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Disc Golf - Southern Style

By Ronald Sitton
Holoch putts
Kalim Holoch sinks Burns Park's 13th
hole during the Arkansas State Disc Golf
Brad Shows drove four hours from his West Monroe, La., home to play in the Arkansas Disc Golf State Championship, one of this year's qualifying tournaments for the Southern Nationals. Yet he didn't have to drive home after spending all day at the tournament. Members of the Arkansas Disc Golf Association (ADGA) put up out-of-town players for the weekend, something that happens at many Southern tournaments. "Most players travel on a tight budget," President Robbie Shaw says, "so it helps when you can save on the hotel fee."

   Shows is a member of "The Twin City Chain Gang," a disc golf organization started in March that already has 35 members. Shows believes people are the reason disc golf is prospering in the South. "I never met a disc golfer I didn't like," he says. "We're all out here to have a good time."

    That attitude may be unique to the South. While on the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) tour, 1997 Amateur World Champion Thor Holoch noticed Southern players take a different approach to the game. "In Minnesota it's treated more professionally, like a big-time sport. They wear collared shirts when playing," Holoch, of Pearcy, Ark. (near Hot Springs), says. "Down South, it's more casual and laid back."

   John Linton of Memphis has also noticed differences in the game. While some regions favor wide-open fairways, Southern disc golf courses are often set in wooded areas which require navigational skills. Linton is one of the more skillful players on the tour, as he's shot 52 aces since he began playing in May 1987. "Here it's more about precision. It gives everybody a fair advantage," he said. "I get more pleasure throwing 250 foot through an alley than throwing to a hole in the middle of a field."

Players' meeting
Players gather to hear ADGA Secretary Blake Fisher of N. Little Rock
(tye-dye shirt to right of telephone pole) before the Arkansas Disc
Golf State Championship begins.
    Shaw sits back and watches the Arkansas championships progress with a big smile. "This is our largest tournament ever," he says. The immaculate course boasts sponsors on almost every hole, some tee-boxes have water coolers, and three new holes were added for the tournament.

    There's more good news for this blossoming sport. Of the 90 golfers participating in the Arkansas championship, 34 are amateurs. Seven are novices. Some play for the prize — 18 sponsors contributed over $1,000 in prizes for this tournament. An "ace pot" awaits the player who scores a hole-in-one (it happens more frequently than in traditional golf); and for the novice or amateur, a $10 entry fee promises at least a free disc. But others are out for different reasons.

Southern Nationals Loom

    Invitations went out after Independence Day festivities for the 1999 Southern Nationals Tournament, to be held Labor Day Weekend in Mobile, Ala. Amateurs will play at Chickasabouge Park, while professionals will play at Cottage Hill Park. Both fields will also compete at West Mobile County Park.

    Qualifying events in 37 Southern cities have narrowed a field of almost 3,000 players to 90 amateurs and 90 professionals who will vie for the right to be called a Southern National Champion. The winners will also qualify for the 1999 United States Disc Golf Championship, to be held at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Disc Golf Championships
Southern Nationals Mobile, Ala. Sept. 4-5
U.S. Open Championship Rock Hill, S.C. Oct. 7-10

    "This year we had 51 qualifying events with approximately $5,800 to add to our Labor Day weekend championship event, plus any sponsorship money," says Terry Rester, Southern Nationals' co-founder and administrator. "We anticipate that we will likely be one of the world's top 5 richest disc golf events held in 1999."

    After the invitations are issued, players have 30 days to register. Any unfilled slots will open to other players after that time, according to Jim Orum, Southern Nationals' other co-founder and promoter. For $37, amateurs will receive a players' package including a tournament T-shirt, disc, and mini-disc.

    Professionals won't receive a players' package for their $55. They're strictly playing for the money. Orum estimates the total payout for the professionals to be from $10,000 to $11,000. The money comes from a $2 fee at all Southern Nationals-sanctioned tournaments. Though some of the money goes towards administrative fees (newsletters, internet updates, plaques for the top five players in four professional and four amateur divisions, etc.), 40 percent is paid to the champions.

   Rester and Orum came up with the idea of the Southern Nationals due to differences with the PDGA. Other tours "were not catering to or responsive to the needs and desires of disc golfers in our area," Rester says.

   Not all of the Southern National events are PDGA sanctioned; each tournament director must decide to apply for PDGA approval.

    Orum noted that the cost kept some players from traveling North during the year. So the Southern Nationals were born, with tour sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

   "(The tour) has created a unity among disc golfers in our area who now have a pro tour that puts the money collected in our qualifing events directly back into the end-of-year championship for all to shoot at," Rester says. "We feel that the Southern National tour has created an air of excitement in the South."

