More and more ski areas in the state are investing in some of the best disc golf courses around. Here’s why you should get out and try them.
On a hot August afternoon, the air is filled with the smells of late summer: mown grass, freshly cut hay and cold, moving water. Stepping up to the first tee on the Smugglers’ Notch Brewster Ridge disc golf course, your vision is framed by the spine of the Green Mountains and the winding green ahead. Good thing you brought that cold beer with you.
This is disc golf in Vermont, on one of the world’s premier courses. It’s so world-class that last September, 288 professional disc golf players from all over the world came to Smuggs for the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) Professional Disc Golf World Championships. The competition was fierce, with $10,000 in prize money on the line, and drew more than 1,200 spectators to Jeffersonville, a town of less than 1,000 people during what has historically been shoulder season.
Disc golf may not yet be as big as golf, but it’s getting there. In November 2018, Paul McBeth, currently ranked as the top disc golf player in the world in PDGA rankings, signed a four-year contract with leading disc manufacturer Discraft, Inc. for more than $1 million, the biggest deal of its kind in the sport’s history.
Meanwhile, participation in traditional golf—what disc golfers call “ball golf”—is on the decline. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golfers in the U.S. dropped from about 32 million in 2003 to 23.8 million in 2018. At the same time, the number of golf courses dropped to about 15,000 in 2018, according to Golf Magazine.
Meanwhile, disc golf is booming. With an average of about 1,000 new courses built per year nationally, the total courses in the United States has climbed to nearly 8,000, and is expected to reach 13,000 in the next five years. In Vermont, ski areas such as Bromley and Magic Mountain have recently installed courses. Smugglers’ Notch plans to open a new pro shop at its course this summer and even offers lessons.
Though there were just 46,457 PDGA members as of the end of 2018, that number has more than tripled since 2009, with much of the growth coming from amateur players. “I like to think of it as a non-competitive-competitive leisure activity. It can be as fierce or as laid back as you want it to be,” says Matt Cote, operations director at Magic Mountain.
The People’s Golf
Disc golf shares a common language and structure with traditional golf. Players compete on courses ranked with pars. Like clubs, the discs used are of varying weights and are called “drivers,” “putters” and “mid-ranges.” The goal? Always a hole in one, or at least to get your disc into the basket (not the hole) in as few tosses as possible.
“As a sport, disc golf is really very laid back,” says Jeff Spring, operations manager at Smugglers’ Notch Resort and the designer of its two 18-hole disc golf courses: the more challenging Brewster Ridge and Fox Run.
“Unlike traditional golf, it’s a really affordable way to get outside for a family,” says Spring. “To start, all you need is one mid-range disc. Once you give it a try, you can rent or purchase a set of three: a driver for long-range shots, a mid-range and a putter.” At the new Smuggs’ Disc Golf Center, which opened in May, you can find several varieties of each or sign up for a lesson or beginners’ clinic.
For just $15 a day, players get access to two 18-hole courses. There’s no dress code and Spring says the learning curve for disc golf is a mild one. “For less than $50 you can get your kid outfitted to try a new sport. Put in one good solid summer, and you can play with most people. It’s really that accessible,” he says. The only serious etiquette surrounds competition. Otherwise, he says, “Eighty percent of the people you meet on the course are out there to chill and be in the woods and have fun.” As long as you are not blasting music or drinking excessively, the scene is pretty inclusive.
As one disc golfer said, “Think of a Venn diagram with the following circles: people who like craft beer, people who like to hike, ski, bike and get outside, people who like jam bands, especially Phish and the Grateful Dead and people who like to smoke a little weed. Disc golfers are right smack in the middle, where they all overlap.”
But the sport is expanding, and Vermont’s players say that’s a good thing. Participation among women is growing faster than any other demographic, competitive play is getting better and better, courses are getting more challenging and the disc golf community is investing in youth programs.
This year, Magic Mountain will be lending its rental fleet and basket set to local middle schools so they can use it during P.E. classes. “Then parents and their kids can use this resource outside in the summer. That’s a great thing for the community,” says Cote.
