SIDNEY — Nick Gagne was the envy of a lot of his friends growing up across the street from a disc golf course.

During the summer, Gagne would play as much as six rounds a day at DnD Disc Golf. He’d usually join Derek and Dylan Tillson, the owners’ sons after whom DnD is named, and didn’t have to worry about getting home by dark.

Gagne became a whiz at the sport, good enough to turn pro at 14 and ultimately spent one summer travelling the country playing on a national pro circuit.

Now 22, Gagne still lives across the street from the 18-hole course and owners Tom and Tammy Tillson still welcome him like their third son. But the realities of adulthood have set in and Gagne admits his skills aren’t quite what they were when he was competing and finishing as high as third against some of the top disc golf players in the nation.

“Consistency is really what it’s all about,” he said. “Of course, I don’t play as much as I used to because I work a lot now.”

Central Maine has been a relative hotbed for disc golf for years. There are a couple of dozen courses within a short driving distance of Augusta and Waterville, including one of the oldest in New England at Beaver Brook Campground in North Monmouth.

The Tillsons built DnD on 16 acres of their back yard in the 1980s, not long after a friend of Tom’s in the merchant marine returned from Anchorage, AL raving about disc golf and said he’d planned on creating a course in Trenton.

“I’d never heard of it,” Tom said. “It wasn’t two weeks (later), my brother’s up, and he says, ‘Man, I’ve been playing this game.’ He takes me out to Beaver Brook and I wasn’t six holes into my first game ever and I was, like, ‘I’ve got to have one of these.'”

Tom believed the sport’s popularity would grow and built a nine-hole course. At first, it was for family and friends. In the 1990s, the Tillsons decided to make disc golf a business venture and ultimately expanded the course to 18 holes that are nearly a mile in total length.

Appeal increasing

Three years ago, Tom quit his job to devote more time to running the course, which hosts weekly league nights for individuals and pairs and has a big fundraiser next weekend for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.

In nearly 30 years of disc golf, the Tillsons have watched disc golf grow significantly in popularity.

“When we first opened to the public, if you got 30 people all month, six of them came three times,” Tom said.

“Now what’s an average for a league night?” Tammy said. “Thirty? Thirty-five?” Disc golf is appeal is increasing for those looking for a fun, family-friendly activity and those looking for serious competition.

Jacob Fowlie’s cousins introduced him to disc golf when he was a middle-schooler around the turn of the millennium and is glad to see the sport catching on.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive hobby to pick up,” he said. “Discs don’t cost more than $15 and rounds are $3 to $5, so it’s something you can do every other day.”

It’s also something you can do with just about anyone. More and more women like Waterville native Kelly Nichols, are playing, often as well as or better than men. Although Nichols, who started playing 10 years ago, admitted she needed to stick it out a while before she was a threat to shoot the low score.

“A lot of my guy friends played, and I wanted to play, too,” she said. “At first, it took a lot of patience. It’s not an easy thing to play when you play with a bunch of guys that are really good at it. They were definitely helpful, but I’m very competitive. For me, it was frustrating.”

“Since I started, there’s definitely a lot more girls that are playing,” she said. “It’s nice to see.”

Nichols enjoys the number of options there are to throwing a disc. Disc golf is like regular golf in many ways, except the “holes” are baskets adorned with metal chains. Best disc, like best ball in regular golf, is one of her favorite ways to play. But she and many other players enjoy disc shoes, which is like horse shoes.

DnD, like regular golf courses, has shorter par-3 holes and longer par-4 and par-5 holes (all holes are par-3 for pros). Holes range from 156-550 feet, mostly tree-lined. Water hazards aren’t as prevalent as regular golf courses, but with more trees around, the typical disc golf course has more than its fair share of obstacles. Veteran disc golfers consider DnD to be the most challenging short course in the state.

Like regular golfers, disc golfers have an array of equipment to use on the course. But instead of using clubs, they use different discs for distance and accuracy. A typical serious player could have a couple dozen discs in his or her bag, including drivers, putters, and mid-range discs. They are different weights and shapes and are all rated for stability.

“I have 10 in my bag, but I only use one,” Nichols said. “And I like to throw the mid-range disc. Sometimes, I’ll use a putter. But i love my mid-range disc. I know how to manipulate that disc, no matter what I need to do.”

Fowlie can do more things with a disc than most. Known as “50-foot Fowlie” for his putting and short game proficiency, Fowlie turned pro in 2012.

“In the past six years, I’ve devoted lots of time. It’s like a part-time job almost, but I like it,” said Fowlie, 28, who works full-time in maintenance at Kennebec Valley Community College.

“It’s just tons of fun,” Fowlie said. “It’s a great community, and it’s really competitive right now. There are a lot of good players.”

Getting better

Fowlie plays year-round. He plays on the Maine Players Tour, which holds tournaments around the state from mid-April to late-September. From October to April, he plays for Team Maine on the New England Frisbee Association’s winter tour.

Joseph Stevens of Augusta plays nearly every day, too, and has a basket at home to practice putting. The bartender, now in his third year playing. He joined the MPT this year, will be playing his first Pro Disc Golfers Association event at Smuggler’s Notch soon and hopes to turn pro in the next year.

“It’s just like any other sport. If you want to get better, you’ve got to play,” he said. “This will be my first year playing during the winter. To keep getting better, I’m going to have to play all the time.”

Tournaments are played in all weather conditions, unless lightning is threatening player safety. The typical entry fee is $40-50. Fowlie won $110 at the Burnsboro tournament. The biggest purse he’s won is $240. But he’s still more intrigued by how much better he can get than how much money he can make in the sport. A couple of weeks ago at Burnsboro, a popular and highly-regarded course in Vassalboro, he shot his best round ever, a course-record-tying -14.

“Since I’ve been playing, I’ve never digressed in my ability. I keep getting better,” he said. “It’s fun to keep getting better at something. You don’t know where the limits are.”

“The biggest thing you’ve got to worry about is tics,” he said.

As popular as disc golf has become, Gagne knows the sport’s potential is still untapped in America.

“Disc golf is at its biggest right now in Europe,” he said as one of his fellow players returned a disc that he’d lost in the woods three weeks ago. “It’s huge in Europe. There’s a big circuit over there, about a month-worth of huge tournaments.”

Regardless of how big disc golf becomes nation-wide, there is little doubt the hotbed of the sport is in central Maine.

“We’re blessed with so many courses around,” said Nichols, who sprinkled the ashes of her dog, Mateo, a frequent companion of hers at DnD, on the course after he passed away. “But I think this is the best one.”

DnD’s cancer charity event runs Aug. 15 and 16 with pro and amateur divisions, free camping and music. For more information, call 547-6412.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter:@RAWmaterial33


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