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Flying Saucers in the High Country

By Jan Todd

Fifteen years ago, the Minford family was vacationing in Florida, looking for an outdoor activity they could enjoy together. There was a disc golf course nearby, and they decided to give it a try.

When playing disc golf, the target — or “hole” — is set of U-shaped chains that catch and direct the disc into the wire basket. “Steady” Ed Headrick, employeed by Wham-O toy company, was the inventor of the Frisbee™ and of the prototype for the Disc Pole Hole catching device. This basket is positioned at Sugaree, a private course in Newland, open to the public by reservation. Photo courtesy of Sugaree.

“We had the best time,” said Jeri Minford, mother of three sons. When they returned home to Boone, her husband Rich started talking about designing their own disc golf course on their hundred-acre Christmas tree farm — located on Sugar Mountain off of Highway 181 between Linville and Newland. 

“We have about 35 acres for the Christmas trees, and the rest is wooded. We don’t want to cut the timber, so a disc golf course is a perfect way to use the woods as they are. Rich is a visionary in things like that,” Jeri said.

Rich and the boys — who were in high school and college at the time —set up a course within two months, with the help of some friends. Now the course, named Sugaree, is ranked #23 on the 2023 World’s Best Disc Golf Courses list compiled by UDisc, the top app used by disc golfers across the world.

What is Disc Golf?

Disc golf is a sport similar to traditional golf — but instead of hitting a ball into a hole, the player throws a disc into a U-shaped wire basket. Players typically use a variety of discs — some designed for long throws, some for mid-range, and some for “putts” — to reach the target. The goal of the game is to complete each “hole” with as few throws as possible.

According to the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) website, the sport began as “Frisbee™ Golf.” 

Jeri and Rich Minford own Sugaree, a Christmas tree farm with a disc golf course. They were vacationing with their three sons about 15 years ago when they discovered the sport and decided to build a course of their own. The number of baskets, course length and difficult factors have evolved over the years to keep pace with the industry. Photo by Jan Todd.

The first specialized course, located in Pasadena, California, was designed and installed in 1975 by “Steady” Ed Headrick, the inventor of the Frisbee™ and of the prototype for the Disc Pole Hole catching device (the basket). 

Hendrick, considered the “Father of Disc Golf”, was an employee of Wham-O — the toy company that markets childhood favorites including the Frisbee™, the Hula Hoop™, and the Slip ‘n Slide™.  Hendrick organized the first major Frisbee Golf tournament in 1979, held in Huntington Beach, California with a purse of $50,000. Today, the PDGA has more than 200,000 members across 54 countries.

Over the years, discs have evolved from the traditional Frisbee™ to specialized discs designed for distance throwing, curves or straight paths, stability in wind, loft and other considerations. Innova, the leading disc manufacturer, offers more than 100 different discs for various conditions of play.

Disc golf  can be played individually or in groups. Its popularity has sky-rocketed in recent years with many professional and amateur tournaments held annually. 

It is immensely popular in North Carolina, ranking fourth in the nation in PDGA membership — behind Texas, California and Michigan. UDisc reports about 400 courses in the state, with seven ranked in the top 100 “best in the world.” 

Players can use the UDisc app and website to find courses nearby, navigate each hole using GPS technology, track their throws and statistics, find tournaments and events, review courses and share their scores with friends. The app provides information on public courses as well as publicized private courses. Some are free to play, while others request donations or charge fees.

Sugaree

Sugaree is a private course, requesting a $10 donation per player and requiring permission from the owner prior to playing. They are open April through mid-October. 

“We’re a working Christmas tree farm, so we need to close when certain types of work are in progress, or when the weather makes conditions too treacherous,” Rich said. He described the course as “very challenging — not necessarily the place to play your first round.” 

What sets it apart is the scenery and use of the natural features, which add challenge to the play. There are some holes with the basket on the edge of a cliff. If you miss a putt, you might spend two or three more throws just to get back to the basket.

– Rich Minford

“It is secluded. You might be the only one playing the course on a weekday,” he added. “What sets it apart is the scenery and use of the natural features, which add challenge to the play. There are some holes with the basket on the edge of a cliff. If you miss a putt, you might spend two or three more throws just to get back to the basket.”

