Disc golf connoisseurs bring 'world-class' course to Thunderhead base

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Aryeh Copa/courtesy

Thunderhead disc golf course.

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Aryeh Copa/courtesy

Jason Ruemelin shoots a round at the new Thunderhead Disc Golf Course.

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Aryeh Copa/courtesy

Ron Pannesi plays shoots a round at the new Thunderhead Disc Golf Course that he helped design.

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Aryeh Copa/courtesy

Ron Pannesi plays shoots a round at the new Thunderhead Disc Golf Course that he helped design.

— Back in 2000, when Aryeh Copa was busy with a day of first ski descents near Haines, Alaska, the last thing on his mind was throwing Frisbees.

Copa had to straight line it through a steep, choked chute and carve a turn over an exposed area, but high speeds and a hidden rock under the snow surface proved disastrous.

"I was rag-dolling 50 miles an hour down a 50-degree slope in race stock bindings I had set to 15 - one ski came off, and the one that didn't tore every piece of connected tissue in my knee, so that all that was holding my leg together was the skin," Copa said. "And I broke my femur."

Copa's rehab had him searching for low-impact ways to get outside again. He found the nine-hole disc golf course starting at the Steamboat Ski Area base and extending up Voo Doo.

"As I played and refined my throw, I realized just how dynamic a sport it is, the flight patterns and act of throwing the disc got me addicted," Copa said.

Ron Pannesi discovered disc golf as "a way to play Frisbee alone," after 10 years of playing ultimate Frisbee. The 36-year-old became hooked. He's since played 210 courses in 22 states and advanced to an elite level as a touring Professional Disc Golf Association member, finishing fourth at an 18-state Aspen tournament and 12th among 150 "A-tier" competitors at a recent Fort Morgan tournament, the largest in Colorado tournament history.

So, when Pannesi and Copa assessed the state of the Voo Doo course - one to which they already had added nine holes - they saw too many long, open holes that could boast only fields of tall, disc-swallowing grasses and the nine original, nonregulation baskets "that barely held your disc." With this summer's total re-grade of the Headwall area, the pair saw an opportunity.

"I built courses elsewhere, and I'd been looking at the Thunderhead base as a perfect location for a course," Pannesi said. "There's trees - on Headwall, you had to golf five boring holes just to get up to the woods. On Thunderhead, you go down Swinger and Beeline, and those are already perfect fairways."

With Pannesi's keen eye for courses and Copa's experience in designing mountain bike trails and building regulation baskets through his business, Alpine Disc Design, the pair began plans for a Thunderhead course with the ski area and the U.S. Forest Service. The holes, which range from 160 to 520 feet, wind up Giggle Gulch into the Bashor Bowl and up into Rough Rider Basin before working back to the Thunderhead base. Copa moved the nine regulation baskets he had added to the Voo Doo course and built nine new ones to bring Routt County its first 18-hole regulation disc golf course.

"We went from one of the worst courses to one of the best courses in the state," said Pannesi, who acts as course pro and has formed the Steamboat Area Disc League "to unify the voice of disc golf in the area."

With tee pads and baskets now up, Pannesi estimates there are about 20 groups a day playing the "shorter and safer" course. With a final mow of the fairway grasses and the last of the signs put up, the course should soon be fully complete.

"I think we came up with an amazing design that flows through diverse shots where each hole is unique," Copa said. "The course is a workout though. Without water, you won't finish, and you don't want to wear flip-flops."

The course will be dismantled for the ski season, but Copa and Pannesi hope to establish the course by bringing it back next summer with hopes of bringing a tournament to Thunderhead. Until then, SADL will continue hosting pick-up rounds at 5 p.m. every Sunday.

But just don't call if Frolf.

"'Frisbee' is a brand name used to simplify it for people who know nothing about the sport - it is golf," Copa said. "And one of the main comparisons that makes disc golf so great is that, with ball golf, think of all the water and insecticides, herbicides used to make that perfect Kentucky Blue. Disc golf is very environmentally friendly. Plus, it's free."

Call 846-5015 for more information about SADL or visit www.pdga.com for more information about the sport.

- To reach Dave Shively, call 871-4253

or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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