IVCC math teacher takes on a different course in disc golf arena

Instructor has a had in designing most Illinois Valley courses

Wes Black prepares to sink a second putt on Illinois Valley Community College’s disc golf course recently. Area disc golfers can thank Black for the challenges he creates for them in his course layouts, but his name has also become synonymous with the sport as a promoter of the activity and an avid player.

Not many disc golf course designers can say they’ve been grounded by an eagle, but Wes Black can. And on his first course, too.

Disc golf courses have sprouted like mushrooms throughout the Illinois Valley, beckoning serious golfers and amateurs alike to Oglesby, La Salle, LaMoille, Streator, Peru, Princeton or Ottawa. Black has had a hand in designing most of them in the last 15 years, and his name has become synonymous with the sport.

Black teaches math at Illinois Valley Community College, where he and faculty colleague Ryen Nagle and Nagle’s dad, Dan, conceived the idea for a nine-hole IVCC course which opened in 2010. Ryen had just introduced Black to the game, but the novice’s passion quickly matched his tutor’s.

The original design “took hours and hours of thought. And I don’t know how many times I walked that site and thought about the flow,” Black said.

Variety is the spice in disc golf, he added. Holes should demand long throws and short ones, breaks to the left and to the right, and be spaced so “you don’t have to walk a long way to the next tee pad or to the basket or be throwing toward the next green.”

But then one exceptional obstacle flew in. A bald eagle, which also is IVCC’s mascot, came home to roost in a nest just above Hole 1′s basket. Soon after opening, the course shut down so the eagle – still an endangered species at the time – wouldn’t be disturbed.

Actually, the raptor had done them a favor. Sort of.

The pause gave designers time to reenvision the course, to what Black concedes is a better layout. Hole 1 was relocated just inside the entrance gate, tee pads were poured concrete and expanded, and Hole 5 became more challenging by setting the basket on a manmade hill.

Land availability, support and funding spurred the growth of disc golf courses in the Illinois Valley. Courses need about an acre per hole, and land must be cleared and prepared. Baskets can cost about $400 each, tee pads as much as $1,000. Public contributions and volunteers are pivotal to progress and completion.

The courses are free to play and there are no added fees like in ball golf. The unique settings and challenges appeal to players in the area and beyond seeking that low score or gravity-defying hole-in-one.

“People will drive well over an hour to play a course,” said Black, who recently had spent two days playing through seven courses in the Quad Cities. “That’s what people do, to see what this course or that course has that’s different.”

Black estimates he has played more than 70 courses in a dozen different states – including Hawaii, where the vacationing Black found himself fending off banana plants and pineapple plants unlike any Midwest vegetation. A tournament is even held inside a prison.

Anyone of any ability and age can play, which might help explain disc golf’s rising popularity. On average, a new course opens every day somewhere in the United States, Black said. The sport has a pro circuit, dedicated media channels and phone apps to share scores and observations.

Black has further ignited local interest through clinics he organizes for youth and adults. The playing field keeps growing, so Black is helping establish two more courses in Mendota and Princeton.

Many local courses offer 18 holes of play. Some such as Streator’s Marilla Park feature giant tree obstacles. Others like La Salle’s Rotary Park or Peru’s Baker Lake present water hazards to delight and challenge a golfer. Several holes present golfers with two different tees to drive from.

Wind is a disc golfer’s biggest headache.

“You think you’re throwing well and the wind takes it away,” Black said. “You throw into the wind and it just goes out like crazy and if you throw with the wind, it just pushes it to the ground.”

Golf discs are specially designed to battle the elements. Black carries as many as 20 discs and puts them in play whenever he needs to drive, putt or approach.

He often can be found at an Illinois Valley course, facing down the challenges he created – when he’s not enjoying his other hobbies, such as ice climbing, running, kayaking and adventure racing.

“I’m an outdoorsy guy,” he said.

Wes Black’s love of disc golf began at Illinois Valley Community College, where he teaches math and where a colleague introduced him to the sport and recruited him as a course designer. The sport has grown in the Illinois Valley, which is already home to several courses, and Black is involved in designing a couple more that will open soon.
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