COURSE REVIEW: Disc golf has potential at Whiteface Mountain

Hole eight at the Whiteface Mountain Disc Golf course is a 246-foot par three through a rocky access road. The trees on either side present an interesting challenge. (News photo — Arthur Maiorella)

Just as I threw the disc at the Whiteface Mountain Disc Golf Course in Wilmington, the wind picked up. Like watching a train derailment in slow motion, my drive carried to the left and seemed to hover there for one painful instant. The first hole was 385 feet away, and I seemed to be on track to barely cover half that distance.

Then, as quick as it picked up, the wind died and my disc dipped back right and dropped only 40 or 50 feet away from the basket. A stone-cold shooter would have been able to drop that putt in like butter; sadly, a stone-cold shooter I am not. I settled for par.

Disc golf is a sport much like regular golf. Instead of hitting a golf ball from point A to B, a player throws a disc (think of a Frisbee) around a nine- or 18-hole course. Instead of a cup on the ground, each hole is finished in a raised metal basket. Like regular golf, the aim is to get from the start of each hole to the end of it in as few strokes (or throws) as possible. Unlike regular golf, courses require minimal upkeep, are usually free to play, and the space is often mixed-use as a dog park or just a public green area.

As a regular disc golf player, and the only member of the Lake Placid News newsroom under 25 years old, I was — as the kids say — stoked to hear about disc golf at Whiteface Mountain, which is operated by the Olympic Regional Development Authority.

So I went. There was no way I was passing up the opportunity to play a mid-afternoon round.

Lauren Barnes, a Whiteface marketing and development employee, and Pat Bly, one of the Whiteface content managers, play disc golf. (News photo — Arthur Maiorella)

I brought my personal stash of discs from my college room at Syracuse University a few weeks ago, and after chatting with ORDA Communications Specialist Morgan Ryan, I was all set to play the course two days before the official opening on June 30. I was even assigned two guides for my expedition, who I jokingly thought of as my minders: Lauren Barnes, a Whiteface marketing and development employee, and Pat Bly, one of the Whiteface content managers.

I met Barnes and Bly, shook hands and asked some reporter-type questions. Despite the white undershirt and the tastefully brown khakis, I didn’t feel like a reporter. I was getting paid to stand on a gorgeous mountain and play disc golf. (Everyone should get into journalism.)

After a few questions, I learned that neither of my guides had played disc golf before. This worried me at first. I’ve played over 100 rounds on dozens of courses from South Carolina to Wyoming. But I shouldn’t have been worried; Barnes and Bly were excellent partners, and we made great small talk throughout. They even displayed all the hallmarks of burgeoning disc golf talent, which even non-players may recognize from regular golf: They both did an excellent job looking nonchalant while searching out bad shots — and at least one of them displayed master-level form in turning away from the group before cussing into the wind after one such shot. (Admittedly, I haven’t played a lot of regular golf; but my dad has sworn he could’ve gone to the PGA tour and he has mastered these two skills.)

My guides excused themselves on the seventh hole to attend to other matters, and I finished out the final two holes solo.

As for the course itself? I had high hopes. An excellent disc golf course — located on grounds that hosted the Alpine events during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games — would be worth traveling hours to play. Throw in the potential for crazy elevation changes brought by the namesake mountain, and the course could really be something special.

Disc golf "hole" at Whiteface Mountain (News photo — Arthur Maiorella)

Despite these hopes and the terrific view, I didn’t find the course that special. Much like regular golf, disc golf courses thrive when they have interesting obstacles: doglegs, trees or water carries, to name a few. Most holes at Whiteface lacked any obstacles. Players just throw straight once or twice, then putt. Even distance isn’t an impediment; the longest hole is 423 feet, and the shortest is 213 feet. The only break in the malaise were holes seven and nine, which feature enough of a dip in elevation to provide an interesting feature to play through; and hole eight, where players throw down a narrow, gravel access road that cuts above the “Face Lift” ski lift.

Despite having no obstacles, I played badly at Whiteface. If the color beige — or the taste of flat soda — was a disc golf course, it would be this one, and it’s pretty hard to stay engaged when that’s the case.

I understand why this is. The mountain is, first and foremost, a world-class ski center. The resort’s considerable resources are pointed squarely at winter sports, with the summer activities being mainly gravy. However, I think it is possible to have a nice disc golf course without upsetting the balance. Whiteface has the potential of rating higher than the current UDisc user rating of 2.1 (out of 5).

A good start might be concrete tee pads. Currently, the tee pads are wooden boards laid on the ground. Concrete offers much better footing, and players who step over the box are much less likely to catch the lip of a 2-by-4 board and face plant. During the ski season, it wouldn’t be hard to bury the pads under snow or dirt.

Trails would be another nice addition. By cutting footpaths through the trees, disc golf players would get more interesting holes and better walking. Currently, every shot is wide open with little to no “punishment” for players who throw errantly left or right.

Obviously, the most dramatic of obstacles — the water carry — would be nearly impossible at a ski center. Luckily, these hazards are incredibly easy to fake. Just some spray paint, a couple of flags, or a little fencing can pretty easily create an out-of-bounds or penalty zone. That would be especially fun on some of the downhill shots, adding finesse to what is otherwise incredibly easy to play for par or better.

My final takeaway? A solid 18-hole offering on an Olympic mountain would be a must-play destination course for serious disc golfers. However, the resort has to build a course worthy of the location by having more creative layouts and putting in more holes — actually investing in the course. I’d love to see this. Whiteface spends millions in skiing improvements, and disc golf courses are cheap. With only a sliver of their budget, ORDA could create something truly special.

You can find Whiteface Mountain in the usual spot this summer. The medley of gondola rides, scenic views from the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway, a restaurant and the beautiful hiking trails promise a good time for anyone.

(Arthur Maiorella is a junior studying photojournalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was an intern at the Lake Placid News for six weeks this summer.)

Whiteface Mountain Disc Golf Course

Location: Whiteface Mountain Ski Center

Address: 5021 State Route 86, Wilmington

Admission: $7, age 7 and older; free, age 6 and under

Notes: Includes use of three discs per person (driver, mid-range, and putt/approach), which must be returned upon completion of the course. $5 fee for any lost discs.

Year established: 2009

Season: June 30 to Oct. 9, 2023

Website: whiteface.com

UDisc user rating: 2.1 (out of 5)

Holes: 9

Starting at $1.44/week.

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