After 70 years of mowers and fertilizers, the turf on the Monroe Golf Course is shot. Thank goodness you don’t need good turf to play golf anymore.
To play Frisbee golf, that is. For that, all you need is a great course, and with its trees, pond, hills and view, the Monroe Golf Course has those things.
Now, since new owner Paul Clark has hired the world’s top disc golf course designer to redevelop the historic course for disc play, Tall Firs Disc Golf Course is on the verge of a grand opening August 23.
Paul Clark of Snohomish teaches game design at Seattle digital gaming institute Digipen, but that’s as close as he’s ever come to designing a golf course.
When he and his wife set out last year to buy land, their goal was only to find a large green space to preserve.
When they found that the Monroe Golf Course was on the market, they found themselves inspired to reopen it.
“It was obviously beautiful and it needed to be preserved,” said Clark, who is also a proficient jazz musician.
But the historic course would require far too much of an investment to restore as a traditional golf course. The turf is exhausted after 80 years of mowers and fertilizer, and replacing 25 acres of grass would be prohibitively expensive.
“The disc golf concept was short in coming,” said Clark.
He’d only ever played one round of disc golf in his life, but as a youth, he and his family had played Frisbee a lot. And he was aware that disc golf has been growing steadily in popularity since its invention in the 1960s.
“I considered designing it myself, for about 30 seconds,” said Clark, who immediately decided that being a professional game designer was probably not going to qualify him to create a top-flight disc course.
Instead, he reached out to the world’s top course designer, a Texan named John Houck.
Houck has been designing disc courses for more than 30 years, has designed more courses than anyone else alive, and of more than 5,200 courses worldwide, his courses have held the number 1 and 2 spots the last two years in a row.
“He has the reputation of being the Frank Lloyd Wright of disc courses, and people were saying, ‘How did you get John Houck?’” said Clark. “I say, ‘Well, I emailed him.’”
Last summer, Houck brought a team up from Austin, Texas, and started surveying and reimagining the course.
It wasn’t difficult. The Monroe Golf Course has been considered a gem for almost 80 years.
Links to history
Herbert Tooker was one of Monroe’s first citizens, and one of its most prominent. He arrived by covered wagon as a child, and grew up to become principal of Monroe High School. He also liked to golf.
So in 1928, he turned his land on Old Owen Road into a three-hole course and hired a noted Seattle architect to design a clubhouse within the framework once created for a barn.
The resulting clubhouse sported a massive fireplace made of stones from the course itself, and had a large open second floor for dancing.
The course grew to nine holes and 63 acres in 1931, and in 1937 Tooker sold it to Leonard and Bessie Schrag, who pulled the course through some hard times.
“The front lot was an orchard, and Bess sold pies and milkshakes and sandwiches to get through the Depression,” said Clark. “She was a good golfer, and held a lot of women’s championships for a time.”
But the course enjoyed some natural advantages that helped keep customers loyal. It was built on a ridge between two streams, which kept it well-drained, even in rainy seasons. And it had a beautiful view. In fact, it was considered one of the best courses of its size in Washington, even the Western United States.
The Schrags eventually retired after more than 30 years of ownership, and the course changed hands several more times.
But eventually its fortunes began to decline. Golf fell off in popularity over the decades, and by the 1970s, the owners were considering subdividing the whole thing for residential development.
Despite the efforts of a group called Friends of the Golf Course, half the course eventually was sold for housing lots; the other half preserved as an amenity for the new community.
“Some development was done, the ponds were put in, and they hired a golf course designer to build a compact executive course in the remaining 23 acres,” said Clark. “As it turns out, them doing that and creating a sculpted landscape made it fantastic for disc golf.”
The course finally became too expensive to maintain, and it was closed in the 1990s, with the bank and a neighborhood HOA keeping the grounds in shape.
For a time, colorful restaurateur Jim Taranto, who operated popular Italian eatery Nana Carmela’s out of the former clubhouse, planned to reopen the course. He took out a large loan, but the economy crashed shortly thereafter.
The landowner, Mike Mastro, foreclosed on Taranto, and shortly thereafter entered bankruptcy himself in 2009, the largest bankruptcy in state history.
