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!