“From the beginning, disc golf has been about spending time in the natural world,” says Spring. “If there’s an etiquette to the sport, it’s really about making sure that your enjoyment of the outdoors doesn’t impact anyone else’s ability to do the same.”
That spirit makes the community one that’s eager to organize trail work days, course cleanups and community gatherings. Some of the most beloved courses across the state are on private land. As Frank Johnson, manager of Potter & Brothers Ski and Snowboard shop at Bromley Mountain and a 25-year veteran of the sport recalled of one week-night session on the
North Calais Disc Golf Course, “You call ahead, you show up, and you do some work for the guy who owns the maple sugaring operation on the land, you bring a few beers, and then you go for a walk in the woods. The setting provides serenity, the game fodder for conversation and a little motivation to trick you into thinking you’re not getting exercise when you hike all over the Vermont woods.”
Another such course exists in East Wallingford. Matt Cohen, Fiddlehead Brewing Co.’s founder, owner and head brewer, has built a course on his 80-acre property in Hinesburg, where he regularly hosts weeknight games. The expert player even brewed a limited-edition Imperial IPA for the PDGA Disc Golf World Championships at Smugglers’ Notch last summer, calling it Overstable, a term which refers to a disc that tends to turn in the opposite direction of the one its spinning when thrown flat, straight and with average power.
Chris Young is the former president of the Green Mountain Disc Golf Association, and now owns Disc Golf Vermont, a company that hosts and promotes events, tournaments and participation in the sport across the state. A Vermonter who is now a semi-pro sponsored by Innov, he learned to play in college while living in Eugene, Ore.
“I’ve played hundreds of courses and in tournaments in many states. There’s the wide-open park course which can be fun, but personally, I enjoy hiking with some elevation change, maybe a pond and lots of trees. Vermont offers that ruggedness,” says Young.
Johnson, who has built three courses: one at Colorado’s Copper Mountain, one in Frisco, Colo. and Manchester’s Hunter Park disc golf course, echoed that, saying, “The landscape here is unique.”
Vermont’s steep topography allows for creatively designed courses like the public Quarries Disc Golf Course in Websterville, which takes players through old granite quarries, buried in the forest. There is also Sugarbush’s mountaintop Peak Course, which sits half way up Lincoln Peak, in the middle of one of Vermont’s most iconic ridgelines. At Magic Mountain, players progress upward in elevation with each basket, earning views of the White Mountains and other ski areas like Bromley, Stratton, Ascutney and Mount Snow.
According to Cote, the diverse and mountainous terrain draws a unique intersection of athletes, from hikers to mountain bikers to golfers, skiers and snowboarders. “I love the sport, but I really love the inclusive community around it,” says Cote. “It takes all walks of life and you never know who it is going to grab. It’s for anyone at any age who wants to get outside in the mountains.”
Ahead of the Curve
Back in 2012, Jeff Spring was working as a camp counselor at Smugglers’ Notch Resort and serving on the board of the Green Mountain Disc Golf Association, when the resort’s longtime owner Bill Stritzler approached him about what it would take to build a world-class disc golf course at Smuggs. At the time, Sugarbush offered disc golf and Smugglers’ Notch had a small course, but few other ski areas had them.
“The idea was to put in a top-notch course designed by people who understood the game, that would make disc golfers come and feel proud to play,” recalls Spring. They set a ten-year goal of bringing the Pro World Championships to Vermont. Last year, just five years after Brewster Ridge and Fox Run opened, they did it.
“We had 1,200 spectators and were pretty much at capacity for bed nights resortwide,” said Spring of last September’s event. “A fully stocked ATM ran out of cash, the general stores sold out of beer. That doesn’t even happen on President’s Day Weekend. Folks in town said it was like a major holiday popped up during what has traditionally been shoulder season.”
At Magic Mountain, Cote was paying attention. “With the rate at which the sport is growing and the relatively low cost of investment [consider an $8 million chairlift replacement vs. a $200,000 disc golf course], we decided the vibe of the sport matched our ethos,” said Cote. Magic rolled out a beginner-friendly 9-hole course in 2017, situated so that parents could watch their kids play while grabbing a local craft brew at the Black Line Tavern. Last August, Magic put in the remaining 18 holes and started offering rental equipment.
“The sport is so new and the community is so inviting, we see it as a great resource for locals and a great way to get kids outside,” says Cote.
From August 3 to August 5, Smugglers’ Notch is hosting the PDGA Junior Disc Golf National Championships for the second time in two years. Magic is working on securing PDGA-sanctioned events at its courses, with the goal of bringing more big events to Vermont.
Meanwhile, Jay Peak will host the 2019 Vermont State Championships on its 18-hole course on October 12, the culmination of Disc Golf Vermont’s 2019 ten-competition Vermont Tour. “Folks coming up to New England in the winter to ski are coming up to play disc golf, maybe looping it in with a couple of trips to mountain bike, or to pick up their favorite beer from a local craft brewery and tieing that in with a music festival,” says Young. “It’s good for the ski areas to invest in this. If you put a course in, businesses in the local area definitely see an impact.”
And disc golf is one outdoor activity that a whole family can participate in, from grandparents to little kids. “Disc Golf is like fishing,” says Cote. “You don’t have to throw aces or have the round of a lifetime to have a great time out on the mountain. You can bring your dog, crack a beer, and take in some of the awesome views that this place has to offer. That’s why any day of disc golf is a great day of disc golf.”
Featured Photo Caption: The U.S. is home to more than 8,000 disc golf courses—like Sugarbush’s Base Course, above—the most of any country in the world. That number has doubled since 2013.
10 Top Places to Play
Vermont has become to disc golf what Florida is to golf. In 2018, the top players from around the world came to play the Professional Disc Golf Association Pro World Championships at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. While Smuggler’s Notch may have invested in two championship courses, other resorts are not far behind. Here are 10 great places to play.
Bolton Valley Vista Beast: 18 holes, Price: $5 per day, Par: 60. Tight woods make this a challenging course with hilly terrain. Pro shop with rentals available on site. boltonvalley.com
Jay Peak Resort Jay Peak Disc Golf Course: 18 holes, Par: 57, Price: $5-7 per round. This mountain course covers a variety of alternately wooded and open terrain with scenic views. Rentals and pro shop onsite. jaypeakresort.com
Killington Base Camp Outfitters: 18 holes, Par: 54, Price: $10 per day. The Base Camp course sits across from Killington Mountain Resort and winds through hilly old growth forest on Nordic trails. Pro shop with rentals ($6 per day) is on-site. basecampvt.com
Manchester Hunter Park Disc Golf Course: 18 holes, Price: Free. Head to the park for a free, grassy, flat and conveniently-located public course friendly to beginners. manchester-vt.gov
Magic Mountain National Londonderry: 18 holes, Price: $6 per round, Par: 59. Meander up the mountain with views of the Green Mountains, the White Mountains and the Connecticut River Valley. Expect stream crossings. Disc rentals available onsite. magicmtn.com
Okemo Resort The Maples and The Saplings, Ludlow. 18 holes and 9, Par: 54, Price: $5 per person per round. Open, sunny and fun. Located at Jackson Gore. okemo.com
Sugarbush Peak and Base Courses, Warren: 18 holes, Price: $5 per day, Par: 63 and 58 respectively. The Base course sits on rolling terrain with mountain views and is beginner-friendly. The Peak course sits mid-mountain and requires a ride on Super Bravo to access it. sugarbush.com
Smuggler’s Notch Resort Brewster Ridge and Fox Run Meadows, Jeffersonville: 18 holes, Price: $10 per round or $15 per day, Par: 60 and 61. Brewster Ridge spans 30 acres of forested land on the flank of the Sterling Range. Fox Run features more open meadow terrain. smuggs.com
Trapp Family Lodge Stowe: 9 holes, Price: Free. Check out the practice basket at the bier garden or take on this short course which moves through a field, around two ponds and out into the woods. Disc rentals available on-site. trappfamily.com
Websterville, The Quarries Disc Golf Course. 18 holes, Par: 61, Price: Free. A challenging course through old granite quarries with tight woods in the Barre Town Forest, adjacent to the Millstone mountain bike trails. barretown.org