July 18, 2012

Disc Golf

It's Not Just for Hippies

Scott Low of Efren loves disc golf so much, he put his own course on his property.

At first glance, disc golf, AKA Frisbee golf, can look kinda stupid. Instead of hitting golf balls, people are just throwing Frisbees at what they call a hole. And this “hole” is an ugly conglomeration of a pole, chains and a metal basket topped with a big band of bright yellow that comes nowhere close to looking as sleek and elegant as the 14th hole of the Masters Tournament in Augusta or the swishing basket of an L.A. Lakers game. Until you find out those hanging chains are positioned like the midriff of a human body, intended to stop the disc so it can fall into the basket. And that yellow at the top is to give you a chance to find your target in a distant field or hidden among the trees in the shaded woods. And that the original version was designed by the guy who designed the Frisbee.

That’s right. Ed Headrick designed the modern Frisbee in 1964, and in the mid-1970s trademarked the term “disc golf,” invented the Disc Pole Hole, designed the first course in California and founded what is now the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). He then gave ownership to the players once the sport took off. So, these people who look like they’re fooling around aren’t just fooling around.

Well, maybe a little. When Headrick died, his ashes were molded into Frisbees; one of which was thrown by his wife onto the roof of the “Steady” Ed Memorial Disc Golf Museum at the PDGA headquarters outside of Augusta, GA, per his wishes. That’s the spirit of every disc golfer I’ve met, and they encourage every man, woman and child to join in the fun. And their numbers are growing.

“In our lifetime, there will be more disc golfers than ball golfers, which sounds goofy until you look at the math,” says semi-retired professional disc-golf player Doug Porter, who with Rob McMaken designed the disc golf course at Sandy Creek Park. “Disc golf has grown 15 percent a year for 15 years. That means you’re doubling in size every five years.”

“When we have distributors come in from out of town, we’re more likely to take them Frisbee golfing than ball golfing,” says Julia Weckback, director of marketing at Terrapin Brewery, where they have two disc-golf baskets set up during their happy hour tours. “The other day we had people who’d just been to a golf tournament, and everyone agreed that when they do their next convention, instead of offering golf, they were going to offer Frisbee golf instead because that’s what more of the crowd is into.”

Even Rockers Do It

Scott Low of Efren loves disc golf so much, he put his own course on his property. “When I moved in I was thinking, there’s like 20 acres, we could put 37 holes here if we wanted. It was right when Sandy Creek opened, and I was really into the idea that this could be a sort of private renegade course. We had a bunch of Athens Disc Golf Club tournaments out here and we have quite a few events. It’s been a good time.”

"I do like it, but I'm not very good," says player Emily Pitts. "I tend to throw way above par. I love that it gives me time to be outdoors in wooded areas, meadows, urban parks—you name it."

“It’s very good for focus and concentration, especially putting,” says Chad Beacham, who has a basket in his yard. “I’ll just focus on the basket and make some throws, and it helps to calm me and get me in a better place to continue doing whatever it was that I was doing before. It also gets me and my son Oscar outside to walk through the woods, and he likes seeing the trees and animals.” Seven-year-old Oscar adds, “I like the way that you step and throw at the baskets.”

For the non-athlete, disc golf is exercise with varying degrees of skill that doesn’t involve running, hitting or catching. You don’t need to join a team; you can grab some friends, meet players on the course, or play alone. Also, it’s cheap: a basic disc costs around $10, and most courses are free.

And note that disc golf isn’t played with a Frisbee; it’s played with a beveled-edge golf disc, of which there are three kinds: driver, mid-range and putter. There are hundreds of styles, but beginners are recommended to learn with a single mid-range and maybe a putter until you get the hang of it. Then it’s up to you. Low may take 40 discs with him, while Terrapin VP Dustin Watts says, “I play with just a driver and putter so I don’t have to carry a bag.”

The Tournaments

The other thing you hear about are the tournaments, which, true to disc golf, are not as snobby as that term suggests. They’re more like an all-day summer camp, with people from surrounding states who have become friends from previous tournaments playing each other for fun and prizes. The divisions range from fun/recreational to those for serious pros who earn points toward bigger tournaments and championships. But at the end of the day, everyone’s under the same roof, laughing and cheering each other on.

Keith Johnson, the PDGA state coordinator for the state of Georgia and organizer of that tournament, also believes in the power of positive thinking and early recruitment. He registered his daughter, “future world champion” Lorelei, with the PDGA at birth. “I hold the record for being the youngest competitor [6 years old] in a doubles tournament,” says 15-year-old Lorelei, smiling. “I didn’t contribute much.”

Perhaps she’ll drop “future” after she participates in this week’s 2012 PDGA Disc Golf World Championships in Charlotte, NC. It will be the largest disc golf tournament in the history of the sport, taking place over five days across 14 courses with 1,125 players from the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand.

It should be something to see. Watching a golf disc fly when a really good disc golfer (of which there are many in Athens) tees off is like watching a Road Runner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote stretches back in the ACME slingshot and then POOF! He’s a spot on the horizon. Last April, 16-year-old David Wiggins, Jr. took it even farther, breaking the world distance record with a throw of 836 feet. Some throws have been clocked at over 70 mph.

The Crucible

Mention Athens to disc golf players at any tournament, and they’re likely to bring up the hallowed Crucible, our world-renowned championship course that appeared only once a year for eight years on the backside of Sandy Creek Park, until Porter’s semi-retirement temporarily put it on hold.

“There are quite a few world-class players who have listed the Crucible on their top five courses in the world,” says Porter. “It’s spectacular. For a while, the push was to make that the Sandy Creek permanent course, but there are logistical problems. So, what we did is put in the course using temporary portable baskets, and we ran a tournament. The first tournament was 2002, and we did eight of them. We got to the point where the last year we had five current or future world champions, and maybe six of the 20 best players in the world at that time, come to Athens for the tournament.”

“That is a beastly course,” says Matt Buley, brewer at Copper Creek Brewing Company. “The amazing thing is watching a pro play it."

“The course has a great reputation, and Athens is a great town for it,” says Porter. “You can make that an event in this town. It’s big enough to get the resources and small enough to get the town’s attention, like the Twilight Criterium. When I said I’d semi-retire, no one stepped up to run it. So, that course hasn’t been set up in two years. But you go in and cut the grass, and clear the trees that have fallen in the past year, and you’ve got a course.”

Getting Started

Choosing the right course and approach is important for any player. The two Athens public courses are Sandy Creek Park and the beginner-friendly course at the Herman C. Michael Park in Watkinsville, nicknamed “The Herm.” Sandy Creek, built by volunteers, currently has 22 holes (eventually 27) with three tees: red (beginner), white (intermediate) and blue (long distance). It’s a favorite course of seasoned players, but even they will throw from the white tee to keep it fun and interesting. If the distance is too challenging, you can get bored before any hope of reaching the basket. The Herm is an 18-hole course with only red and blue tees.

“One of the nice things about The Herm is, a lot of the holes are shorter, so you can compete on a more even keel, because it doesn’t favor somebody who’s just good at driving,” says Buley. “It favors somebody who’s good at navigating around the trees.”

That helps level the playing field between men and women, and beginners and seasoned players, especially when playing doubles. Regardless of whether it’s a drive that sails 345 feet over the field of trees, or a putt tossed from two feet shy of the basket, the prize is the music of the jangling chains when the disc hits its target.

Most locals who play league at The Herm on Mondays are also happy to talk disc golf and give tips before they tee off at 6 p.m. And everyone agrees it takes practice, patience and not expecting to throw like a pro. The most important thing I’ve learned so far is if you cover your face after a really bad throw, it makes it harder to find the disc.

“Remember Othello, the board game?” asks Porter. “Their slogan was ‘A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.’ That’s disc golf. There’s genuine depth to it that you could play every day for 30 years and you’re still learning, you’re still working at it, it’s still a challenge.”

It’s more than throwing Frisbees at a basket.

[Thanks to Adam Schneider, Wes Campbell, Brett Porter and the Athens Disc Golf Club for their assistance with this article. For more information, go to, and Also: the East Athens Community Center offers free classes in basic skills, rules and strategies of disc golf beginning Oct. 5 for ages 5–15.]