This game puts a new spin on golf
LEICESTER, MASS. — I'm staring down the fairway, 120 yards from the hole. It's a dog-leg right, and the gentle wind is at my back. A bead of sweat runs down my brow.
Feeling the pressure, I grip my driver, rear back, and launch my shot.
It flies all of 10 yards and bounces off a tree, 60 degrees off target. I take a mulligan, but the results are no better - same 10 yards, same tree.
So Tiger Woods I'm not.
But I also haven't spent thousands of dollars on lessons and equipment, and countless hours at the driving range. And the day's cost: $5.
Welcome to disc golf (or "Frisbee golf"). It's an alternative form of golf for people without deep pockets or an attraction to the alpha-male musk of country clubs, but who nonetheless relish a ramble in the woods, the camaraderie of a day spent with friends - and a little competitiveness.
Players carry a quiver of discs, which are harder and smaller than a typical Frisbee. Like "ball" golf, the discs include "drivers" and "putters," some tweaked to veer. The object is to throw your disc into suspended baskets in as few shots as possible - or in my case, not to embarrass myself.
Disc golf is gaining in popularity, with courses in each of the 50 United States and 17 other countries. Two weeks ago, the town of Leicester (an hour's drive from Boston) was home of the Marshall Street Disc Golf Championship, a tournament that boasted a $17,500 purse - one of the 10 most lucrative disc-golf tournaments in the country. The US Disc Golf Championship in South Carolina from Oct. 13-16 has an $80,000 pot.
So is all this just a slacker's spoof of the game played on fairways across the globe, or is it really a sport?
"There's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it," says Brian Hoeniger, executive director of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), a 9,000-member group based in Appling, Ga. "You watch someone throw a golf disc 500 feet and land it under a basket, and you'll understand the athletic skill involved."
Upon arrival on the eve of the Marshall Street Championship, it's clear you're not at Augusta. Under the awning of a Winnebago, Brad Stewart gazes out along a back-nine fairway while his buddies flip burgers. Over the next couple days, galleries of spectators will huddle near their campsite to watch pro golfers compete.
"It is a little bit of a different crowd than regular golf," says Mr. Stewart, who drove up from Pennsylvania to compete in the tournament. "We're not quite so hoity-toity."
Over at the nearby "clubhouse" - the home of Jason Southwick, the course's owner - dozens of disc golfers are partying heartily. There's nary a pair of checkered pants in sight.
Mr. Southwick kindly lends me a putter and a driver from the "pro shop" in his basement. I stuff $5 into the pay box (disc golf, like its "ball" counterpart, is a gentleman's game), sign a posted liability waiver (those discs can hurt!), and step into a disconcertingly dense forest.
By the ninth hole I had made par only once and, somewhat more embarrassingly, I had actually broken a sweat. Along the way, I pick up some lingo. Throwing with "anhyzer" means tilting the disc toward you to get it to veer right. "Hyzer" involves the opposite tilt.
The sport took early root on American college campuses, often with more casual "object-hole courses" that use markings on trees or other targets rather than baskets.
"Now it's going mainstream," says Southwick, who set up his course in 1988 on 20 acres of land inherited from his father. Just a decade ago there were only seven courses in New England; now there are more than 50, he reckons.
With the influx of players has come a creeping earnestness. In organizing his tournament, Southwick says he sparred with the PDGA when it tried to insist that professional competitors wear polo shirts and be refereed by course marshals.
Between 10 and 15 professional disc golfers earn enough money to make a living, says the PDGA's Mr. Hoeniger. One of them, Avery Jenkins, came from Eugene, Ore., to play in the Marshall Street championship. Now a student, Mr. Jenkins used to attend some 50 tournaments a year, raking in $17,000 to $20,000 in purses and corporate sponsorships.
When he tells people he is a professional disc golfer, "It's not taken as serious at first," admits Jenkins, who first started playing when he was 7. "But when I tell them how much I make, they usually take it pretty real."
• Set up tee areas 200 to 400 feet from the basket. (All holes are traditionally par threes.)
• Holes can be created by picking object like trees and flagpoles to hit, or regulation baskets can be purchased. (marshallstreetdiscgolf.com)
• Make "mandatory dog legs" - obstacles that must be cleared on one side only - by placing "M's," for mandatory, with arrows. (Throw the disc on the wrong side, and it's a one-stroke penalty.)
• Decide which areas and obstacles are "OB," or out of bounds (the neighbor's yard, for example), and which are "casual" and do not incur a penalty (like dad's Pontiac).