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Article Published September 18, 2019
Smolin’s Passion for Disc Golf Delivers Design for Guilford’s New Course
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

About 15 years ago, Craig Smolin first flew a spinning disc into the basket “hole” on a disc golf course, and was hooked. To Craig, perhaps no sound is more satisfying than the swish-clink of those basket chains as a disc drops in.

It’s one of the reasons this semi-pro disc golfer jumped at the chance to volunteer to design Guilford Parks & Recreation’s first disc golf course. On Sept. 14, with a grand opening celebration, Guilford Parks & Rec cut the ribbon on the town’s new course, located at Bittner Park.

The 18-hole course rambles into carefully carved wooded areas from a starting point near the Skate Park, where a kiosk displays an overview map of the Rick B. Maynard Disc Golf Course. Plan to encounter mild to mid-level hiking terrain as you play trail-like holes that start with a tee box and end with a basket. For example, the first hole, dubbed Cedar Ridge, incorporates a 20-foot elevation and options like weaving the tossed disc between small trees to reach the basket 148 feet away.

“It’s 18 holes, just like a regular golf course, but the holes are measured in feet rather than yards. On this course, they range from 150 feet to over 450 feet,” says Craig. “And two of them are what we would classify as a Par 4, which requires two shots to get onto the putting green.”

The course took about three years to complete, if you count back to when Craig first stepped up with an offer to design it, based on a note he saw on the Guilford’s Parks & Recreation Facebook page. The note was posted by veteran Parks & Recreation Director Rick Maynard, who was recently honored by the town when his name was placed on the course.

“I saw Rick’s post on Facebook about 2 ½, maybe 3 years ago,” says Craig. “He said he was interested in building a course. I said, ‘Hey, I work here—and I’m a player and I’m an environmental consultant, so I think I have a lot I can offer you.’”

Right Place, Right Time

For Maynard, Craig, and the Town of Guilford, you could say it was a case of right person, right place, right time. Although he lives in Trumbull, Craig works right down the road from Bittner Park at consulting firm Triton Environmental in Guilford. As a seasoned disc golf player and volunteer, Craig brought the experience and enthusiasm needed.

“I’ve been playing disc golf for 15 years. I got into it when I was 27; now I’m 42. I love it. After my wife and two kids, and my job and my house, it’s really what I’m most passionate about,” says Craig. “The first 10 years was just playing, but the last five or so years, I got into running tournaments and helping out with clinics and leagues, and it was only a natural extension to build a course. It’s kind of how most players go.”

Craig and Maynard looked at Bittner Park first, then Peddler’s Park, as potential sites. To Craig, Bittner’s mixed-use site, where dedicated trails already existed for hikers and horseback riders, seemed at first to be a potential problem. But when Peddler’s proved to have too little available parking and other concerns limiting its potential, they came back to Bittner, and Craig got to work.

It didn’t take too long to find that putting in a course at Bittner Park was going to pay future dividends, he says.

“I spent a good three months walking the course every day on my lunch break, figuring out where the trails went, what are the spaces I could use,” he recalls. “And one day, a light bulb went off. There’s a lot of space here; there’s a lot of unused space. The trails really defined the zones that we could use. And I said, ‘This park has a ton of potential.’”

“Rick’s primary concern was to install an initial course that was friendly to families and beginners,” says Craig. “And I said, ‘No problem— we can do that here, and I know that we can do it in a way that will give us some potential to, down the road, have a really tough championship-style course.’ So I’m really excited about that.”

In short, Craig was able to design each hole on the course to be the center of what, eventually, can be much longer hole.

Craig followed Park & Rec and town agency directives regarding impacts on wetlands and trees and what trail portions could be closed to create the course. He spent the summer of 2018 finalizing the layout of the course. Once the leaves to came down in the fall, he was able to “tune in” the alleys or fairways, including spots where loose stands of trees allow flying discs to thread their way to way putting green.

“Even though this is my first course, I walked it dozens of times. I figured out where I wanted to put things, I talked to friends I’ve known 15 years who are also course designers; they all chimed in. I got on a couple of Facebook groups and they gave me advice,” Craig says. “I didn’t just go into it and dump baskets in the ground. I really planned it out, and thought about how I wanted the course to flow, the style of holes, how challenging it should be.”

Getting to Work

Craig’s disc golf course design was approved by the Parks & Recreation, Planning & Zoning, and Inland Wetlands commissions and Board of Selectmen in early 2019. Over the winter, Parks & Recreation crews got to work clearing small brush and undergrowth.

