Disc golf and the construction of happiness

Image by Mike Plansky
Image by Michael Plansky

It’s spring 1990. Mike Plansky is standing in a municipal park near Palo Alto, California, crouched like the Karate Kid with a footbag resting on the back of his neck. With an undulating motion, he rolls the multi-paneled pigskin up his spine and over his head. Dropping on gravity’s rainbow, the footbag suddenly stalls, impossibly, on the toe of Mike’s black and white Vans. Then, with a fluid jerk of his foot, he passes the footbag to his friend.

Like most young, middle-class, white men in their final year of high school, Mike doesn’t really care what the future holds. There are no exams tomorrow. He’s not worried about finding a job or paying the bills. He has no aches or pains, no mischievous growths or illness. There is nothing in his mind that resembles discomfort.

As Mike watches his friend preform a clipper move, he has a kind of revelation. Without saying a word, or even thinking one, Mike discovers a simple truth—that happiness occurs when what we want to do is what we’re doing. This feeling, this exhilarating feeling of enjoyment, shapes the course of Mike’s life.

In the fall, he begins college at the University of California, Irvine, where he spends more time playing beach volleyball than attending class. After college, instead of searching for a nine-to-five job, he heads for the mountains of Lake Tahoe, works as a snowboarding instructor in winter, and plays volleyball and disc golf in summer.

Happiness quote
Photo from Footbag Hall of Fame

Over time, disc golf moves to the center of Mike’s life, along with an increasing desire to help grow the sport. To this end, in 2002, Mike and his friend launch the Disc-N-Dig Festival, an annual tournament designed to bring athletes together from different sports. Teams of three compete in both beach volleyball and disc golf. Although many of the participants have never thrown a disc, they jump right in and love it. This is when Mike begins to see the potential for disc golf’s growth as a sport.

Mike’s second idea for engaging people in outdoor fun involves a career move. In 2010, with the hope of working as a disc-golf course designer, he enters a master of landscape architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona.

Gaining support from an academic committee to carry out thesis research is never easy. What is most difficult is made so by proposing a topic that lacks an identifiable literature. Disc golf is notable in this respect. All one needs are a few fingers to count the number of academic studies on disc golf.

But Mike pushes ahead with his research anyway. Within three years, he successfully defends his master’s thesis, which becomes an excellent, groundbreaking book released in 2015 under the title, Disc Golf Course Design: Inscribing Lifestyle into Underutilized Landscapes.

I had a chance to read Mike’s book and discuss it with him during an extended interview in March 2017. Here are some of the highlights from our talk (the answers below were co-written by Michael Plansky and Josh Woods):

For me, one of the most interesting takeaways from your book involves the differences between disc golf and conventional sports. You refer to disc golf as a “lifestyle sport.” What do you mean by that?

The most popular sports in the United States have been around for more than a century. The rules, traditions and technologies of these sports have evolved slowly. Played within fixed boundaries, traditional sports are tightly controlled, policed by referees, focused on competition, and designed to produce zero-sum outcomes.

Disc golf and other lifestyle sports developed during the countercultural social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Some scholars argue that the norms, values and identities of lifestyle athletes differ from those of traditional athletes. Lifestyle sports are typically more adventurous, creative, expressive and spontaneous than traditional sports. In contrast to the square or rectangular boundaries of conventional sports, many lifestyle sports are played in free-form public spaces.

Sports fields
The shapes of traditional sports

Take skimboarding on the ocean shorebreak for example, or free running, or skateboarding in an urban area, or coming upon your perfect wave tucked in the trees on a snowboard. You go out and find these places, claim them, make them your own. Object golf or frolf is probably the purest example of this, but disc golfers also scout for new course locations in the woods and fields. They trek through forests, dreaming up fairways, landing zones, greens and pin placements. Even when playing the same course for the hundredth time, choosing a shot and executing it is a matter of invention and creativity, given the countless options for each throw.

Lifestyle sports tend to involve grassroots efforts, whereas traditional sports tend to be supported by institutions. For instance, local disc golf clubs regularly pay for and build disc golf courses in public parks, but community basketball clubs rarely pay for and build gymnasiums or outdoor courts.

From this perspective, disc golf almost sounds like surfing or skateboarding.

Well, it is like surfing. Both activities involve a cultural identity that is separate and exists apart from the commercialized, competitive, organized sides of the sports. The committed surfer experiences feelings and a sense of self that the casual surfer cannot experience.

The same thing is true for disc golfers. For instance, when a committed disc golfer witnesses an incredible shot, she doesn’t really care who threw it or how the shot will change the outcome of the round. She feels a kind of buzz, or transcendence, that vicarious joy of flight. Sure, the feeling is strongest when she’s the one throwing the shot, but the feeling also emerges when it’s her friend’s throw. She’s “stoked,” to use the surfer word.

Photo from TalkingLifestyle.com

Maybe that’s why disc golfers, almost by reflex, say “nice” (or “niiiiice”) when they see a beautiful shot. They’re not being polite. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re saying it. They feel the nice before thinking the nice. The word radiates from their identity, from who they are as disc golfers. Of course, this sometimes causes frustration when a nice shot ends poorly (ergo, “don’t nice me bro”).

To study a lifestyle sport like disc golf, you could have pursued a graduate degree in sociology or anthropology. Why did you pick landscape architecture?

I think it’s the key to growing the sport. For disc golf to go mainstream, it will need a much bigger pool of participants, whose skills, abilities and interests will, undoubtedly, vary. To attract these diverse players, we’ll need carefully constructed disc golf courses. That’s where landscape architecture comes in.

There’s more to this profession than most people think. Landscape architects are not simply gardeners who help people choose shrubs for their backyards. The job has as much to do with selecting land features as it does with understanding and working with various stakeholders to maximize the potential of a given project.

I’m guessing there are not many landscape architecture professionals who have been playing disc golf for twenty years like you have. How do you think your knowledge of both disc golf and landscape architecture enhances your ability to design courses?

All landscape architects can benefit a course construction project with their knowledge of ecology, design principles, the flora and fauna, slope, erosion, drainage, the future consequences of changing a landscape, and the requirements of environmental regulation. They may also help by trouble shooting adjacent land use, and carefully considering the goals and perspectives of diverse clients and stakeholders.

But an architect who also knows the game will be better at designing disc golf courses that more people will enjoy and want to play.

How do you do that? How do you build a course that everyone likes? Isn’t there a tension between building a course for beginners and building one for experienced disc golfers?

It’s difficult, no doubt. How do you build a course that attracts the most people? How do you keep disc golfers of different skill levels engaged in play? Ball golf course designers have been working on this problem for years. But the challenge for disc golf may be even greater, because the difference in driving distances between pros and amateurs is greater for disc golfers than it is for ball golfers.

Black Course
Hole 18, 1,008 feet, Black Course, Moundsville WV (photo by Disc Golf Farm)

The average PGA Tour player hits a drive about 260 yards. In comparison, the amateur ball golfer certainly has problems with driving accuracy, but can cover a big percentage of the pro’s distance—let’s say about 180 yards on average, or 70 percent. I don’t have the numbers, but I don’t think the average amateur disc golfer can carry 70 percent of the average pro’s distance. It’s probably closer to 50 percent or even less, especially when you consider the increasing number of brand new players hitting the course.

Think about what it’s like for a novice disc golfer to step onto the tee pad of a monster, par-five hole that’s more than 1,000 feet long. A pro might clear the distance in two or three throws, but it will likely take an early-career disc golfer six or seven throws just to reach the green. The typical pro taps in for birdie, while the noobie, exhausted and demoralized, spends twice as long on the hole and nearly throws his arm out for a triple bogey.

The problem is especially hard to solve when you’re designing a course on a wide-open landscape. In this case, you should either design for one type of player or the other. If you have a wooded landscape with natural landing areas, elevation changes and opportunities for doglegs, you can level the playing field a bit and create a course that more people will enjoy.

Disc golf and ball golf
Photo by Star Tribune

What do you think about playing disc golf on ball golf courses?

It seems to be working well for major tournaments, especially when the entire course is devoted to disc golf for the event. I think it works less well for the average disc golfer playing in mixed use situations. It gets a little messy. Disc golf has a different feel on a ball golf course. When you’re playing disc golf, you want to feel like the course was built for you. The same goes for ball golfers. The different flows of activity create a tension. It’s like the tension between skiers and snowboarders at a ski resort.

Returning to the idea of disc golf as a lifestyle sport, it seems like throwing discs at temporary baskets on a ball golf course may not offer the same lifestyle-feeling or authentic experience as throwing to permanent baskets on a nice wooded course. What do you think?

It’s hard to say what an authentic disc golf experience is, but the spirit of adventure and discovery, which runs through many lifestyle sports, may be hard to find on some ball golf courses. The disc golf courses I enjoy most are like stories or works of art. They encourage people to use their imaginations, learn something new about themselves and the people around them, and experience a deep sense of enjoyment.

The challenge of building a great course is like the difficulty of writing a great story. In either case, the audience shouldn’t be confused about where it’s headed, but they should still be curious about what will happen next. I’m not sure a pop-up disc golf course on a ball golf course can do that, especially when you look out and see three or four baskets sitting in the open. Not exactly a cliffhanger.

At its best, disc golf is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s more than a series of individual acts, more than a contest between eager opponents, more than a sport. When you’re standing on the tee pad of a beautiful hole and all the elements come together—nature, risk, competition, friendship, community, identity—it’s something special. It’s happiness. Full stop.


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Michael Plansky’s book Disc Golf Course Design: Inscribing Lifestyle into Underutilized LanMike Plansky headshotdscapes can be purchased at Lulu or Amazon. Michael also set aside eight signed copies of the book on his ebay seller page.


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