World-class disc golf lands in Monroe

MONROE — A retired software designer hopes to give new life to a defunct golf course, only this time with plastic discs rather than golf balls.

Paul Clark of Snohomish opened Tall Firs Disc Golf Course in August. There are other disc golf courses in Snohomish County, but those courses are mainly in city parks and free to play.

Tall Firs is privately owned and charges a $5-a-day greens fee, but provides amenities like beer and coffee. It was also designed by John Houck, the top disc-golf course designer in the country.

Despite being open during the worst weather months of the year, Tall Firs has already developed a loyal following.

Clark purchased the land because he was “looking to do something sustainable to support a green space.” The land was still zoned for golf, but the turf on the course was shot from years of pesticide and herbicide use. Happily, though, perfectly green grass is irrelevant for a disc golf course.

Clark is working to make Tall Firs a success for many reasons. Having Tall Firs succeed as a disc golf course makes that green space that much more valuable. He also loves the sport and wants to boost it up. Having more disc golf courses, especially a high-quality course designed by a top designer, helps boost up the sport.

“It’d be wonderful to see it go so well that we could buy another defunct golf course and do the same thing,” he said.

Clark said he’s been pleased with how the course has been doing so far, especially considering it has mostly been open during the off season. Last year it was agonizing trying to get everything ready to open early in the season, he said. In the end, though, opening later turned out to be an advantage. He’s been able to work out any bugs over the slow season.

Tall Firs is located at 22110 Old Owen Road, Monroe, the site of the former Monroe Golf Course, which opened in the 1920s and was one of the earliest golf courses in the state.

The 9-hole* course became less popular over time and part of it was sold for a development. The rest was redesigned as a smaller course. Over time, even that fell into disrepair and the course closed. Clark fell in love with the property, and soon saw the potential for a disc golf course on the site.

“I thought about designing it myself for about 30 seconds,” he said.

Instead, he asked Houck, who lives in Austin, Texas, and has designed about 90 courses since 1984. From the beginning, he was excited by the idea of redesigning a former golf course.

Houck said he enjoyed meeting with Clark and seeing his drive for creating the course.

Clark said all disc golf courses have a tree problem. They either have too many or too few. For disc golf, trees set the physical barriers for the course. Most often, courses have too many trees. Tall Firs was the exception. Overall, it had too few trees. In the end, Clark and Houck added about 150 trees.

They enlisted the aid of Todd Holmes of Big Trees in Snohomish. Holmes was ideally suited for the job.

He grew up playing disc golf in Montana. His extensive tree knowledge and understanding of disc golf helped Holmes select the trees that would work best for Tall Firs.

“I can relate to the idea of what’s helpful and what’s not in terms of tree choices,” he said.

Holmes helped choose trees that would serve specific roles on the course. Some trees, like excelsa cedar, are good screening trees. They’ll stop discs and provide a nice perimeter to the course. Other trees were lower growing, like serviceberry, which is “nice for stopping hard drives down at a lower level,” Holmes said.

Some trees were chosen for visual interest and to give each leg of the course its own feeling. Nearly all of the holes have two tees, a more difficult tee and an easier tee that’s friendlier to beginners.

Clark is proud of the course and the job Houck did designing it.

And the course will keep improving. Houck said that, if the trees were grown in, the course would be as good as some of the courses ranked in the top-20 in the world right now.

“In my mind it’s a really special place. Paul has to get a lot of credit for that,” Houck said. “He’s a great guy, and he’s put so much love into the course – the players can see that, and that’s an important part of the experience for them.”

Regular player Jeremy Frieling moved to Monroe about two years ago. He had previously lived near a disc golf course in Sumner. When he arrived in Monroe, he waited impatiently for Tall Firs to open.

Each Saturday morning, Frieling organizes the random draw doubles. Players show up at 10:30 a.m., are randomly paired, and then compete for prizes and bragging rights. Frieling said doubles attendance usually averages about 16 people, and the largest turnout was 36 people. Even on rainy, windy days, a few hardy folks show up to play.

On one such day, Tom Brown and his son Kenny Brown of Marysville were hanging around a practice basket, getting in a few putts and chatting before a round of random doubles. Tom has been playing for 30 years and Kenny for four years. Tom Brown says a big benefit of Tall Firs is that it’s not in a publicly owned park. The first use of the area is for disc golf. Holes didn’t have to be designed around existing park features.

Also, “everyone here is a golfer,” Brown said. No one’s likely to accidentally walk right in the path of a drive, for example.

Clark has a professional history in designing video game interfaces, which means he’s got a lot of experience thinking about how people want to use a product. And he’s putting that experience to work on his course. He is trying to give people a reason to keep coming back.

“At many courses you play and then you either play again or go home,” he said. “There’s no reason to linger.”

With the greens fee, Clark provides players with free coffee, which is specially roasted by Dave Stewart, a cofounder of Seattle’s Best Coffee. The beans are for sale on the course. He also sells beers, which players are welcome to take with them on the course. The money he makes on beer helps keep green fees lower, Clark said.

Clark has also found a way to get people out at night, a clever trick on a golf course. Once or twice a week, he offers glow disc. All of the baskets are lit up with lights.

He also sells little LED lights that players can tape to their disc, to track the flight path. Tall Firs has a pro shop, where people can test out and buy discs, bags and attire. He keeps a few loaner discs for those who are new to the sport, or for those who’d like to test out a specific disc before buying it.

He sells Westside Discs, a brand from Finland. Clark has Finnish ancestry, but even without that connection, he believes Westside makes the best discs in the world. The discs also don’t require a break-in period, like many discs do, Clark said.

The course is an ongoing project for Clark. He will eventually be renovating the clubhouse, which has gone through several evolutions, including some time as a restaurant. He wants to restore it to its previous condition as a clubhouse.

Tom Brown said he and his son are willing to travel a bit to visit Tall Firs. The course and the atmosphere are appealing and “the owner is a great, warm person,” he said.

“You feel like you’re part of the family.”

Tall Firs Disc Golf Course

Greens fees are $5 and include all-day play. Discs and other gear are for sale in the pro shop. Discs cost about $10-$20 and most players keep a number of discs for various throws. Similar to ball golf’s woods, irons and putters, there are discs for long drives, mid-range shots and soft putts.

Scheduled events: Women’s round, noon on Sundays; Chain Kings League, 1:30 p.m. on Sundays (open to non-league players); random doubles, 10:30 a.m. Saturday; random doubles 5 p.m. Tuesdays. Glow golf: Saturdays, starting at dusk

Trilogy Challenge

On May 30, Tall Firs presents the Trilogy Challenge. For $30, players will get three previously unreleased discs, in addition to other gear that will help get newbies started in disc golf. New and experienced players are welcome. Beginners and those under 14 are welcome to start play at any time during the day. Intermediate competition begins with a shotgun start at 11 a.m. Advanced competition begins at 3 p.m. Cost is $30. There are prizes for each division.

Phoenix Rising

On June 28, Tall Firs will host Phoenix Rising, an event for new and experienced players. The event begins at check in at 9 a.m. There will be a singles round, followed by a doubles round. Players packs will include a disc, T-shirt, disc towel and a bag tag. Scoring challenges are arranged to help even the field. Get more info here and register here.

* Correction, May 13, 2015: This article originally misstated the number of holes at the Monroe Golf Course.

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