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Tulsa, Oklahoma and the case for supporting disc golf in public parks

We’re pleased to publish this guest post by Josh Woods on Disc Golf and Tulsa. Tulsa currently has the most disc golf course per 100,000 according to the Trust for Public Land’s annual City Park Facts. Do you have research on city parks, park amenities or city park trends that you’d like to share, please write us at ccpe@tpl.org.

By Josh Woods

Author bio: Josh Woods is an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University and the creator of Parked: A Disc Golf Think Tank

In August 2005, a young Devan Owens embarked on an unlikely journey. He left his home near Tulsa, Oklahoma and traveled nearly a thousand miles to Flagstaff, Arizona for the Amateur Disc Golf World Championships. Owens was sixteen years old, a precocious lefthanded thrower with a great sidearm and big dreams.

Devan Owens Putt by Frisbeenet

Devan Owens (from frisbeenet)

With only one year of disc golf experience, he won the tournament in his age division and became an amateur world champion. In the next years, Owens dedicated himself to disc golf, developed into a successful touring professional, attracted sponsorships, took on leadership roles in the disc golf community at the local and state levels, and collected 39 tournament wins by spring 2017.

Although this may seem like an obscure sports story, anyone who cares about the future of public parks should take notice. There is an important, symbiotic relationship between disc golfers and public parks. On one hand, disc golfers like Owens depend greatly on the availability of public urban land and the support of parks and recreation departments. On the other hand, city parks benefit from local disc golfers who donate their time, labor and money to the construction and maintenance of public disc golf courses.

In a recent interview, when asked about the origin of his disc golf success, Owens acknowledged the roles of public parks and his disc golf community in Tulsa. “There’s lots going on in the Tulsa disc golf scene,” he said. “We have a couple clubs running tournaments and leagues all year around. You can play organized disc golf almost every day of the week.”

Owens identified the Tulsa Disc Sports Association (TDSA) as the main organizer in the area. He spoke highly of its leaders, credited the TDSA for developing strong relationships with Tulsa city officials, and detailed the TDSA’s large donations of money and labor for the construction and maintenance of area disc golf courses.

“This is going to blow your mind,” he said. “Almost all the disc golf courses in Tulsa were paid for and installed by the TDSA. The association has a long history. Since the 1980s, the generations have come through, running leagues, collecting small fees, organizing fundraisers, setting up work days and trash pickups. The courses are in the ground today because disc golfers of the past gave their time, money and sweat.”

Disc golf appears to be more popular in Tulsa than in any other major city in the country. The Tulsa Disc Golf Facebook group has more than 3,000 members. According to a study based on a random sample of 100 disc golf groups on Facebook, the mean group size is 174 members. Very few disc golf communities in the nation can rival the social media presence of Tulsa disc golf.

According to the 2017 City Park Facts Report, released last month, Tulsa is first in the country in public disc golf courses per capita.[1] As shown in Table 1, the TDSA has outbuilt the vibrant communities in Charlotte, Orlando and Kansas City. Part of this success should be attributed to the availability of public park land. Among the 100 largest U.S. cities, Tulsa ranks twenty-fourth based on the total number of parks, and tenth in park acres per 1,000 residents.

 

Table 1: Top Ten Cities Based on Public Disc Golf Courses per 100,000 Residents[2]

City Population Public Park Spending per Resident (Adjusted) Total Disc Golf Courses Disc Golf Courses per 100,000 Residents
Tulsa  411,880 $60 7 1.7
Durham  257,245 $69 4 1.6
Lexington  312,390 $85 4 1.3
Charlotte  862,069 $43 14 1.3
Orlando  272,010 $119 3 1.1
Fort Wayne  261,136 $102 3 1.1
Cincinnati  304,833 $244 3 1.0
Kansas City  479,367 $128 5 1.0
Anchorage  305,439 $92 3 1.0
Richmond  222,071 $77 2 0.9

While the green space is there, the public funding is not. Tulsa ranks seventy-fourth in spending on public parks, per the 2017 City Park Facts Report. Out of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 73 spend more money per resident on public parks than Tulsa. It appears that the TDSA builds disc golf courses “the old-fashioned way … they earn it.” Charlotte, North Carolina also has a notably low level of public funding and a high number of disc courses per 100,000 residents.

Most of Tulsa’s seven public courses have concrete tee pads and appear to be well maintained. Located in Mohawk Park, the Black Hawk, a wooded course with tight, yet reasonable fairways, plenty of distance, and at least three water holes, should be on every disc golfer’s bucket list. There’s a second course, the Red Hawk, within the same complex, making it a desirable destination for disc golfers of all skill levels.

“The Black Hawk is the most challenging course in the area,” Owens said. “It would definitely eat up the beginner, but the Red Hawk has a front nine that’s fairly short and open. One thing I like about this place is the Tulsa Zoo in Mohawk Park. It’s cool to be playing disc golf and hear the monkeys and elephants and gorillas going off.”

Tulsa disc golfers are generous supporters of the broader community. Led by the TDSA, Tulsa’s Ice Bowl, a nationwide disc golf charity event played in the dead of winter, has broken records for attendance, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to the community food back. More than 240 people took part in the 2016 Tulsa Ice Bowl.

PDGA Members

When pressed to identify the secret of Tulsa’s success, Owens said, “You know, the only thing I can think of is the people. When they get involved with the TDSA, they realize they’re part of it. They help put in a disc golf course. They help move a basket, or install a new tee pad, or show up for a long workday, and when they do, they become attached to the course forever … that’s the secret sauce.”

The “secret sauce” of Tulsa disc golf exemplifies the spirit of the public land movement in the United States. The generous volunteerism of disc golf communities across the country has led to new disc golf courses in thousands of public parks across the country. The number of public disc golf courses far exceeds the number of publicly owned ball golf courses. And while the popularity of ball golf continues to decline, disc golf is on the rise.

In the 1980s, there were about twenty-five new disc golf courses built each year; by the 1990s, roughly 100 courses were established annually, and between 2007 and 2010, the annual growth rate reached 200 each year.[3] There are now 5,467 disc golf courses in the U.S., and roughly 90 percent of these courses are in public parks.[4]

Other indicators are showing the same explosive growth trend. As shown in the figure below, over a six-year period, between 2006 and 2012, there was a fixed, year-to-year increase in the number of active members of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) of about eight percent. Then, in 2013, the number of members jumped by 13 percent, followed by a 19 percent increase in 2014, a 25 percent gain in 2015, and a 17 percent uptick in 2016, when the total number of members stood at 35,662 worldwide, and 30,454 in the United States.[5]

[1] The 2017 City Parks Facts Report is published by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence. The data in this report are generated through “a collaboration between the many city, county, state and nonprofit parks agencies and conservancies that work with the Center to submit their data.” The information on disc golf course locations may differ from the PDGA’s figures. The data on disc golf courses by city only include those courses located in public parks within the given municipality, not the metropolitan region. A “public park” refers to publicly owned and operated parks within the city limits.

[2] See the 2017 City Park Facts Report.

[3] Oldakowski, R., and J. W. Mcewen (2013). Diffusion of disc golf courses in the United States. Geographical Review 103(3): 355-371.

[4] For the course count, see the 2016 PDGA Year End Demographics at http://www.pdga.com/files/2016_yr_end.pdf; for the public course estimate, see Oldakowski, R., and J. W. Mcewen (2013). Diffusion of disc golf courses in the United States. Geographical Review 103(3): 355-371.

[5] See the 2016 PDGA Year End Demographics at http://www.pdga.com/files/2016_yr_end.pdf.

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