Tyler Gillick, from Durham, chooses a mid-range disc during his play at Sugaree, a course situated on a Christmas tree farm near Newland. Gillick found Sugaree on his UDisc app and said it is the most scenic course he has played. Photo by Jan Todd.

Sugaree attracts many players who are visiting the High Country. “We had people represented from 30 different states last year,” Rich said.

Tyler Gillick, from Durham, found Sugaree on his UDisc app. “Sugaree is definitely the most scenic course I’ve ever played,” he said. “It has cool features you won’t see on other courses, like baskets positioned on rock faces.”

The course can be strenuous. Gillick, who carries about 25 discs in his backpack, said Sugaree provides a good workout. “I’ve probably burned 10,000 calories today,” he joked.

Sugaree is definitely the most scenic course I’ve ever played. It has cool features you won’t see on other courses, like baskets positioned on rock faces.

– Tyler Gillick

Rich said his disc golf course is one of the more difficult courses around. “I majored in forestry in college, and designed the course with that in mind, rather than a more conventional approach. While a traditional course might have all the trees cut on the fairway, with the rough along the edges, I left trees in the fairway and designed a couple of narrow routes to get to the basket. It requires a lot of precision.”

The course evolved to keep pace with the industry, Rich said. “Technology has improved, and today’s disc designs allow for longer throws. So, we lengthened some of our holes. We started with a 5,000 foot course and now it is about 10,000 feet in total length. We also expanded the number, going from 18 holes to 30.”

Rich mentioned they do have a short course option for beginners, along with discs for them to borrow and try.

Beech Mountain Resort Disc Golf

Beech Mountain resort opens a disc golf course in the summertime, with 18 holes installed on the ski slope. It is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from the last weekend in May through the first weekend in October. The course length is 7500’, with twelve holes playing down the steep ski runs, and six winding around the resort village. The 18th hole plays uphill toward the Beech Mountain Brewing Company for a refreshing end to the round.

“The course is walkable for free, but most people purchase a scenic lift ride to access the summit,” said Talia Freeman, marketing director at Beech Mountain. “The course is very popular, and usage continues to grow each year.”

The course is very challenging with rugged terrain — but the panoramic views of the mountains and Pisgah National Forest are unparalleled.

Ashe County Park Course

Ashe County Park in Jefferson established a disc golf course in 2006, which is the most frequently played public course in the High Country. It is open year-round and is free to play.

The front nine holes are mainly open, and the back nine is mostly wooded with some dramatic elevation changes. LJ Wobker, a part-time Boone resident, remembered his first experiences at the park.

Innova, the leading manufacturer of discs for the sport, displays a set of “flight numbers” on each disc, rating the design’s speed, glide (ability to maintain loft), turn (tendency to bank right) and fade (tendency to hook left). Photo by Jan Todd.

“The first time I played the course, a thunderstorm came up, and I had to quit halfway through. The next time, I showed up with a friend. I told him the course was all pretty open, not too difficult, holes all visible. We got to the back nine and my friend was like, dude, did you even play this?” Wobker said. “It plays like two very different courses.”

Wobker, who is an engineer at Cisco in Raleigh, said he used to play disc golf in college, but set it aside for a number of years and instead played in an Ultimate league — a non-contact football-like team sport played with a Frisbee™ or similar type disc.

“When Covid hit, group sports like Ultimate went away, and a friend invited me to play disc golf. So I started playing again in the summer of 2020,” he said. “A lot of people started playing or picked it up again during the pandemic.”

The place is a gem. That part of the mountains is gorgeous, plus the course is really well maintained. I’ve played some courses where the grass is so tall that if your disc lands in it, it’s gone — like really hard to find. But Ashe County is always clean and taken care of.

– LJ Wobker
Members of the High Country Disc Golf Community — who have a group page on Facebook — meet regularly to play both public and private courses in the High Country. Pictured from left to right are Daniel Quinn, Charles (Chuck) Saffer, Joe Smith, Robbie Cheves and John Dighton. Photo taken at Ashe County Park and provided by Charles Saffer.

Wobker occasionally plays in disc golf tournaments and noted the growing popularity in the past few years. “Back in 2019, it might take two or three days for a local tournament’s registration to fill up. Now, if the registration opens at 8pm, all 72 slots are gone by 8:05.”

