Merced County Times Newspaper
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Times Photos by Jonathan Whitaker

Flying discs over Fahrens Park — the proof is out there!

The Disc Golf community is growing around Merced


Move over traditional golf and the latest pickleball craze — they ain’t got nothing on this sport. 

The Disc Golf community in the Merced area is growing, and local residents may be surprised to learn that Fahrens Park is very well-known throughout the state and beyond for its wonderful community course. 

You could see the enthusiasm — and the numbers — last Saturday during the El Capitan Classic tournament, offering fun and competition for people of all ages and skill levels. Nearly 90 players registered for the event. Some came from as far away as Tennessee and Nevada. Several were from the Bay Area. A few were even ranked professionals. 

Disc golf is a game in which a plastic disc is thrown into each of a series of metal baskets (called holes) situated on an outdoor course. The object is to complete the course using the fewest possible throws. It’s pretty much like golf without the clubs, balls and holes in the ground. The rules and course etiquette are similar. There are four main types of discs — distance drivers, fairway drivers, midranges, and putters. However, players carry around a backpack filled with a variety of discs that can fly in specific ways to maneuver through trees, over creeks, and even with the ability to float or not roll on the ground, so they can be recovered. 

The Fahrens Park course started out with nine holes in 2008 with a few dedicated and enthusiastic players, along with an event sponsored by UC Merced. They included local pioneers Chad Santos and Elec Pryor, both grads from Atwater High, who wanted to replicate what they were seeing in Berkeley at the time. That’s when the Merced County Disc Golf Club was born. 

Spinning forward to today, the club now has more than 60 members, and that doesn’t include the community players who just show up now and then to participate. More importantly, the club has President Manny Sanchez, tournament organizer Jason Beach, and a few other dedicated souls who are on a mission to take their Club and the local disc golf scene to the next level. 

Zack Kuykendall makes a disc golf putt in the woods of Fahrens Park.

Saturday’s tournament was an example of that; however, the momentum has been building for awhile. Fahrens Park today has 21 holes, thanks to the City of Merced and club members. Both groups have helped install new tee pads, or concrete platforms to start playing a hole (They used to only have awkward rugs.). A while back, the club entered a worldwide essay contest sponsored by the Disc Golf Association (DGA), and they won the grand prize: several orange-colored baskets for the holes at Fahrens. The essay was a comical take on how outsiders misuse the baskets on the disc golf course. (No, they are not meant for trash or hay for horses!)

Both the city and the club also help maintain the course, mowing the lawn space regularly, filling up gofer holes, and picking up trash.

The Merced County Disc Golf Club now has a Facebook page, of course, and you can find out all sorts of information, including course maps for Fahrens Park. The club is also listed on the Disc Golf Scene website, which provides listings for events and tournaments all over the place, as well as the website run by the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). 

Beach and Sanchez, among others, also have their goals set high. They want to work with the city to upgrade the park further and expand the course — more signage, more baskets. They see another public course in another area of town opening up too. And they want to keep up the tournament play — all fundraising events to help out the cause. They envision some tournaments lasting multiple days, with more visitors bringing in money to the city. 

And the ultimate dream: an elite level event on the PDGA pro tour — now that would be something. Imagine all the pros attracted to big purse prizes, and 5,000 to 10,000 people a day coming to watch. They would actually need to find a bigger course for such a thing — probably temporarily located on an existing traditional golf course, of all the ironies.  

Manny Sanchez, the president of the Merced County Disc Golf Club, and Jason Beach, organizer of the El Capitan Classic at Fahrens Park.

For now though, local players are simply having fun on the weekends, and enjoying each other’s company. 

“The disc golf community is amazing,” Beach told the Times. “It’s welcoming. These people care for each other. It’s not like anything else i have encountered in my life.”

One of them competing last Saturday was Steve Kuykendall, the principal of Thomas Olaeta Elementary School in Atwater. He started playing at Fahrens some 15 years ago, and today he promotes disc golf on his school campus. They have four baskets set up in the playground, and a fifth one is coming soon. 

“I want kids outside, and I want them active,” he said. “What I also love about disc golf is that it’s totally accessible. The barrier of entry is low. In something like golf, you have to pay for clubs, balls, green fees. With disc golf, you can get a starter kit for 25 bucks, and play for free at most of the courses around the region and state.  

No so surprisingly, Kuykendall’s son Zack started playing disc golf at an early age. After growing up and going to college, he returned to the Merced area — and guess what? Now he’s now working remotely in marketing for the PDGA tour. You never know, maybe Zack can help put Merced on the map. 

Yes, disc golf appears to be here to stay. Proponents also point to mental and physical benefits that come with playing, including reduced stress and low-impact workouts that help the heart. It’s also a sport that’s sprinkler-free and environment friendly — though those discs can travel at 50 mph to 70 mph and leave marks on trees. 

That’s why when you hear “fore!” at Fahrens Park … you better stay in place, and duck!


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