Fingers wrapped around the lip of my disc, I squint my eyes to focus on the target. It’s one of those days that can convert a Californian into an Oregonian — clear skies, bright greenery and warm temperature — so I easily spot the red basket a few hundred feet away.
Taking a step forward, I fling the disc off the top of a hill at the Old Mill Disc Golf course in Oakridge. The disc soars. I smile. But this moment is cut short as the disc veers left toward a tall tree, collides into it and then falls into a thick patch of brush, consisting of blackberry branches, ferns and dead tree limbs.
I climb into the brush seeking my newly purchased white disc. While digging, I think back to my conversation the day before with Jason Nehmer, who designed this newly established disc golf course and has decades of experience in the sport. Featuring hills, dense trees and water, the course is one of the most unique in Oregon, he tells me. And to be prepared to lose a disc if it doesn’t go where I want it to go.
After searching in the brush for the disc, I declare it lost and play on.
The course is a new addition to the town’s growing ecotourism industry, adding to the area’s already popular mountain biking, trail running and hiking culture. Nehmer says, “One of my goals was to create a disc golf course here, a premiere, championship level one.” He adds of Oakridge and its surrounds, “I knew this area, the Willamette National Forest, would thrive on something like that.”
For the uninitiated, disc golf looks easy — it’s just throwing something while walking around in a park, similar to playing fetch with a dog. But looks are deceiving. Like every sport, playing disc golf well requires mastering a certain kind of movement. In this case, the movement to throw a disc for hundreds of feet toward a standing basket.
The upside is that it’s an inexpensive sport to get started. Nehmer recommends Play It Again Sports in Eugene, which has one of the largest selections of new and used discs in the area — for $20, I got three discs, each with a specialized purpose, including driver, mid-range and putter.
Designing the course took about 30 hours, Nehmer says. The city-owned former mill site is about 20 acres, he says, which is a decent size, but he had to use a lot of the hills in the area to really maximize space and safety for disc golfers.
Building the course cost about $20,000, he says, mostly funded through donations. Although the city still owns the property, the course is maintained by the Oakridge Disc Golf Club, Nehmer says.
The course attracts more than 100 people a weekend, most from the Eugene-Springfield area, Nehmer says. But with upcoming tournaments on the calendar, the course could be bringing in disc golfers throughout the state.
One of the upcoming tournaments is The Middle Fork Open, which is planned for the end of July or early August. The tournament will be open to state level disc golfers, also referred to as “B Tier,” according to the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). “That’s going to be huge,” Nehmer adds. “We’re hoping to get about 150 golfers.”
Even though COVID-19 cases are still high in Oregon, Nehmer says PDGA has developed social distancing measures for safety. There’s minimal interaction between players and officials with tasks such as scoring and registration done online.
In fact, the pandemic has increased interest in disc golf, he adds. People are tired of staying indoors and are looking to the outdoors for activity. “The sport grew by 35 percent during COVID,” he adds. “It’s a sport that anyone can do. You don’t need an amazing skillset or be coordinated. You just need to pick up a disc, maybe watch a few YouTube videos, learn how to throw and there you go.”
But it’s more than a disc golf course, he adds. Since every tee has a sign that looks back to the history of the area, Nehmer says walking through the course can be an interpretive hike. “Whether you’re a disc golfer or not, you can walk the course and read about what went on back in the day.”
The course offers an experience different from what you’d find at a typical park. The “Bird’s Nest” hole has the basket about 80 feet from the tee, but it’s located on the side of the hill among trees. It’s not an easy shot. Throw the disc wrong and it’ll hit a tree and roll down the hill into brush, which happened to me a few times and each of those times I had to scoot down to find the disc.
The terrain diversity is part of the adventure at the Old Mill. Playing through dense trees, grasslands and off hills while avoiding swampy millponds is what makes the course fun.
“It’s got all of the elements. That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of this course,” Nehmer says. “It challenges every aspect of your game.”
And the course’s elevation feature is what makes it different from courses in Eugene-Springfield, Nehmer says. One of the signature holes of the course is the “Elk Slide Basin,” or what Nehmer calls the top of the world. “It’s probably about a hundred feet in elevation and shoots down into this basin,” he says. “It’s definitely a gravity hole. You can watch your disc fly for seconds.”
But it’s at the top of the world where my disc fell into oblivion, lost within brush.
Parking for the Old Mill Disc Golf Course is available off of Fish Hatchery Road in Oakridge. For directions to the course, find at PDGA.com or on Facebook.