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A Disc Golf Journey


The author stands proudly next to the course sign at Milan Disc Golf Course in Milan, Tennessee.

Beginnings

Although I am a Professional Disc Golf Association member and have been since 2005, I am in no way, shape, or form a professional disc golfer. My rating is 865 (which I didn’t even know until I looked myself up before writing this). The last sanctioned tournament I played in was the 2010 Amateur Championships at Bowling Green. I placed 40th in the Recreational Division. I was 51. It’s a decade later and my tourney play is almost non-existent, but I still play as often as I can, mostly on my local course (more about that later).

My journey in disc golf, however, started way before that. I was a mere lad of 19 when I discovered this sport that now fuels my passion and provides me so much enjoyment. In 1978, I was a student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. One fine day, my friends and I ventured about 25 miles north to Cedars of Lebanon State Park, where we saw the most unusual thing: a sign that read "Frisbee Golf Course" (yep, that’s what it said). We were intrigued, so we investigated further. Sure enough, there were people throwing Frisbees into these weird chain and basket contraptions mounted on poles. The rules were pretty much the same as the golf I knew – get your Frisbee into the basket in as few throws as possible.

This looked like it could be fun.

So we got Frisbees and decided to play. We took those flying saucers out on the course and, lo and behold, we became golfers. And we liked it – a lot! When we couldn’t get to the course, we would play around the neighborhood using light poles as targets. We were completely satisfied that this game was an adequate variation on traditional golf and a heck of a lot cheaper. So I continued to take my one Frisbee to the course and had a great time.

One day we pulled up and went to the first tee, where we witnessed something that blew our minds. There was a guy with a bag full of what appeared to be Frisbees, but his didn’t look or fly quite like ours. They were smaller and they flew farther. He threw, landed close to the basket, and then pulled out another disc from his bag to putt. Then he was gone.

I continued to play for a couple of years, and then life happened. I went into the Army, got married, had a daughter, went back to college, graduated, got a job, had another daughter, got a couple of more jobs, and moved from Murfreesboro to Milan, Tennessee. Frisbee golf became a distant memory lodged deep within the recesses of my brain. I continued playing traditional golf, albeit poorly, and time marched on.

(Side note: A reminder about Frisbee golf did occur in 1997 on an episode of Seinfeld titled "The Summer of George," when George mentioned that he played “frolf.” I chuckled and remembered that I used to play that.)

Rebirth

Fast forward to 2004. I am working at the Milan Water Treatment Plant, and the water department crew is looking for some kind of physical activity to do at lunch (we had often played volleyball and horseshoes). Somewhere in the back of my mind, I seemed to recall a game I used to play involving throwing Frisbees at targets. We had plenty of light poles surrounding the plant. I had a few Frisbees. I know: Let’s play golf!  So, once again my interest was sparked for this game I hadn’t played in over two decades.

It was then that I started looking into this sport with a renewed spirit and quickly discovered that there was more to it than I imagined. First, there were discs out there made specifically for golfing. Second, there were organizations that promoted the sport by hosting tournaments. Third, there were professionals who got paid to play disc golf (which was, as I learned, the preferred nomenclature). Finally, there was a course in a local park that was 30 minutes away. It was Muse Park in Jackson, and it had nine baskets, but instead of chains to hit they had metal cones (this course would later put in chain baskets and would become my adopted home course for several years). Noisy, but still better than light poles. I had to start somewhere in my quest for total disc domination.

I also found out there were courses in Memphis, so I decided to check them out as well. I went to Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park where there were two courses. Without a “real” golf disc in hand, I first made a quick pit stop at a little general store that, to my delight, sold discs. Armed with no knowledge about weight, stability, speed, glide, turn, or fade at all, I opted for a yellow Innova DX Beast and a purple Lightning Upshot putter. I liked those colors. Thus began the rebirth of my old obsession: disc golf!

As you would expect, I jumped into it with reckless abandon. I practiced throwing at the water plant and the football field. I bought more discs – some I could throw well; others, not so much. It wasn’t long before I realized that if I needed more discs, I could add to my collection through players' packs offered at tournaments. Was I tournament-ready? No way. But I was eager to explore this new world and test my mettle against other like-minded fanatics. I got a Ching bag to carry my limited arsenal and set my sights on a nearby event. The year was 2005, and I was now 46 years old.

