Tucked into East Fairmount Park lay one of the oldest disc golf courses in the country, a popular destination for players of all ages seeking a reprieve from city life.
Known as Sedgley Woods, the 27-hole course winds its way through trees and meadowland, bringing a free space to spend hours wandering around out in nature.
"You're essentially going out on a hike, while joining in the camaraderie of a sport," says disc golfer Alex Caldwell, 31. "I grew up in the country and miss it out there, so this is where I come to get my hands dirty."
As its name implies, disc golf is essentially a mash-up between Frisbee and golf; instead of balls and clubs, weighted discs are thrown from basket (the "hole") to basket, with the goal of playing as few throws per hole as possible.
"It's definitely cheaper than golf, which makes it more accessible," says John DiSciascio, executive director of Friends of Sedgley Woods, a nonprofit that oversees the maintenance of the course. "It can be as competitive or relaxed as you want it to be, whether a casual walk in the woods or a money-on-the-table tournament."
Friends of Sedgley Woods host events throughout the week, working to create a social community for players across the area. On Thursdays, two hours before sunset, a doubles night goes down where beginners are paired with pros to take on the course together.
"You'll find that everyone out here is super friendly, so even if you come out on your own, it's highly encouraged to ask for advice from others out on the field," says DiSciascio.
As DiSciascio points out, getting a feel for the sport comes with practice. As with Frisbee, the more you throw, the more consistent your passes become and the faster you improve.
"The learning curve actually isn't all that steep," says Caldwell, who's in the midst of teaching his girlfriend how to play. "It's quick to develop skills for casual-level play, but like with golf, the technical skills needed to become super competitive take time."
Golf discs can vary in weight from 120 to 180 grams (less than half a pound), and come in four models: a putter disc, midrange disc, fairway driver, and distance driver. Caldwell recommends sticking with a putter or midrange disc to start, both of which won't soar as far as the other two options but are easier to control.
Only one disc is needed to play, but for advanced players like Caldwell, it's common to find a multicolored assortment of 10 or more filling their caddie bag.
"As you get better, you learn to use different discs for different purposes throughout the course," explains Caldwell after throwing a disc that flies so swiftly he almost hits an ace at Hole 18, nearly 240 feet from the tee-off. An ace is what disc golfers call a hole-in-one, requiring serious speed and control.
Compared with a Frisbee, discs are made with a harder plastic and a smaller diameter, enabling them to glide farther. Basic models average around $10 and can be purchased right at Sedgley Woods on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. (Discs for sale can occasionally be found throughout the rest of the week, too, depending on whether members of Friends of Sedgley Woods are hanging out.) While discs can also be purchased through various outlets online, the proceeds from those bought through Sedgley go straight back into course improvements. Depending on the day, renting discs for a $1 or $2 donation is also an option.
Playing the game
To get started, each hole begins with a tee throw, requiring a player to throw within or behind a designated tee area. Wherever the disc lands is where the player will take his next turn once everyone else in the group has teed off. (After teeing off, the player whose disc is farthest from the hole always throws first.) One point, or stroke, is counted each time the disc is thrown. The round concludes once everyone's disc lands in the target basket that marks the end of the hole. The player with the lowest total strokes at the end of the entire course wins.
"Sedgley's actually great for beginners because the course was designed at a time where Frisbees were still being used for game play rather than discs," says DiSciascio. "We've got a good mix of obstacles and terrain, but a lot of the holes have shorter distances to navigate."
Holes 19 to 27, new additions — completed about a decade ago, years after the course's founding in 1977 — are both longer and more challenging. Often less crowded than the original 18 holes of Sedgley Woods, the latter holes welcome higher-level players as well as beginners who want some space to practice their throws.
Tips and tricks
The most popular throwing style in disc golf is the backhand, which is also often the best starting point for those learning the sport. The motion looks similar to a classic Frisbee throw, with the disc released as the arm moves across the body. The power should be derived from the back, torso, and legs even more so than the arms, requiring a shifting of weight from the back foot to the front foot as the disc is thrown.
"To go straight, you want to keep the front edge of the disc flat and level," explains Dave Prue, a member and the treasurer of Friends of Sedgley Woods. "Often, people will angle the front edge upwards as they release the disc, but this causes it to go high and not as far."
With experience, different footing techniques can be learned to increase the weight transfer of the body needed to generate power and longer throws.
"I always say that while ball golf might be a little more challenging in a technical sense, disc golf takes more athleticism," says Caldwell. "It's a huge core workout, but also requires muscles in your arms, legs, hips, and back."
Course details and directions
Scorecards can usually be found on the bulletin board that stands at the entrance of the park. (Cards can also be printed out, here.) Each shows the par for each hole and the distance from tee to basket. Sedgley Woods offers three levels of game play for every hole, denoted by color markings outlining the tee areas. Blue is the easiest, followed by yellow and then red. Which color you choose to follow will determine where you tee off at each hole.
DiSciascio recommends choosing an 18-hole path, which will take about two hours, depending on skill level. However, the scorecard includes 27 slots for those who seek to take on the entire course.
The entrance of Sedgley Woods is at North 33rd and West Oxford Streets in Fairmount Park, across the street from The Discovery Center and just steps from Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse. Those taking public transportation can hop on the SEPTA 32 bus, which stops right at the park entrance, or take SEPTA's 15 trolley, stopping at North 33rd and Girard Avenue, about half a mile from the course.
The course is open sunup to sundown, year-round, excluding two days when public tournaments unfold.
"Out in the snow during winter is actually my favorite time to play," says DiSciascio. "But you can't beat spending a summer Saturday afternoon hanging out in the woods either."