Godfather of Disc Golf: Dennis Byrne
Local Disc Golf Course Designer Set to Unveil Carmel’s First Public Course
Perhaps one of the nation’s fastest growing sports has roots in Indiana, and the godfather of it all is a local retiree that is the sport’s biggest evangelist. Dennis Byrne, a former aerospace and marine manufacturing engineer, took an early retirement two-and-a-half years ago to pursue his true love: Disc golf, or frisbee golf as it is often times called. “I’ve pretty much designed and installed every disc golf course in Hamilton County,” said Byrne.
A pioneer in the disc golf industry, Byrne started playing in 1983 while he was in the Air Force. Using fire hydrants, signs, trees, or other outdoor items as targets, Byrne and his friends would go out and throw frisbees on a makeshift course near Sacramento, California. They discovered a course in Shady Oaks that had targets with baskets, the first of its kind in the United States, so Byrne started getting more serious about the sport and invested in some discs.
In 1989, Byrne started playing on the professional disc golf circuit and became the executive director of the PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) in 1993 and 1994. After his stint leading the PDGA, Byrne stayed active in the sport but decided to get back into the workforce and start promoting his passion in other ways. Nowadays, he runs a small consulting business out of a 20’ x 20’ “mancave” in his backyard in Fishers designing and installing disc golf courses all over the country. His most recent project, a 9-hole recreational disc golf course at Lawrence W. Inlow Park in Carmel, will be the city’s first public disc golf course.
According to Mark Westermeier, Director of Carmel Clay Parks, disc golf courses are a great compliment to the public park offering. “They have a low impact on the terrain, require little additional maintenance costs, and most importantly, they get people outside in our parks,” said Westermeier.
National appeal for disc golf has grown substantially over the last decade. The first permanent basket course ever installed in the United States was at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena, California, in 1975. In 2000, there were 1,000 disc golf courses worldwide. Today, there are 4,200 courses and approximately 300 new courses being built every year. As a result, local courses are seeing more activity and tournaments are becoming more popular.
Recently, the Indiana High School state championships were held at Northview Church in Carmel and Dr. James A. Dillon Park in Noblesville. Thirty-one high school participants from 8 schools competed in the third annual tournament, started two years ago by Byrne. Westfield won the team competition which did not sit well with Chris Metken, a Carmel High School senior team member from last year’s winning team. “I didn’t have enough time to practice this summer,” said Metken who has been working this summer for the Chicago Cubs during home stands. “We were pretty disappointed, but we have one more year to compete so we’ll be shooting for next year.”
Byrne started the state tournament to build some enthusiasm for the sport with younger players. He believes that if kids play disc golf in high school, they will play it the rest of their lives. Mike Jenneman, a Carmel-based graphic designer and photographer, couldn’t agree more. Jenneman began throwing a frisbee in 1979 while he lived in West Lafayette, spending his summers in the Lafayette Parks program. His talent for doing frisbee tricks and throwing for accuracy earned him a trip to the Junior Frisbee Championships in Orlando where he first played disc golf. “I could do all kinds of tricks, but I had never played disc golf until that tournament,” Jenneman recalled. “I had three weeks to take a crash course in disc golf, and I was hooked.”
Today, Jenneman plays in several disc golf leagues, tournaments, and even brings his discs along on vacations to play courses around the country. He is currently preparing for the Tim Selinske U.S. Masters Championships in Louisville August 31 through September 2.
According to Byrne, the attraction to the sport is two-fold: Money and time.
“Besides it just being fun, you can play any course practically for free. Unless you are attending a park that charges a gate fee, there is no cost to play disc golf. You can also play 18 holes in about an hour, so you don’t need a lot of time to sneak in a round or two of disc golf.”
According to Helen Metken, an FC Tucker & Co. realtor in Carmel and mother of Chris Metken, disc golf has some added family-friendly advantages. “It’s fun to go out as a family and play,” she added. “There aren’t too many sports you can play with your kids that are close to home and free.”
As for equipment, discs are relatively inexpensive compared to their golf counterparts. Depending on which brand you choose, costs average $9-$15 per disc. Jenneman recommends starting on smaller, less challenging courses with two discs: A putter/midrange disc and a driver. As they become more skilled, disc golf players will carry 15 to 20 discs with them on a course. “If you go down to Basket Case in the Libertyville Flea Market, the owners are big disc golf players and they can point you in the right direction. You can also pick up some discs from Hamilton Disc Golf Union member Matt Boals at Dillon Park in Noblesville. He announces on the club’s Facebook page dates and times he will be there selling from his pickup truck.”
Cost is also an attraction for the host parks. The cost of disc golf courses is relatively low compared to other park infrastructure projects. According to Westermeier, a playground investment can cost around $750,000 to install whereas a disc golf course may only cost $20,000. “They are a good bang for the buck and relatively easy to maintain.”
On the horizon in Carmel, Westermeier hopes to build a competitive pro level course at 106th and Hazel Dell. If approved, the course would be designed to accommodate national professional or amateur championships right here in Carmel. “It’s the fastest growing sport in the country and demand is increasing,” said Jenneman. “Having a facility like this in Carmel would be a huge benefit to the area.”
Byrne recommends visiting local disc parks and playing with more experienced players to learn the sport. There are also several local disc golf clubs and parks, all available through the PDGA website (www.PDGA.org).