Designing for safety and sustainability: The playing perspective
By Mike Harrington

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This is the second part in a series on sustainability in disc golf course design: Part I

Safety may not be included in the true definition of sustainability, but it definitely plays a role in the longevity of disc golf courses. When courses are designed properly, safety concerns do not arise. In the end, this reduces the resources needed to install courses from the beginning, which in turn makes them more sustainable.


What is the most important aspect of course safety?
  • 1. Placement of tees
  • 2. Orientation of fairways
  • 3. Other uses of the park

When courses are designed poorly and safety issues arise, it takes extra resources to fix the problems. I am sure most of the avid players out there know of at least one course that has been pulled from the ground due to safety concerns. To truly move our disc golf courses closer toward sustainability, we need to ensure safety is one of the utmost concerns through the entire design and implementation process.

I am sure every designer's dream is to be the person to design the most incredible disc golf experience in the world with epic elevation changes, dramatic water carries, incredibly challenging tight fairways and distance that rivals golf course length. However, sometimes you have to take a step back and take what the property allows or what the property owner desires for the course.

Sometimes the designer needs to embrace providing a "recreational" experience for the local players as opposed to the championship feel for the traveling and avid players. Sometimes the designer needs to ensure that beginners are getting a course they can learn the sport on without alienating them because of too much difficulty or the potential for losing their discs. Safety needs to be a large part of this process since all courses need to be designed factoring in different levels of skill.

Errant throws will be the biggest threat of safety on a disc golf course and need to be considered in all decisions. The easiest ways to reduce the amount of safety concerns will come from good design that factors in all of the potential throws that might happen from people of all skills.

While impossible to completely eliminate all safety concerns from errant throws, the goal is to provide skill-appropriate tee placement, basket placement and fairway proximity and orientation so those issues are kept to a minimum. Tees and baskets should never be placed in close proximity to others and also far enough off adjacent fairways that discs do not get thrown into those areas.

Placement of tees

Tees need to be appropriately placed for the skill level that would most likely be playing those holes. However, we all know people of all skill levels will play, so it is up to the designer to offer alternative tees that would be suitable for the lesser skill level players and hope that they play the appropriate tee.

Consider that a beginner might not be able to handle a 300-foot throw off a large hill, but a 200-foot flat throw from the base of the hill might be more suitable. It is acceptable to have both options on this hole, but having the alternate tee available will hopefully encourage some people to throw from that location instead. As they increase their skill, they can always move to the more advanced tee location.

Orientation of fairways

Fairway proximity and orientation are the more difficult factors to address since there is no single defined point like a tee or basket where everyone will be playing from. You need to consider all potential throws from all skill levels. Think of where each skill level is likely to throw if they have their best throw.

Now think of every single skill level and where they might end up on the worst throw to the left of the fairway ... and again for the right side of the fairway. The area that encompasses all of those points is the danger zone, and no tees, baskets or other fairways should come within a close distance of the area.

This is different on wooded holes than it is on wide-open holes, which provides the greatest difficulty in course orientation. Wide-open holes require more room because the errant throws will definitely be wider spread than on a tight, wooded hole. But tight, wooded holes have their own difficulty in that discs often kick off trees and redirect them into the play areas of other holes. All of these situations need to be considered when laying out each hole and the general routing of each course.

Dogleg fairways bring a whole new element of safety concern because the dogleg creates a pinch point where errant throws are bound to end up more frequently. People who cannot execute the proper turn on their disc whether it be left to right or right to left will end up getting caught up on either side of the dogleg. This effectively makes the fairway much longer at this point and someone who misses the dogleg could end up throwing a good distance off the fairway where a wide-open, straight fairway the throwing spread is smaller.

Other uses of the park

Another large threat to safety comes from the other people using the property. It may not be other disc golfers in this instance; it is the people walking their dogs, the children playing outside the pavilion where their family reunion is happening, or people just walking through the park. These safety concerns arise at every course around the world, and I have seen it just about everywhere I have traveled.

These people need to be considered when designing, despite the fact that common sense and attentiveness would help keep most of them safe. The problem is that our sport is still not known nor accepted by everyone. Sometimes disc golf courses are seen as a hindrance to the other park users because it consumes so much area when you consider all of the other activities. I am sure we all have had discussions with people who had no idea what we were doing.

We can wave our discs in the air and yell, "I am throwing this at the metal basket, please move away from the basket!", but they will stand there with no idea what we are trying to do or why we are trying to warn them. Disc golf simply is not recognized by everyone — even though many disc golfers feel that is the case — and designers need to consider that when entering a park that is used by a lot of people.

The bottom line is safety affects sustainability, and it needs to be considered in the design process or we will continue to have more disc golf courses removed because someone got hurt. Municipalities are supposed to provide fun and safe activities for their residents, and that is the reason they should also value the input of a quality and experienced designer. A good design will put safety first, and a good designer will protect the municipalities' interests not just put in a championship-level course with no regard for any other park activities.

Mike Harrington has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota with a focus in landscape design and turf and landscape management. He has spent his entire 20-year career in the green industry, primarily in golf course management and high-end residential lawn and landscape management. He wants to take his knowledge of property management and his passion for disc golf to promote good design and installation techniques in hopes of making disc golf courses more sustainable.