In August 2005, a young Devan Owens embarks on an unlikely journey. He leaves his home near Tulsa, Oklahoma and travels nearly a thousand miles to Flagstaff, Arizona for the PDGA Amateur Disc Golf World Championships. Owens is sixteen years old, a precocious lefty with a sidearm and a dream.
Stringing together eight, stunningly consistent rounds, he wins the Junior II division by seven strokes, and beats another rising phenom, Paul Ulibarri, by 21 strokes. These achievements are certainly impressive, but here’s the kicker: Owens has only played disc golf for one year. He evolves from an embryonic noob to an amateur world champion in 365 days.
In the next years, Owens dedicates himself to disc golf, becomes a successful touring pro, attracts sponsorships, including Latitude 64°, takes on leadership roles in the disc golf community at the local and state levels, and collects 39 tournament wins by spring 2017.
How does this happen? What explains the rise of Devan Owens? To what should we attribute his disc golf success?
For the typical set of answers, we might look to the man himself. Few athletes reach elite professional status without hard work, perseverance, desire, intelligence and native athletic ability. After researching Owens’ disc golf stats and talking to him during an extended interview, I’m sure he possesses these traits.
But success in disc golf depends as much on the individual as it does on the community of people surrounding the individual. Owens’ incredible talent and personal attributes merit accolades, but so does his disc golf community in Tulsa and the surrounding area. In fact, based on some measures, Tulsa is like no other place in the country.
As Owens put it, “There’s lots going on in the Tulsa disc golf scene. We have a couple clubs running tournaments and leagues all year around. You can play organized disc golf almost every day of the week.”
Asked about the main organizers in the area, Owens mentioned the Tulsa Disc Sports Association (TDSA). He spoke highly of its leaders, such as the tireless Wayne Forest and Michael Treat, credited the TDSA for developing strong relationships with Tulsa city officials and park coordinators, and detailed the TDSA’s large donations of money and labor for the construction and maintenance of area disc golf courses.
“This is going to blow your mind,” he said. “Almost all the disc golf courses in Tulsa were paid for and installed by the TDSA. The association has a long history. Since the 1980s, the generations have come through, running leagues, collecting small fees, organizing fundraisers, setting up work days and trash pickups. The courses are in the ground today because disc golfers of the past gave their time, money and sweat.”
Disc golf appears to be more popular in Tulsa than almost anywhere else in the country. The Tulsa Disc Golf Facebook group has more than 3,000 members. According to a study based on a random sample of 100 disc golf groups on Facebook, the mean group size is 174 members. Very few disc golf communities in the nation can rival the social media presence of Tulsa disc golf.
According to the 2017 City Park Facts Report, released last month, Tulsa is first in the country in public disc golf courses per capita. As shown in Table 1, the TDSA has outbuilt the vibrant communities in Charlotte, Orlando and Kansas City. Part of this success should be attributed to the availability of public park land. Among the 100 largest U.S. cities, Tulsa ranks twenty-fourth based on the total number of parks, and tenth in park acres per 1,000 residents.
Table 1: Top Ten Cities Based on Public Disc Golf Courses per 100,000 Residents
|City||Population||Public Park Spending per Resident (Adjusted)||Total Disc Golf Courses||Disc Golf Courses per 100,000 Residents|
While the green space is there, the public funding is not. Tulsa ranks seventy-fourth in spending on public parks. Out of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 73 spend more money per resident on public parks than Tulsa. It appears that the TDSA builds disc golf courses “the old-fashioned way … they earn it.” Charlotte, North Carolina also has a notably low level of public funding and a high number of disc courses per 100,000 residents.
Most of Tulsa’s seven courses have concrete tee pads and appear to be well maintained. Located in Mohawk Park, the Black Hawk, a wooded course with tight, yet reasonable fairways, plenty of distance, and at least three water holes, should be on everyone’s disc golf bucket list. There’s a second course, the Red Hawk, within the same complex, making it a desirable destination for disc golfers of all skill levels.
“The Black Hawk is the most challenging course in the area,” Owens said. “It would definitely eat up the beginner, but the Red Hawk has a front nine that’s fairly short and open. One thing I like about this place is the Tulsa Zoo in Mohawk Park. It’s cool to be playing disc golf and hear the monkeys and elephants and gorillas going off.”
Tulsa disc golfers are generous supporters of the broader community. Led by the TDSA, Tulsa’s Ice Bowl has broken records for attendance, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to the community food bank. More than 240 people took part in the 2016 Tulsa Ice Bowl.
There are several disc golf Meccas scattered across the U.S., but Tulsa is special, particularly when it comes to disc golf in public parks.
When pressed to identify the secret of Tulsa’s success, Owens said, “You know, the only thing I can think of is the people. When they get involved with the TDSA, they realize they’re part of it. They help put in a disc golf course. They help move a basket, or install a new tee pad, or show up for a long workday, and when they do, they become attached to the course forever … that’s the secret sauce.”
Today roughly ninety percent of disc golf courses are in public parks. But top disc golf organizers want to move the sport to privately owned courses. Doing so would reduce safety concerns, give course developers more control over design and maintenance, and generate revenue for small businesses.
Still, with privatization looming, we should keep in mind the vital roles of public parks and the communal spirit in disc golf’s evolution. It’s the people, not profit, that made disc golf one of the fastest growing sports in America.
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Thanks to Frisbee.net for the photo of Devan Owens, and to Devan Owens for providing the photo of Tulsa-area disc golfers.
 The 2017 City Parks Facts Report is published by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence. The data in this report are generated through “a collaboration between the many city, county, state and nonprofit parks agencies and conservancies that work with the Center to submit their data.” The information on disc golf course locations may differ from the PDGA’s figures. The data on disc golf courses by city only include those courses located in public parks within the given municipality, not the metropolitan region. A “public park” refers to publicly owned and operated parks within the city limits.