The Ashe County course is one of the best in the state, Wobker said. “The place is a gem. That part of the mountains is gorgeous, plus the course is really well maintained. I’ve played some courses where the grass is so tall that if your disc lands in it, it’s gone — like really hard to find. But Ashe County is always clean and taken care of,” he said.

Charles Saffer first played the Ashe County course about 12 years ago. “It was a beautiful day and I was just sitting around with a buddy and he said, ‘Let’s go play disc golf.’ I’d never heard of it, and we went out to the Ashe County Park and played a round. It was so much fun,” he said.

One of Saffer’s friends has a family farm with about 90 acres of land, and a group of friends decided to build their own course on the land. It was there Saffer connected with Daniel Quinn, whom he called “the dad of local disc golf.” Quinn, who worked with Ashe County Parks and Recreation when it opened the disc golf course in 2006, introduced Saffer to a Facebook group called High Country Disc Golf Community.

The disc golf course at Ashe County Park includes open fields, hilly forests and even a water shot over a pond. Photo provided by LJ Wobker.

“I wanted to play more and get better. After joining the Facebook group, I started playing regularly, especially at some of the private courses in the area. They are pristine and have beautiful landscapes — just stellar,” he said. 

He often brings his two sons along to play. “The courses are basically hiking trails, where we throw discs along the way. We get outside, learn about the local fauna and flora, and get exercise,” he said.

While there are some players who are very competitive and focus on scoring well, others are just out there to enjoy the High Country and each other’s company, Saffer said. Players learn from one another, and the game itself provides a topic of conversation and a way to connect.

The “Underground” Disc Golf Community

With open and available land at a premium in Watauga County, currently there are no public courses for disc golf. That doesn’t mean there is no interest, however.

Eric Smallwood, director of Parks and Recreation in Watauga County, said, “There are certainly a lot of disc golf advocates in Watauga County. As we work on the master plan for the next ten years, the desire for a public disc golf course will probably show up as one of the top three new things people want to see. There are a lot of people up here who love the sport.”

Players find one another while throwing discs at one of the area’s publicized courses or by connecting on a Facebook group such as High Country Disc Golf Community or The High Country Disc Golf Club.

Robbie Cheves, a “senior” player in his 60s, has been playing disc golf since he was 20 years old. “Back then I lived in Greenville, and only one or two parks had baskets. Most didn’t. I played alone for years, but about eight years ago I hooked up with a group who were all members of the High Country Disc Golf Community, and they invited me to join,” he said.

“I have a competitive streak,” Cheves admitted. “I play with some 20 and 30 year-olds and I kick their butts.” Cheves has participated in a number of local tournaments and often places first in his division.

Cheves has been involved in building a couple of private courses, where he plays with other members of the group. “You couldn’t ask for better people to hang out with in the woods,” he said. “There is everyone from businessmen to hippy dudes wearing tie dye. They’re quite a unique breed.”

Richard Furr, a Boone native, echoed that sentiment. “Disc golf has a totally different culture than traditional golf. It’s very relaxed,” he said.

It’s great to play in the mountains. You can play a few holes nestled in the valleys and have fun around rivers and creeks, then move up to a landscape with more trees and elevation and experience a whole different type of play. 

– Richard Furr

Richard and his wife, Carrie, learned to play disc golf when they were graduate students in Texas. The courses there were set up on plains, with high grass and no trees. 

“It’s great to play in the mountains,” Richard said. “You can play a few holes nestled in the valleys and have fun around rivers and creeks, then move up to a landscape with more trees and elevation and experience a whole different type of play. You’ll have challenging winds along the ridgelines and get diversity you wouldn’t necessarily see off the mountain.”

The Furrs often include their son, Grayson, when playing disc golf. “It’s a good way to engage with kids and teach them sportsmanship Grayson started playing when he was five years old, but age 8-10 is probably a good time to start, because it does require some stamina and hand/eye coordination,” Richard said. 

Like many disc golf enthusiasts, Richard sets up his own basket in his yard to practice throwing and putting. He even belongs to a putting league — a group who set up indoor baskets after hours in restaurants and other establishments to “toss some plastic” while enjoying a social outing.