road, which is actually for Hole 7. Just a few feet past that box on the opposite side of the road is tee box 1. The local disc golf association has maps of the course that can be downloaded from their Web site. Eventually the course will be mapped with GPS locations and distances by the town engineer.

Even the most talented players will end up hitting trees and bushes during the game, which is all part of the fun. Groups of players can play “best ball,” where everyone throws, then picks up their discs and flings the next shot from the best location of the previous throws. Although the game can be played with a standard Frisbee, the discs used for the sport are smaller, specialized saucers with varying shapes and thicknesses of plastic. There is a starter set that contains three discs: a driver for distance, a mid-range disc and a putter. Serious golfers carry custom bags with a dozen or more discs for the perfect shot selection. Throwing the disc requires a technique slightly different from throwing a regular Frisbee and does take some practice. “It’s all about initial spin and angular momentum,” Dave describes, but even a first-time player will have a great time navigating the course and rattling their disc into the chains at the end of each hole. “That’s the sound we all play for,” Kevin says.

The Pagosa Peak Disc Golf Association will host a grand opening celebration at the course on Saturday, Oct. 18. Bring the family for free food and drinks, play the course and participate in the free instructional clinics that will be offered throughout the day. For more information, visit the Web site, PagosaDiscGolf.com, or call Jeff at 799-4691, or Michael at 799-0160.