Story/photos by Jacob Arvidson
Rough so thick it’s worse than going out-of-bounds. 10,529 feet of fairways through dense woods. Par 4s where throwing a distance driver off the tee can be as risky as throwing with your weak hand.
But it’s all by design.
The Black layout at Northwood Park in Morton, Illinois has been in development since 2017, and each step since its inception has been calculated in an effort to create the highest-level disc golf course.
“The vision was to make it the hardest course in the world,” Ledgestone Insurance Open Tournament Director Nate Heinold said. “We wanted fair fairways with brutal rough that punished bad shots. It makes you stay in the fairway and makes you club down from distance driver to fairway driver or midrange. It was designed that way to resemble the US Open in ball golf.”
Just like the US Open, there will be high profile players that shoot well over par - an outcome sure to rattle nerves. Some will reflect on what they could have done better, while others will lash out at the course, blaming it for their pitfalls.
“A lot of times when disc golf courses are designed, they don’t punish bad shots,” Heinold said. “Often you can spray it around on a course and still make birdie. We want to make sure that after a bad shot, it then takes a miraculous shot to save par. Par is not bad in ball golf, but in disc golf it’s considered a bad score. We’re trying to move the envelope.”
The Northwood Gold layout featured in the 2020 Ledgestone Insurance Open had several holes where the rough was hard to manage, but it also had the more open, park-style holes of the current Northwood Blue layout. Gold was always meant to be a placeholder until the Black course was completed and Northwood Park could be split into two 18-hole layouts.
Now that Northwood Black is complete, the intricate design of each hole and the way the course layout forces specific disc selection to hit specific landing zones should be evident to touring pros who play top courses for a living.
Top-notch design does come at a price. The Morton Park District contributed $250,000 toward Northwood Black. The Ledgestone team invested another $40,000. Hundreds of volunteers have put in thousands of hours in course cleanup. But no one has done more than lead architect Kip Taufer.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into making it special, especially Kip,” Heinold said. “He has given up three years of his life on the Northwood property. With a heavily wooded course this lengthy, keeping up with the growth and the trimming is a job in and of itself. It has been an insane amount of work to get it where it is now.”
Course cleanup and preparation is never more pronounced than in the months and weeks leading up to the tournament.
“The challenges have been off the charts,” Heinold said. “We had massive ice storm damage on the course this winter that cost us a lot of time in repairs. Now the summer has brought unprecedented rain. In July of 2020 it rained about a half an inch and then this summer we had a two-day period where it rained seven inches.”
Much of the mulch was washed away, ruining hours of course beautification. The heavy rain also fueled major growth of vegetation on and around the fairways.
“The weather has caused us an incredible amount of additional work,” Heinold said.
In spite of the trials, and thanks to countless volunteer hours, the course is ready to challenge the best in the world. Heinold is confident Northwood Black will present players with a mental and physical test like none they’ve ever faced before.
There will be ugly scores and some results that will shock fans. Heinold even expects a 1000-rated round to be six strokes over par. But over time, as the course matures, he also hopes the layout will gain a prestigious title: the best test in disc golf.