Disc Golf - Southern Style
By Ronald Sitton
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."
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.
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 GolfDisc 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 MoneyAn 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 GameInstead 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.
Neighborly SportOn 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."
Accidents HappenSome 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 ParksDisc 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.
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-Time AnytimeMost 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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Copyright © The Southerner 1999.