A guide to niche outdoor sports in Chicago parks


Malcolm Taylor

HOLE-IN-ONE. Senior Spencer McKula throws a frisbee toward a putting basket at Nichols Park on April 5. For a full disc golf course, players can go to the Illinois Institute of Technology at 33rd and State streets. In Hyde Park, putting baskets are located in Nichols Park and near Promontory Point.

Spring is officially here and with it the opportunity to participate in the numerous outdoor sports that the Chicago outdoors have to offer. Aside from traditional warm weather athletic activities like basketball and golf, Chicago parks offer niche outdoor activities that can be just as fun. Bocce, disc golf and badminton are three of these options which require minimal equipment or experience to play recreationally.

Bocce is a ball sport based on games played in Ancient Egypt, developed into its modern form in Italy and popularized around the world by Italian immigrants. The game is played on a long, rectangular walled court. Bocce is played in two teams of one to four people and each team is given four 90- to 100-millimeter diameter bocce balls, made of wood or clay, painted in the respective team’s color. One team, chosen at random, throws the smaller white ball known as the pallino within an agreed upon zone of the court.

Once the pallina is placed successfully, the same team begins the first round by throwing one of their team’s balls as close to the pallino as possible. Balls that touch the walls of the court are deemed “dead” and don’t count for the rest of the round. If a team hits the pallino with a ball, the game continues from that new location. The teams take turns throwing their balls until all eight are on the court with the pallino. To calculate points once the round is over, the team that threw its ball closest to the pallino counts the number of its balls that are closer to the pallino than the other team’s best attempt. Rounds continue until one team reaches 12 points.

Bocce can be played throughout Chicago in public outdoor courts in some city parks, or indoors in several bowling alleys, restaurants and arcades.

Disc golf
Disc golf is similar to golf, but instead of balls and clubs, players use discs and their arms. Players take turns throwing their disc from a designated tee area toward the target, which is usually a steel basket with a chain neck above it to catch the discs.

Once players have each thrown their disc from the tee, they continue to take turns throwing their disc toward the target from the place it landed after their previous throw. The golden rule of disc golf is to always throw precisely from the spot where the disc landed and make no changes to the surrounding landscape that may ease the shot.

The round continues until all players have thrown their discs into the basket (ricochets don’t count). At the end of each round, players tally how many throws it took them to make their shot. Disc golf courses have either nine or 18 targets and, as in golf, the player who threw their disc the least at the end of the course is deemed the winner. A disc golf course is located at the Illinois Institute of Technology at 33rd and State streets, while putting baskets are nearby at Nichols Park and near Promontory Point. Courses usually have more varied landscapes than traditional golf courses, so players must often curve their shots around obstacles, making each target a new challenge.

Although games with shuttlecocks (a piece of cork with plastic attached to one end in the shape of a cone) have been around for centuries across Eurasia, the modern game of badminton was developed in India under British colonial rule. Badminton, a racquet sport played using rackets by hitting a shuttlecock across a net, can be played in teams or in a player versus player format, much like tennis.

Players score points by hitting the shuttlecock into the other team’s side of the court. A match consists of the best of three games of 21 points each. Although the game is traditionally played indoors in courts resembling volleyball courts, it can be played informally on a park, tennis court or the beach.

The Chicago Park District has official badminton courts at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown.