By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
Dan Castle made his way up the first hole of the Westover Park disc golf course, the steepest climb of the 21. On his second throw, the disc caught a bad bounce off the ground and began rolling backward down the hill, seemingly traveling further by ground than it did through the air.
His third throw hit a tree and rolled in the wrong direction again.
“I might as well keep going for it. I guess I have to at this point,” Castle said. “God, I hate this game.”
He doesn’t really. As a previous ultimate frisbee player at James Madison University, Castle made the jump to disc golf three years ago and now serves as the club’s vice president.
While the course’s first two holes can frustrate players, Castle and the other members of the group said it’s rare to have two consecutive throws bounce as unfortunately as they did for Castle.
“That’s not a normal occurrence,” Castle said. “But all disc golfers will experience that” at some point.
Lately, though, disc golf in Harrisonburg has been an uphill slog for the members of the Rocktown DiscGolf Club. There’s been friction between the city and the club over the Westover course — which is the only public course in town — and that has come during a time when more players have discovered the sport. (Both JMU and EMU have courses that are for faculty, staff and students at those institutions.)
Adding to the club leaders’ frustration has been Ramblewood Park, a disc golf course across town that’s 90% complete but inaccessible after the previous Parks and Recreation director deemed it unsafe because of the adjacent police training ground.
Even changes at Westover Park have caused consternation among disc golfers. Two summers ago, the Virginia Department of Forestry initiated the removal of over 600 ash trees from the park because of invasive emerald ash borer infestations. Since then, Castle says the course has played differently.
“This course was not like this before, I mean it get it’s summertime, it’s dry, but these divots, these craters all throughout the course, it wasn’t handled correctly,” Castle said.
The fairways are littered with ash tree wood chips and dry patches of dirt where the endangered trees once stood. And while a traditional ball golf’s course quality is directly related to the ground surface, it’s more of a cosmetic change to a disc golf course. But what does change the difficulty of the disc golf course is the absence of those trees, which serve as obstacles to make players’ throws more challenging.
“So, you think it’s tight now, and it is tight, but it was much tighter,” Castle said. “It was just like they came in here and cut and left woodchips, and still to this day two years later there’s pieces of branches all over the course.”
‘Just destroyed the holes’
Trevor Oyer, who’s the club’s secretary, said with the rapid increase in players at Westover participating in league and casual play, the tree removals have presented challenges.
“There’s a balance,” Oyer said. “It’s easier for beginners now, which is awesome, but for a lot of our club members, it’s not as challenging as we would like it. And Westover’s a short course, relatively speaking, but its difficulty comes with the trees, so a lot of those trees coming up makes it easier.”
And whether the increase in people enjoying disc golf in Harrisonburg is related to the desire for outdoor activities spurred by the pandemic or not, it doesn’t change the fact that there are days when the city’s sole public course can’t withstand the new volume of players.
“Our biggest argument for another course would be that it gets overcrowded,” Oyer said. “We’ve had one of our best years in a long time, 15-20 people at a time, which is excellent. When it was January and February, in the heart of Covid, we were getting like 30 people because so many people were invested, there was so little else to do, they would come out and play in the cold because it was something to do.”
In late June, more trees disappeared from Westover as the Department of Public Works began carving out space for the new multi-use path that’s to connect Thomas Harrison Middle School to the park, through to Hillandale Park.
What frustrated club members was that the path came directly through the fifth hole, and they weren’t notified by the city that the changes would be made beforehand.
“I have no problem with greenways, I have no problem with bicyclists, I don’t have any problem with people walking to the middle school every day,” Castle said. “But they brought it right through two holes, just destroyed the holes, so the holes are definitely gone for safety reasons. You can’t be throwing over top of a pedestrian trail. And didn’t say a word to the club about it.”
Owen Byer, a professor of mathematics at Eastern Mennonite University, started playing during the pandemic after his son introduced him to the sport. He said there used to be a bunch of trees around “protecting the basket, like a jail.”
“So your approach shots were a lot harder,” Byer said of Hole No. 5. “It went from one of the most interesting holes to the most boring hole.”
