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.

Now, there was a suitable target for the discs, and, borrowing liberally from the terminology of golf, disc golf was born. In 1975, Headrick designed the first disc-golf course in Pasadena’s Oak Grove Park and founded the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).

Over the years, the chain basket has evolved a bit—and the discs have transformed into intricately designed pieces of plastic that vary in weight, composition, spin and glide angle. Some fade to the left or right. Drivers fly the fastest and farthest, midrangers have the best blend of control and speed, and putters are used for close-distance shots.

McBeth tossed discs for the hell of it for a couple of years before heading out to the course one day and finding “everything just clicked. It was weird. The game suddenly came really easily to me.”

His game caught the attention of Innova Golf Discs, a company out of Rancho Cucamonga, which asked to sponsor him. He turned professional shortly after, in early 2007.

He has been ranked as high as eighth in the world and played the U.S. Championships twice (finishing 11th in 2008 and 35th in 2009) and the World Championships twice (finishing 17th in 2008 and 35th in 2009).

His career-high low score is 21 under par on a 27-hole course, and he’s nailed 20 aces so far, his longest a 514-foot shot at a course in Palm Desert.

And he has no doubt that the game will only continue to grow.

“When I signed up for the PDGA in 2005, I was around [player] No. 27,000,” he said. “Now it’s up to 40,000. I think that the more people are exposed to it and realize that it’s a sport that any average person can play and how inexpensive it is, it’ll grow even more.”

Another thing in disc golf’s favor: exercise. While it’s not particularly strenuous tossing a disc 50 to 75 times (most of the toll is on the shoulder and sides), you’re walking about a mile and a half during a typical 90-minute round at Huntington Beach’s course.

“People my parents’ age don’t necessarily get it right away, but younger people really do,” McBeth said. “They realize how fun it is and how much exercise they can get from playing.”

Though old fogies may not embrace it as readily, it truly is a sport for all ages. At the world championships last year in Kansas City, McBeth said the record was broken for youngest player (6) and oldest (86).

At the moment, no disc golfer this side of 12-time world champion Ken Climo, who has his own line of discs, is making enough money in the sport to draw a living wage. Most professional tournaments pay the winner around $750, with purses driven by competitors’ entry fees.

But McBeth and Eckman think it’s just a matter of time.

“Last year, ESPN was sounding really serious about televising a couple of events,” Eckman said. “Once that happens, it could explode.”

Huntington Beach Central Park, 18000 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. Professional Disc Golf Association, www.pdga.com.

 

This article appeared in print as "Pole-In-One? OC is home to several courses for the growing sport of disc golf."

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