Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Cracked Farms Disc Golf Course was designed and created at a time when its owner, Patrick Morris was in need of a diversion from the cancer treatments he had been undergoing.
The nine-hole course occupies six of the seven acres Morris shares with his family and a flock of chickens in Bedford Township. The eggs laid by those chickens provided the inspiration for the name of the disc golf course which is free and open to players of all levels (as long as you call ahead to let Morris know when you want to use the course).
Morris, who took up the sport in 1998, says he and a group of friends started work on the course in 2018 after he had completed treatments for lymphoma, or cancer of the infection-fighting cells of the immune system called lymphocytes.
“It gave me something to concentrate on other than battling the disease,” says Morris, President of the Battle Creek Disc Golf Club and a Quality Control Technician with Stryker Corp.
In October 2020, Cracked Farms welcomed its first players. The disc golf venue is among the about 80 percent throughout Michigan that are free to play and among a much smaller percentage that is operated on private property.
“There are probably about 50 in the state that are considered private courses,” says Chad Curtis, a Battle Creek resident who has played a major role in the design of four public disc golf courses in Calhoun County, the most recent one located at Territorial Brewing Company in Springfield. “A lot of times these private courses are open to the public one or two days a week or certain times of year.”
On the UDisc website
, Morris says, “The course can be played anytime providing that you contact us first.”
Curtis says Cracked Farms course is the only public course on private land in Calhoun County. He says there are quite a few around the Detroit area and towards Grand Rapids and north of there.
Morris' love of the sport prompted him to turn the majority of his property into a course that could be enjoyed by players of all skill and income levels.
“If a father wants to bring two or three of his kids out here to play, it’s not going to break the bank,” Morris says.
Financial constraints were among the reasons that Morris turned his attention from traditional golf to disc golf. At the time he was working as a rigger, a job that found him climbing the rafters at venues like the Palace of Auburn Hills and Kellogg Arena to install the equipment so that lights and amplifiers could hang from the ceiling.
A raised disc golf basket located along the course.
“I’d do the set up in the morning and then I’d sit around. If I was at the Palace of Auburn Hills it wasn’t worth it for me to drive back home and I’d have to find something to do,” Morris says. “I was always on the road and I had been an avid golfer, but trying to keep the clubs with me was expensive.”
He eventually stopped swinging clubs and began throwing discs. It wasn’t until 2007 when he went to work at Stryker that he got serious about honing his disc golf skills. The rigging job, which kept him away from home a lot is now a part-time gig for him and he says not having to travel as much gave him the opportunity to join the Battle Creek Disc Golf Club, develop his disc golf game, and take a more active role as the sport grew locally.
“In 2018, while I was going through cancer treatment the gentleman who was the head of the disc golf leagues decided he needed to step down and I took over that summer while going through treatment,” Morris says. “It gave me something to concentrate on other than battling this disease.”
Playing Through the Pandemic
Unlike the majority of sports activities that stopped or were scaled back significantly because of COVID-19, disc golf continued to be played with nods or smiles replacing high fives and fist bumps in recognition of a successful disc toss.
Curtis says he has friends who turned to disc golf after they couldn’t play ball golf because of the temporary closure of golf courses. This shift and the "pandemic proof" nature of the game likely contributed to an increase in the popularity of the sport, according to an article
written by Chris Bawden, a data scientist who lives in Holt, Mich., where he plays at Burchfield Park and has been playing disc golf for more than 20 years.
Beginning in spring, 2020, Bawden says there were a few obvious differences in the disc golf environment. “Across the U.S., most disc golf courses remained open while many other locations and events were shut down. This brought an influx of foot traffic to our local courses from less experienced players,” he says. Most of the new players were respectful. And families were among those trying out the courses, too, he adds.
While there were anecdotal reports of more people on disc golf courses, Bawden says data on new Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) memberships purchased each year from January 2016 to November 2020 provides quantitative evidence of the spike in disc golf participation.
“In 2017, the PDGA grew by almost 14,500 new members. In 2020 the PDGA has seen an incredible 22,000 new members representing an increase of greater than 50% year-over-year in new memberships,” Bawden says.
Curtis says it would have been a rarity 20 years ago to find another person locally who played disc golf. He says he thinks having more people playing, makes the courses through wooded areas at Leila Arboretum
and Irving Park feel even safer for participants.
Curtis is part of a group that maintains these local courses through a fund established at the Battle Creek Community Foundation. He says that fund is seeded through donations and sponsorships from individuals, businesses, and corporations.
While traffic at local and state courses continued to increase, Bawden says there were dramatic decreases in the golf disc supply in 2020 because of a disruption in the plastics supply chain, as well as diminished capacity at some manufacturing facilities, along with a significant increase in demand.
“In large numbers, disc golfers turned to eBay and Facebook groups in search of their core discs,” he says. “Supply was so short in fact that prices of used discs skyrocketed to nearly match the price of new discs. The Play It Again Sports stores in two cities in Michigan both sold approximately 90 percent of their used disc stock by September 2020 and were unable to replace them. I know because I visited these stores.”
However, it was precautions against spreading Coronavirus, not equipment shortages that impacted disc golf tournaments in Michigan. They reached a cancellation peak of 44 percent in May before they started to be scheduled again during the summer.
Although a number of disc golf tournaments didn’t happen last year because of concerns about players having to gather for announcements and sign-ups, Morris says he was at a tournament in August attended by 1,600 people. By this time, protocols were in place so that people were able to be socially distant throughout the event.
In league play, for example, Morris says people are being asked to use options like PayPal or Venmo to reduce the need for physical contact. He says this is how payments will be handled when an Improve Your Average League begins on April 13 at Territorial Brewing.
“We will have people out there who are literally just throwing discs for the first time this year to people who have played in World Disc Golf Championships,” Morris says.
No matter what the skill level, Curtis encourages people to give disc golf a shot. “You can go and play for free and you don’t need a lot of equipment,” he says.
But, the major draw for many is the ability to play outside and remain socially distant, Morris says.
“So many physical activities were taken away last year, but you could still get out on a disc golf course and play,” Morris says. “It’s a great activity where you can get some exercise and blow off steam whether you’re by yourself or with a group. You get to hang out with friends and set it up in a way that even now with pandemic you can stay socially distant and be outside in the fresh air.”