The job couldn’t have been completed without community contributions, as well as donations. The Rotary Club of Guilford donated $3,000 and the Guilford Foundation/Youth Advisory Group provided $1,000.

Work on the course was undertaken by members of Boy Scout troops 471 and 474, including James Crossley (471), who built the new disc golf kiosk; John Aslanian (471), who built the back 9 tee pads, Michael Neiss (471), who built the bridge by the waterfall; Zachary Neiss (471), who built the front 9 benches; Calder Scott (471), who built the back 9 benches; Cavan Lepro (471), who installed the disc golf baskets; Carson Tosta (474), who installed the sign posts and fairway sign frames; and Noah Provencher (474), who built the bridge to the first tee.

Craig also thanks Innova Champion Discs for providing 19 baskets (as well as 18 sleeves, for future baskets) at a generous discount.

Getting to Play

Players wind through the course (just follow the circular white Disc Golf blaze signs on trees) to tee boxes, where a sign post shows a picture of the hole and highlights a path to the putting green. All of the holes have been given fitting names of Guilford streets.

In its current form, the course is fun to play, with a bit of a challenge, says Craig.

“It’s challenging, but the holes aren’t super-long, so you can get your birdies on them, and you can score,” he says. “And when you’re starting out, getting a good score feels good. It makes you want to keep going, and playing other, harder courses, and testing yourself. I was a beginner once upon a time, and having an accessible course that’s designed for that level makes it more fun. It makes you want to get better.”

Craig started playing disc golf at 27, but he’d heard the words “disc golf” for the first time a few years before that. The University of Michigan alumnus was a senior studying geology when a friend in class suggested he give it a try, but at that time, Craig was into recreational basketball and passed on the option.

“Five years later, I’m working up in Hartford, and a co-worker says they just put a disc golf course in Wickham Park [in Manchester]. And I said, ‘That sounds cool—I’m in.’” says Craig. “I went and I played for the first time, and I was hooked immediately. I liked the idea of throwing a disc through the woods and then into the basket. And the sound of the disc going in the basket—when you hear it, it’s very gratifying.”

Craig played the sport that entire summer and in the following winter, he played in his first tournament.

“I knew this is the scene I want to be in,” he says. “It was fun, it was social, and I’m outside walking and doing something athletic, and I’m not crushing my knees and my ankles anymore.”

These days, he plays tournaments at least once a month, often pitted against other semi-pro and skilled players for division prizes. As a member of the Professional Disc Golf Association, he’s currently rated at 934. A rating of 1000 is a “scratch” player.

“Your rating kind of defines how you’re ranked relative to other players,” says Craig. “The best player in the world, Paul McBeth, is rated 1058. So on the average, he’s going to shoot 13 strokes better than I am on a course.”

In fact, Craig was able to rely on several of his friends from the disc golf community to help beta test the Guilford course before the tee pads and baskets were installed.

“In May, I ran a tournament here as a test event to see how the course itself played, and to get some feedback from similarly skilled players,” says Craig. “I took that information, anecdotally and statistically, and made adjustments, then the tee pads and the baskets went in.”

Players like Craig have an arsenal of discs—putters, fairway drivers, high speed drivers and mid-range drivers, all designed with edges that change flight characteristics.

“The discs are smaller, heavier, and quite a bit more aerodynamic,” says Craig. “You can play with one disc, and I think that is the real appeal to someone getting into it. Get one disc, if you love it, get others that can do different things, like fly faster or slower. But if you just want to try it out, you can play with a Frisbee, an Ultimate disc, a dog disc—any disc.”

If it’s a weekday and lunch hour, don’t be surprised to find Craig throwing his white putting discs at the practice basket near the course kiosk. It’s a place on the course where players can congregate, wait for friends, practice their putting—and hear that sound.

“It’s a nice way to warm up,” says Craig. “I’ll come up here on my lunch break and putt for 15 or 20 minutes just to keep the muscle memory.”

The course can be played by youngsters and adults alike. While his volunteer work designing the course is complete, Craig plans to stay involved. He’s already working with Parks and Rec to plan and run a tournament at the course next May. He’s already had the course placed in the PDGA course directory and notified the region’s organizing body, New England Flying Disc Association, of plans for the May 2020 tourney and will post updates on the CT Disc Golf Facebook group, as well.

“Rick’s really happy with the results,” says Craig. “And I’m just excited because I know he’s happy with what he’s getting; and down the road, I know I can get the more talented players out here, because I think there’s the potential to really challenge them.”