[Editor's note: For more info, e-mail Terry Rester.]
    "Some people like the competition. You get the ego involved if you win the state championship," Shaw says. "But a lot do it for the camaraderie. Some don't care if they do well; they just play their best and get to hang out with their friends."

    Friends bring out most newcomers, but it's the game that keeps them coming back. "It's a lot of fun and such a challenge that you want to come back and do better the next time," says Kris Seymore of North Little Rock. "Most people fall line, sinker and hook after that first time."

    Lori Mezger of North Little Rock walked one round with a friend, and then played for a year with one disc before deciding to invest more money into it. Now she's hooked, even though fewer women play in Arkansas compared to Oklahoma and Tennessee.

    "I'm one of a few competitive female players," Mezger says. "There are a few women who play casually, but few that compete. Playing with the guys makes me play better."

    If the competition makes the sport addictive for some, one long drive or putt feeds the addiction. "When a guy makes an 80-foot shot, he's screaming!" Shaw says. "That'll keep 'em coming back."

Similar to Golf

    Disc golf is similar to "ball" golf. Players try completing a round of holes in the fewest strokes (throws) possible. A hole is completed when the player gets the disc into the basket. Putts landing on top of the basket are not considered successful. Each hole is par three in competition, though different pars are used (depending on distance) in recreational play.

    But differences exist. The most obvious is players throw a Frisbee-like disc instead of swinging a club at a ball. Most throws are made by levelly pulling the disc across the torso and releasing it with a whip-like motion. This technique improves distances for the beginner. "If you've got long limbs it really helps," Shaw says. A variety of other shots are used for putting and getting out of tight spots on the course.

    Players choose from a variety of beveled-edged discs, which vary in design (by weight, thickness and edges) to travel different directions and distances. Unlike balls, some are made to drop to the left or right, while others fly best in head winds. A "driver" can travel a few hundred feet, while a pliant "putter" will grab the chains. Players can choose from more than 70 disc types that cost from $7 to $16.

    Instead of lugging a 40-pound golf bag around, some players carry their discs in hand, while others use a shoulder- or holster-style tote bag. Even full, these often weigh less than 10 pounds. Players fill their tote bags with up to 12 discs, a towel for wiping off dirt or water, a water bottle, and three-inch-wide plastic "mini-discs" (instead of wooden tees) for marking the landing site of a throw. Yet for the fully pampered, carts are made to carry a mulitude of discs.

Less Time and Money

    An 18-hole round of disc golf takes approximately one hour to complete, where traditional golf games can last up to five hours depending on how many people crowd the course. In other sports, players have to wait until the court or field clears before they're allowed to play. Yet in disc golf, people can play by themselves or with friends and still get on a course at any given time, making it ideal, according to Memphis Disc Golf Club president Jeff Kleminsky, for those with a premium on time.

    "In most sports you're waiting for field time," Kleminsky says. "Everything is full due to limited space. You can get 100 people on the (disc golf) course, it costs less to put in than a ballfield or court, and there's no limit on the age of the players."

    As in "ball" golf, most courses have the traditional 18 holes, but nine- and 27-hole courses exist. The majority of disc golf courses are free where traditional golfers must pay greens fees.

Rules of the Game

   Instead of a cup in the green, the game has "pole holes" — three-to-five-foot-tall metal polls with attached, two-foot circular wire baskets under more than 20 hanging chains which "catch" the disk and guide it into the basket.     The player with the fewest strokes on the previous hole tees-off first. Players drive from the tee box — often cement slabs directed at the basket, but sometimes only a cleared area with markings. Double tees are provided at some courses, with longer tee-shots providing experts a harder challenge. As a matter of courtesy, most players are silent during tee-off and putts.

    After teeing off, the player furthest from the hole throws the first up-shot. Players throw from behind the spot where the first disc landed. Running starts before the throw are allowed approximately 50 feet from the basket. Any closer, and the throw must be made with the foot closest to the hole on the spot where the disc landed.

    The distance from tee-box to hole can range from 150 to more than 1,000 feet. Each hole has areas considered out-of-bounds (usually pavillions, roads or water hazards, such as creeks or ponds). If a stroke leaves the field of play, the next stroke is played from the point where the disc went out, with a one-stroke penalty. Other hazards include unwary park users and trees clogging the fairways. Mulligans are negotiable.

1998 PDGA Member Survey Statistics
3-5 million people have played disc golf
50-75,000 regular players
72% of disc golf players are between 21 and 40 years old
79% have either a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree
93% Male
7% Female
60% Amateurs
40% Pros
67% own computer

Neighborly Sport

    On any given afternoon, there are a variety of age groups represented on the disc golf course. Families play together, and it's not uncommon to see a stroller sitting next to a tee-box as someone hurls a disc down the fairway. Scott Davis of Memphis, the 1998 Arkansas State Disc Golf Champion, has also seen the older generation embrace the game. "Plenty of senior citizens play with their grandkids," he says. "It's a sport for all ages."

    An added incentive for many is the low-impact cardiovascular exercise provided by walking the course and throwing the disc. "A lot of people enjoy throwing a frisbee," says Bill Trousdale, a former PDGA mid-region representative. "It's relaxing. It's nice to get out in the park and commune with nature. It's a good stress reliever after work to bang a few trees. It's a good competitive sport, but you don't bleed."

    Thirteen-year-old Spencer Trousdale is playing in his first tournament though he's been playing since he was a toddler with his dad, Bill. He only knows of one other schoolmate who plays disc golf, but he's hooked on the game.

    "A lot of people, especially teenagers, haven't heard of disc golf, or have heard of it and think it's a wussy sport, but it's not," Spencer says. "It takes a lot more skill to play disc golf than to play football."

Young teeing off
Little Rock's Will Young tees off as Okla-
homa City's Daryl Johnson watches. John-
son shot a best-of-tournament 112 on the
21-hole course.

Accidents Happen

    Some minor injuries occur: sore arms from throwing too hard, calloused fingers from disc edges, and busted bark on trees in the middle of the fairway. Once in a blue moon, the injuries are worse. Chris Dentry broke his leg and twisted his ankle at a Memphis tournament when he stepped off the tee pad wrong.

    Kleminsky stopped playing to take Dentry to the hospital. The Arkansas Disc Golf Association named their sportsmanship trophy after him for his actions. Though Dentry was hurt, it hasn't deterred him. "It was a freak accident," Dentry says. "It's not going to stop me from continuing (to play disc golf)."

Boon for Parks

   Disc golf courses are becoming a staple in many Southern parks. Mississippi has installed 13 disc golf courses in their state parks within the last two years, after initially installing a 9-hole course at Hattiesberg's Paul B. Johnson State Park in 1997. Once people began showing up to play, the course was expanded to 18 holes.

Disc Golf Lingo
PuttingThrowing into a basket
Tee-off/DriveFirst throw towards basket
Hyzer/HookDisc travels off-course in opposite direction of throwing hand (to the left if thrown by right-hander)
Anhyzer/SliceDisc travels off-course in direction of throwing hand
"Dialing it in"Throwing for distance
"Chain-suck"Catching feature of basket chains
"Niced ya"Jinxing shot with compliment as it flies
Turbo-puttPutting disc with two fingers inside the rim, two out
ForehandSidearm throw
TomahawkOverhead throw
RollerThrown disk lands on rim and rolls to target
   That year, disc golf was added as an event at the park's annual "Icebowl." To the surprise of Southern Nationals' co-founder Jim Orum, 141 people showed up for the tournament. "We were just totally shocked," he says. "Two more (Mississippi) parks ordered 18 holes that next Monday."

   Orum's shock is understandable. When Terry Rester and Orum began running Mobile's Halloween Howler in 1988, 25 people came to the tournament. Yet this year's 12th version of the same event brought 161 people who played in nasty weather.

   Tournaments in the winter months bring people into the parks during the off-season and help parks book cabins. "It's a financial bonanza to them," Shaw says. "It doesn't cost much to put disc golf in.

   An 18-hole disc golf course costs less ($10,000) than one lighted tennis court ($20,000) or a skate board track ($50,000), and more people play on it. Maintenance costs are minimal. The steel baskets are rugged, and most courses require only an occasional mowing. Some parks provide a pro shop selling golfing discs, bags and T-shirts - an incentive for parks facing budget cuts.

Disc Golf History
1949Californian Fred Morrison invents the "Pluto Platter"
1957Morrison sells rights to toy manufacturer Wham-O, which renamed it the "Frisbee" after observing Yale University students playing catch with aluminum pie pans from the Frisbie Pie Company.
Early 1960sEd Headrick of Wham-O develops a professional model Frisbee and organizes the International Frisbee Association (IFA).
1974First metal baskets introduced in Southern California
1976Three disc golf courses exist in the U.S.
1991Wham-O donates more than 20,000 Frisbee discs to Operation Desert Shield
1996Texas becomes first state with 50 disc golf courses
1999850+ disc golf courses worldwide; 700 in the U.S. alone.
   Another benefit for park systems is a decrease in vandalism. As more patrons play Burns Park, there have been fewer problems with broken tee signs or litter. "It keeps people in the park," Trousdale says. People aren't as inclined to commit deviant acts."

Disc-Time Anytime

    Most professional disc players enjoy taking time to explain the game and help newcomers with tips on driving and putting. After such a session, many amateurs are ready to compete. However, you don't have to play in a tournament to get out and play.

   "Size doesn't matter. Age doesn't matter," says Orum.

   Nor does gender, as Lori Mezger will tell you. "We don't exclude anybody, anybody can play," she says.

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