One of the longest disc golf courses in the world will soon open at North Boundary Park in Cranberry Township.
It’s the product of a rapidly growing sport, but playing it won’t be just another walk in the park. In fact, participants will end up trekking through 4 miles of forest and grassy fields, plus several hundred feet of elevation gain as they snake their way up and down a hillside.
“Yeah, it’s a workout,” course designer J. Gary Dropcho said on a recent afternoon devoted to building a retaining wall around one of the holes.
The sport’s also pretty fun, as many people realize when they pick up a disc for the first time.
Disc golf is like regular golf, but instead of whacking a ball with a club, players take a few quick steps across a tee to build momentum. They toss a disc resembling a Frisbee, though it’s smaller and heavier and it can travel further. The goal is to get the disc to land in a metal basket.
Playing a round is generally free, though a disc costs about $15.
The number of courses nationwide has tripled to 6,000 over the past decade, according to data from the Professional Disc Golf Association. This one in Butler County, set to open in the spring, requires players to shoot across a whopping 10,700 feet in total length.
Participants will need to aim carefully so that trees don’t cut their drives short. Along the way, they’re likely to encounter wildlife.
“We see tons of deer running through here, we’ve seen hawks, we’ve seen turkey,” Dropcho said.
Pittsburgh-area disc golfers consider Dropcho a legend. He’s played for decades and designed multiple courses with his company, Grip It and Rip It Disc Golf. He’s even in the sport’s hall of fame at the International Disc Golf Center in Appling, Georgia.
He’s seen the game change a lot since Pittsburgh’s first course went in at Schenley Park in 1988. Discs didn’t fly as far in those days, and players weren’t so skilled.
“The courses are trying to keep up,” Dropcho said. “We are trying to stay ahead of them, but I’m predicting the top players will come here and they’ll probably shoot 10 under par even though this course is way bigger and longer than anything else we’ve done. They’re just that good.”
Building a challenging course
Dropcho got to work designing the course by spending a lot of time walking through North Boundary’s woods with a topographical map.
“Some holes are very obvious,” he said as he pointed to the first tee where players shoot over a grassy area and around a bend into a group of mature trees.
Others were harder to fit into the puzzle. He knew he needed to account for a variety of shots so that players aren’t stuck with too many lengthy par-5 holes back-to-back.
“I didn’t want to punish players too much by having them walk up the hill all the time,” Dropcho said. “I knew there were going to be some holes like hole 3 where it’s straight up the whole way, and then everybody would be taking my name in vain when they play it.”
But players are rewarded for the climb with downhill shots where discs soar, assuming they don’t smack into a branch or a trunk.
Dropcho’s partner on the project, Doug Cloutier, is the GIS administrator for Cranberry Township and an avid disc golfer. He hops in a cart to show off the course, driving up the hole 3 hill, which he once calculated at a 25 percent slope.
On the other side of the peak lies the basket for hole 17. It’s elevated, so it’s tricky to sink a putt. Cloutier doesn’t want to miss because his disc will barrel down a drop-off on the other side.
“That’s what we refer to as a death putt,” he said.
He tosses a disc and it bounces off the basket, rolling down the hill until it gets caught up in some brush.
“If you’re down there, it’s not only far away, but you’ve got to put in a lot of umph to get it up here,” he said.
Growing the sport
The local disc golf community hopes another course -- particularly a tough one like this -- will attract major tournaments.
Western Pennsylvania got a taste for the top level of play in 2015 when the world championships took place at other courses north of Pittsburgh.
“The excitement level when worlds came was through the roof,” recalled Lori Merriman, chair of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Flying Disc, which promotes the sport throughout the region.
The area’s existing disc golf courses have hosted many tournaments, but that was the most prestigious to make its way here.
“We had so many spectators come through just to see the top pros,” Merriman said.
A lot of participants stayed in Cranberry hotels, but the township itself didn’t have a course. That caused officials to take stock. They had a parcel of undeveloped land at North Boundary alongside a water park, playground and soccer fields. Then, the Cranberry Township Community Chest jumped in to raise funds for the project.
Parks and recreation director Pete Geis said tourism is one benefit of creating a course.
“It can definitely bring pretty significant money to our community,” he said. “The direct impact for us, though, is more people using our parks, getting people outside, getting people on the trails.”
A new nature trail will weave through the course. Lorin Meeder, the project’s manager with the township, said its placement is deliberate so that spectators can move about the course to view different holes during a tournament.
The region’s record rainfall in 2018 caused some delay and although the tees and baskets are in and the trail’s carved out, the course is still pretty rough in some areas.
“We’re trying to get it all put together the end of April or the beginning of May,” Meeder said. “We want to make sure that we have all our signage in and our trails marked.”
One of the last steps is to get to work on a learn-to-play course set aside from the rest. It will feature six short ADA-accessible holes and will likely host clinics for kids and new players.
“We don’t want them coming out here and trying the championship course, throwing their disc off in the woods and losing it and thinking, ‘I hate this game, this is dumb,’” Dropcho said. “We want them to have a good experience and learn the right way.”
As they get better, they can graduate to the longer course. Maybe they’ll get hooked and push this growing sport even further.