Playing 'folf' near bears and elk

Disc golf, a growing sport that uses Frisbees instead of balls, is giving ski resorts a summer clientele.

Even Tiger Woods has never encountered a doozie of a front nine quite like this: Reaching the first tee requires a gondola ride.

The second fairway plunges through a wildflower-covered slope that in winter is a downhill-ski run. The next few holes dogleg toward a creek where moose and elk hang out. The remaining links navigate a meadow that has been visited by grizzly bears. And, when in the rough, golfers have to contend with a thick forest rather than long grass.

Besides being required to make long whirling shots in terrain best suited for mountain goats, golfers here are advised to lace on a pair of hiking boots and load their backpacks with binoculars, a wildlife field guide, and a can of pepper spray.

Welcome to the wild West's latest "folf course."

Part of the trend toward outdoor destinations for the adventurous, this "country club" was designed for flying discs, not tiny white balls, and it's a new feature this year at the Big Sky Resort in southwest Montana.

Disc golf, a modern outgrowth of the Frisbee and a cousin of the popular team game "ultimate," is one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the US. Player numbers are also swelling in Canada, England, Australia, Japan, and Sweden, where the game receives government funding.

"The sport has grown geometrically...," says Rick Bays, who lives in San Diego and operates a web page, www.discgolfonline.com, that features a virtual pro shop and a voluminous listing of public courses.

Born on a whim in 1975, disc golf, which uses baskets instead of cups on greens, boasted 250 official courses in 1985. Today, the number is closer to 1,200, most of them in the US. With specially engineered improvements on the legendary Wham-O saucer, players can choose from a variety of disc sizes, weights, and curvatures for 600-foot "drives" or short chip shots.

The sport is now a multimillion-dollar industry with its own world championship and professional tour, which this year offers a purse of more than $800,000. Mavens of the game hope it will become a demonstration sport at a future Olympics.

Mr. Bays says disc golf has become a passion for him. "I'm a tactile person and enjoy having this little thing in my hand that you try to move around obstacles. One shot and you're hooked for life," he says. "Plus, you can get 18 holes completed in 90 minutes."

The sport's popularity stems from economic reasons as well. Discs are inexpensive and public parks are free for players. Compared with regular golf, in which greens fees begin at $50 and waiting lists for tee times can be long, disc golf is a convenient bargain, says Brian Hoeniger, administrator of the Professional Disc Golf Association in Toronto.

According to the PDGA, about 250,000 diehard enthusiasts play at least once a month, and between 4 million and 6 million others worldwide have played at some point in their lives. Among the primary age demographic of 25 to 44, Mr. Hoeniger adds, 93 percent of the players are men.

More than 90 percent of courses lie in public parks - Austin, Texas has at least 13 such courses - but an expanding "pay to play" niche is occurring on private lands, particularly downhill and cross-country ski areas whose slopes would ordinarily lie idle during the summer. And in Wisconsin, California, and Texas, a handful of entrepreneurs have developed links aimed at drawing vacationing "folfers."

Big Sky is just the latest resort to embrace the surging interest. Its 18-hole course was designed by a ski patrolman and is arguably the most dramatic in the country, next to the public course at the bottom of Mount Hood, Ore.

"It's a pretty unique course that will take your breath away," says Big Sky Resort spokesman Dax Schieffer, who set out with a few friends last week to play the bottom nine holes - several of the higher elevation fairways were still covered in snow.

Mr. Schieffer says his company offers an incentive to the hardy. For those who want to hike the three miles uphill to reach the first tee, which offers a commanding view of the northern Rockies, there's no charge for playing. Most, however, take the scenic gondola that offers a round-trip ride for $13.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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