Almost 30 years after some Islanders started tossing a Frisbee at a couple of chain baskets off Barnes Road, the Riverhead Disc Golf Course has become an epicenter of community and recreation.
Seamus Scanlon, one of the original founders of the course, is now running his own disc golf course, Reboot Disc Golf in Scotland, but says he is happy to hear that the Island course has grown so much. And even though he is right outside Muir, Scotland, which is one of the conventional golf meccas of the world, Scanlon always finds time to toss a disc. “I know the course has evolved a lot. It was so much hard work, and it all started out with a group of about five of us looking for something to do in the off-season,” Scanlon said.
Before Scanlon moved to the Island, he was deeply involved with the disc golf community in Colorado, where the new sport was rapidly gaining popularity. “We needed to do something when we weren’t skiing, so we came up with disc golf,” Scanlon said. “Because I learned to play out in Colorado, I didn’t see why it wouldn’t be popular in Massachusetts and on the Island.”
Once Scanlon moved to the Island, he immediately found a cohort of enthusiastic disc golfers who had the drive to play as much as he did.
What began as just a couple of baskets set up along some freshly cut trails, quickly turned into a major Island passtime. “When I moved out to the Island, I was pretty confident the course would be a success, but it was kind of a stretch,” Scanlon said. Luckily, Manuel F. Correlus superintendent at the time, John Varkonda, allowed the disc golfers to use the land for free, as long as they were good stewards. “John was just so nice and helpful with the whole thing. We really wanted to be unobtrusive, while at the same time making a name for the sport on the Island,” Scanlon said.
After garnering support for the course from all walks of life on Martha’s Vineyard, the MV Disc Golf Club was created, and started collecting sponsorships for each basket (chain baskets serve as “holes” like in normal golf).
Scanlon said he has been involved with a number of different sports, including impact sports and high intensity sports like skiing. But he has been playing disc golf for more than 30 years, and said there is no sport quite like it. “It’s one of those forever sports. I’ve been playing for 30 years, and I could definitely play for another 30,” Scanlon said.
For the people involved with the evolution of the sport on the Island, Scanlon said it is encouraging to hear that droves of people turn out every weekend to play at the disc golf course. “It’s really nice to think that there are hundreds of active people during the winter; what a great thing this has turned into,” Scanlon said.
Because the folks who fill the parking lot of the course every weekend are so like-minded and community oriented, Scanlon said it isn’t hard to maintain the grounds and keep everything in tip-top shape. “Everyone really wants this to be a resource that people can continue to enjoy, so everyone does their part,” Scanlon said.
And the mix of people who turn out every Sunday morning for the weekly mini-tournament, Scanlon said, is incredibly unique. “The people who show up there really just want to have fun. You could be playing with a doctor and a lawyer side by side, but you just don’t care who you are playing with,” Scanlon said. “The entire atmosphere exemplifies good sportsmanship.”
The learning process involved with disc golf, according to Scanlon, is “incredibly gratifying,” and rewards the player with each significant milestone they reach. “First you miss the basket by a few yards, then a few feet, then a few inches. Before you know it, you are getting it right in the basket,” Scanlon said.
And the variability of the different trick throws and in-flight maneuvers creates a world of possibilities for the prospective disc golf player. Even after decades of consistent playing, Scanlon said he is constantly improving his disc game and looking for new ways to encourage others to get involved. “I’m still learning new things every single day, and to me, that’s what a sport should be all about,” Scanlon said.
Upon leaving the Island, Scanlon passed the disc to Jake Gifford, who has turned the course into a popular destination for newbie players and professionals alike.
Gifford has owned The Lazy Frog in Oak Bluffs for 15 years, where he sells discs of all shapes, sizes, and colors (infinite knowledge of disc golf is provided free upon entering).
He says that anyone with arms can play disc golf and have a blast, especially in the judgment free zone that is the Riverhead Disc Golf course. “If you know how to play catch with your buddies, you can play disc golf,” Gifford said. Ever since The Lazy Frog opened, Gifford has kept a disc golf basket in front of the store letting people know that if they are at all interested in the sport, this is the place to come.
This year is the 16th annual Vineyard Disc Golf Social, and Gifford said there are many records being broken this time around. “We have the most women signed up, the most juniors signed up, and the most pros signed up,” Gifford said.
The New England disc golf productions media team will also be in the mix to cover the competition.
Although Gifford says he enjoys plenty of other sports, including “ball golf,” or “club golf,” as the disc golfers call it, he says disc is incredibly versatile, and doesn’t require a lot of time and effort to have a good time. “I love club golf, but it takes sometimes four or five hours to play an entire round. Some people don’t have that time, or maybe they want to have some fun without having to play three or four days a week to stay competitive,” Gifford said. In order to hold your edge in conventional golf, Gifford said, it takes countless hours of practice and consistent playing. And even though disc golf also has a learning curve, Gifford said people can get into the sport without having to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, to get their skill level up as they might with conventional golf.
Last year, the competition saw 130 registered players, and this year there are over 170, including pro disc golfers from all over the United States. But it’s not just pros who are turning out this year — kids and families are also competing.
“From nationally ranked players, to relative beginners, it’s just lots of fun for everyone involved,” Gifford said.
The future of the sport is looking bright, Gifford said, as it gains momentum every year. “Just in the past few years we have seen so much more interest in the course,” Gifford said. “People want to see the course succeed because it is such a great resource for people on the Island.”