The Vibram Open Course Preview – Maple Hill DGC in Leicester, MA

The other day I had the opportunity to play Maple Hill Disc Golf Course in Leicester, MA --- it was the closest thing to playing on a major tournament course I’ve ever experienced. Playing golf since I was 6 years old, I have been brought up watching the sport’s majors intently. I used to dream of what it was like to play on the courses --- fully manicured, greens rolling 14 on the stimpmeter, grand stands erected, rough 4” thick and tournament officials walking about. What would it take to get me to be able to play those courses only days after the event? Probably nothing --- no chance. Now I’m 27 and have had a new passion for 6 or so years now --- disc golf. So what would it take to play in such a setting --- a major event on the Professional Disc Golf Association tour schedule?  Apparently, simply driving to the course, paying my $5 fee and strapping up my shoes would suffice. Cool!

Wrapping up our 3-week Northeast tour with Zach Deputy, we enjoyed a couple days off in Massachusetts before having to head down to Fredericksburg, VA to pick up tour at The Otter House and follow up on successful summer music festival appearances at All Good Music Festival in Masontown, WV and Camp Barefoot in Bartow, WV. Our two days off proved to be very enjoyable, as I was finally able to play Maple Hill which has been a course I’ve had on my to-play list for a while now. Maple Hill will play host to The Vibram Open in a couple days, from September 1-4 to be exact. The Vibram Open is the 8th and final National Tour event on the Professional Disc Golf Association tour schedule.  All the top disc golfers in the world will be there, and I’ll be ready to document every little sliver of information.

I’m a landscape architect professional and disc golf enthusiast. I have spent many hours documenting proposed courses all over the United States, but am yet to actually attend a disc golf event. I’ll be at The Vibram Open on Thursday, as well as the United States Disc Golf Championships at Winthrop Gold in Rock Hill, SC in early October. To be able to see the operation of the tournament directors, video crew, score keepers, hospitality staff, maintenance crew and more is something I will watch very closely. My life as Tour Manager for a nationally tour banding (and Innova-sponsored celebrity ambassador) has afforded me the opportunity to see massive production from behind the scenes. I am able to see the overall flow of it all, and get down to the nitty gritty and see the finest of details from paperwork in the production office to candy in the dressing rooms. Disc golf is an emerging sport --- I still can’t believe how unknown it is to many --- and I’m unbelievably thrilled to be able to see a National Tour event less than an hour from my home.

When we pulled up to the parking lot, I popped out excitedly with camera in tow --- snapping pictures of everything I saw! Taking pictures of the woodchips, signage, skid steers, pro shop, practice putting area, old signage from last year’s Vibram Open, and the extensive Christmas tree farm. I personally have always wanted a Christmas tree farm, so to see this course integrated so beautifully within one was a nice surprise. Douglas Firs acts as a whole other level of hazards in disc golf, too. Have you ever thrown a disc (or hit a golf ball) through a tree and heard someone say, “Trees are 90% air”? Ok, now let’s think about a Christmas tree. On the 11th hole, I had a routine second shot into the pin for what I thought was a solid par. I let down my guard for a minute and my Roc clipped the edge of the Douglas Fir, batting it down to the ground without a second thought. There is no way to penetrate a disc through one of these trees, so to dot them around your course (or to put a course in the middle of a Christmas tree farm) is highly intelligent.

The 1st and 2nd holes are located within the Christmas tree portion of the property as well, but that should be the last of anyone’s worry. Standing on the first tee, disc golfers face one of the most difficult shots on the course right out of the gate. With no practice throws and only minimal stretching, I took my Umphrey’s McGee Valkyrie out of my bag in hopes that I wouldn’t plunk it in the drink. Maybe this was my demise --- thinking “Don’t put it in the water” instead of “Put it next to the pin.” I put a good huck on the disc, but not enough as it landed in the water about 3 feet short of the stone retaining wall. I hustled down to the basket, took of my sneakers and anything valuable off and jumped in to get my precious disc. I love this thing more than a lot of things in my life, and there was no way I was losing it! The next couple holes were routine pars, but things got exciting once we got back to the water again. Holes 4-9 were an absolute blast, as water was in play most of the time. I really enjoyed this stretch cause a lot of the shots were all about positioning --- leaving yourself on the correct side of the fairway, or putting your shot in a location that takes the water out of play, but still leaves you an uphill putt for par. The only shot on this stretch of holes that is all about muscle and less about discipline is the drive on the 8th hole. With a 275 foot carry all over water, you can’t miss your drive left OR right. Short and left is the large pond, while to the right side of the pathway that takes you to the hole is more water! I tried to peel a left to right turning Sidewinder into this hole, but I didn’t get enough on it and left it about 5 feet short and wet. After plunking two discs in the water through 8 holes, I turned my game around and finished up quite nicely.

