Disc Golf: Give It A Spin

Here’s a primer to get you started before you head to one of the seven courses in New Castle County

Drive by most state parks in Delaware and you’ll see basketball courts, baseball diamonds, tennis courts and soccer fields. But finding the spots where Frisbees fly takes a little more exploring.
But disc golf courses are there—18 “ holes” made of steel poles holding chain-link baskets, awaiting anyone willing to give it a whirl, from experienced players to novices. New Castle County alone features seven courses, and more might be on the way.

The nearly 100-year-old sport is seeing a renaissance in Delaware, with new courses popping up to complement those that have been here for a while. Some local pros (and yes, there are pros) and experts took time to talk about how to get started, how to acquire a Delaware Disc Golf membership, and what new courses are open and possibly on the way.

Disc Golf Starter Kit

Jimi McIlvain first came across disc golf while driving a cab in Baltimore 20 years ago, but only from a distance—he could see the baskets from the roads where he drove. But it wasn’t until he returned to his home state of Delaware a few years later that he had his first opportunity to play. And he was immediately hooked.

“Within a few months of playing, I was able to beat the young guy who introduced me to disc golf,” says McIlvain, a Seaford native now living in Newark. “There is so much to like about the sport, but I think what appeals to most beginners is that you can compete quickly. If you go out and play regular golf, it could take you years to get to a decent level. With disc golf, it can happen much, much faster.”

Now a professional disc golf player —which requires nothing more than competing in tournaments for prize money—McIlvain, 54, plays several times a week, when his schedule permits. Work (he’s a landscaper) and family responsibilities sometimes get in the way of his favorite hobby, but he says the two other major advantages of disc golf over ball golf—the time and money invested—make it doable.
“Look, I’m busy like a lot of people, but I can get in a round of disc by myself in an hour or so, and with some friends in under two hours,” McIlvain says. “Try getting out for a round of ball golf in less than four hours and spending less than 50 bucks; it’s pretty much impossible.”

Though McIlvain prefers disc over ball golf, he says there are certainly similarities, in addition to the scoring set-up of par-3s and par-4s and playing 18 holes in a round. He says it all starts with getting accustomed to the sport by taking the beginner’s approach and learning how to hit the right “clubs” before going for the basket on every tee shot.

“In golf, you’re told that it’s best to learn how to putt and hit a 9-iron or 7-iron, and then work up to the bigger clubs like a 3-wood or driver,” McIlvain says. “Same with disc golf. If you can’t throw a putter and an approach disc fairly straight for some distance, you don’t need to bother with the other discs. You try and chuck a driver disc 200 or more feet, and you’re going to spend a lot of time in the weeds.”

The tee box on Hole #2 at Iron Hill Park. Photo by Matt Loeb)
The tee box on Hole #2 at Iron Hill Park. Photo by Matt Loeb)

On a trip to Brandywine Park, McIlvain first showed our group how to tee off using an approach disc. The disc mirrors a regular Frisbee one would toss at the beach, but it’s about one-third smaller and made of softer plastic. McIlvain says the best way to toss an approach club is to keep the thumb of your throwing hand above the plane of the disc, to ensure that it flies flat and straight, rather than slicing off to the right or hooking to the left.

He also demonstrated two ways to toss the putter, which is typically thicker and softer than most regular discs. The design keeps the disc from sailing too far, or at any angle, like a regular Frisbee, and when it hits the chains and pole, it dies and falls flat—hopefully into the basket.

“There are two ways to putt,” McIlvain says. “You can either flatly toss it straight at the basket, or put a slight angle on it and glide it right into the chains. Both styles of tossing it work well, it just depends on your preference. My suggestion is to try both and figure out what works for you.”

McIlvain’s top five courses from bottom to top in New Castle County are: Lums Pond, Brandywine Park, Canby Park West, White Clay Creek State Park and Iron Hill Park. The latter, incidentally, is considered by pro disc golfers to be the most difficult permanent, public course in the world. He suggests taking on Iron Hill last, after hitting places like Brandywine and White Clay. And always bring water and bug spray.

Club Up

Possibly the most challenging obstacle about starting a new sport or hobby is finding people to play with on a consistent basis. But a Delaware Disc Golf (DDG) membership—a simple and free process at www.dediscgolf.com—offers players a way to connect throughout the week and throughout the year.
Robert Teitelbaum, treasurer of the DDG, says the group’s Facebook page provides community interaction, but that leagues and doubles nights are also scheduled on the group’s website (see above). Groups typically meet at 5:15 or 5:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at a rotation of state parks.

“There is no charge for signing up for the club, and any fees you might pay throughout the year to participate in a tournament or otherwise go directly back into the club,” Teitelbaum says. “We also offer a yearly tag challenge, where you pay $15 for a new colored tag that features an assigned number.”

Teitelbaum says the challenge allows members to play against each other in a casual setting and compete for bragging rights. The tag numbers range from 1 to 200, and if a member with a higher number (say, 125) beats a member with a lower number (say, 50), the two players exchange numbers. “It’s a fun little side competition we have on a yearly basis,” Teitelbaum says, “with the goal being to acquire the lowest number and rack up as many head-to-head wins as possible.”

The DDG also puts on annual tournaments that attract pro players from around the region, country and even the world. Upcoming outings include the Brewer’s Challenge 2, hosted by Stewart’s Brewing Company, at Iron Hill on Sunday, July 16, and The King of the Hill on Saturday, Aug. 19, also at Iron Hill. Both are C-tier events, which are open to players of all skill levels, according to the Professional Disc Golfer’s Association.

Discover a New Course

Experienced disc golfers are familiar with the twists and turns of Lums Pond and the ups and downs of Brandywine Park. But two new courses have popped up over the last few years: Canby Park West in Wilmington, and the newly opened Greenridge near Harmony Road outside Newark. Both designs and openings were heavily influenced by Fran Hoffman, a Wilmington native who has turned disc golf course architecture into a hobby of his own.

“I’ve played more than 200 different courses in the U.S. and Canada, so I have an eye for what kind of terrain would make for a good disc golf course,” Hoffman says. “I also have 22 portable baskets that I can bring with me to a county or city park, so that I can set up a beta course and have people out to see if it works.”

Hoffman hosted a few successful makeshift disc golf events at Harmony Brook Park in 2015, and he knew that the area along Greenridge Road could make for a great permanent course. He spoke with members of the community, who were concerned with how drug use and general vandalism had become an issue, and they backed Hoffman’s proposal.

“Once the civic association was good with my plan, which involved minimal hacking of trees and excavating of land, I took it to the county and got things approved,” Hoffman says. “One important thing I take into account when considering a new course is to avoid interrupting the natural habitat. If the tree lines and bushes and elevation all lend themselves to a challenging but fair disc golf course, they should be left alone. It preserves the integrity of the area and is cost-efficient.”

Hoffman says he has his eyes on some other parks that would make for good disc golf courses in New Castle County, but wasn’t willing to speculate before discussing possibilities with county officials. To keep abreast of upcoming group events and outings, search “Delaware Disc Golf” on Facebook and join their group.