County Park’s Got Game

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I have played disc golf for a couple decades (not very well, mind you) and occasionally at Winnebago County Community Park in Oshkosh since moving to town in 2007. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that I became somewhat of a regular. Enough of a regular to want to learn more about its history and eventually write this article, as well as for me to demand (right here, in this writing) that Rob Way, Winnebago County Parks Director, pay me $45.

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County Parks Director Rob Way

No, not for writing this piece largely praising his creation, but because I lost three discs to it during my last two rounds.

Bad joke, of course, but I think he may appreciate it. Earlier this summer I interviewed Way, who, if his mustache were a bit darker and his disposition not so darn cheery, could perhaps be considered the Ron Swanson of our area. Like Ron, Rob has been a public servant for quite some time. Originally from Madison, Way has been in his current position for 19 years and prior to that was parks director in New London, where he also oversaw the development of a disc golf course, among other things.

According to Way, Community Park was created in the late 1960s. His department is, in fact, preparing for a 50th anniversary commemoration in the coming year. Prior to it becoming a park, the space was primarily used as farm fields for what is now Winnebago Mental Health and agencies that housed indigent people, to help feed and employ them. There was a hog barn near the current parks department offices.

At 270 acres, Community Park is by far the largest park in the county. Development of the disc golf course there started in 2001, with design help from former professional disc golfer Tom Jenkins. “It seemed like the ideal site,” said Way, “with all the acreage out here.” The course has been expanded and improved upon since then. The southern section of the course was put in first, with the north side holes added starting in 2003, when a large quantity of fill material was looking for a home after nearby County Road A was redone.

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Northern park entrance off of Sunny View Road and featuring some recently installed improvements

The fill was used to build the berms that give the course its most distinctive landscape elements. Way saw them as an opportunity to not only create a buffer between Sunnyview Road and the park, but also to produce some elevation changes for the course. “It was created with disc golf in mind,” according to Way. The course was added to as donations–which produced more than half of the course hardware–became available.

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Some of the elevation created by the fill from County Road A

In recent years the berms and other areas of the course, particularly in its northern section, have been covered with native prairie plants, adding beauty and ecological diversity, bringing a variety of birds and insects to the area, while greatly enhancing the challenge of the disc golf holes that weave through it.

The author’s disc floats waywardly towards the basket…err, towards being lost in a thick carpet of green

 

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Butterfly milkweed, penstemmen, and other native plants carpet the area below the basket on hole 10

It was finally discovering this terrain that hooked me on the course. Previously, I had only played the southern section, frankly confused by the two-course layout, and while I thought it was a decent place to chuck plastic around and get some fresh air, it seemed too flat and wide open to be a serious disc golf course.

Because of its agricultural past and apparent original condition as a wetland area, there is only so much that can be done to create woods and hills, which the best courses are known for. But Way and his staff have done an admirable job of making do, and the 36 holes now in place feature several water hazards, multiple woodsy holes, a number of others which require navigation through narrow strips mowed into prairie plots, and the elevation changes of holes 8-13, my favorite section.

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A disc golfing three-some heads towards their discs on hole 9

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The basket on hole 9, which is often guarded by a red-winged blackbird

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One of several water hazards at the Community Park course

While I can’t recall having to wait behind a group discing in front of me on any of my numerous trips to the course this summer, it seems as though others have begun to notice the improving quality of the course as well. Vicky Redlin, Program Manager with the Parks Department, argued,

The disc golf course has been a great addition to the Community Park! We strive to have varied recreational opportunities within the park for all abilities. Disc golf is an excellent sport for families as well as individuals. We also have ADA access to the course and allow motorized mobility devices to be used by players who are in need of such support. We don’t formally track the number of players per day but our best guesstimate is 60 to 100 players per day during the warm weather months. We also have those that play all winter long as well. For those wishing to try disc golf without making a big monetary commitment in equipment, we rent disc golf kits through the Parks Office. Disc golf is a growing sport in our community and we welcome players to the Winnebago County Community Park’s 36 hole course, which is open 7am to 11pm all year ‘round.

“It is exciting to have 36 holes right here in town,” added Jeff Kolb of Oshkosh. “The green course is a bit shorter and allows for someone to go out and play by themselves without as much of a risk for losing a disc. The yellow course demands long and straight drives if you are going to get pars. Playing both courses earlier in the year makes things easier due to the tall grasses that grow along the fairways.”

Further, the Wisconsin Professional Disc Golf Association has held its Fox Valley Open at the course for several years now, which speaks to its growing reputation. Over 100 players competed in the tournament in June, including two former junior world champions. The website The Disc Golf Scene gives the course a B rating, which is notable given its physical limitations, and it hosts regular disc golf leagues.

I wondered if there have been any conflicts with other program activities in the park or any controversy associated with the course. “I can’t really think of any problems with it, honestly,” said Way. “The key is that it’s so spread out to the edges of the park, which otherwise probably wouldn’t get any use. It’s also exceptional that there’s been neglible vandalism or theft, and the people who use it help keep it clean.”

Now that I understand its layout, I find it to be a well designed and maintained course, with quality signage and materials, attributes that have caused other courses (such as at Token Creek, also a county park, just outside of Madison) to charge entry fees. Way indicated that the county had considered fees for uses like disc golf during a period of budget crunch, but they managed to keep it free, which he prefers. “It’s a low cost facility so application of fees aren’t necessary to support it,” he said. “It kinds of runs itself; we mow and such, but we designed it to be low cost.”

While the course is now considered finished, Way and his staff have been busy with other changes to the park, with additional plans on the horizon. A major project to revamp its roads and paths, which began two years ago, should soon be complete, they will be engaging in further ecological restoration to the fishing ponds, and are working on a plan to reuse the former swimming pond. Oshkosh Youth Soccer Club is also looking to build its own administrative/service building in the park to give it more of a presence by its newer fields. What seems to be a somewhat hidden gem of the area continues to improve.

Asked whether he plays disc golf himself, Way noted that he used to, with his son (now 23 years old), until he started to be embarrassed by him. But he is clearly fond of the course. “It’s been a welcome addition to the programming out there,” said Way, “and I’m hoping that people enjoy it for years to come.”

 

 

 

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.