Dennis Byrne is pragmatic about the difference between traditional golf and disc golf: “If you told your wife you were going out for four or five hours with your buddies, leavin' the kids and the dog at home and droppin' a hundred bucks or more, she’d belt you before you got out the door.
“Tell her you’re gone for 90 minutes, you’re taking the kids AND the dog AND the course is free, she’ll start the car for ya.”
Alright, so we can’t really speculate on anyone else's marital situation, but Byrne’s got a point: This really is a game for the everyman. And Byrne should know — since he retired from managing a Yamaha plant a few years ago, he's devoted all his time to a gig as a professional course designer. He's been called the "Godfather of Disc Golf."
We’re gathered around a “tee pad,” approaching hole three at Sahm Park. Joining us is Matt Boals, an enthusiast and supporter who owns a retail company called Griffin Disc Golf. Boals is a big dude who, like Byrne, has a bag slung over his shoulder. The bag holds maybe a dozen discs or so, and Byrne has handed me three: a fairway driver and the disc equivalents of a mid-size iron and a putter. The driver’s heavy and it’s got a fairly sharp edge — it’s a disc built for distance. The other two discs are progressively lighter with edges that become more blunt as the objects drop weight, changing the way the craft cuts the air to become slower and more accurate as the player approaches the “hole.”
That “hole” is actually a basket. Above the basket’s landing platform (a circular piece of metal with a rim suspended on a pole a few feet off the ground) is strung a network of chaining. A successful shot sees the disc strike the chains and either drop onto the metal surface below or nest in the links. Discs that hang on the edge or perch atop the basket don’t count, and discs that strike the target and ricochet away aren’t counted, either. The chains, in addition to providing the necessary “give” to keep clean shots from bouncing away, provide a sound that’s critical to any game of this kind — the ringing of the links is just as aurally satisfying as hearing a small white ball find the bottom of a cup.
The course at Sahm Park is in rough shape. Some of the holes are in disrepair, most of the old particle-board tee markers have long succumbed to the elements. The tee pads were built before the rules had been standardized; the concrete launching surfaces need to be widened to the regulation 5-by-12-foot box. This isn’t just a bummer for casual players — there’s historical significance here, too. A few of the baskets are “Mach 1” prototype builds, created by the father of the sport, “Steady” Ed Headrick, while he was perfecting the gear. The Indy Disc Golf Club had cut a 50/50 deal with the city to buy a grand total of 18 baskets for $3,000 back in 1990, and nine would up in the ground at Sahm.
Byrne and Boals are fishing for private donations to bring Sahm back to better than its original condition. Refurbishment runs $750 per hole — money that the Indy Parks Department just can’t shell out right now — so Boals and Byrnes have hit on an arrangement. The Parks Foundation has set up a tax deductible account: donate the cash, and your advertising graces the hole as a sponsor. The Magic Bus has already snagged two.
Not only are Boals and Byrne rehabbing the existing course, they’re expanding the run from its present nine to a full 18-hole walk. Indy Parks has given them access to the woods that ring the course to the southwest — and those trees in the woods will bring Sahm’s course back to the level of difficulty it enjoyed before the emerald ash borer wiped out most of the original course’s hazards. Sahm's "Amen Corner" no longer sports the flora that made it tough, and a hole called "Thread the Needle," has, well, lost its needles.
The gents are on a deadline: they hope Sahm will be one of the courses utilized for the 2016 Deaf Disc Golf Association National Championships. Another event that Boals and Byrne have on the horizon is the 2017 Professional Disc Golf Association's Amateur and Juniors World Championships, the "PDGA Am Worlds." It’s something that Byrne was a part of in 1992: “The first two courses I co-designed were built for championship play,” he chuckles.
“So, nahh, there was no pressure.”
The deaf community isn’t the only group with disabilities benefitting from Byrne’s experience as a course, designer, though — the Indiana School for the Blind boasts the first course in the world designed for the visually impaired, and it’s Byrne’s creation.
“I was hosting a temporary golf course out at Fort Ben,” remembers Byrne, “and a bunch of Boy Scouts wanted to play. One of ‘em was blind. His buddy would ring the chains for him, the blind kid would throw, his buddy would help him find the disc and the process would start again.”
That Scout — a kid named Jacob Ayres — made course development for the blind an award-winning Eagle project with Byrne’s help. Using the Blind School’s course as a kind of living lab, visually-impaired golfers can program a key fob at each tee that starts the basket beeping — and the discs themselves are programmable, too. “There’s a chip that sits in the center and you can put anything in there, just like a ringtone,” explains Boals — finding the disc is obviously a challenge for the blind.
But the rewards? Jacob once told Dennis about the manner in which his blindness affected his gait and posture. “Jacob said he had to be in careful control of his body — but when he wound up and let that disc go, he finally felt free.”
Interested in sponsoring a hole? Dennis Byrne says:
The donations are going to a fund earmarked just for this project. The fund is maintained by the Indy Parks Foundation (a 501-c-3 charity). Sponsors can contact them directly or myself at email@example.com.
The $750 hole sponsorship covers a new basket, two new tee signs, two mounting sleeves (for all basket locations), concrete for two tee pads and mounting the sleeves and tee signs. They will be able to put their logo/info on the two tee signs for that hole and they will get a nod on the new course map and the rules sign for 10 to 15 years!