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Better than ball golf

Beautiful courses, cool equipment and low prices - what's not to love?

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002


It's a Frisbee, I thought, just heave it.

It wasn't really a Frisbee, though. A few seconds in my hands should have told me that. My "XL" brand "extra-long driver" was smaller, harder and more UFO-ish than the typical Frisbee you toss around at the beach. It looked like it would explode from my hands and find the target alone with just a little urging.

The target was 348 feet away, a chain basket perched atop a metal pole in a clearing at the end of a long tunnel of trees.

Jason Putney, disc golf enthusiast, and on this day an instructor, went first so the uninitiated could see how it was done. His throw off the tee box zoomed about 20 feet out of his hand and into the side of a tree. Was he being nice, or was this harder than it looked?

Having now spent seven minutes on the course at the Dunnellon Airport, I let the XL fly. The first 1.6 seconds were bliss. The XL was straight and true. Then it peeled left like a runaway Crisco lid, thumped into the tree and fell within feet of Putney's disc.

* * *

Disc golf emerged as a growing participation sport in the 1970s when a national organizing body -- the Professional Disc Golf Association -- was created to promote the sport and the opening of courses across North America.

The premise of disc golf is just like traditional golf, ball golf, as the disc enthusiasts say.

Begin at the tee box and attempt to put a disc into the "Pole Hole" in the fewest amount of throws possible. Holes are shorter than in ball golf and are measured in feet -- most are in the 150-450 range -- and all are considered par-3s.

The main difference is price. Greens fees can run from dozens to hundreds of dollars, but most disc courses are free.

Like ball golf, specialization plays a large part in the game. One single disc is not used for an entire hole. There are drivers -- like the traitor XL -- mid-range discs whose specialty is rolling on their hard edge toward the target and floppier discs used for putting. You can't beat the cost. A decent five-disc starter set runs from $30 to 45, though most players say you only need three.

* * *

Doug Smith's disc collection was impressive. A touring pro and the second-ranked player in the state in his class, Smith, an electrical contractor and Dunnellon resident, had ambled by for a quick nine holes.

Twenty or more colorful discs, looking a lot like Lifesavers, were stuffed into his black disc bag, giving him options in any sort of weather. Windy, rainy? Go with the heavier discs. Warm and clear? Stick with the old standbys.

Smith, the Marion/Citrus Flying Disc club champion, knew what he was doing. Chatting with the group -- which included Shannon Swann, her daughter, Lacie, and dog, Buffy -- he coerced his discs around corners on the wooded portion of the course and drilled putts.

He also took a moment to espouse the virtues of the sport, citing its growing popularity and the number of top-ranked players in Florida, as we cut between some trees for the third hole.

One piece of advice helped me immediately: Snap the towel and follow through. The baby-blue Stratus mid-range disc stayed low under some branches and set me up for a sweet, sweet 5. Yes, 2-over for the hole but better than I had been doing generally.

* * *

Part of the fun of disc golf is the casualness. Our group was dressed for anything from the pool to yardwork. Most players eventually end up slogging through the brush for an errant disc -- and at Dunnellon, through massive spider webs. The greasy but mandatory layer of Borneo-strength bug spray had trail grit Shake-and-Baked to my legs.

The Marion/Citrus Flying Disc Club and Putney established the 50-acre Dunnellon course in 1995 and perform regular maintenance. Marion County is responsible for the large grassy areas that make up the back nine near the airport's entrance. The course is clean and the rules are simple.

"You just can't beat it for a family activity," said Putney, whose booming laugh helped underscore the fun he was having. Dogs can come along, too, and Buffy seemed to enjoy chasing the discs.

She resisted picking any up, although I would have welcomed some assistance on the disaster I threw off the sixth tee box. Putney had suggested the sidearm shot I had used to a degree of not-quite-success earlier, but this one zipped into a thick stand of trees to the left.

"Watch out for the wild boar in there," Smith joked.

I wasn't so concerned about that. I assumed the spiders had eaten them all.

* * *

The group skipped over to the 17th and 18th holes -- there's an extra hole in Dunnellon -- and the walk got me into the same trouble I get into in ball golf.

My best shot of the day had come a few shots ago; I kept my wrist angle true and the disc low to lay up with a four. But I could not shake a nagging thought as I stared out at 18: It's really far to the target, I thought, so try to throw it really hard.

The shot went to pot immediately. I overthrew into a stiff breeze, the nose of the disc went straight up and the wind got under it, sending it curling halfway back to me.

Smith, Putney and Swann were waiting for me by the pole hole as I limped in with a six.

The Gran Canyon course outside Brooksville was our original destination, but the Dunnellon course proved to be a better starting point. As a site for Florida professional tournaments, the Gran Canyon's unforgiving topography would have required repelling gear for me to retrieve errant shots. And there, we would have missed out on the infectious enthusiasm of our guides.

"It's a disease, man," Smith said. "It's worse than ball golf. Once you start playing, it's contagious. The whole family starts playing and the next thing you know, you're looking in the paper looking for a tournament to play in."

I wasn't quite ready for that.

Putney, perhaps in an effort to make me feel better about my first-time performance, said he shot worse than a 100 his first time out. My 25-over 52 proved I was no prodigy or that this sport was harder than it seemed.

That, too, was part of the allure.

What Is Disc Golf?

Disc golf is played much like traditional golf, but with flying discs instead of balls and clubs. The object is to complete each hole with the fewest number of tosses. A golf disc is thrown from a tee area to a target, which most commonly is a pole with an elevated chain basket.

Who Can Play?

Disc golf can be enjoyed by anyone at any age. The Professional Disc Golf Association, the sport's governing body, claims a roll of 14,000 members internationally. Professional and amateur tournaments are played throughout the state.

Equipment Costs

Driver, mid and putter discs, which differ in weight and flight characteristics, are used depending on the situation. A decent starter set, which includes each of the three types, can cost from $35-60. There are many online vendors. Discs can be as individual as the participants, from plain white to tie-dyed.

Places To Play

From pdga.com, "Many city parks have golf courses already set up. Most are free to play as often as you like. Disc golfers who do not have the benefit of a permanent disc golf facility in their area often "make up' courses in nearby parks and green-spaces."

Survival Tips

1. *Begin throwing motion by pushing the disc off your chest.

2. If the wind is blowing toward you, throw the disc lower and harder because the wind will lift it. Throw higher and with less force if the wind is behind you.

3. Beginners should use lighter discs. Be aware of your wrist angles.

4. Snap the towel and follow through.

5. Bring bug repellent.

Other Local Courses

Dunnellon Airport. Contact: Jason Putney, (352) 237-8519

Festival Park (Orlando). Contact: Bob Lewis (407) 295-8713

Tocobaga Disc Golf Course. (St. Petersburg) Contact: Brad Augsburger (727) 328-0886

Web Sites

www.pdga.com, www.disczilla.com, www.discgolf.com, www.discgolfer.com, www.discrevolution.com, www.discgolferusa.com, www.flyingobjects.org, www.dolf.com, www.discsports.com, and www.tbdsc.com.

-- Compiled by Brant James and Keith Niebuhr.

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