Hole 10 isn’t the prettiest of holes, but it does have a signature element to it --- a castle wall. The wooden retaining wall perches the basket well above grade, giving disc golfers even more of a challenge to this Douglas Fir-lined, uphill start to the back nine. The tee shot is pretty straight forward, while the second shot demands a pin high right approach, leaving a level putt for par. If you end up short on your second shot, par putts will be to a basket that is located 10 feet above grade --- very tricky par from there! The back nine is significantly longer than the front, but much more open for the most part. There were a couple wooded holes that really caught my attention, but were much more straight forward than their wooded counterparts on the front nine. I strung together a lot of pars on the back nine and escaped it only +2, which was a thrill for me after a +6 front nine. Ugh.

I was happy to keep it under +10 on my first attempt at this course, but was very disappointed with my play on the tight wooded holes, as those are usually my specialty. This wasn’t my best round, but it was more of a course introduction for me so I’ll be prepared for The Vibram Open, which starts in a couple days. I have seen the gold ropes laid out, making the course THAT much tougher for the world’s best. I remember standing on several holes, looking at the out of bands surrounding us, and just laughing at the gold rope. I’m a halfway decent player, but this blew my mind! I can’t wait for the tourney to start and see these guys BOMBING discs like I’ve never seen before. I’ve scouted out some slot holes that I’ll probably stake out just to see these guys peel it in, landing it within feet of the basket. The Golf Course was fun to see, but very humbling to say the least. Seeing the course in tournament conditions, the pin locations, the out of bounds, the tee signage, and the overall course layout were a treat. The world’s best are about to descend on Central Massachusetts and I hope that attendance for the tournament exceeds expectations. There is no reason for every avid disc golfer within a 4 hour drive not to be here. We are talking about seeing the world’s best at one of the finest, most demanding layouts in New England! For those who don’t come, look for a follow up to the tournament, chalk full of pictures, video and extensive review.

Nature’s Finest: Flat Rock Disc Golf in Athol, MA

Every time I step foot on a disc golf course, it absolutely boggles my mind how the sport is completely unknown to the majority of the world. You ask anybody on God’s given earth if they have heard of basketball, and what do they say? Yes. What about disc golf? It’s incredible that a sport that is so good on so many levels has yet to reach the mainstream public. A basketball court is comprised of two hoops, a large amount of cement and a basketball. It has a low start up cost (nearly free) for users, but the nearly $10,000 capital investment for the folks installing the court is a bit pricey. Add in the fact that cement is an impervious surface that contributes to erosion and degradation of streams, the court needs to be on a completely flat piece of land and that at its highest time of use can only accommodate 10 players, it’s funny how basketball is so common yet disc golf is so foreign.

With that being said, disc golf courses can go anywhere! Courses not only CAN go along riparian corridors and unbuildable slopes, but they SHOULD. Think of all the beautiful places you have seen in your lifetime and how badly you wished more people knew about it. Why don’t they know about it? It’s probably a bunch of reasons, but two of them are usually the fact that it is in a location that not many know about and that no one is taking them there. Well, enter disc golf. Disc golf can be the conduit for helping people interact with nature! Slopes over 25% are extremely costly to re-grade and situate a building upon, and with 200’ buffers along streams and riparian corridors, buildings simply can’t be located in these locations. Once again, enter disc golf. With no permanent foundations or playing surfaces, disc golf holes can follow streams and wetlands as well as ridge lines and even mountain tops. To tie back to the statement about basketball, disc golf can accommodate up to 72 people at one time (assuming the course is an 18 hole course and every hole has a foursome playing it), and the capital investment is minimal. Assuming that the course uses top of the line baskets, compacted gravel tee pads and signage for each hole, it’s still only around $7,000. Many courses decide to reach out to local businesses to sponsor holes. With a price tag of $250 per sponsor, and two sponsors per hole, the capital investment has been recouped and courses can now think about spending the extra cash on course improvements. Sounds fun!

Spending the last four years living in Amherst, MA has giving me some of the best memories of my entire life. Having a huge work load at UMass, I was unable to venture out too far to see what Western Massachusetts had to offer. I spent the majority of my time doing school work and seeing music, but I would still frequent Northampton State Hospital Disc Golf Course and The Highlands of Conway multiple times a week, year round. Sadly, I didn’t get to play too many other courses besides Crane Hill Disc Golf Course in Wilbraham, MA, Wickham Park in Manchester, CT and a few others, but I still heard great things about some of the courses along Route 2 like Flat Rock Disc Golf in Athol and Tully Lake Disc Golf in Royalston. Finally, on my four day break from Zach Deputy tour, I was able to make it up to Flat Rock in Athol. The previous two days had seen my friends and I play rounds in Wilbraham and Conway, so to continue the adventure we drove 35 minutes north to Athol to play this private course.

Only getting some information from friends and DG Course Review, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew the course was quite challenging and that it laid on private property with state conservation land flanking the holes as its boundaries. When we pulled up, we were all blown away. The disc golf store is situated in a rustic looking barn that lays adjacent to a small garden and the first tee box. The garden is closed off by a twig laced fence and acts as an out of bounds on the 14th hole. While enjoying the garden, some of us take putts on the 14th basket to warm up for what is promised to be a memorable round. As we walk over to the 1st tee, we see wooden structures, rustic metal sculptures and environmental art dotted throughout the landscape. The message board is stocked with information, including an honesty box, sign in sheet, hole in one shout outs and tournament announcements. The attention to detail that caught my eye was the pencil sharpener and bottle opener! It’s common for disc golfer to enjoy a nice beverage while they play, and not every pencil is the sharpest, so why not give the players what they need an want to enjoy their round to the fullest.

As we stand on the 1st tee and look down the fairway, we search for the pin as the dog leg right hole keeps the target just out of sight. To our delight, we look to the sign for information and I see my first ever 3 dimensional hole layout. Small rocks denote the rock wall that acts as the out of bounds along the roadway, while small plugs show the large trees that give the hole its shape. The pin and tee are marked with blue dots as we survey the landscape and map to find which disc we’re going to huck first. Naturally, I take out my Valkyrie as low flying bullet that turns a little right should leave me in perfect position to ease into this tightly wooded course with a par. I’m awestruck as I approach my disc on the edge of the fairway that is lined with flowering mountain laurel and rock outcroppings. The course is absolutely gorgeous and we’ve only played one hole! As we walk down the road to the far removed 2nd tee, we stare into the woods at the large canopy trees and ferns scattered along the forest floor. We’re all so happy to be with one another on this beautiful June day as we try our hand at what is to be an enjoyable day on the disc golf course.

The 2nd hole opens up a bit more, but a large pit full of wood chips lies in the middle of the fairway, awaiting big booming drives or sloppy second shots. Just over the crest of the hill, the unassuming player will dump their second shot in this out of bounds pit, which is home to an assortment of strawberry plantings. More out of bounds awaits players on the next 16 holes, so keep your shots straight and long. It is that easy, right? The 3rd hole is one of my favorites on the course, with a narrow fairway and a hanging basket. If you’re even lucky enough to hit the fairway, a Wolf would suit any player well as a disc that moves slightly to the right and sits quick will award a birdie opportunity. If you can pick you position here, be pin high left or a little long, as the hanging basket hovers over a ledge that drops off severally on two sides. If you don’t have a makeable putt, take your par and get out, but if you feel like risking a birdie for a bogey, go for it…just don’t be surprised when you hit the basket and the disc rolls 30 feet to the bottom of the hill.

The 4th hole is a short, but challenging hole, and the 5th and 6th holes give each player a fair shake at birdie. If you don’t make birdie on at least one of these holes you’re asking for trouble as the last couple holes of the front nine and the majority of the back nine don’t leave you with many opportunities to pick up strokes. The back nine is significantly longer than the front, but by the time you get to the 11th hole you’re ready to bust out a big Sidewinder and see if you can turn the corner on what is, in my opinion, the hardest hole on the course. If you were to remember one hole at Flat Rock Disc Golf, it would probably be the 12th, which demands a precise drive and approach shot to an almost island green that is 50 or so feet below, all the while surrounded by slow flowing water and more flowering mountain laurels.

The last three holes I will mention quickly catch anyone’s attention. The 13th hole actually made me laugh out loud. A short par three, this hole boasts a multi leader tree that splits the fairway in two, offering players to either split their drive between the tree limbs or take it to the right of them. The only thing about going right is a small stick figure blocks your shot. Flat Rock is dotted with goofy faces carved into wood and sculptures to catch your attention. This stick figure sits atop a dead tree with its goofy smile and an arm holding up a disc. The arm holding the disc is so perfectly positioned that it forces you to abort the low hyzer shot and makes you contemplate splitting the trees in the middle of the fairway. This was my worst shot of the day as I hit a tree and went deep into the brush on the right, forcing me to grind out an ugly bogey and be happy it was only that. The 17th and 18th holes are the first and only holes that really bring water into play. Crisscrossing a pond that sits in the owner’s backyard, these holes demand two opposite disc flights. A low hyzer Roc works just fine on 17, as the hyzer helps keep the disc under the tree limps past the pond, while allowing the disc to skip all the way back to the basket. The 18th hole asks for a long anhyzer drive with something like a Sidewinder, Beast or Katana. These two holes utilize the same pond, one being a short mid range with the other being a long driver, and really put an exclamation point on one of the finest courses in Western Massachusetts or New England as a whole.

To wrap this review up, I can’t stress enough how terrific this course is. From tightly wooded slot shots to big D field opportunities this course tests the depth of your bag. As you make your way through the 18 hole layout, stacked rock outcroppings and environmental art gives a delightful playfulness to the course. None of the tee boxes are permanent, but they are level and compacted so there really is no problem with them at all. Signage from hole to hole is very well done so wayfinding is fairly self explanatory. With a couple hanging baskets dotted throughout the course, there is even variety in the placement of baskets. I can’t say enough good things about this course as the towering pines, flowering mountain laurel and alternate pathways entice players to take a stroll in the woods and almost forget about why they are there. Flat Rock Disc Golf is disc golf at its finest…testing every shot in the bag all the while taking players somewhere they’ve never seen before. We as disc golf course players and designers need to use the sport as an extension of the landscape, helping to bring players and non-players alike to some of the most beautiful, unexplored tracts of land that this fine country has to offer. Thank you to Chenoa Charpentier for pictures!