I discovered two websites that would help me with my quest. One was, of course, that of the PDGA, an organization whose sole purpose was to promote the growth of disc golf on a national and global scale. How cool was that? I immediately joined so I could be a member of over (at the time) 26,000 disc golfers. I also discovered something known as the Southern Nationals Disc Golf Series. This was a group that focused on disc golf in the South, where I just happened to reside. I relied on this to keep up with disc golf in my area, and it is here that I found my first tournament: The Ice Bowl (No Wimps, No Whiners) at Bud Hill near Memphis. I signed up, took my bag of about six discs, and went to prove myself on this beautiful private course. Well, to paraphrase Caesar: “I came, I saw, I did not conquer.” It was quite humbling to play a course of this caliber with players who made my drives look like approach shots. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the hunt. But I endured and had officially been bitten by the tourney bug.

Next, I went searching on the PDGA events page and discovered a “little” tournament called the Amateur Championships at Bowling Green in Kentucky. It boasted three days and four rounds of disc golf in one of the premier disc golf cities, with over 600 players – all amateurs, just like me (only better) – and a players' pack whose value far exceeded the entry fee.

I signed up for the Intermediate Division. There were 122 players in that grouping, and I managed to place 117th – not DFL, but PDC (pretty darn close)! At one point during the second day, it was rainy and very windy, and I was struggling (to put it mildly). I managed to slip on a wet tee pad and actually throw a drive that got caught in the wind and blew behind me. That’s right, folks: I had a negative drive. Then, to top off the round, I went back to my vehicle to discover that I had left my lights on and my battery was dead. After getting a jump, I drove to the next course and sat in my idling Jeep pondering what to do next. In the words of the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”  Well, the sun came out and I decided to swallow my pride and soldier on. Once again, I managed to endure and even went back five more times because, despite my performances, it really was an awesome experience. 

Repurposed 

I continued to find local people who loved playing. We started the Jackson Area Disc Golf Club and began hosting some tournaments. I also played other area tournaments in the coming years with enthusiasm and usually ended up with the same result. But then I came to a cathartic realization: Maybe my goal should be growing the sport and not just competing for an elusive title. I had to face the fact that most, if not all, of the people I played with were younger, threw farther, and were just better.

OK, so what can I do to promote this sport and share my passion with my local community? I know. I will propose to the city that a disc golf course be installed at our park. So that’s what I did. I wrote a detailed prospectus and presented it to the city board. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy. They thought it was a great idea except for one important thing: The city didn’t have any extra lemons to squeeze.

The year was now 2013. I had pursued this avenue for almost eight years and received the same reply – no money available. But this time they added an interesting caveat: If I could raise the money, then it would be approved.

Ah, a light at the end of the tunnel!

I decided that a nine-hole course would be the avenue best to pursue. Test the waters and see how well it is received before committing to an 18-hole layout. So, now all I needed to do was raise $5,000 dollars and we’d be in like Flynn. But how? Businesses in a city our size are already inundated with requests for money from school athletic programs. And a sport that most people had never even heard of would be an even tougher sell.

Then, a serendipitous meeting occurred at my house one day. I was outside practice putting when my life insurance agent and good friend stopped by to deliver some papers. He asked what I was doing, and I explained. I mentioned that I was trying to raise money to install a course. He then tells me of a fund-matching program that his company offered, and my project sounded perfect for it. If I could raise $2,500 then his company would match it. The catch was that I had to actually raise the money rather than just solicit donations and offer nothing in return. That’s when the idea hit me: I would have the pancake breakfast to end all pancake breakfasts!

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Local newspaper clipping from the author's pancake breakfast promotional campaign.

So, I got busy promoting my event on Facebook. I’m sure my friends got tired of reading my promotional posts, but to my delight, they were well received. I even offered a virtual pancake breakfast for those friends who could not make it to the actual breakfast. Yes, for a small donation I would send the donor a photo of a delicious-looking pancake breakfast and my enduring gratitude.

Sounds crazy, but it actually worked! Folks thought it was clever, and they were more than willing to help out the cause. When the day came for the actual breakfast, my insurance friend’s church group donated a lot of the fixings and helped with the cooking. It was held at my church, and I set up a display area where patrons could learn about disc golf and even try their hand at putting. It was a huge success! I even had friends come from 150 miles away to support my efforts. When it was all said and done, I had raised $2,500 dollars! My dream was about to become a reality.

