Driving Forward

Southern Vermont's Disc Golf Scene gains momentum at Willow Park in Bennington

It’s a warm and overcast day at Willow Park in Bennington. At the top of a gently sloping hillside, Mike O’Neil bends down to pull a trusty disc out of his bag, then takes a moment to gather his bearings as he looks towards his target. A cylindrical blue basket sits at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by tall ash and birch trees. He squints his eyes with concentrated focus, plants his front foot firmly on the ground, and hurls his disc forward with forceful, yet fluid finesse. As O’Neil watches the disc coast over the hillside, the sharp and serious expression on his face slowly morphs into a satisfied grin. The disc then falls to the ground several feet in front of the basket, and O’Neil swaggers down towards it with the triumphant comportment of a decorated Olympian. “That’s how you’re supposed to do it,” says O’Neil. As he gently lobs the disc into the basket, his teammate, Jacob “Brew” Reed, promptly marks their shared team scorecard. It’s only the third hole in a round of eighteen at the Willow Park Disc Golf Course, but the spirit of friendly competition is already in full swing.


While walking towards the next hole on the course, Reed and O’Neil exchange banter with members of the opposing two-person team. The atmosphere is jovial and merry, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more passionate and knowledgeable group of athletes in Southern Vermont. As the two teams make their way over a series of gently rolling hills, the conversation seamlessly alternates between lighthearted jokes and nuanced discussions about disc flight physics. “There’s a lot more to the sport of disc golf than initially meets the eye,” muses O’Neil. “I learn something new almost every time that I come out here.”


As the current President of Willow Park’s resident disc golf club, “Discs Over Clubs”, O’Neil feels a deep sense of connection to the Southern Vermont disc golf community. Long before Discs Over Clubs was founded in 2018 by original Club President Tony Malikowski, O’Neil and Malikowski oversaw the initial growth of the Willow Park disc golf community from its inception. “When I started playing disc golf here at Willow Park back in the late 1990s with a few friends, I didn’t know that anyone else in the area was really playing,” recalls O’Neil. “Back then, our course was a lot less developed than it is now.”


Active Discs Over Clubs member Davy Flight adds, “Over the years, the course was continually shaped and improved upon through a series of consecutive independent projects.” According to Flight, the first fledgling course at Willow Park was erected when a local resident (who happened to be a passionate freestyle frisbee player) installed some baskets to create a makeshift course in the 1990s. Although the course was not ideally designed for sustainable play due to its proximity to the playground, it nevertheless laid the groundwork for future projects. Flight elaborates: “An avid disc golf enthusiast later came to Bennington and installed a temporary 18-hole course that was used by the greater community. Unfortunately, the course was partially dismantled several years later when he left Vermont. There were nine holes scattered around the park following his departure from Bennington, but it was in no way a complete course. At that point, I had played a fair amount of frisbee golf on a course that was set up at one of my family members’ properties, but I didn’t know that there was a budding disc golf scene here in Bennington.”


Tony Malikowski says that after the independently maintained course was dismantled, a local Eagle Scout helped to organize a fundraiser to build tees, signs, and a basket for a nine-hole course. The course was designed by Malikowski, O’Neil, and Olin. “After we built the nine-hole course that we designed, Mike O’Neil, Rick Olin and I drafted plans for what would eventually become the current permanent course. We then applied at the town office in Bennington for official approval.”


Davy Flight adds that there have been several subsequent redesign phases since the current 18-hole course was built. “There have been adjustments to the course since then that were made to account for new features in the park that alter the flow of play, such as the recently-installed dog park. These days, the majority of the holes in the disc golf course are on the periphery of the park. The current layout works very well. It allows us to play unimpeded without getting in the way of any other sports or park features that are enjoyed by other people.”


In the advent of the full course’s completion, Discs Over Clubs was then founded in 2018. Tony Malikowski served as the club’s original President, and Mike O’Neil served as the original Vice President. After the formation of Discs Over Clubs, Willow Park’s disc golf scene began to take off and flourish. Today, the club’s membership includes several dozen disc golf players of all levels, who congregate every Thursday afternoon when weather permits from April to October. In the spring of 2021, the Willow Park disc golf course became the first “C-tier” rated stop on the official Disc Golf Vermont (DGVT) Tour, cementing its status as a disc golf landmark in Southern Vermont with their inaugural “South Shire Open” event.


“It was really great to see Willow Park become a part of the DGVT tour,” notes Discs Over Clubs member Jacob “Brew” Reed. “It was a true validation of all of the concerted efforts of everyone who maintains the course, as well as everyone who comes to play and keeps the club running and growing. There are some really great spots all around Vermont for disc golf, such as the course up at Smuggler’s Notch. I personally think that the Willow Park course has some great variety in terms of its terrain and structure. There are holes in open fields, holes in the middle of the woods, and some more difficult holes that incorporate hill slopes and narrow rows of trees. The course is definitely approachable for beginners, but it also has more challenging elements that keep things interesting for more experienced players.”

Longtime Bennington-area disc golfer Tony Malikowski echoes that sentiment, adding that the unique layout of several of the course’s holes offer complex play scenarios that can stump even the most seasoned players. “Hole 15 in particular is a truly difficult hole for many reasons. The ground is uneven, so it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of perspective. You’re also throwing your disc up a hill, and the basket is around a treelined corner that’s completely invisible from the tee. To be fair, the hole is in itself a work in progress in terms of maintenance and clearing out the trees, and many disc golfers in the club have a different hole that they find to be challenging for different reasons. It all comes down to your play style and your preferences.”


In order to maintain the course, several members of Discs Over Clubs put in a considerable amount of time trimming the lawns of the courses with mowers and weed-whackers. They also remove trees and stage small landscaping operations when necessary. Mike O’Neil has been maintaining the Willow Park course for years and recalls a humorous exchange with town maintenance workers during the formative phase of the Bennington disc golf course:


“A little over a decade ago, my daughter worked for the Bennington town clerk when she was in high school and college. A few years into her job, we were still just starting to get the course together, and we were doing all of the maintenance ourselves. One day, she mentioned to one of the guys who worked at the town clerk’s office that we had been mowing the park in order to properly maintain the disc golf course. The man from the town office was flabbergasted. He had been trying to figure out who had been mowing the park for years. Turns out it was us the whole time.”


In addition to going above and beyond to maintain the course, the core members of Discs Over Clubs also serve as walking repositories of helpful information for newcomers. Bennington residents Alec Nicol and Christelle Manon first connected with the Willow Park disc golf scene several years ago. According to Manon, ever since she and Alec stepped on the course, they have been warmly welcomed with open arms. “It’s a great way to socialize, exercise, and experience the beauty of the outdoors here in Bennington,” says Manon. “No matter what skill level you’re at, the main point is to enjoy yourself, meet new people and have some fun playing a truly engaging sport.”


Alec Nicol says that he’s been able to learn several new techniques during the time he’s spent at disc golf events, several of which were taught to him by Flight and Malikowski. “Tony and Davy are both science teachers, so they have a really well-rounded understanding of the physics of the discs.”

Alec adds that he has also learned about the subtle differences between the discs through discussions with other players, which has greatly improved his play and enjoyment of the game. “There’s a reason that you see everyone carrying around disc bags. Every disc is meant for a different situation. Some discs are perfect for long range ‘driving’, and some discs are good for short throw ‘putting.’ There are a lot of ways to use the different discs to your advantage when you play, so you always want to have a good starter set of discs at your disposal. New York Disc Golf Supply in Troy is a great spot for disc golf gear, and Dick’s Sporting Goods in Rutland has a nice selection, as well. One great aspect of membership in a club like Discs Over Clubs is that you can always ask people questions that help you grow your skills. Disc golfers are always happy to talk about how much they love the game!”


Flight and Malikowski break down the science of disc golf using a series of niche terms that describe the trajectory of the discs as they move through the air. “If a disc is ‘flippy,’ that means that it is ‘under-stable,’ and will always turn over to the right as it flies,” explains Malikowski. “If a disc is ‘over-stable’, that means that it will bear to the left.”


Davy Flight explains that the shape of the disc’s edges also plays a crucial part in its flight dynamics. “If the edges of a disc are rounded, it’s going to be better for close range ‘putting’ purposes for when you are close to the basket. Sharper edges will cut through the air better, because the disc is more aerodynamic in terms of its shape. Many discs use different types of plastic with different densities. This also effects the flight pattern. Some discs are so soft that they are foldable, and others are much sturdier. Every aspect of a disc effects the way that it’s going to travel through the air. You just have to practice long enough to get a feel for it. It all comes with time. You’ll gradually learn how to perfect the flick of the wrist, the backhand drive, and how to curve your throws in a nice consistent arc. There are some wonderful tutorial videos online made by disc golf pros that offer amazing advice, but there’s no better way to learn than getting a basket of your own to practice at home or getting out on the course and playing a round of disc golf with some friends.”


As Southern Vermont’s disc golf scene continues to grow, a friendly regional rivalry has developed between Discs Over Clubs and the nearby Hunter Park Disc Golf Club, which plays at a well-maintained nine-hole course at Hunter Park in Manchester. “We get together with the Hunter Park Disc Golf Club to play for bragging rights every year,” says O’Neil. “It’s a whole lot of fun, no matter who wins. They’ve got a great club up there, and it’s really great to see how many people love to get out and play disc golf all around the region.”

O’Neil encourages anyone with an appetite for outdoor adventure and group sports to come out to a group event on Thursdays from April to October, which is open to anyone with a set of discs who is willing to pay a nominal yearly membership fee or “guest-player” fee for a day’s play. “We’re having a great time out here, and we always love it when new people join us. We’ve got a wonderful scene here at Willow Park, and we want to see it keep thriving for years to come.”


ALL THE DETAILS

Willow Park Disc Golfers:

facebook.com/groups/149246812147868

Hunter Park Disc Golf Club:

www.facebook.com/groups/149246812147868


New York Disc Golf Supply:

newyorkdiscgolfsupply.com

Disc Golf Vermont (DGVT):

discgolfvermont.com/about-disc-golf-vermont

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