‘A top-tier course’: Dedicated group of volunteers make disc golf at Columbus County Park a reality

When I reached Jeff Bauman by phone, he was in Georgia, driving from a disc golf tournament in Florida to another in North Carolina. The Shelby Township resident is on a trip traveling the countryside, playing in disc golf tournaments and pursuing his love for the sport.

Bauman started playing disc golf in the early 1990s. Although created in the 1970s, the sport was still in its nascent stages, even then. But over the years, the sport, which is similar to traditional golf but utilizes discs — or frisbees, for the uninitiated — instead of clubs and baskets instead of holes, has increasingly grown in popularity.

“I got really involved in it around ‘99 or 2000,” Bauman says. “I’ve been playing and touring the region, playing other courses ever since then. I love it. I love watching it grow, how it’s evolved.”

Bauman started designing disc golf courses around 2010, mostly private courses like the one at Camp Agawam in Lake Orion and the since-closed Sunnybrook course in Sterling Heights. It was in late 2020 when Mark Brochu, director of the St. Clair County Parks and Recreation Commission, reached out to Bauman, offering him a unique opportunity: to design a new course at Columbus County Park in Columbus Township.

“This property is incredible. It makes you want to design a top-tier course. It has elevation, water, distance,” Bauman says. “We want to get people out there playing and enjoying this beautiful park.”

‘They're out there at eight o'clock every Saturday morning’

Disc golf at Columbus County Park comes by way of a tragedy. The course is made possible through a donation of the family of Will Bendik, a local man who passed away at the age of 28, according to reports. His family reached out to the county, wanting to build a disc golf course in honor of their son, who also loved the sport. Brochu showed them the Columbus site, they agreed, and he began to put things in motion.

To make it happen, Brochu put together a coalition of organizations, volunteers, and individuals. He reached out to Friends of the St. Clair River, who already had a stewardship program at the park, and Bauman, who was tapped to design the course.

“The partnership is the key. The donors, the course designer, the Friends staff, volunteers, and park staff have a shared vision of a high caliber course that will be a fun challenge for golfers of all ages and abilities,” Brochu writes via email. “Each group has brought their expertise to the project so that it is being built very efficiently and effectively.”

Friends of the St. Clair River was tasked with organizing a group of volunteers to prepare the site, clearing brush and invasive species. But as the organization’s stewardship director Kirsten Lyons tells it, organizing the volunteers hasn’t been much work at all.

“We didn't realize how experienced and knowledgeable the disc golf volunteers were going to be,” Lyons says. “We thought we were going to have to do a lot of training and orientations and that kind of thing. It turns out that most of the volunteers that have been helping us at Columbus County Park, for this disc golf course, they’ve already done this somewhere else before. And they're pretty familiar with the species and the work and they bring their own tools. And, you know, they have their own safety glasses and leather gloves. They're ready. They're out there at eight o'clock every Saturday morning.”

Since the third week of January, a dedicated group of up to a dozen volunteers have faithfully reported to Columbus County Park — save for one or two especially cold mornings — from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday. So far, volunteers have logged over 200 hours at the St. Clair County park.

It’s there where they’ve been dutifully and enthusiastically preparing the land for the Will Bendik Memorial Disc Golf Course.

Building a top-tier course

When Jeff Bauman was asked to design the course at Columbus County Park, he reached out to William Freed, another disc golf enthusiast, to help with the course design. They both believe that the Will Bendik Memorial Disc Golf Course will put St. Clair County on the map, so to speak, and make the region a magnet for disc golfers from across Michigan, other states, and even Canada.

“We’ve been adamant about making a top-of-the-line, modern course that will still be relevant in 30 years. The land we’re using for the course is absolutely incredible. We didn’t even have that many trees to take down, just some invasive species. It’s surprising how easy the process has been. People are taking this very seriously,” Freed says.

“I think that when we’re done with this course, and I was just telling this to a friend who is a professional disc golfer, it’s going to be one of the top three courses in the state.”

Bauman and Freed’s design accomplishes this by making the course more difficult, they say. As the sport becomes more sophisticated, more and more disc golfers want longer and more difficult courses. Much like in traditional golf, the course provides balance by offering shorter tees for novices and longer tees for advanced players.

“We wanted this to be a super hard course from the long tees and a super fun course from the short tees,” Bauman says. “We call it a gold-level course. Top professionals will come out and play it because it has a bunch of par 4s and a couple par 5s.”

By making the course attractive to more accomplished players, it makes the course more of a destination. In doing so, Bauman and Freed’s design could draw out-of-towners to the region, generating tourism dollars for the area.

“Disc golfers love to play different courses and travel,” Freed says, as evidenced by Bauman’s own current road trip. “Once you start having tournaments and league play, people will be driving in, getting lunch and dinner, hotel rooms. And if you ever have a large-scale tournament, that’s hundreds of people driving in.

“Once this course is established, it’s definitely going to bring in people from other states and Canada.”

For now, there’s still work to be done. There is at least one more volunteer Saturday scheduled, this March 27. There could be a couple more in April, although everyone involved in the process seems pretty impressed with how quickly things are moving along. Following that, it’s up to Brochu and the Parks commission to install the baskets and concrete pads for the tees.

The front nine of the Will Bendik Memorial Disc Golf Course should be ready by June, if not earlier. Work will begin on the back nine this fall.

“One of the things that we’re always saying is that we’re very, very lucky that the park is working with us. In a park that is a little more developed, these areas might already be spoken for,” Freed says.

“The park staff, the Friends of the St. Clair River, Mark [Brochu] — everyone’s been amazing.”
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