I presented a check for $5,000 to the city and I began finalizing the design of the nine-hole course. I sold tee sign sponsorships for $100 to help defray the cost of the concrete. The city donated the labor costs. My plan was to make a beginner-friendly course in the front part of the park with the goal of introducing the game to the community while not disrupting park aesthetics. I hoped that it would be inviting for beginners and also offer some challenge to the more experienced players.

Pretty soon, the Milan Disc Golf Course (MDGC) was ready to play.

I had a grand opening replete with a band, a ceremony, demonstrations, and, of course, giveaways. During the ring-of-fire I got smacked in the mouth by a five-year-old with a surprisingly strong backhand. I had literally put my blood, sweat, and tears into this project and was successfully rewarded. Now it was time to see how well-received this addition to the park would actually be.

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Ring of Fire at the Milan Disc Golf Course Grand Opening, 2013.

I entered the MDGC on the PDGA’s course directory and on Disc Golf Course Review to let people know that we were available for play. To quote a line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” And come they did.

My club guys started playing here. Locals discovered the game and families started playing. I held small tournaments like the Discraft Ace Race, the Vibram Birdie Bash, and the Trilogy Challenge, and the parks department was very pleased with the increased park usage. Things were going well. Disc golf had established itself in Milan. Then, the inevitable follow-up came from my fellow disc golf enthusiasts: “This course is good, but when are you going to put in the back nine?”

Second act

2015 was drawing to a close and I had tried on several occasions to convince the powers that be that a back nine was needed to further cement our standing as a must-play course. I had even laid out a tentative design that would utilize the back of the park and be more challenging. Again, I was told that there was just no money available but if I could raise…

And you know the rest. I just wasn’t sure I had it in me to take this on again. Then I read something in our local paper that made the decision for me: In an article about future park plans, the director said that Morris Chandler would be raising the money to put in a back nine. So once again, I set out to raise the money. And once again – thanks to my friend’s matching program, a successful pancake breakfast, hole sponsors, and the support of friends and family – I succeeded in raising the money. So, in the spring of 2016, the dream of the Milan Disc Golf Course becoming an 18-hole, par-61 became a reality! And it has become one of the premier courses in West Tennessee (and all of the state, in my humble opinion). 

As I write this, we have just welcomed a new year, and the Milan Disc Golf Course is thriving with casual rounds being played by beginners and advanced chain bangers, regular club play, weekly doubles, and the occasional tournament. We have a Facebook page with over 270 members and a disc golf community made up of great people. The sport continues to grow, and I love seeing it. The course is five minutes form my home and I still fill with pride every time I go out to play it or hear someone talk about what a great track it is.

So, will I ever win a tournament? Will I ever hit that elusive first ace in regular play? (I did hit three in an Ace Race once.) Will I ever consistently throw a drive 300 feet? Will I ever learn how to throw a successful roller? I guess anything is possible. But I’m OK being a mediocre player who promotes the sport I love by giving advice, providing discs to new players, improving my course every chance I get, and playing doubles whenever the opportunity arises. And in 2020, my goal on my home turf is to at least card my age – which just happens to be…par for the course!

Comments

Submitted by turnbow99 on

I know "Mo" personally. He has built a fantastic course, and always comes through for the players and the City of Milan when tournaments are held there. He is the Godfather of Disc Golf in West Tn. I salute you sir!

Submitted by Cpry90 on

Wonderful story, perfectly told. Makes me want to play a round right now, in Milan! Well maybe a weekend trip when its daylight! The disc golf community appreciates these efforts to the max. Thank you morris.

I’ve gotten to know Mo over the past couple years and the course is one of my favorites in this area. I’m glad to hear the whole story and it’s an inspiration to me and I’m sure countless others. Thanks for all you do Mo, a true ambassador of the sport!

Submitted by jgilm on

Great story Mo. I can only appreciate your persistence. I've actually played that funky little Cedars of Lebanon course years ago. Oddly enough a neighbor of mine gave me what appears to be an original Cedars of Lebanon frisbee sporting a "Disc Golf" stamp. It looks more like a frisbee than a modern disc. Thanks for the very entertaining story.

Mo is an awesome guy and loves the sport as much as anyone! The Milan,TN course is probably my favorite in the area. This area is fortunate to have someone like Mo!

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