The course stood fallow until last summer, when Clark hired Houck to reinvent it for a whole new sport, one for which it is, in fact, ideal.
Building Tall Pines Disc Golf Course
“Oh, my goodness, there are lots of things that make the course cool, starting with the history and the neighborhood, and all the great things Paul is doing like adding a pro shop,” said Houck by telephone from Missouri, where he is currently working on another course.
One of the main assets of the property is an owner willing to plant trees, noted Houck. Many courses are developed in parks, where cities might not have the budget or will to add trees. But trees are the disc golf answer to sand traps and roughs; they are natural obstacles.
Houck carefully planned the placement of more than 130 cedar, fir and hardwood trees, each between 10 and 14 feet tall. And he designed the course in such a way that tees, which in disc golf are rectangular concrete pads, are mostly not visible to each other, the disc never need be thrown in the direction of neighboring homes, and short and long tees offer significantly different levels of play.
“I tried to get creative and work with what with what was there, to make a place for local people and traveling people of all skill levels,” said Houck.
The result is Tall Pines Disc Golf Course, a course that Clark believes will draw disc golf enthusiasts from around the state on a regular basis, and even from around the nation.
At $5 for green fees, the course will certainly not be beyond anyone’s budget. And with tournaments all but assured, as the PDGA, the PGA of disc golf, is always seeking quality courses for events, the course could be a significant driver for the region’s growing outdoor recreation economy.
The sport itself has been growing in popularity for decades, with no end in sight, said both Clark and Houck.
“It has been growing 20 percent a year for 30 years and has never missed a year,” said Clark.
“There’s not very many sports that can say they have had that kind of steady growth for 30 years,” added Houck.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Monroe Chamber of Commerce director Una Wirkebau-Hart. “It’s exciting.”
And even though the course is designed for the most sophisticated disc golfer, it’s also meant to be accessible and fun for people playing for the first time.
Duffing by disc
For the uninitiated, disc golf is so similar to regular golf that the concept, at least, is easily acquired.
It’s not called Frisbee golf, though; that term clearly marks a newbie. Instead, it’s disc golf, and the discs, in fact, bear but little resemblance to the classic dinnerplate-sized Frisbee.
The discs used for golf are closer in size to a salad plate, and like golf clubs, come in different shapes for different uses. For long throws, a sharp-edged disc, usually in Day-Glo colors, is used. For short throws, a round-edged disc is required.
One begins on a “tee,” a dining-room table-sized concrete pad, and tries to reach the basket in the minimum number of throws.
Passing through fairways of trimmed trees and around ponds and hills, eventually one sees a basket which looks like a round mesh washtub on a stand, into which hangs a chandelier of chains. The disc is tossed against the chains, whereupon it (one hopes) drops into the basket.
It’s a simple game, but challenging, and quite absorbing. And it can take most of an afternoon for a beginner to round all 18 baskets. That makes for affordable recreation, especially since discs cost about $15 each, and although some players have as many as 40, game play really only requires one or two.
Those discs will be available at the pro shop opening in the far north side of the old clubhouse, where snacks and coffee will also be on offer.
Eventually, the entire building will reopen, top and bottom.
Right now, it’s undergoing a radical renovation, with the dirt exposed beneath the heavy old floor beams, awaiting a new covering, and broken glass from the delicate old French windows testimony to some vandalism since the restaurant closed.
But the massive fireplace still stands, and the framework of the building remains sound. Eventually, Clark hopes to once again have a comfortable clubhouse, perhaps with a restaurant and even libations for the grownups.
“We will host events, too, and corporate gatherings,” said Clark. And one day there will be a stage for outdoor summer music performances, too, he said.
But first, the place will have a grand opening Saturday, Aug. 23.
Starting early in the day, the course will open for the public, which for the many people who have been calling and visiting daily for news of the opening, even asking if there are homes for sale near the course, should come as a relief.
Later in the day, top Puget Sound blues act The C.D. Woodbury Band will perform.
Clark said he has every reason to expect that the opening day will be a success.
“Everyone is super excited,” he said.
And Houck said he believes the course itself will also succeed.
“It’s about balancing challenge and fun factor to make it so everyone can enjoy the unique features of the property,” he said. “I’m optimistic we have achieved our goal.”