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State parks are embracing disc golf

Disc golf hasn't been a good fit for Medford, but it seems tailor-made for Oregon’s state parks.

The Forks Disc Golf Course, located in Illinois River Forks State Park near Cave Junction, opened March 1, becoming the 10th disc course in the state park system — and the first south of Eugene.

“We didn’t start the disc golf craze, but people want it, and we have space, and that’s led us to open the door to it,” explains Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

The state pays attention when “there’s community interest and people willing to volunteer to help us out,” he adds, which was certainly the case in Cave Junction, where businesses and schools rallied behind the Forks project, providing financial support and sweat equity. Also, the Ford Family Foundation contributed a $5,000 grant.

On a recent Sunday morning, a family atmosphere reigned at the pretty Forks site, studded with Ponderosa pine and oak trees.

A Grants Pass man arrived at the first tee toting a bag over his shoulder, stuffed with discs of different weights and sizes — one for every situation the course might throw at him. He had already played Forks several times, describing it as “challenging and good exercise.”

“And a lot of fun,” his 12-year-old daughter chimed in.

In contrast to this arsenal bearer, a retired Medford couple and their adult son each carried a single round, flat, plastic object (disc golfers never call them Frisbees). Swinging their arms to loosen up, the trio waited quietly for the man and his daughter to fling their tee shots.

At 240 feet, the first hole is longer than only the sixth (230 feet). But a dogleg complicates matters. The 639-foot fourth hole will put even a rocket arm to the test. The other five holes range from 310 to 455 feet.

As in conventional golf, the object of disc golf is to complete a course in as few shots as possible. Players take aim at metal baskets suspended from poles, which, in a nod to tradition, they refer to as holes.

At Forks, the designated tee areas are cement pads, enabling firm footing for long-distance launches.

Loose, rocky dirt and prickly grass cover much of the course, which crosses a shallow ditch twice. Athletic footwear is essential.

According to Forks course designer Bob Chard, disc courses are showing up in more and more state parks because they are easy and relatively cheap to install.

“We don’t need a bulldozer to clear the land and we don’t need acres of grass, or the nitrates in the fertilizer that goes with it,” he says. “We basically use the land as it is with some clearing for fairway. We can also utilize hilly land, which ball golfers can’t because a ball rolls down a hill more readily than a disc.”

Chard can design an 18-hole course, he says, for around $15,000, whereas a conventional golf course “probably costs one or two million, and then there’s the upkeep.”

Nearly 1,000 people have played Forks every month since it opened — numbers that support enthusiasts’ claim that disc golf is the fastest-growing sport in the country.

“The participation of disc golf is rising at the rate, I last heard, of 15 percent a year,” Chard says.

Medford is not part of DG mania, however.

In 2008, the city removed a disc course from Holmes Park, after hearing one too many nuisance complaints from neighbors. At the time, city officials said they would find a more suitable location, away from homes, for the sport.

Since then, rumors of a new course have flown periodically, always raising hopes in the DG community. For now though, the closest public courses to Medford are at Emigrant Lake and on Shale City Road, both near Ashland and both are 18 holes.

Forks — an easy stop on Highway 199, heading to or from the coast — and five other Josephine County sites (Tom Pearce, Lake Selmac, Indian Mary, Wolf Creek and Riverside parks) are also within easy driving range. Tom Pearce and Lake Selmac are 18-hole setups, the others nine-hole.

Gold Hill has some disc targets at its sports park, but not a fully developed course.

This May, the Mt. Ashland Association revealed its plan for a summer adventure center at the ski area, which might include a DG course. But that could take years to complete.

The Forks course could be expanded to 18 holes, as originally conceived, if its popularity continues. And Chard sees no reason why it wouldn’t, especially in our economically tough times.

“DG costs almost nothing to play,” he says, “compared to ball golf with its hundreds of dollars for clubs and its expensive entry fees.”

There’s no charge to play Forks, nor to enter the state park, located at the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Illinois River. Highway signs, about a mile south of downtown Cave Junction, point the way.

The park is day-use only, and also offers picnic tables, short hiking trails and a swimming area.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

According to Forks course designer Bob Chard, disc courses are showing up in more and more state parks because they are easy and relatively cheap to install. Photo / 123RF.com
The first hole at the recently opened Forks Disc Golf Course, located in Illinois River Forks State Park near Cave Junction. Photo by Paul Hadella