‘Some better partnership ahead’
Castle said the Parks and Rec Department failed to consider the placement of the path in consideration of the existing disc golf course, which makes it more of a hazard to the pedestrians who will be using it when it’s completed later this summer.
“Here’s the problem,” Castle said. “You can’t even see the path from the tee pad, so you have someone on a bike coming 15-20 miles an hour, and it looks clear when you throw and then your disc is going down the fairway, and it hits them in the side of the head.”
Ed Steele, the club’s president, said he wished the city notified before they went in to remove the trees so he could at least let his members know what would happen.
“Really, it affects one hole at the back end, and I’m not gonna get upset about a trail being put through a park,” Steele said. “Because I realize in the overall scheme of things, we don’t own anything as a club or individual players, we don’t own the baskets and we don’t own the land that they’re on, and if the city decides that they need to use part of the grounds that the course is on I personally think it’s a good thing to do. And if that means we have to be a little flexible in the design and layout of our course, then so be it.”
Oyer said that between when Ramblewood was shut down until now, the club had a rocky relationship with the previous parks and rec director.
“And that really set the tone and hurt our club’s ability to expand course-wise,” Oyer said.
Since the previous director, Luanne Santangelo, left in the early spring, the club has been working with the interim director, Brian Mancini, whom they describe as helpful and has provided assurances that he’s going to work to improve the situation at Westover and address the situation at Ramblewood.
“He met with us on Hole 5 to look at the damage, and we spoke for two hours about what we wanted to see done,” Castle said. “He also gave me a lot of confidence that he sees disc golf as a valuable part of the community and something that’s worth being invested in.”
Oyer and Castle said that while they’re unsure of the form it will take, they are hopeful about disc golf’s future in Harrisonburg.
“They’ve always called our club a partnership with them, and it’s really felt like an insult the last couple years,” Oyer said. “And the last month when we’ve had some good conversations with this interim director, it feels like there’s some better partnership ahead.”
Mancini and Police Chief Kelley Warner have had recent discussions about walking the property at Ramblewood and brainstorming possible solutions.
“I’m very open to working with the club and the city to find out what could be the best route here,” Warner said. “But whatever it is, what I’m most concerned about is safety.”
Growing the sport
Steele said the biggest push this year has been to get more people playing in both league and casual play, an effort that he calls #GrowTheSport.
In preparation for the club’s annual tournament in September — the Rocktown Classic — he says he’d love to see more women’s and youth league participants.
“We see a lot of women out playing individually, but not many of them play in the club,” Steele said. “And we feel like if we can get three or four to start playing organized, then that will turn into six or eight, and that’ll turn into 10 to 12 and pretty soon we’ll have enough to do our own women’s league.”
The club will offer discounted fees to those participating in the women’s and junior divisions.
And getting some intramural leagues introduced to the middle schools and high school in town would be the perfect introduction to a potential younger disc golfer.
“Once you get somebody playing, they’re gonna find out how much fun it is and keep coming back to it,” Steele said.
Cameron Byer has been playing on and off since he was in high school and introduced his dad to the sport during the pandemic. He started playing seriously two summers ago and now that he’s a college graduate, he said he likes to have people his own age to compete against.
“Losing all those competitive sports I used to play and being able to find that again here and fill that void” has been important, Byer said. “Outside of academics, high school sports that was my whole life right there.”
And while they’ve managed to garner a good amount of interest from younger adults, it’s not without the same level of outreach.
“Our club, through Trevor’s involvement tied in with EMU and building the course there, we’ve got a lot of college age students and recent graduates that have started playing,” Byer said. “But a different club might have a completely different demographic.”
And competition is all part of the fun.
After defeating and ascending the dreadful slope of Holes 1 and 2 at Westover, Castle made his way through to the now arid landscape of Hole 5. It’s clear the disc golfer has a love-hate relationship with trees.
“They’re both the enemies and the things that make the game worth playing,” Castle said.
It’s what makes each throw different and challenging. A different approach around (or through) trees can make a familiar hole seem like part of a new course.
“It’s a new opportunity to conquer a hole you haven’t birdied before, or shape a line around the trees,” he said. “That’s one of the more satisfying things about the game is shaping the lines and seeing the disc do what you intended it to do.”
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