Sitting in a 108-acre park in the heart of Illinois lies the most difficult disc golf course on the planet: Northwood Black.
Known for its recent inclusion in the Ledgestone Open for both FPO and MPO divisions, this course has only been around since 2021. But its history dates back over two decades.
We took the time to sit down with local expert and course co-designer, Kip Taufer, to gather a further appreciation for Northwood Park as a whole and the greater story behind the hardest course in the world. This property has changed greatly over the past 20 years and taken disc golf to another level each time.
The disc golf journey began in 2001 with Washington, Illinois native, Greg Nettles.
Nettles grew up within 10 minutes of Northwood Park and picnicked there with his family as a child. When he fell in love with the sport in the late ‘90s, he began dreaming of creating his own course.
Northwood’s topography, water, and natural vegetation features fueled Nettles’ dream. After agreeing to front the installation costs himself, the Morton Parks District finally allowed him to pursue a course on the property in 2001.
Nine months later, in June of 2002, Northwood Park opened its disc golf course to the public for the first time. It quickly became a popular course for the greater Peoria area.
In 2011, Nate Heinold ran the first ever Ledgestone Open at Northwood Park, drawing in over 100 competitors. The tournament played a 21-hole layout and, because of the talent in the field, the course record was quickly shattered.
Seeing how much the game had progressed in the previous decade with better players and better disc technology, Nettles was called into action once more. In 2012, he completed a redesign of the original Northwood course, adding both distance and difficulty. Then, in 2015, Ledgestone and the Parks District stepped in to financially support the addition of brand-new Mach X baskets.
Five years later, as 2017 came to a close, the PDGA officially announced the decision to bring the 2019 PDGA World Championships to Peoria. With this news, preparation began to host the best players in the world. Part of that preparation included yet another update to the course at Northwood Park.
Heinold, Nettles, and Taufer met up to break down the changes needed and what exactly it was going to take to beef up the Northwood course to a true championship-level layout. After they had walked through the course and established a general extended layout, Heinold broke Nettles and Taufer the news: they were going to need to build five new holes through the woods to the southeast.
“The biggest feeling was excitement to get to work with Greg, Nate, and the Morton Parks District,” Taufer said. “At the same time though, I was very nervous. We didn’t have much time to finish these things before Worlds. There was a lot to do in a short amount of time, so there was definitely some fear there.”
The five holes came together over the next year through hundreds of long, thankless hours from Taufer. The most well-known change to come out of these five new holes was a 1,050-foot wooded par 5. It played as the 12th hole on the redesign which became known as Northwood Gold. That same hole still remains as the infamous hole 12 on the current Northwood Black course.
“It was so thick with honeysuckle and bramble that I basically had to crawl through to flag everything,” he said. “The current hole 12 was originally supposed to be three par 3s or a par 4 and a par 3. I didn’t even have it in mind that it could be what it is.”
Meanwhile, Nettles took care of lengthening the previously-established layout. He moved baskets, changed tee pads and cleared brush to open new throwing lanes and landing zones.
The Gold course was a 9,300-foot, par 63 monster that featured during the 2019 Worlds. It was used that same year for amateur portions of the Ledgestone Open and then for the DGPT event in 2020, but after that the Gold course became obsolete.
“Honestly, I don’t miss the Gold layout,” Taufer said. “I just think it’s so great to have two courses on the same property. And, in reality, you could still play the Gold layout if you really wanted to because it’s just split between two courses now.”
Recognizing the booming success of disc golf in the Peoria area stemming from the Ledgestone Open and 2019 Worlds, the Morton Parks District funded the purchase of a second full set of baskets to plant another 18-hole course at Northwood Park.
A brand-new project was then underway with a vision to create the most challenging disc golf course the tour had ever seen. Taufer and Heinold teamed up to lay out an idea of what this new track could look like. Together they came up with a plan and Taufer went to work executing the vision for what would become known as Northwood Black.
Since its inception, Taufer has put in thousands of physical labor hours on Northwood Black. That includes cutting holes out of the dense woods and building a multitude of large bridges and walkways. Assistance from the Morton Parks District and the Ledgestone Open volunteers have given him an extra boost, but the bulk of the final product is the result of Taufer’s efforts. Two years later, he still finds time on a weekly basis to maintain the course.
After professional players and fans specifically critiqued the pace of play at Northwood Black following its debut during the 2021 Ledgestone Open, Taufer went to work on the most recent update to the course.
The Hole 14 fairway was widened and the rough trimmed. Similar adjustments were made to the final dogleg on Hole 5. But Taufer took the time to beautify the course as well.
“The pace of play was way too slow,” Taufer admits. “A few holes definitely needed to be tweaked. We adjusted those and we also planted green grass in the fairways. There’s just something beautiful about playing on grass in the middle of the woods.”