“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do on a Friday afternoon,” said Mark Hauser, an emergency physician for Goleta Valley and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospitals.
Ahead lies a small wetland, grass up to hip level, a muddy path and a tunnel of trees. During the rainy season, there is much more mud and lots of mosquitoes. This is not your grandpa’s game of golf.
“Nothing cancels a disc golf tournament except lightning,” Hauser said.
Disc golf players are a dedicated group. Hauser said he once drove four hours in the early hours of the day to play two rounds of 27 holes in Santa Cruz in the Ice Bowl – a nationwide competition – to play in the most awful conditions, then drive four hours back to Santa Barbara in the same day.
Where the Problems Lie
Oddly enough, the largest threat to disc golf is the players themselves. Disc golfers have traditionally gotten a bad rap as drunken, pot-smoking hippies.
“It is important for disc golfers to be courteous and not litter their courses because the sport is struggling, and it makes it easier for people to get rid of it,” Hauser said. “A few can wreck it for all. The image battle has been going on for a long time.”
There have also been battles with homeowners near courses. Hauser said the conflicts with residents near the Evergreen Disc Golf Course in Goleta have been a problem.
“It’s been hard to keep good relations with neighbors,” he said. “Crazed neighbors have broken poles down.”
Residents have been frustrated with discs flying into their yards and players going over fences after them – or to urinate.
“Most of [the disc golfers] are pretty respectful. I’d say one-third are not. They’re the ones we see and hear and smell,” said one resident who has lived adjacent to the Evergreen Disc Golf Course for 27 years and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. “Probably a majority are pretty respectful, but there’s always a few.”
The resident said she is a pretty tolerant person and that she has only called the park to complain once when a man climbed onto her roof.
But Hauser said that disc golf has actually cleaned up the Evergreen Open Space from the damage inflicted by its previous users – Dos Pueblos High School students who used the area to drink and smoke.
The Evergreen Disc Golf Course, located on the corner of Brandon and Evergreen Streets in Goleta, was built in 1995. It has 18 holes and hosts tournaments on the fourth Saturday of every month.
Another popular place to play, at least for now, is the Isla Vista Peace Course, a nine-hole course installed in 2000. It begins on Sueno Road in the Sueno Orchard and ends in Estero Park. Under the current Isla Vista Master Plan, a new community center will be built in Estero Park as soon as 2007. The project, including the community center, new playground equipment and a soccer field, would cover most of the current park and eliminate the disk golf course.
Thomas Clark, a senior history major who lives adjacent to the I.V. Peace Course, said he sees people playing all day on the weekends, and at least 10 groups of players on weekdays
“Frisbee golf is a community center, in a way. I see people of all kinds out there – not just university students.”
Yet few local disc golfers have voiced public opposition to the project.
“I mean, I don’t want to discredit the community center, because it’ll probably reach more people than Frisbee golf, but if they can accommodate the Frisbee golfer, that would be great,” Clark said.
And in the Beginning, There Was Disc Golf
Disc golf originated shortly after the invention of the Frisbee in 1958, when recreational throwers began to set aim at objects. In the 1970s, disc golf became formalized when official courses were laid out. Disc golf, or “Frisbee golf” for the uninitiated, is a lot like regular golf, with similar etiquette and just as many rules about how to play the game. Like regular golf, disc golf courses include fairways, elevation and terrain changes, and a variety of obstacles, including water holes, poison oak patches and rows of trees.
“I’ve played golf before, and I’d say [disc golf] is virtually the same experience,” UC Santa Cruz senior literature major Jeff Sand said.
At the same time courses were laid out, the “pole hole” came into common use. The pole hole is an elevated metal basket with hanging chains that allow for discs to fall into the basket effectively. The first pole hole course was established by Ed Headrick in Oak Grove Park in Pasadena.
Hauser, who has been playing disc golf since its creation in the 1970s, said he anticipated the popularity of the sport.
“I’m not surprised. It’s just such an addicting sport. Look at ball golf – such an expensive, elitist sport, and no one thought it would get so big,” he said. “[Disc golf], still in its infancy, still has a lot of room to grow.”
One of the defining differences between regular golf and disc golf is their relative costs. While equipment and green fees can cause regular golf costs to skyrocket, disc golf only requires the purchase of a single disc and is played for free in public parks across the United States.
“One of the nicest things about the sport is it’s basically free,” said Michael Roberts, a Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) member and owner of Roberts Custom Interiors in Carpinteria.
Discs for disc golf differ from ultimate or recreational discs. While recreational discs are 8 to 11 inches in diameter, disc golf discs are typically 5 inches in diameter and are built of much thicker and harder plastic. They are also more dangerous.
“You don’t want to play catch with these,” Hauser said of disc golf disks.
While only one disc is needed to play the game, most established players carry bags with an array of multicolored discs – drivers, putters and mid-range discs – for different situations. Hauser said he owns more than 200 discs and carries about 20 during a game, while Roberts owns 60 and carries 15. Discs typically cost between $7 and $40.
“If you buy one a week at only $12, you can build up a complete set easily in a year,” Roberts said.
The large number of discs is also due to wear and tear. Since the discs are thrown into terrain varying from concrete to bramble bushes, they get scuffed over time.
“If a disc wears, the flight characteristics change,” Hauser said. “There are different ways for it to fly, start flying, end flying [and] curve while flying.”
Hauser has seen a great deal of change in the distance the discs go since the birth of the sport.
“The plastics have improved dramatically over the years,” he said.
Hauser said a lot of the appeal of the sport is in watching the disks themselves.
“When they’ve asked PDGA people what they say they like the most about disc golf, it’s usually something like, ‘Just watching discs fly.'”
So You Want to Be a Golfer?
Disc golf is a highly social sport; the golfers all seem to know each other. It is competitive, but there are also more laid back ways of playing. Doubles games and night rounds with glow-in-the-dark discs are popular.
Hauser and Roberts said beginners should start by buying a beginner set of three disks – a driver, mid-range and putter is a good start – and that people should golf with a more experienced player to help them figure out the “classic shots.”
“The people who are into it don’t have a problem at all giving you tips,” Roberts said.
After that, it is just a matter of playing a lot and figuring out what works best.
“It’s just a simple wrist adjustment,” Hauser said. “It’s all timing and snap.”
There are many levels of play, including professional, amateur and juniors tournament divisions for male and female players and a variety of age groups. The PDGA represents professional disc golfers around the world. It sanctions a number of tournaments, including a number of majors, a national tour and the world championships. The PDGA tracks the points and cash prizes accumulated over the season for all its members.
The organization consists of over 20,000 members around the globe, each paying $40 per year. Currently, there are around 1,350 disc golf courses in the world, in a variety of countries such as Finland, Taiwan and South Africa.
In addition to tournaments, the PDGA is also dedicated to promoting the sport in general, which it does by donating discs to schools and sponsoring grants to build new courses. The PDGA also writes the rules for the sport, provides members with an informational magazine, Disc Golf World News, and has an environmental committee to educate players and course designers about the environmental impacts of disc golf courses.
Hauser said the top PDGA male players can throw a disc up to 550 feet, while the best women throw around 350 feet. The PDGA defines the top “Open” profession division very specifically.
“A world class Open player has many years of disc golf and tournament experience, throws 350 to 500 feet or farther, makes seven to nine putts from 25 to 30 feet, rarely makes a mistake and has a shot for every situation,” Hauser said.
These world class players compete on the national tour, where major tournaments can have prizes up to $3,000. The top players can win $20,000 to $30,000 per year, plus sponsorships.
“It’s not a great living,” Hauser said.
Only 27 percent of PDGA members are professionals. The demographics of the PDGA are somewhat slanted. Ninety-three percent of members are male.
“There aren’t many women involved in the sport,” Hauser said. “There’s always a big push to get women in the sport.”
“A lot of guys wonder why more women aren’t out here,” Roberts added.
The players are not getting any younger either; 52 percent of PDGA members are in the 31- to 40-year-old bracket.
Frisbee throwing has been integrated into P.E. classes at La Colina Junior High School, where one of the top-rated ultimate Frisbee players in the world, UCSB alumnus Steve Dugan, teaches. Hauser said he hopes that disc golf might some day become a regular high school sport.
It does not take long for disc golfers to improve a great deal and become relatively good, and that’s how many people get hooked, Hauser and Roberts said.
“It’s a highly addictive sport. … You get into a position where you meet all the conditions of an addiction,” