Off the tee you use a driver. From the fairway you use a midrange. Close to the pin, a putter.
If the terms sound familiar, the game won’t be nearly as complicated to learn as you think. Except it’s not golf — at least not in the traditional sense.
Disc golf’s history depends on who you ask, but unsurprisingly, one of its origin stories is Canadian. In 1926 a group of friends in Saskatchewan played ‘Tin Lid Golf,’ sans the rules and regulations of the sport today. The sport struggled to take off, disappearing from Canada until the 1970s when it was reintroduced at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and Vancouver. Around the same time, the first modern course was built in Pasadena, California.
Today, there’s a Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), provincial and state associations, and local leagues and clubs. While the numbers are small compared to more mainstream sports, some athletes play full-time, competitively, often living out of vans or trailers to go from tournament to tournament.
Like traditional golf, there are tee pads and pins, fairways, usually 18 holes and a host of other regulations, like out-of-bounds lines for tournament play. However, it remains one of the most accessible and low-cost sports to play.
There’s probably a course near you and you don’t even know it.
I started playing disc golf about four years ago, having caught sight of a course from afar. I consulted Google to figure out the purpose of the weird baskets with chains I’d seen and discovered a course in my area that would loan out discs for curious patrons to try from the cafe on the park’s property.
One throw off the tee pad and I was hooked.
The number of disc golfers across Canada is steadily increasing. In 2012 in Ontario, there were 6,818 registered players, using about 30 courses. In 2017, that figure had risen to more than 22,400 players on 71 different courses. Today there are more than 90 courses in Ontario alone.
The growth can be attributed to how easy it is to get into the sport, says Chris Ozolins, director of the Ontario Disc Sports Association and provincial director for the PDGA.
“There’s a low barrier of entry both cost- and skill-wise; most courses are free, the equipment to play is affordable, and it’s very easy to reach a level of athletic proficiency that allows you to enjoy the sport.”
Ozolins points out that while it’s relatively easy to get started, the sport is challenging to perfect, offering a “longevity and development continuum,” that keeps players coming back. My partner spends (too much) time listening to podcasts, watching videos and hanging out in “form check” Reddit forums, all in the hopes of getting better, while I’m happy to let practice do the work for me.
“It’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in nature while being challenged athletically and exploring the physics of flight,” says Ozolins.
It’s also one of the friendliest sports I’ve ever played. It’s common to hear “Nice up!” or “Good throw!” from someone else on your card or on the next hole over. When our car was broken into and our discs stolen, other players rushed to give us their extra discs, and within days we had more than we started with.
We now play a few times a week, even when there’s snow on the ground, and we make it a part of every vacation we take. On our last trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., we took a day off from the parks to play a few courses nearby. When we went to Chicago, we stopped at a disc golf course just outside the city. Our bucket list of courses to hit is longer than any travel goal list I’ve ever made.
As Ozolins says, it’s a great way to immerse yourself in nature for an hour or two. And right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s one of few sports where maintaining physical distance is easy, even when playing with multiple people.
There are about 280 courses across Canada (more than 1,600 across the U.S.). Here are my top recommendations for where to play — and if you need a disc, give me a call and you can borrow one of mine.
Personal Fave: Viamede Disc Golf Course, Peterborough, Ont.
A course I’d like to play over and over again, this course on the Canadian Shield was installed in 2014 and is about 45 minutes outside the city’s core. Tucked into the woods, it’s a challenging course that had us swearing at trees and clambering up rocky outcroppings to make impossible putts. It’s a truly gorgeous spot. It might be a bit challenging for new players, but the sights are so worth it.
East coast: Hillcrest Farm Disc Golf, Prince Edward Island
Located on about 16 hectares of land in the rolling hills of Bonshaw, P.E.I, this private course has hosted national championships more than once. Owner Bill Best played a round of disc golf on the west coast and fell in love with the sport. Upon returning home to the Island, he took a chunk of his personal 54-hectare farm and turned it into a disc golf course, finishing the build in 2011.
West coast: Raptors Knoll Disc Golf Course, Langley, B.C.
Multiple teepad and basket locations for each of the traditional 18 holes make this course one of the most diverse in the country. The options mean you can play 45 different holes on the 16-hectare course — and there’s even a driving range for practice. Built primarily by volunteers and donations from the surrounding community, the course held its grand opening in 2019 and quickly became one of the top-rated courses to play on the west coast.
Quebec: Domaine de Rouville, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Que.
As is common with disc golf courses, this Quebec course is wedged next to a 36-hole traditional golf course. The 18-basket disc course began as a temporary course for the Quebec provincials but became a permanent fixture this year. Thanks to the ball golf course nearby, disc golf players have access to the restaurant, bar and washrooms on site.
North: Mt. McIntyre, Whitehorse, Yukon
To play in Canada’s north, you have to get a little creative. Local, weekly leagues at Mt. McIntyre often includes a fire pit on skis, dragged from hole to hole to keep everyone warm between throws. Established in 2009, it’s a highly technical course with a good amount of elevation, but winds along cross country ski trails about five kilometres outside of town.