Different Strokes

Disc golf shares much with that other 18-hole sport—except, of course, the dress code, the expense, and the exclusive clubs. In fact, there are no clubs at all.

Steve Brinster, a West ­Milford native, is one of the top 15 players worldwide. Here, he putts at the 2007 U.S. Disc Golf Championship.
Photo by Innova Disc Golf.

In the eighth hole, Jeff Mahler reaches into his bag and pulls out a driver. He steps up to the tee and scopes out his target in the distance, scratching his head over whether to go through the trees or around them. He decides, takes two swift steps, reaches back, and jerks his arm across his chest sharply as if starting a lawnmower. A small red disc leaves his hand and arcs tightly around the tree trunks, sailing nearly 300 feet before dropping steps from the hole. “Good shot,” says a member of his foursome.

It’s a great afternoon for disc golf, a sport much like golf—but with a decidedly different vibe. The object of the game is to get your disc from the tee into the hole with the fewest strokes (or throws), eighteen times. Holes range in distance from 150 to 900 feet (pars range mostly from three to six), and some pros can send discs soaring up to 600 feet in one skilled thrust.

As in golf, different shots call for different equipment. Sleeker, more aerodynamic driver discs are made for beginning the journey, while rounder-edged mid-range and putter discs complete it. The discs are heavier and more specialized than backyard Frisbees (disc golfers call those lids) and can be hurled the usual backhanded way, forehanded, or thumbed vertically.

As for the disc-golf hole, it’s actually a 4-foot-tall pole supporting a chain basket with a large tray beneath it. The chains stop the disc and deposit it into the tray with a satisfying ka-ching. It’s the favorite noise of Mahler, a 45-year-old theatrical-scene-shop proprietor, and the rest of the New Jersey Disc Devils, who gather Tuesday evenings for mixed doubles on the course at the Rutgers Douglass campus in New Brunswick.

The Rutgers course is one of fourteen in New Jersey. Because courses are playable year-round, Jersey disc golfers must also negotiate snow, rain, and seasonal foliage, in addition to trees, signposts, lampposts, and the occasional passerby. (On 12, Mahler deftly maneuvered around a landscaper cutting the grass in front of the hole with a weed whacker.) Like traditional golf, the game can be played alone or in pairs or foursomes. Disc golfers will also remind you not to call it “frolf,” a pejorative fusion of “Frisbee,” which is trademarked, and “golf.”

Not surprisingly, the dueling emotions of frustration and joy are common to both sports. But for all the parallels, there are significant differences between disc golf and its big brother. Most disc-golf courses meander through the woods of public parks instead of along open fairways. There are no carts, no dress code, no tee times, no pretenses, no exclusive clubs, and rarely a course fee. Beginners only need two or three discs, which, best of all, cost under $10 apiece. Inexpensive, addictive, and physically and mentally challenging, the game has taken hold in the Garden State.

Though disc golf is decidedly a West Coast creation, New Jersey has had a long and illustrious affair with the Frisbee. The now well-known game of Ultimate Frisbee was invented in 1969 by high school students in Maplewood. In 1974, Dan Doyle, today a disc-golf player and course designer, was attending Rutgers and happened to spot one of those founders, Irv Kalb, tossing the disc to now-pro Dan Roddick.

“It was like stumbling onto a Little League field and seeing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig playing catch,” he says. He started to play with them. In 1982, when the national disc-golf championships couldn’t be held at the Rose Bowl in California because of a scheduling conflict, Roddick asked Doyle if he could get approval for and build a course at Rutgers for the tournament. “I had 30 days and I finished in 29,” he says. His quick work gave the state an important disc-golf legacy: the oldest course here, it’s also one of the oldest and most revered courses in the country. The course hosts players and spectators at the annual Jersey Jam (this year on July 17 for amateurs competition, the 18th for the pros), where the course record is 10 under, among other tournaments.

Though the Disc Devils relish their home course’s storied history, they are looking ahead to new places to play, hoping the sport is poised to recruit even more loyal followers in New Jersey. Disc golf, though not yet in the sports mainstream, is growing at an astonishing rate. Though the game’s origins go back to anyone who ever threw a Frisbee for accuracy at a tree, a fire hydrant, or a garbage can, most disc golfers trace the sport’s official beginning to the early 1970s, when “Steady” Ed Headrick, a Wham-O employee working on the modern-day Frisbee, installed the first standardized target course in Pasadena, California. Now there are more than 2,600 courses nationwide, with 11 to 14 percent annual growth. There is also a governing body (the Professional Disc Golf Association) with more than 14,000 active members in 2009 (110 in New Jersey), pro players (men and women) who are sponsored by equipment companies, and worldwide tournaments that offered nearly $2 million in prize money last year.

The sport has appeared on Seinfeld and Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, and reigning disc-golf champ David Feldberg went on Conan O’Brien in 2007. There are even a disc-golf iPhone app and a Wii game. (ESPN and Sports Illustrated have also acknowledged the sport, but coverage has been minimal.) Even more impressive, it’s not a uniquely American phenomenon—there are disc golf courses in 34 countries, with Canada, Sweden, and Japan as some of the biggest players on the scene, and course numbers growing in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe. (Mahler has played in Thailand and Italy.) The PDGA estimates that 8 to 12 million people have tried the game.

Disc golf’s growth is not so surprising when you consider its selling points. First, the courses are relatively cheap to put in and involve little more than clearing brush and jamming baskets into the ground. For parks officials who must weigh the benefits of installing and maintaining a fancy new tennis court or baseball field during a recession, disc golf is an appealing choice. A championship-caliber course costs roughly $20,000 (compared to some $50,000 for a tennis court) and requires almost no upkeep, save mowing the grass.

