The little-known story of how disc golf took Santa Cruz by siege.
The Local Star: Shasta Criss
Santa Cruz pro Shasta Criss caught the disc golf bug relatively early—as a high schooler in 1992. The black-bearded 41-year-old traveling pro plays on the Disc Golf Association’s ProLine team, and feels most comfortable playing both tournaments and casual rounds in a zip-up hoodie and baseball hat.
Criss is a seasoned professional, with 21 career wins and more than $60,000 in career earnings, but he fondly remembers how it all started. He began playing his “home course” of DeLaveaga, lovingly referred to as “DeLa,” with a group of his buddies and a single disc in the early ’90s. In college, he was playing disc golf more regularly, and then, after taking a five-year hiatus where he was “trying to figure out life,” he came back to the sport shocked and inspired at how much the game had changed.
“When I started playing again around 2002, the disc and plastic technology had changed dramatically,” says Criss. “I saw people throwing shots I didn’t know were possible. I wanted to throw like that and get good at disc golf.”
He soon began devoting more time and energy to “the beautiful game,” working long nights so he could spend all day at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course—playing multiple rounds of the 29 holes, incrementally improving his putts, drives and approach shots.
While still an amateur in 2005, Criss decided to play his first tournament, the Faultline Classic. “It was a pro-only tournament, but I didn’t care,” he says. “I just wanted to play.”
His horrible finish didn’t deter him in the slightest, and he started playing in more and more tournaments. His finishes became better, and he became better. Way better.
In 2006 he began playing pro, and four years after jumping into the world of competitive disc golf, Criss won his first tournament, the 2010 Faultline Classic, at the age of 33.
Criss’s proudest accomplishments came last year, when he won two national tournaments—Oregon’s Beaver State Fling and the Masters Cup, held every year at DeLaveaga. Since turning 40 in 2016, he now competes in the Masters Division.
Playing the sport that he adores, and currently in the middle of the longest tour of his career—a string of big tournaments that will take him clear across the country and back in his retrofitted van—Criss is living his dream.
Criss believes the sport has a pretty quick learning curve. “People can get good after a year or two. It took me a long time to get good, but once I had the desire to I saw results and improved quickly,” he says.
Pros will typically carry 20-plus discs with them, and multiples of the same disc, but he believes that all beginners need is one disc to start. Once you figure it out a little, then it’s time to throw different discs. For less than $10, those new to the sport can buy a midrange driver than will fly straight with little side to side movement.
“A midrange driver is perfect for learning, because they’re easier to control,” he says.
Criss calls the disc golf community a “tribe” that spans all walks of life and is growing across the country and world. The love of the flying disc and the game creates a bond that he says is indescribable.
“On tour there is one constant: your friends and fellow competitors,” says Criss. “The camaraderie is what really makes the game special.” Criss says that he is “beyond stoked” to be a part of a disc golf family that continues to grow.
Even though Criss is a globe traveling, touring professional his heart he will always live in Santa Cruz County. This is where he picked up his first “magical” disc—this is where the love affair was born.
When Tom Schot designed and built DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course in 1984, he could have never imagined how popular—or how important—it would become.
DeLa is where Criss honed his skills. It also remains a top bucket-list destination for almost any disc golfer. Everyone in the sport has heard of DeLa, and the legendary course is the home of California’s largest tournament, the Masters Cup, now in its 33rd year.
“It’s pretty amazing to see how much disc golf has grown in Santa Cruz County, and what it is today,” Criss says.
A 29-hole wooded and highly technical disc-golf-wonderland, DeLa has single handedly made Santa Cruz County a world-class disc golf mecca. Mythical holes like “the Fridge, “the Lady,” and of course “the Top of the World,” bring thousands of locals and disc golf pilgrims to DeLa each year.
But while DeLa is undeniably the biggest and baddest local course we have, it isn’t the only game in town.
“My first love will always be DeLa, but Black Mouse in Felton is definitely worth the trip,” says Criss. The short technical course set among the redwoods on a steep slope in the San Lorenzo Valley offers a unique and exciting challenge for disc golfers of all skill levels.
For true beginners, Aptos High’s modest course has plenty of baskets that are perfect for practicing short drives, approaches, and putts. If you’re willing to travel to Monterey, Criss is a big fan of the two courses at Cal State Monterey Bay, and the “user friendly” course at Ryan Ranch.
Being a disc golf pro in Santa Cruz County certainly has its perks. The first is the weather; disc golf diehards can play year round. The second is competition. Courses like DeLa attract solid competitors to smaller monthly tournaments, and to big tourneys like the Masters Cup in the spring and Faultline Classic in the fall.
The DeLaveaga Disc Golf Club hosts a wide variety of events and tournaments perfect for getting your feet wet. Bag Tag nights, held every Tuesday at DeLa, attract pros and novices alike, and are sublime arenas for learning rules and techniques, skill building, and offer a fun and casual way to get into competing.
“Playing with more experienced players is the best way to get better,” says Criss. He adds that he will always be a student of the game. “No two rounds are the same,” he says. “There is always something to learn and get better at.”
Just a decade ago, most people would scoff at the idea of a “professional disc golfer.” But today, says Criss, “there are more and more people making a living off the sport. It is important however that we remember our roots and origins as the game grows into something bigger than we ever expected.”
Throws of Passion: The Disc Golf Origin Story
Disc golf didn’t start with a bang. Instead, it started with a Wham-O—and a man affectionately known as Steady Eddie.
While the age-old question of who played disc golf first remains a heated topic argued over many a pint, there’s no denying that the sport as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the tireless and steady efforts of Ed Headrick.
A serial inventor and top engineer at the Wham-O toy conglomerate (which also brought the world the Hula Hoop, the Slip ’N Slide, and the Hacky Sack, among other things), Headrick is credited with inventing the world’s first Frisbee in 1966.
For many years, Frisbee golf really didn’t fit into the promotional plans Wham-O had for its flying pieces of plastic. Pretty much from day one, however, small groups across the nation were using the Wham-O projectiles to play the earliest games of Frisbee golf. Throwing Frisbees at targets was just plain fun.
One groundbreaking event, the first American Flying Disc Open in 1974, was a legendary gathering of Frisbee enthusiasts, and is arguably the place where Frisbee culture was born. Hundreds of Frisbee golfers or “Frolfers” descended on the city of Rochester, New York in the hopes of winning what was then a sweet prize: a 1974 Datsun B2W. Pretty much overnight, Frisbee golf—eventually known more popularly as disc golf—had arrived.
Sensing growing excitement surrounding the flying plastic discs he had created almost a decade earlier, Headrick created a new Sports Promotion Department at Wham-O, and hired the Datsun-driving AFDO champion Dan “Stork” Riddick as its director. Many people who had been playing some version of Frisbee golf for years were shocked to learn that their informal hobby was a real sport.
In late 1975, Headrick designed, built, and installed the world’s first disc golf course at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena. Originally, simple poles were used as targets. But Headrick struck gold with his next, much-needed creation: the basket we know today, which he called the Disc Golf Pole Hole. When he installed them at Oak Grove Park, the popularity of the course, and disc golf in general, increased dramatically.
In the Summer of 1976, Headrick founded the Professional Disc Golf Association. The group has become a huge part of his legacy, and remains the largest disc golf organization today. Early disc golfers jumped at the opportunity to become a part of the PDGA, a legit governing body and a way to feel like they were a part of something bigger than their local clubs.
Disc golf was still in its infancy, but Headrick saw it as the next big thing. Abandoning his comfortable and well-compensated position at Wham-O, he went all-in on the disc golf dream. He began travelling the country, promoting the sport, designing courses, and selling his Pole Holes.
