Things to do

This Pasadena Park is Where Disc Golf Learned to Fly

November 16, 2023 | Posted in Things To Do

The very first public disc golf course in the world still draws frisbee fans to the City of Roses. Written by Joe Sills.

In 1977, Mark Horn found himself standing above a sold out crowd at a rock show in Japan. The reigning Pro Disc Golf Association World Champion had a handful of frisbees and an ear full of amplifiers as the crowd pulsed to the music. Horn, by day a nurse, felt the roar of the crowd as he let disc after disc fly into the sea of people below.

It was the culmination of a year that saw him rise from a Pasadena hobbyist to the world champion of a burgeoning sport that now has an estimated four million players worldwide.

Horn still calls the course where some of the sport’s first competitive tournaments were held his home. Through the years, he’s climbed the branches of the old Oak Grove Disc Golf Course—now Hahamongna Park—from Japan to the East Coast and back again. Wham-O even printed discs with his image and likeness on them after his championship win.

Horn has run a pro shop, raised a family and created one of the longest running disc golf tournaments in the country, the Annual Wintertime Open. His impact on the sport of disc golf unfurls like the branches, buds and fallen leaves of a great oak itself. And he’s still at it today.

Each winter, dozens of disc golf teams descend on Horn’s park for the Oak Grove Winter Classic, a kind of kickoff event that precedes the heart of the professional disc golf season. “The course here is short compared to today’s standards,” says Horn. “You can walk the whole thing in an hour and a half if you want to.”

For that reason, Oak Grove is a favorite training ground of disc golfers in the Pasadena Area. Its charm has only grown in the years since it began life as the very first permanent public disc golf course in the country. And players can still trod the same trails that the sport’s founders played five decades ago.

The First of Them All

Officially established in 1975, the 5,115-foot course features 21 holes designed by the sport’s unquestioned father, Ed Headrick. And though Headrick would go on to design some 200 courses across the nation, Oak Grove was his very first.

Horn picks a disc from his wheeled carrying bag and lets it fly. “I don’t have the arm strength I used to,” he says. “I don’t have that fast-twitch muscle.”

The disk glides swiftly in a straight line towards the basket. Horn effortless casts another “warm up” disc that direction, gliding between the outstretched lower branch of an oak and its canopy. On cue, Horn’s wife Susie—a former nurse herself—slings a straight-line shot towards the basket from the other side of a concrete tee pad.

A few steps away, a pair of disc golfers have set up a merchandise table near a putting basket set up at Hahamongna’s parking area. They’re selling souvenir discs, caps and tee shirts emblazoned with an oak saying “Where it all Began,” a nod that this truly is disc golf sacred ground.

Of the more than 6,600 disc golf courses in the United States, Oak Grove was number one. The very first. Truly, where it all began.

A Game that is incredibly Accessible

Horn says take anywhere from an hour and a half to two and a half hours to play through depending on pace. It’s not unusual for golfers to hit the course for a quick midweek training session or a last-minute moment of zen after work. And though the course has seen countless rounds played in nearly five decades of use, it’s still well-maintained and thoughtfully groomed.

Soon, Horn says Oak Grove Disc Golf Course will undergo a $100,000 upgrade to add more benches, modern concrete tee pads and protective bark shields for the venerable oaks in the line of fire between tees and holes.

At one point, Horn calculated that several thousand disc golf rounds per week were being played at Oak Grove. Today, the course is as popular as ever and it still remains free to the public.

“The beautiful thing about disc golf is that you can come play for one dollar,” Horn adds. “Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you could go grab a frisbee from the dollar store and start playing. You can get as deep as you want into professional discs and drivers and putters, but a beginner could still come out here and play almost for free.”

(The Oak Grove Disc Golf Club has a Community Outreach Committee that provides free discs to kids, new players, organizations, and people in need every month. In the last year they have given away over 500 discs to individuals and groups.)

A growing sport

On the other side of the tee, Susie Horn slings another bee-line disc towards a basket about 300 feet away. The Horns have been at this game a while, and even into their 70s the expertise of both Mark and Susie shines. Of the estimated 200,000 registered members of the Pro Disc Golf Association, the Horns hold numbers 067 and 068.

The Horns say disc golf numbers soared during the pandemic, when outdoor recreation and social distancing became necessary for socialization. Professional disc golf tournaments are streamed live on the Disc Golf Network, and more than 166,000 people subscribe to the outlet’s Youtube channel.

And while the sport may be more popular than ever, Susie Horn says her experience as a nurse in the 1980s resonates with a new generation of golfers adopting the sport today.

“This was our way to decompress,” says Susie Horn. “We could come out here in the oak trees and enjoy nature when everything at work was scary. Back then, we were dealing with AIDS which came with so many stigmas and unknowns. Out here, we could let it go.” Decades after its grounds helped launch the sport, disc golfers at Oak Grove are still finding healing in the heartland of Pasadena’s forests.

Oak Grove Disc Golf Course at Hahamongna Park is open seven days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The course keeps an active Facebook page with the latest information on tournaments, events and news.