One feature added two years ago has had a positive impact. It wasn’t a new basketball court or soccer field. It was a golf course. More specifically a disc golf course.
On any given day, as many as a dozen people trudge through the park carrying backpacks or gym bags stuffed with brightly-colored discs. Welcome to an afternoon of disc golf at Oak Park, when players take turns throwing the discs toward metal “baskets.”
Remy Gonzales, a disc golfer, says the discs are different from Frisbees because they’re weighted and designed to cut through the wind.
“To me, when your body mechanics are perfect, it’s effortless and it’s almost like controlling your ‘Chi,’” he says.
The game is similar to traditional golf, where players attempt to hit the target with the least number of throws. There are different discs for different situations on the course. Players have “drivers” for longer throws, “mid-rangers” for shorter distances and putters for shots close to the basket.
McClatchy’s nine-hole course was installed in 2012 and was designed by professional disc golfer Jim Oates, owner of Final 9 Sports in Orangevale. Competitors typically play through the course twice for an 18-hole game.
Disc golf, which has been around since 1970, is becoming one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. The Disc Golf Association says its active membership rose from about 8,000 in 2004 to more than 20,000 in 2013.
The reasons players take up the sport vary.
“This is like church,” says Cameron Tew. “This is our way to relax."
Tew is referring to Sunday Safaris, gatherings that players attend religiously. It’s one of the many weekly and monthly disc golf-centric events held at McClatchy Park.
“I just like being outdoors and interacting with people,” says Robert Bayze about why he plays disc golf.
Bayze says he also plays at McClatchy Park for another reason.
“I play in this park in particular because I grew up in this neighborhood, I know this park has a negative stereotype and so we can come out here and try to change the way this park is viewed as a friendly park as opposed to a problem,” he says.
Oak Park resident Aimee Phelps says that reputation was exactly why she lobbied the city for the disc golf course.
“You wouldn’t want to walk through here because of needles, paraphernalia, condoms, all sorts of stuff all over the park. Everywhere. It was nasty, it was dirty,” Phelps says, describing the state of the park when she first moved into the Oak Park neighborhood eight years ago.
Phelps says the introduction of disc golf course was intended to bring more foot traffic throughout the park. She says that increased activity has helped to discourage prostitution, drug use and other criminal activities.
“There’s baskets all throughout the park, not just the perimeter, but interior, [the exterior], all around,” she says. “Just like a regular golf course, you have to walk far to get to the next hole. You’re constantly walking the whole entire park. It’s that presence in the park that pushes out the illegal activity.”
Oak Park’s disc golf program was funded with a grant from the city. But when it was established, the changes brought some backlash.
Long-time residents of the mostly African-American neighborhood feared that the course would force them out or take away benches where people already gathered to play cards or to visit with one another.
“This is the park I’ve grown up in,” says Jonathan Murry who has lived in Oak Park for about four decades. “It was a culture shock to a lot of us when the disc golf came out here because nobody never heard of it. A lot of people didn’t take to the game, they don’t know how the game is played. First time I saw it, I said, what the hell are these god*** baskets doing in the park.”
Eventually, Murry himself took to playing disc golf. He says he wants to make sure other people who have been using the park for years also have a place there.
Joseph Johnson is another long-time resident of Oak Park who started playing.
“I’m throwing 275 feet and I’m trying to get it close to the basket down there as close as possible, without hitting the person lying on the ground behind the tree,” he says as he demonstrates how to throw.
Johnson says two years ago, he approached Phelps and asked questions about the game. He’s been playing ever since. Now, Johnson comes to the park to play every day and helps maintain the disc golf course signs and baskets. He’s also competed in disc golf tournaments around Sacramento.
Phelps credits Johnson for being an advocate for the sport and the players at the park.
“Joseph took some ownership of this course,” says Phelps. “I owe a lot to that gentleman because he helped that integration of the people that had been raised here and [the players of] this game.”
Despite the initial tensions, both sides now say the disc golf has been a positive addition and that the atmosphere at the park has vastly improved.
The changes have helped to minimize crime at the park, according to Officer Doug Morse, spokesperson for the Sacramento Police Department. Morse adds that the lieutenant in charge of the area told him that the combination of new park amenities, as well as “stay-away orders” for known criminals at the park, has helped reduce crime.
“It's the exact response that they assumed,” Morse says. “When people are using the park, it deters the criminal element. “
More changes are coming to McClatchy Park with a renovation project slated to open to the public Saturday. The plan had been on the books for years — even before disc golf. But, the recession stalled it. Ealier this year, construction began and the city will celebrate the completion of the project Oct. 18 with a grand re-opening.
Tamika L’Ecluse, a board member of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, says the incremental changes have transformed the park and disc golf has brought people together.
“It made people who were afraid, to come to the park, it invited them to try something that they might have previously been uncomfortable with,” says L’Ecluse.
But not all of the problems have gone away. L’Ecluse says there are still signs of drug use in certain areas. Residents and disc golfers say it’s important that people don’t feel discouraged and continue to use the park.
Residents say they hope the park will become a destination for everyone in the neighborhood. “Using the park is really key,” says L’Ecluse. “I’m hoping that more people feel welcome and have regular meetings and regular get-togethers here.”
Grand Re-Opening McClatchy Park
Saturday, Oct. 18, 11:30 A.M. - 1:30 P.M.
Ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon