HICKORY – The sport goes by many names: disc golf, Frisbee golf, frolf, even hippie golf. Regardless of what it’s called, John McAllister knew it needed to be played in Hickory.
Ahead of this weekend’s 20th Annual Hickory Classic Disc Golf Tournament, McAllister, a 50-year-old dentist and native of Hickory, had a chance to reflect on how the sport has grown since he first brought it here 20 years ago.
A friend introduced him to disc golf while visiting in the nation’s capital. McAllister quickly fell in love with everything it had to offer – the athletic challenge, the tranquility of nature, the camaraderie of the community.
His love continued to grow while he lived in Richmond, but when he returned to Hickory, he discovered the closest course was more than an hour away.
“I came back home, and there was nothing to do; no game to play anywhere,” McAllister said.
That inspired him to build the course at Glenn C. Hilton, Jr. Memorial Park. At the time, there was little more besides a playground, some gazebos and a plethora of trees. So he developed a plan and took it to longtime Parks and Recreation director Danny Thompson.
“I met the parks director here, walking through the woods, looking where a disc golf course would be,” McAllister said at a picnic table beside hole No. 1. “He helped me meet with the right people. It was such an alien thing to them, though.
“I could have had pointy ears, and they wouldn’t have looked any weirder at me than they were, talking about Frisbee golf.”
“They thought you were off your rocker,” his wife, Carolyn, added.
McAllister struck a deal with city officials: he would build the first nine holes, and if they were convinced this endeavor would turn into something worthwhile, the city would foot the bill for another nine holes.
Labor of love
McAllister got to work right away. He spent most of his weekends in 1996 at the park. It was so underutilized at the time that he could hide his tools under a tarp among the trees there and not have to worry about them being stolen.
Constructing the course was a slow process without any help. He was able to convince local businesses, however, to make donations for materials, signs and baskets.
“My mother even donated a hole,” McAllister said.
Close to 50 people attended the grand opening the next summer, many of them members of the Unifour Flying Objects Disc Golf Club that McAllister started. The course was featured in a disc golf directory soon after that brought people from all over the region to Hickory.
It didn’t take long for the city to recognize the popularity of the course. It became a popular weekend attraction for pros and novices alike. City officials followed through on their promise to pay for nine additional holes, which McAllister and a few others completed in 1998.
He had no course design experience – everything he learned was from other courses he had been to – but anyone who has played Glenn C. Hilton knows how challenging it can be.
“Variety is huge, and fortunately you’ve got that here,” McAllister said. “I think this is one of the better courses – I mean obviously I built it – that I’ve played, because you have in the woods, out of the woods, uphill, downhill, right, left, water.
“It’s nice that this park is perfect for it, really.”
In good hands
This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the first Labor Day tournament at Glenn C. Hilton, which has hosted one every year since it opened.
Besides the first few years when he helped organize it, McAllister said he is often out of town for the holiday weekend and doesn’t get the chance to play. Besides, it’s not like he would be competing for any titles.
“I’m a way better designer than I am a player,” McAllister said. “I am not a pro by any stretch of the imagination. I just like to play.”
Playing is something he’s had more time to do lately. Once the course was built and the UFO DGC was up and running, life changed for the McAllisters. John, a physical therapist at the time, went back to school to study dentistry and open his own practice. Carolyn had two kids, both boys who now share the family love for disc golf.
They had to step back and be less involved, but that only increased their appreciation for what they had created and how it has grown over the past two decades.
“The people who are running it now, they are wonderful,” Carolyn McAllister said. “It’s amazing what they are doing.”
“If you build it, they will come,” John McAllister said, quoting the 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams.
Now there is a thriving community of disc golfers eager to play and get others involved in the sport. The Hickory Disc Golf group on Facebook boasts nearly 700 members, with daily posts of people trying to return lost discs or looking to meet someone for a round.
And McAllister’s course – which he said was the westernmost one in the state when it opened – is no longer the only option. The Bear and Sawmills Veterans Park are both 18-hole courses within a 15-minute drive, and there are nearly 100 others within an hour of Hickory.
But Glenn C. Hilton will hold a special place in his heart for many years to come. It’s a daily reminder of what can happen when passion meets hard work, and how one person can bring something incredible to the masses.
Hickory didn’t know it needed disc golf, and now it can’t live without it.