You probably haven't noticed it, but there's an interesting word that pops up a lot in disc golf tournament commentary. See if you can hear it in these clips of coverage from, respectively, Central Coast Disc Golf, JomezPro, The SpinTV, and Another Round Productions.
As you likely heard, the word these clips all have in common is "picturesque." Four different commentators discussing tournaments in four very different places—Oregon, Massachusetts, Czechia, and North Carolina—all had this word come to mind, and these are just a few of the possible examples and are all just from one year (2017). But even in these four videos alone, the appearance of "picturesque" is unusual.
Analysis in the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests "picturesque" typically appears less than once per every million spoken words in American English media. A word count of the transcripts generated by YouTube for these videos shows they range roughly between 5-8 thousand spoken words each.
The atypical frequency of "picturesque" in disc golf commentary caught our attention because it's a word with more significance to it than most people know. Beyond just being somewhat synonymous with "pretty," "picturesque" is also an artistic concept developed in the 18th century that exploded in popularity and still dominates how most Western cultures think about and value the outdoors today.
One reason we're telling this story now is that a recent update to UDisc lets users upload course photos (see the video below), and we have pictures on our brains.
However, it's also interesting to talk about this concept because disc golf is an outdoor sport loved by many players as much for the scenery it offers as its competitive aspects. That makes the picturesque very relevant to it. Below, find out why this over 200-year-old concept from the art world probably has a huge effect on the way you judge the courses you play and the photos you take while you play them.
The Meaning and Origins of the Picturesque
A definition from England's Tate (a network of art museums) gives a simple idea of what the well-to-do 18th century Brits who popularized the picturesque meant by it: "views seen as being artistic but containing elements of wildness or irregularity." And they were very serious about the irregularity part.
An important figure in the British picturesque movement named William Gilpin wrote in one of his books that simply the thought of a painter using "smooth knoll[s]," "a smooth plain," and "a smooth mountain in the distance" was "disgusting" because "picturesque composition consists in uniting in one whole a variety of parts."
But the concept didn't just deal with painting pictures; it extended to how people interacted with the world. Different writers explained how to recognize when something you were looking at in the real world was picturesque and wrote guides telling people exactly where the most picturesque places to go were. Gilpin even encouraged people to take a thing called a "Claude glass" that reflected scenes from the real world into a frame so that they could be appreciated like a painting.
Interestingly, the basics of this idea haven't changed too drastically over time. For example, we reached out to Cory Murrell—the first voice you hear say "picturesque" in the videos at the start of this post—to learn what makes something picturesque to him.
"I’d say elevation has a lot to do with it," said Murrell. "Seeing a grand view from a tee pad would be super picturesque. Basically any hole that would make a good background for your computer."
In modern terms, "make a good background for you computer" is the likely equivalent of "good to look at in a Claude glass," and grand views almost always have the irregularity in them that was a big part of what made up the picturesque when it was first being popularized.
Connections to Disc Golf
Not just upper class tourists were inspired by the picturesque. People who worked with landscapes like green areas in major cities and national parks began planning their creations to match picturesque ideals. In the U.S. alone, Central Park, parts of Yosemite National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and countless other sites were all planned by people who wanted to present only picturesque scenes to visitors. And that finally brings us back around to disc golf.
Because the outdoor spaces we have been brought up to see as ideals of natural beauty are so closely tied to the picturesque, most of us judge disc golf courses by these same standards.
Take, for example, the hallowed grounds of Maple Hill, one of the top-rated courses in UDisc's directory that's featured in the second video at the top of this post. Its hills, mixture of wooded and relatively open fairways (often on the same hole), and integration of the crumbling stone walls from the property into the course design create variation and the feeling of being part of a painting of the olden days.
Conversely, courses placed on areas designed for ball golf that only follow wide, well-mown fairways, often face criticism. We also discussed in a recent post how elements seen as artificial, like forcing players to throw through a section of concrete pipe, can be the focus of a lot of scorn.
There are admittedly a lot of factors driving the irritation some players feel about such design elements. However, odds are there's also a connection between the negativity and how those elements go against picturesque aesthetics. Open fairway after open fairway doesn't offer much irregularity, and obviously human-made obstacles, while possibly irregular, don't produce a feeling of wildness.
So what does recognizing the connection help accomplish? One thing is that recognizing the picturesque's effect on our perception of courses can simply be interesting. Just think about your convictions about good and bad course features and your "best courses I've ever played" list. We'd be willing to bet the picturesque plays a big role in both areas.
However, the biggest takeaway here is for aspiring course designers. Of course, properties like Maple Hill aren't a dime a dozen. Still, creating a certain amount of seemingly natural irregularity and possibly even a feeling of wildness is possible in many places, at least on some holes. And with it being ingrained in most people to admire these elements, trying to include them in designs will likely help a course grow in notoriety and popularity. And the more courses we have that people love, the more the sport can continue to grow.
Note: There's an academic debate about how our attraction to the picturesque can create environmentally problematic mindsets. If you're up for some scholarly reading, you can check out this paper discussing such issues.