Out for a spin : Disc golf soars in popularity

Posted: Thursday, July 08, 2010

At some point during our imaginative childhoods, many of us believe we invented something.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Disc golfer's best friends: Dutch and Daisy retrieve a disc used for disc golf for their human, Chris Goodrich, on Thursday afternoon.

For my father, it was a certain kind of cereal. One morning, he poured raisins over his bran flakes and was flabbergasted when he eventually learned Kellogg's had beaten him to market.

An Alaskan friend of mine claims to have invented dipnetting after pulling salmon out of the Kenai with a net as a kid.

My creation was a game called Frisbee golf. It all started with a heavy blue disc I won at a friend's 13th birthday party. The top read "I flew high at Dan's birthday." The disc had abnormally long edges, about three quarters of an inch, which allowed me to perfect the flick throw, something I'd only ever heard high schoolers boast about after Ultimate games.

I designed my own course -- complete with par 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s. I beamed about the par-5 fourth hole that required skilled golfers to bend the tee shot all the way around the front of our small brick home so that the disc would slide on the driveway for extra distance.

Yep, I was pretty good at Frisbee golf. I thought I might be able to make it take off, then I could really go somewhere as the founder and star of this great new sport. Until I told a friend about my invention.

"Dude, you know there's a big disc golf course in Rochester, right?" he quipped.

Relatively speaking, Rochester, N.Y., is just a hammer throw away from Albany, where my supposed creation flew into being. How could I have been so naive?

Turns out there's a whole Professional Disc Golf Association with professional tournaments. People have been playing versions of the sport -- my sport -- since the 1920s. There's even a magazine dedicated to the game.

All I had done, apparently, was stumble upon a humble back yard variety of an already flourishing activity. Clearly I wasn't going to be the commissioner of Waite's PDGA Tour, and little kids weren't going to buy their very own "I flew high at Dan's birthday" Frisbees.

That didn't stop me from honing my skills at my spin on the game. I brought it to college and designed new courses around the lamplights and BMWs in Brookline, Mass. If I couldn't go pro, I'd at least become a competitive amateur. Meanwhile, for some reason, I never thought it necessary to play on an "official" disc golf course.

After college, my talents suffered from a kind of atrophy because I no longer had the time to play.

So when my editor pitched the idea of a disc golf recreation piece, my interest perked. We talked about how the story might go, and I went off on the little tangent I've just shared.

"And don't call it Frisbee golf," my editor warned. "It's disc golf."

I rolled my eyes at what seemed a semantics dispute and set off to reacquaint myself with the game. I was told I would need a special disc, so I went to a local variety store and bought a KC Pro Roc multi-purpose Innova Disc Golf disc for $13. This was no party-favor Frisbee. It's even PDGA approved! I opted not to get a special driver or putter disc.

Then I drove to the course -- located in the East End Trails behind Coral Seymour Memorial Ballpark in Kenai -- on a pleasant weekday afternoon to try out my new equipment.

On the first tee, which should be a fairly straightforward throw, I mimed my toss several times. I thought the hole looked a little long to be a par 3. On one of my courses, it probably would have been a par 4. Apparently, when I reinvented the wheel, so to speak, I hadn't done a very thorough job.

Then I reared back and let her go. Before I could finish looking up, I heard the disc clunking against the ground. I guess there was a reason I'd made all my Frisbee golf holes so short. This was not the sport I remembered.

I walked to pick up my sad first attempt and looked back to see two serious-looking disc golfers approaching the first tee to begin their rounds.

Not wanting to embarrass myself, I picked up my disc and walked off the course, pretending like I had just finished a solid round of 1 under par. Had things really gotten so bad that I was ashamed of my skills in a sport that I thought I invented?

I came back later to make another go at it, but there were two guys sitting on the bench at the first tee. David Booth sipped a Killian's Irish Red as he manipulated a teal disc in between his fingers. He wore sunglasses, a green tank top and black skater shoes.

Booth and his friend Jack Dean, who wore a Star Wars T-shirt, had just finished 18 holes. Booth said he shot a couple under par, a typical score for him. He tries to come out to play every day, rain or shine. Booth, 24, used to play seriously in college in Oregon, but now it's just something he does for fun.

"It's a great sport to get into," Booth said. "Mainly what you're doing is hiking around with a little bit of arm exercise."

I asked if he could give me some pointers.

"First time out, it's best not to worry about your score," Booth advised. He also said the trick is to throw the disc on a level plane. He uses his shoulders as a guide.

Then Booth stepped up to the tee and tossed a soaring shot that turned right in the wind toward the basket but then bottomed out toward the left. The shot frustrated him because, had it been an actual round, it would have been difficult for him to make a birdie with that drive.

I soon discovered that Booth isn't the only central Kenai Peninsula resident with some disc golf chops.

A few days later, I followed Jim and Dan Henry, a father and son tandem, around Kenai Eagle Disc Golf Course's back nine.

On the 257-foot 13th hole, Jim, the son, hurled his purple driver so far that it landed nearly even with the basket. He made the birdie.

Jim says distance is all about wrist action.

"They'll go if you put enough snap on it," Jim said.

On a separate day, I asked to follow a man and a woman around the course.

"Probably not because we're not very good," the man said. But then he launched a shot from the third tee that climbed two times before returning to earth.

The sport is gaining so much local popularity that the Kenai course is hosting disc golf tournaments and leagues.

On July 17, River City Cheer is holding a fundraiser tournament that has so far garnered about 40 players. The River City event will mark the fifth disc golf tournament the course has hosted. A sixth is scheduled later this year.

Kelly Johnson, who is coordinating the cheer club's tournament, said she thought a disc golf event would be a unique fundraiser taking advantage of a sport growing in popularity.

"With traditional golf mainly you are going to draw golfers. You don't get many people who this is their first time on a course," Johnson said. "But with the ease of (disc golf) and the ability for everyone to play, you can get a lot more people."

Johnson says she's been preparing for the tournament by playing with her family. Her 8-year-old son has perfected a low-to-the ground drive that keeps him out of trouble. As a result, he usually beats his mom.

"He's about a 4, I'm about a 6," Johnson said, explaining their average scores per hole.

The Kenai course also hosts regular leagues. Information can be found at: www.discgolfscene.com/leagues/Kenai_Disc_Golf_League_2010.

Disc golf's success here is thanks in large part to Ross Baxter. In 2003, Baxter asked the local city councils if it would be possible to build a course. Kenai obliged.

"I enjoyed playing and I felt it was a good sport to bring to the Peninsula because it's free to play. Anyone can play for the low cost of a disc," Baxter said. "It's good for men, women and children of all ages."

Baxter found some local businesses and organizations to sponsor the baskets and had an operational 9-hole course in 2004. Baxter brought nine more holes and Professional Disc Golf Association accreditation qualification in 2007.

"It's heartwarming when I go out, even the middle of the winter, and I see footprints in the snow," Baxter said.

There's no official record of the amount of play the course receives, but Baxter said he recently got a call from his niece at around 10 p.m. She was at the disc golf course, ready to play, and saw so many cars in the parking lot that she had to wait before beginning her round.

Eventually, I did complete a round of disc golf. Per Booth's advice, I didn't keep score -- not that doing so would have been easy given the way I was throwing. I'm just happy I didn't lose my Roc disc in the brush. Had it been my course, I would probably have done a lot better because all the holes would have been par 4s, not par 3s. But where's the fun in that?

The kicker is that the PDGA's website describes Kenai's course as "moderately easy and short."

So, apparently I didn't invent the concept of disc golf, and I'm realizing that's probably a good thing. Because if my sport of Frisbee golf is closer to a caveman's rock, the real disc golf is probably riding on the bottom of a Ferrari somewhere.

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.

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