By Carlos Harrison
Mark Janssen hunches and pumps his arms like he’s swinging a kettlebell, eyes fixed on a gap in the narrow, tree-lined path — one, two, three times — then launches the fluorescent lime-colored disc in his hand with a diamond-cutter’s precision.
The flying saucer sails artfully between the canopy of slash pines and sabal palms, past moss-bearded oaks, and lands with a flop and a hop a little more than a long arm’s reach from his target, a metal basket draped with chains the players refer to as a “hole.”
He’s playing disc golf at his favorite course, “The Woods” at Bill Frederick Park, which he designed. We’re just a few miles from the whoops and roars of Orlando’s famous theme parks, but it feels like a world away. On purpose.
“Designers go in and look at the land and leave trees and leave obstacles and use park land that may not have been used or can’t be used for any other sport,” he said. “With every other sport you have to flatten out a field and put up lights and stuff.”
Janssen pulls out a bright blue disc for his follow-up throw, a “putter” in the parlance of the game. His discs most likely would have been called Frisbees, back in the day. Now, close to 50 companies produce the tools of the disc golf trade, with a highly specific array of designs for drives, approaches, and putts.
He flips his second shot into the basket to score a birdie, pumps a fist with childlike glee as the disc rattles home.
“It truly is a sport for all ages,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got people that are taking their 6- or 7-year-olds out. And then I know people that are 75 that are still playing.”
Disc golf is growing all around the world, but especially in Florida, where it allows for a safe and soul-replenishing walk amid nature, year-round. You’ll even find deer and foxes — and, of course, sunbathing iguanas — on many courses.
Fun-loving foursomes enjoy their play surrounded by the sound of the breeze in the trees, mockingbird and kingfisher calls, waves gently lapping at the shore — punctuated by the occasional grief-stricken groan of a disc golfer whose throw has gone awry. Banged a tree and dropped with the grace of a falling coconut, wobbled woefully and disappeared into a thick tangle of scrub and tight-packed trees, or veered clumsily and tragically beyond reach onto the glistening green surface of a lake.
The play is similar to traditional ball golf — at a fraction of the cost. There are birdies and bogeys and hole-in-ones (which are almost as rare in disc golf as in a round at St. Andrews). Players can start with a disc or two for $10 or $15 each, although serious amateurs and competitive pros carry bags or rolling carts stuffed with 25 or more. You can even rent discs at some courses. And, if you write your name and number or email on yours before it goes astray, other players are good about returning them.
Better still, greens fees are virtually nonexistent. Players rarely pay more than the park entry fee.
“It’s a great way to go out and enjoy the park,” said Orlando Disc Golf Vice President Bill Burbage. “But the overall best thing is, it’s free.”
Courses exist the length of the state, generally at city or county parks within easy driving distance of almost everywhere, with more going in all the time. You can find them on a number of websites and apps, including dgcoursereview.com, or the popular and feature-packed UDisc app, which shows hole-by-hole satellite images. Many courses have multiple tee pads and baskets per hole — allowing several short and long, beginner to pro variations on a single course.
“It allows for a lot more flexibility in terms of the type of people that can play a course,” said the Professional Disc Golf Association’s Florida state coordinator, Cameron Harbachuk, “because if you have a really difficult course from the back tees to the long baskets, you can play that course and then have somebody that may not be as good play the short tees to the short basket, and they can both play together.”
Playing solo is fine, or you can find local leagues with players eager for a friendly game, and more than happy to show a new player the ropes, on Facebook and the web.
Here are some of Florida’s best courses, recommended by serious amateurs, tournament coordinators, course designers, and competitive pros:
New World Sports Complex — Jacksonville
Regularly ranked No. 1 in the state. Four courses, a total of 56 holes — with golf carts available to rent.
“It’s got a beautiful moonscape that was created by, part of it, the excavation of Lake Fretwell, which is a gorgeous lake anyway,” said Jacksonville physician and disc golf aficionado Charlie Booras. “You’ve got elevation. In Florida, which is so rare. And that makes it extra fun.”
There are wooded holes and open, neatly manicured ones, along with water hazards and some views that will take your breath away. Hole 18, a par five, stretches close to a thousand feet. “You’re shooting down from the top of the moonscape towards the water — just absolutely, aesthetically, very pleasing to be out there.”
Keep an eye out for the headstone on Hole 17 commemorating the course’s designer, the late “Frisbee Dan” Berman.
Tom Brown Park — Tallahassee
Twenty-four holes in all, and tons of personality. There are open holes to test your arm, and a variety of lightly, moderately, and heavily wooded ones to test your mettle. It’s hilly, too, which takes it to a whole different, um, level.
“It was a bear to build because it was dense woods before we got to it,” said course designer Dave Muntean Jr.
Hole C from the pro pad starts high through a tunnel of tall trees for the first 240 feet, then crosses a little creek at the bottom before opening out into a right turn, over a ditch and up another hill to the basket. Par four, 530 feet.
“If you walk away with a birdie on that hole during a tournament, that’s made your whole round,” Muntean said.
Northside Park — Gainesville
The oldest still-active disc golf course in Florida. Mostly flat, moderately wooded, with water in play in some spots. Twenty holes in all, with two tee pads and basket positions on 18 of them. It offers a mix of challenging technical shots and some longer, open ones.
Hole 5 crosses a canal, with a bridge to get to the basket.
You’ve got lots of big trees you have to throw around and throw through,” said Mike Barnett, owner of Sun King Disc Sports in Hudson, and, by most accounts, the most prolific disc golf event promoter in Florida. “It’s relatively shady, as well, overall. And once you get out into the course it’s pretty quiet. You kind of get lost in the woods there once you’re playing.”
Picnic Island Park — Tampa
One of Florida’s most scenic courses, with a challenging first hole on the shoreline of Tampa Bay. The two 18-hole layouts have two tee pads and three different pin positions each, winding their way along the water, through the trees, and over wide, scrupulously maintained open stretches — with ships passing by off shore. Adding to its uniqueness: there are six par four holes, including one with a sharp 90-degree bend in the middle and a dogleg at the end.
No. 1, though, is what Harbachuk calls the course’s “signature hole.”
“The tee pad itself is on the beach,” he said, “pointed over the water. So you’re throwing your shot over the beach and over the Bay, and then finish it where the basket is also on the beach.”
Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake — Orlando
One park, three very different 18-hole courses. The Original Course, aka Turkey Lake, has an easily navigable and mostly open hole-to-hole flow that leads along the lake. T2, aka the Turkeynator, is the most challenging, with four par fours and a rare par five. It demands a variety of throwing skills to handle the mix of tight and technical holes and long and open ones, including one that requires nerves of steel for a throw over the water at a bend in the lake. The Woods, designed by Mark Janssen, lives up to its name. Almost every hole winds between or around trees, all or part of the way.
Champions Pointe aka Lake Hiawatha Preserve — Clermont
Part of the rapidly evolving Lake County Disc Golf Trail, planned to consist of five courses altogether. Champions Pointe was designed by Gregg Hosfeld, who also did Picnic Island. It was, when it opened in 2016, the longest course in Florida. It’s also one of the most varied, with at least four basket and tee options on its 18 holes. Seven holes have an additional tee, for even more possibilities. All nestled in a beautiful nature preserve on a lake, studded with stately oaks.
“It’s 219 acres of mature live oaks,” Hosfeld said. “So it was kind of a course designer’s dream.”
Hole 16 sits on a tongue of land jutting into the lake, and “goes slightly up and over a rise and then back down through a really nice tunnel and then breaks out into a nice open grassy area. And right behind it is Lake Hiawatha.”
Jet Stream Snyder Park — Fort Lauderdale
This one has it all, in terms of terrain. There’s water, woods, and, virtually unheard of in South Florida, elevation. There are three tee pads on each of the 18 holes, accommodating a range of skill levels. The course works its way through oak-wooded lanes, along white sand waterfronts, and off of and onto some hills. The park’s two lakes provide for some challenging water carries, and several holes that hug the shore.
“This may be the prettiest course in South Florida,” said Pat Duncan, the tournament director for the South Florida Open. “There’s a couple of shots that you throw out over the water, and up about 30 feet onto a rocky outcrop. It is a very visually beautiful course.”
Okeeheelee Park — West Palm Beach
Long shots. Big challenges. But forgiving for beginners.
“There is a lot of water on the course,” Duncan said, “but the red pads are very, very well located to keep you away from the hazards.”
Okeeheelee began its life as a rock quarry, and later got passed to the county, which saw a good thing in all the water and rises and falls of the land. The first two holes of the blue course play uphill to baskets hidden by trees. Four and five play long over the amoeba-shaped lake, with five aiming at a pin near the shore. Nine and 11 climb up a slope; 10 and 12 bring you back down.
In short, it can be a nail-biter. Which makes it extra good that there’s a pro shop you can get discs from, you know, just in case.
Indian Hammocks Park — Miami
Two 18-hole courses, multiple pad and pin positions, lots and lots of trees. Indian Hammocks East, K1, has more open holes. K2, the West course, is mostly a walk in the woods.
“It’s a very much more shaded course compared to what you would see in a lot of the parks,” said Duncan, which is a good thing on those hot South Florida days.
K1 has a good diversity of short, medium and long shots with some nice tree features and challenging angles — including a 270-degree switchback on the blue Hole 10. K2 plays through or alongside the thickly wooded western side of the park, making for a fun mix of beginner-friendly holes.