A natural salesman and true hustler, Headrick watched proudly as the popularity of disc golf started to snowball. Each new Headrick course attracted new players to the sport, and cities and towns began clamoring for his designs. After a few years of barely making it, his gamble started to pay off, and by 1979 the young sport of disc golf was well established.
Disc Covered: A Guide to Santa Cruz Disk Golf Parks
DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course
1468 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
Near the end of the 19th century, DeLaveaga Park was donated to the government as part of a trust for “educational and recreational purposes.” The California National Guard used the park for training exercises, and the ridge that now hosts DeLa’s most famous hole–“The Top of the World”—was used as a lookout point for the military in World War II.
But by the time Tom Schot received permission to construct an 18-hole disc golf course in 1984, the park’s long-since-unused upper region had become a dumping ground littered with overturned cars, refrigerators, washing machines and countless broken bottles. Little did anyone know Schot was masterminding a course that would not only rescue and transform the space, but also become a national mecca of disc golf.
Schot’s course, which initially used 4×4 wooden posts as targets, was specifically created to host the 1987 World Disc Golf Championships. The newly formed DeLaveaga Disc Golf Club (DDGC) helped him get the course ready for action, clearing out tons of junk, twisted underbrush and poison oak.
On its way to becoming a world-class disc golf destination, the course—now boasting 29 holes—has morphed and mutated over the years, but many aspects of Schot’s design remain intact today. Around 200 people play DeLa each day, and the DDGC, now one of the most respected disc golf clubs in the nation, has been at the forefront of establishing and transforming disc golf culture in Santa Cruz County.
DeLaveaga is a natural cathedral boasting towering redwoods and groups of Monterey Pines that form the backbone for many of the course’s holes. Banana slugs abound, and the hoot of an owl might cause players to pause mid-throw. The course is a gorgeous mixture of flora and fauna, a truly special place that delights disc golfers from around the world.
DeLa Cart Course
401 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
DeLa’s second course is Santa Cruz County’s newest disc golf experience. Open every Wednesday and Sunday after 3 p.m., the newly installed disc golf course is located on the front nine of the DeLaveaga golf course. For $17 a player, and $15 per person to rent a cart (carts are optional), players can compete on the same course layout as the final round of the 2016 Masters Cup.
Even though walk-ons are welcome, it’s recommended that you reserve tee times a week in advance to enjoy gently rolling terrain, meticulously manicured fairways, and spectacular old growth redwoods and pines—without burning too much of a sweat. Hazards like sand traps, putting greens, and cart paths are all “out of bounds,” and carry a one-stroke penalty.
Many of those who have disced on the golf course say that the new course layout is more challenging than its purely disc golf counterpart. Using a detailed map from the clubhouse, drivers and their groups follow the main cart path in a counterclockwise loop around the front nine, starting and ending at the clubhouse. Most holes are friendly for left-to-right throwers.
There are few, if any, places in the United States where disc golfers can play a round using golf carts, and the new course at DeLa has been extremely popular. The course is operating on a trial basis.
Black Mouse Disc Golf Course
7179 Hacienda Way, Felton
At Black Mouse, an ancient redwood forest keeps discers, squirrels, and the occasional mouse shaded and comfortable on hot days. Designed and installed by SLV Junior High School students, “the Mouse” is a true technical course. Hanging branches provide tight windows that require precise throws on almost every one of Black Mouse Disc Golf Course’s 18 holes.
Booming drives don’t matter here—Black Mouse is all about control. A putter and midrange driver is all you need to have a good round. Pros and amateurs alike will enjoy the wild elevation changes and its tightly wooded holes that serve as a nice counterpart to the wide open play at the area’s other top courses.
Black Mouse will test all of your shots—short putts, forehands, tomahawks, etc. Most of the course’s holes are short and birdie-able (150-200 feet) with a little finesse—and maybe some luck. On the other hand, the near constant slope and ubiquitous redwoods give every hole disaster potential.
The course rarely gets crowded, so experts like to hit Black Mouse to not only work on their short game, but also enjoy the peace and quiet the course has become known for. The views of the San Lorenzo Valley are spectacular.
Some players complain that Black Mouse is hard to navigate, that some holes require “blind shots,” and that signage isn’t always as clear as it should be. It’s definitely recommended that you google “Black Mouse Disc Golf Course” and download and print out a map.
Play is free, but be sure to put loose change in the “Black Mouse box” to ensure the course remains the gem that it is today.
UCSC Disc Golf Course
Before it became an official club sport in 1998, disc golf was already a popular part of UCSC’s intramural sports program. When the sport was introduced to campus in the 1970s, there were no baskets (officially called Disc Golf Pole Holes) to speak of; students threw Wham-O-style Frisbees at a variety of targets like telephone poles, redwood trees, and the occasional car.
Eventually, the UCSC Disc Golf Club (UCSCDGC) established courses, but these too were informal, lacking anything in the way of baskets or tee pads.
In 2015, everything changed. After years of clamoring and pushing hard for their beloved sport, the UCSCDGC convinced OPERS to install a nine-hole disc golf course on campus. The modest course that now snakes across the outer rim of the East Field Complex has become a popular place to play for students, and some non-Slugs as well. The slightly hilly par-3 course boasts top-of-the-line baskets and incredible views of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary and Santa Cruz. It’s designed to play like a “seaside links course,” and is a wide-open, often windy, place to practice medium range drives and putting. In spite of hilly terrain, elevation changes, and a variety of hole locations and lengths, a round will be more memorable for its beauty than its challenge. Still, it’s a fun course, and worth a visit.
Navigating the course can be a bit confusing, but course maps are provided by the OPERS office in the East Fieldhouse. One thing to note: this is not a circular course—hole nine ends up far away from hole one, so getting back to your car may require a bit of a hike.
Harbor High Disc Golf Course
300 La Fonda Ave., Santa Cruz
Practice makes perfect. And Harbor High Disc Golf Course is a perfect place to practice.
Bring a handful of discs—you won’t need more than a midrange driver and putter—and frolic about on this five-hole course placed strategically around Harbor High School’s track and football field.
It’s a great place to start for newbies, and vets looking to hone individual parts of their game. Practice drives on the football field itself, and then spend some time working on putt mechanics. The course is a great place to figure out the nuances and personalities of new discs.
The course itself really doesn’t put up much of a challenge, and the basket locations are pretty wide open. The baskets themselves are top quality.
Use Harbor High Disc Golf Course as a warm-up spot or practice zone, and remember that it’s, of course, closed during school hours.
Bridge to Bridge Disc Golf Course
287 Water St., Santa Cruz
Tom Schot and the City of Santa Cruz installed the Bridge to Bridge Disc Golf Course in downtown Santa Cruz with noble intentions. The nine-hole course, established in 2012, was strategically placed to increase foot traffic along the San Lorenzo River’s levee.
But that dream never manifested. In Bridge to Bridge’s infancy, park rangers routinely patrolled the area of San Lorenzo Park between the county courthouse and the river, but for the last couple of years the park has been known more for its homeless-encampment controversies than anything else.
It’s a shame, as Bridge to Bridge is a beautifully designed, technical disc golf course that is a sublime place to work on putts and midrange drives. The course was designed with beginners and intermediate-level players in mind, and most holes are pretty basic—less than 200 feet. The narrow stretch of parkland is the perfect place to learn the basics of the game. Many holes are “aceable,” but require some mojo and maneuvering to avoid shrubs and small trees. A full round of pitch and putt holes can be played in less than an hour.
The City of Santa Cruz spared no expense in creating Bridge to Bridge, and each hole has top-of-the-line DGA Mach III baskets and granite tee pads. In reality, most experienced players would prefer to drive a few miles and disc at DeLa, but if you’re in downtown Santa Cruz and have a burning desire to disc, Bridge to Bridge is there for you.