Designing a disc golf course is more than just placing a teepad in one location and a basket in another. You need to think about the various lines that could be possible and what kind of challenges you could bring on a course. No one wants to play a course where all you have to do is hyzer around some trees all day without much difficulty. A true disc golfer should want a challenge, but you can’t make it too difficult to where even a more casual player will never want to return.
One man who has been at the top of the disc golf course design community is John Houck. The Austin, Texas resident has designed some of the most talked about and most challenging disc golf courses in the world. These aren’t your courses designed by a local park district. These are next level courses. We talked with Houck to learn more about how he got started with disc golf and his experience with course design.
All Things Disc Golf: Where are you from?
John Houck: I grew up in Buffalo, NY and moved to Austin when I was 22.
All Things Disc Golf: How did you discover the game?
John Houck: There were several people at my high school who played disc sports, and I started playing around 1975-76. Back then, if you played “Frisbee,” you did all the events. I played in my first disc golf tournament in 1978.
All Things Disc Golf: What made you start designing courses? What was his first course?
John Houck: I took over running the Texas State Overall Championships in 1984, and I moved the event to Zilker Park, which did not have a course at that time. So I designed a temporary course there. After three years of running tournaments and working with the parks department, we made the course permanent in 1987.
All Things Disc Golf: Of all the courses you’ve designed, which one do you wish you could change?
John Houck: I don’t have any regrets like that. I always want to get better at what I do, so I have new techniques I could apply to some holes I designed ten or twenty years ago, but I think all the old courses still stand up.
All Things Disc Golf: What courses inspire your work?
John Houck: My vision is mostly to make courses that are different from anything that already exists. So I look at every course I see, as well as ball golf courses, and try to take the good concepts to a new level. And to find ways to avoid or minimize the bad concepts. I get ideas from everywhere — there aren’t any particular courses that I use as a model.
All Things Disc Golf: Is course design an art form?
John Houck: Absolutely. Course design is extremely creative, requires a lot of imagination, and is based on a personal vision. There are some decisions you make during the process that are based on “science,” but most of the process involves balancing and arranging obstacles, challenging the user, beautifying the area, and other artistic principles. I frequently think of it as sculpting, especially when I’m working in the woods.
All Things Disc Golf: What are the major challenges of getting a course put in?
John Houck: That really depends on the property. I’ve been fortunate in that most cities or property owners who come to us are already committed to the process, so the challenges tend to be minor.
All Things Disc Golf: In his opinion, what have been the biggest turning points in the advancements of the game?
John Houck: Great question. Obviously the changes in disc technology have been very important. I also think that the boom in recreational players has changed how we look at courses. Back in the old days, most people who played disc golf also played in tournaments. Today, the tremendous popularity and growth of the sport means two things: on the one hand, the number of tournaments is at an all-time high; on the other hand, the overwhelming majority of players will never compete — they just play for fun. This two-pronged growth only fuels the need for better quality courses. There are so many courses now, and players will choose a great course over a simple course. Finally, this development may be the most important change: cities and property owners now see great disc golf courses as a real asset and a tourist draw, not just something to satisfy a small number of local enthusiasts.
All Things Disc Golf: In the future, how will course design have to change to match the disc development?
It’s hard to imagine that there will be quantum leaps in disc technology, but you never know. I always try to design with an eye toward the long term and the future, so when I can I leave room for tees and greens to be moved down the line if there are any major changes to the way the game is played.
All Things Disc Golf: What course would he like to be remembered for?
Well, I imagine that people will look back and see Selah Ranch as a milestone, but I suppose my biggest hope is that people will remember my concepts more than anything. I recently heard from a well-known designer that he has started incorporating PITTSBOROS into his courses, and that was great news. (That’s a type of disc golf “sand trap” I started using — it stands for Place Increasing The Throwing Strategy By Offering Recovery Opportunities.) I just hope that future designers will find my concepts valuable and that they’ll be able to use them to improve their own designs. Innovating design concepts that give players the chance to display all their skills is what inspires me. I work hard to design courses that are complex, so that players can enjoy them over and over again.
All Things Disc Golf: Do you have any new projects in the works?
I do. We just announced new 18-hole championship courses in Abilene, TX and Carrollton, GA. I’ll start both of those in the next month. You can see more information about those at http://houckdesign.com/current_disc_golf_courses.html. We are also about to announce another new course that I’ll be starting in April. On top of that, I’m currently working on a three-course project in Live Oak, TX, a beautiful former golf course in Monroe, WA, and a truly world class championship course at the Frost Valley YMCA in Claryville, NY.