A key to disc golf’s unique appeal: wilderness

I just checked out PDGA’s homepage to check in on the coverage of this year’s coverage of the World Championships in Indiana. Since we’re hosting the event next year in Santa Cruz/Monterey, it seemed like a sensible idea.

Anyway, seeing the pictures of the courses being played in Indiana, I’m reminded of one of the numerous aspects of disc golf – in my experience, based in Northern California – I’ve always thought sets disc golf apart from its ancient Scottish ancestor (ball golf). Namely, nature. Wilderness. The Wild.

Most people unfamiliar with our sport picture someone in a wide open grassy area throwing a Frisbee, walking to it, picking it up, and throwing it again. This is for two reasons: One, they think golf, and they picture a typical golf course, with landscaped terrain long ago conquered by man. Second, most people that accidentally witness our sport do so at a course that is situated in a park setting. They see people throwing discs that soar into the empty sky then land harmlessly on flat, grassy turf. Again, and again, and again.

When disc golf is played in such a setting, it’s still enjoyable, and it’s pleasant. But since controlling a thrown disc is easier to master than controlling a small dimpled ball by hitting with various clubs, the challenge after awhile becomes somewhat bland. This distinction is particularly apparent to me as I learned the game on Nor Cal courses which are mostly set in undeveloped open spaces. In such locations, the sport is:

  • More challenging to score well, with rougher rough, little or no soft grass, more trees, and drastic elevation changes
  • Much more strenuous physical and mental exercise
  • Showcased as a different – even is some ways superior – version of golf, as opposed to a weak imitation

Based on this argument, the 2011 Pro Worlds on the central coast of California promises to be very interesting. Many players will get a week-long dose of an aspect of disc golf which they have only glimpsed to this point. And those looking in from the outside will see that in its best possible setting disc golf is part golf, part nature hike, and part endurance event- with the roots of Frisbee culture adding a license to think and play outside-the-box.

When it’s played in a park setting, disc golf simply comes off as a cheap imitation of a great sport, rather than the next evolutionary step of a great sport. When it’s played in ‘the wild’ and players are forced to tromp through overgrowth and get creative to navigate wooded fairways, the uniqueness of disc golf comes through. For comparison, think about why mountain biking appeals to people that never would have shown an interest in riding a bike on flat concrete roads for entertainment and exercise.

Disc golf as a model for economoic recovery

One of the results of California’s ongoing budget crisis was the threat last year of all state parks closing for the foreseeable future. Luckily the move was eventually exposed as a bluff by the governor, and nearly all parks remain open. But when it was still a possibility and the neighborhood groups were mobilizing to protest, a thought occurred to me:

“If the affected local communities were like disc golfers they’d get organized and figure out a way, through volunteerism and donated resources, to keep their parks open. If they approached the situation the way disc golfers have for decades, they’d probably even find a way to improve their parks.”

Think about it. Nearly all the disc golf courses being used by the public today – especially those in California – are the result of dogged lobbying efforts, countless hours of manual labor, and thousands of dollars of donated, non-taxpayer money. Disc golfers in California don’t look to the state, county or town when they want a new course in their area. Instead, they present an arrangement that should become even more attractive to local governments than it already is: Give us permission to install a course at our desired location, and we’ll pay for it, build it, and maintain it at no cost to the city/county/state.

When a municipality strained to the limit for resources hears an offer like this – especially now – it has a hard time turning it down. So maybe other interest groups should follow this example (and maybe they do, and I’m just unaware of other instances.) Come to think of it, parents of students that want to participate in sports, band, etc., have been asked to pony up for years.

Anniversary of the Hambrick Day Ace

I’m not really a ‘rare’ disc collector. My home office has more than 30 discs on the wall (plus the single framed Marty Hapner created Masters Cup composition-of-many-years’ stamps disc remaining in my house), but nearly all of them are really valuable only to me. There are the discs from tournaments I’ve won, tournaments that stick out from other reasons, and there are a few ace discs. I haven’t meticulously preserved all my aces discs, though, because – as I’ve said before – most of my aces have been accidents, when it comes right down to it. I was trying to nestle it up close for a birdie . . . and . . . ching! A nice surprise. Sound familiar?

But I do have one ace disc that might be more than an accident, and that disc caught my eye just now. Stan my go-to man when I want to know potential collector value of a disc, tells me it’s maybe worth $40-$50 because it’s an 8-time KC Pro Cheetah in almost mint condition. But probably not, because in Sharpie on the front is written “Ace!, Hole #8, 8/14/97, 3:40 PM, and on the back, in Sharpie also, are the signatures of my playing partners that day- Brad Schick, M. Schick (his Dad), Brian Schick (his brother), and ‘DJ,’ a friend of theirs.

I was taking advantage of a business trip to play in an Ohio supertour (Hall of Chains Classic) on my way to the Am Worlds in Wisconsin, and decided to stop by and play the famous Hoover Dam course. As it turns out, on that day a memorial was being installed next to a tree planted a year earlier to honor the memory of Brent Hambrick. For those that didn’t discover disc golf until recently, Brent was the local legendary driving force of the sport’s growth before being cut down by cancer. There was even a camera grew from a local TV station setting up to cover the dedication of the memorial as we approached the tee.

As it also turns out, the Schick’s and DJ were close friend of Brent’s, and they grew quiet as we prepared to tee off. When it was my turn, I asked where the basket was since it was blind from the tee. They informed me that I wanted to throw around 250 feet up the wide-open, then cut the disc to the right, down into a protected green. I selected the aforementioned Cheetah, let fly based solely on their description, and heard the unmistakable sound of agitated chains. The guys got almost tearful rather than the usual yelling and high-fives, which is understandable given their connection to Brent Hambrick and the fact that the memorial was being dedicated that day. But get this:

  • The hole, #8, was well-known to be Brent’s favorite on the course
  • My home course is DeLaveaga, well-known to be his favorite course. The Masters Cup was also his favorite tournament. He traveled from Ohio numerous times to participate
  • I am left-handed, and Brent was left handed
  • The Cheetah I threw had never been thrown before, by me (I had never even thrown ANY Cheetah before) or anyone else. In fact, that trip from my (and Maybe Brent’s) hand to the basket was the only flight it would ever make.

Add those things together, and it’s no wonder my group reacted the way it did. Yes, I threw a disc I had never thrown before on a hole I had never played to a basket I couldn’t see . . . but it was no ‘accidental’ ace.

The future of Professional Disc Golf

Professional disc golf has not ‘turned a corner,’ and it certainly hasn’t hit the mainstream. The sport is more popular than ever, and growing at the same steady pace it has been growing at for more than a decade. But the cash to be won by playing professionally – a bottom line if ever there was one – hasn’t changed much at all during that same span.

I’ve gone on record before with my opinion that disc golf needs to be exponentially bigger as a recreational sport before it’ll be anywhere near a spectator sport, or something that makes economic sense to broadcast on TV. But really, all it takes is one forward-thinking corporate sponsor to jump-start the whole thing. If and when that happens, this is how I see true ‘professional’ disc golf’ taking shape:

  • A ‘World Tour,’ (as opposed to the current National Tour) will be sponsored and promoted by a corporate entity that is able to take it to the next level. Each event will have a purse of 100k and a first prize of more than 10K.
  • This World Tour will have the money to write its own rules, so to speak, and the PDGA will happily accommodate it to finally break throw to what it sees as the big-time.
  • As opposed to all current NT events (with the exception of the USDGC), participation is limited to the top-rated touring pros, and regional qualifiers
  • These regional qualifiers will consist of what are now A and B tier PDGA events, so nothing really has to change with the majority of the events going on already. The serious players will just have more to play for now

disc selection

Why do most players buy and throw the discs they do?

Most often for the wrong reasons, which include:

  • They heard it’s the latest ‘fastest or farthest’ disc on the planet and don’t want to be at a disadvantage by not having it in their bag
  • They’ve seen someone whose game they admire or aspire to throw it in a similar situation
  • They subscribe to the theory that more disc choices in ones bag is better (which can be true, if you actually know what each disc does)
  • Packaging- which can mean the name of the disc, the pattern (tie-dye), or even the color

So what are the right reasons? For me it all comes down to practicality, and a realistic assessment of ones own game.

  • Living in Santa Cruz and playing courses that are wooded and mountainous, I always prefer brightly and unnaturally colored discs. Green, black, and multi-colored discs should be avoided at all costs- at least anywhere a disc might get lost.
  • If you’re not able to generate significant arm speed in general or on a particular shot, don’t throw anything fast and overstable. It’s much better to throw something that will glide to the target rather than being forced and cajoled.
  • You’ve probably heard it before, but the best strategy is to get a disc like a Roc or Buzz and throw it exclusively until you can get it to fly straight, turn over, and hyzer with good consistency. After that, you’ll be able better assess which other discs to add to your bag, and you’ll know how to adjust your form to get the most out of each.