Baskets have low visual impact on the landscape and can often be removed to make way for events or construction. Unlike tennis, lots of people can play at once, providing more bang for the buck. Also, though courses require about an acre per hole, they often use the less-coveted fringe land on the perimeter of parks, as hills and rough terrain add to the challenge. The game lives harmoniously with nature, since rules prohibit disturbing the vegetation, and anyone can play.

These factors convinced the Union County Freeholders that a local course could be an asset. At a June 2009 town meeting, the future of Clark Township’s shuttered public golf course, Oak Ridge, was up for discussion. “Most people were there to complain,” says Disc Devil and Clark police officer Terrance Harrison, 35, who decided to pitch the sport. Convincing the freeholders—with ornery local golfers breathing down their necks—to put in a course for a sport they had never heard of would not be easy. With pro player and Disc Devils president Bob Graham by his side and club members filling the seats, Harrison submitted a ten-page proposal outlining the sport and its benefits. “I also brought in a portable hole and had some of them toss a disc in,” says Harrison. “That was the clincher.”

Luckily, the freeholders were looking for fresh ideas. “We feel about disc golf the way we felt about the archery course we installed in the park,” says Ronald Zuber, deputy director of parks and community renewal. “There are two other golf courses in the county, but there was no archery, just as there is no disc golf. And clearly, there is a constituency out here.” As for the disgruntled traditional golfers? “Sometimes you have to think outside the sandtrap,” says freeholder spokesperson Sebastian D’Elia.

Accessibility is another disc-golf strength. According to statistics from Wham-O, 90 percent of Americans have thrown a Frisbee. That creates a lovely problem for disc purveyors: To whom, precisely, should they market? “College-age guys are the core of the demographic, and guys from, say, 16 to 36,” says Ryan Baker, sales manager for the East Coast division of disc-maker Innova. “But lifetime sports is the new buzzword in phys. ed. departments. We’ve done demonstrations at schools, churches, camps, retirement centers. I’ve played with a 5-year-old and an 85-year-old. We sent a nine-hole course to soldiers in Iraq at Camp Freedom. There’s a course at Guantanamo Bay.”

Dan Doyle agrees. “Anybody can throw a disc,” he says. “I’ve done clinics in preschools, inner-city schools, at senior-citizen centers, at a convention for the disabled. And I’ve sent discs to a girls’ school in Afghanistan and four orphanages in Vietnam.”

And yet for all disc golf’s growing popularity, misunderstandings are still common. Some are silly, like the couple Doyle spotted who lined a disc-golf basket with foil and filled it with charcoal, certain its purpose was grilling. Or, says Disc Devil Elaine Holleran, “sometimes people pick up the disc and hand it back to you when they see no one caught it.” Others are more distressing. “There’s a misconception that because the sport uses flying discs we’re all stoners or hippies,” says Doyle. And many a disc-golf course, including one proposed for Green Brook in 2005, has been nixed, often because of worry about the sorts of people who might come to play. The true culture, disc golfers maintain, consists of exactly the kind of people you’d want tromping through the woods. “Sure, there’s a bit of a hippie culture in disc golf,” says Baker. “It’s a Frisbee game, what do you expect? But it’s the good aspects: They love nature. They’re bikers and hikers and paddlers, and disc golf is another way for them to get outside. Plus, courses are often on land that was previously unused, so disc golfers drive out bad activity in those areas.”

For now, the disc-golf community functions as the sport’s ambassadors, teaching the game to government decision makers and fellow Jerseyans and reminding them of the incredible sensation of throwing a Frisbee. It’s working. Doyle has meetings coming up with groups who are interested in the possibility of adding a course, including the Morris County Park Commission and Drew University. The course he designed in Warwick, New York, just over the state border and minutes from Vernon, is one of the most respected in the country and sees lots of Jersey players. (This year it will host the Skylands Classic, August 27 to 29.) In the meantime, state pros like West Milford’s Steve Brinster, one of the top fifteen players worldwide according to the PDGA, are making a name for New Jersey on the national tournament scene.
Graham, Doyle and other disc-golf advocates are confident there’s room for more courses here, especially since we lag behind Pennsylvania, which has 75 courses, and New York, which has 44. For now, the disc-golf community is anxious for the Oak Ridge course to open (it’s likely to happen in early fall). “It has the potential to be a world-class course,” says Graham, adding that its proximity to Manhattan could bring in city folks who have no courses nearby.

While they wait for the sport to reach critical mass, players marvel at how far the flying disc has come from its backyard ancestry. And yet it seems fitting, given what was printed long ago on the underside of the original Frisbee: “Play catch. Invent games.”

Ready to Play Some Disc Golf?

Try these local courses:

Alexandria Township Park, Milford
Browns Point/Buzzy’s Creek, West Milford, Thursday doubles (6 pm), nynjdiscgolf.com
Campgaw, Mahwah Sunday doubles (12 pm), nynjdisc-golf.com
Cape May County Park & Zoo, Cape May
Chimney Rock Park, Martinsville
Fields of Dreams, Great Meadows fodcourse.com
Freedom Park, Medford
Harry Dunham Park, Liberty Corner
Landis Park, Vineland
Manalapan Recreation Center, Manalapan
Richard Stockton Disc Golf Club, Pomona
Riverview Disc Golf Club, Pennsville
Rutgers-Douglass College,
New Brunswick, Tuesday mixed doubles (6 pm), discdevils.com
South Vineland Park, Vineland

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