Father of disc golf marks out his legacy

Taking off: Queenstown's 'father of disc golf' James Smithells

The Wakatipu’s ‘Mr Disc Golf’ is chucking in Queenstown to live in Nelson. James Smithells discusses the origins of the Gardens course, the benefits of the sport and traffic jam “stress” with Philip Chandler 

Talk about a legacy.

Queenstown clinical psychologist James Smithells, who leaves for Nelson next week to “semi-retire”, will forever be known as the resort’s ‘father of disc golf’.

Twenty-one years ago, he founded the marked course in the Queenstown Gardens, allowing disc or frisbee golf to become one of the town’s most popular free attractions.

The pioneering course in turn has inspired players to create others around the country and even overseas.

Just as importantly, when the council or arborists have tried to shut it down to protect passers-by and trees from flying frisbees, he’s successfully gone into bat to retain it.

To stave off critics, he’s constantly tweaked the course and encouraged users to play responsibly, and is even staying on as the Queenstown Disc Golf Club’s liaison officer despite moving out of town.

While the Gardens course is Smithells’ visible legacy, he believes he’s also leaving an “invisible legacy” in his working life, having assisted the mental health of thousands of individuals, couples and families.

“The best thing is when someone comes along and they’re really having a difficult time.

“You meet with them for a little while and they go out smiling – it’s very satisfying.”

Back to disc golf, Smithells suspects he was one of the sport’s New Zealand pioneers.

He took it up in Dunedin in 1976, the same year ‘the godfather of NZ disc golf’, Bob Gentil, started playing in Auckland.

“I used to love throwing frisbees amd then a friend said, ‘there’s this game, frisbee golf, and you just aim for different targets’.”

The sport only took off in the late ’80s, however, with the development of discs you could throw a long way.

When Smithells arrived in Queenstown in 1994, he was “overjoyed” to find several rafting guides had been playing in the Gardens since the mid-’80s.

“[The targets were] this tree and that tree and that rock and that rubbish bin.”

Inspired by national tournaments he’d attended, he approached the council’s then-community development officer Derek Stewart for approval to run one in the Gardens.

“He said, ‘why don’t you ask for permission to get it permanently marked out?’ and I was like ‘wow’ – there wasn’t one in the country at that stage.”

Smithells and friends put together a course with 18 targets a week before the inaugural Queenstown Classic in 1996.

He considers the benefits of the course have far outweighed the downsides.

“Really, how many people actually get hit with frisbees?

“There’s very few.

“How many trees die?

“There’s a couple of poster child trees, which have have been damaged, but we’re now avoiding them.”

The benefits, he says, include getting young people in the Gardens, providing a cheap, healthy pastime and decreasing vandalism – “there’s less likely to be problems because there are people keeping an eye on things”.

Smithells says he’s enjoyed practising psychology in town since ’94 – apart from a five-year stint in Dunedin.

He’s worked both privately and for Southern District Health Board’s local mental health team.

Public services have gradually improved, he says, with a locally-staffed emergency after-hours service about to be extended to go all through the night.

Unlike cities, though, Queenstown doesn’t provide respite care for people needing a bit of time out.

“I think it’s a real missing link in terms of mental health services.”

Despite Queenstown’s glitz and glamour, Smithells says stresses have increased, especially with housing becoming more unaffordable.

And traffic jams have just added to what he calls “the cup of stress”.

“You’ve got a big mortgage, then you’re having troubles in your relationship, then the kids are playing up, you’re getting a hard time at work, and then all of a sudden you’re caught in a traffic jam – it’s the last straw.”

Smithells says he’d always planned to semi-retire in Nelson.

“I didn’t know when it was going to happen but just last year all the ducks just lined up – things like turning 65.”

He’s loved Queenstown, but as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t have beaches.

“And also I just notice that I get a bit colder as I get older”

He’s delighted he’s bought a “stunning” passive solar house – “you don’t need a heater”.

And yes, Nelson’s got a disc golf course.

“I’ll have time to play more and actually become a better golfer because my skills have deteriorated.”