Shooting for a Pole-In-One in Disc Golf

[Summer Guide] The fast-growing sport has several homes in OC

Golf is in its name, drivers and putters are used, the targets are called holes, and score is kept by the same par system as golf.

But, really, disc golf is nothing like golf. Instead of using a club to knock a ball into a hole in the ground, you toss a disc through the air toward a basket. Length is measured in feet, not yards. Comely vixens driving beverage carts are nowhere to be seen.

But as a rank beginner, I can absolutely attest that disc golf shares one great similarity with the grand ol’ Scottish game: It’s hard!

My inaugural nine holes on Huntington Beach Central Park’s disc golf course one afternoon last month shared uncomfortable similarities with any nine holes I’d play on a traditional golf course: Every tee shot (or throw, in this case) was gobbled up by trees or thick brush; I was afflicted with a terrible hook punctuated by an equally terrible slice; my discs rarely spun or glided, merely wobbled and plunged like wounded ducks; my average carry off the tee was maybe 20 feet; and when it came to putting, I developed a serious case of the yips.

I “scored” a 6 on the first par-3 hole. I stopped keeping score after that. Just like a normal golf game.

Yet the experience, while frustrating and maddening—because, really, how hard is it to throw a small Frisbee?—didn’t lead me to write off the sport as useless or pointless. I played alongside two young men who are living proof that disc golf isn’t just a hobby to while away a couple of hours. It’s a serious sporting endeavor, something its practitioners consider anything but a niche recreational pastime.

Paul McBeth, a 19-year-old Huntington Beach resident, is the world’s 35th-ranked disc golfer (as of 2008), and his buddy Kyle Eckman, 22, works at the HB course.

In their hands, the discs became seamlessly gliding, hand-hurled missiles possessed of startling speed. Both made the discs bend to the left or right, dance high into the air or spin inches above the ground. Every throw was a thing of aerodynamic beauty.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Kyle, after one of my early errant tosses. “Your first time on the course you’re basically just trying to see what it looks like.”

What it looks like is a park, which makes sense, since it’s set in a park. The 18-hole, par-54, 5,918-foot Huntington Beach course was built in 1977, making it one of the oldest disc golf courses in the state. The longest hole is 420 feet, the shortest 230. There are doglegs, elevation changes and plenty of trees to deflect errant tosses.

Huntington Beach’s disc-golf course is one of 80 in California. Nearby courses include El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach, La Mirada Regional Park (considered to be the prettiest OC disc course), Anaheim’s Twila Reid Park, Liberty Park in Cerritos, and Deerfield Park in Irvine.

The game attracts all ages and skill levels. But if you’ve written it off as a trifle reserved for stoners, think again: The Professional Disc Golf Association has more than 40,000 members. People compete and get paid. Sure, the money’s not quite up to the PGA Tour standards (McBeth earned $10,000 last year), but its future is bright.

“It’s absolutely growing,” McBeth said. “Every day, it seems, there are more people playing and more courses opening—not just here but all over the country.”

Eckman estimates between 100 and 150 pay the $1 fee to play his course every weekday, with numbers surpassing 200 on weekends, when it’s $2 (rental discs are available).

“It’s really big among younger people, like high school and earlier, and we’re seeing more kids who are really good, which elevates the competition,” he said. “We’re not like golf or basketball or baseball yet. But give us a couple of years.”

Though disc golfers bristle whenever someone calls it Frisbee golf (the discs are smaller, denser, and equipped with much harder and sharper rims than your typical Frisbee), there is an obvious connection: The pivotal force behind its creation as a legitimate sport was Ed Headrick, a Pasadena native who was also instrumental in moving Frisbees from the beach and into the competitive world.

In 1966, while working for WHAM-O, Headrick adapted the aerodynamics of the Pluto Platter, the first plastic flying disc, invented as a UFO flying toy in 1948 by Fred Morrison. Headrick’s disc, which would soon be known as the Frisbee, was far easier to throw and control than the Pluto Platter, and it would launch a national craze.

Headrick founded the International Frisbee Association, established the Junior Frisbee Championship and organized the World Frisbee Championship.

In 1975, after watching so many people try to create Frisbee-oriented games—usually consisting of keeping track of how many tosses it took to hit a tree, water fountains or unsuspecting passers-by, Headrick developed the Disc Pole Hole, a catching device consisting of chains hanging in a parabolic shape over an upward-opening basket.

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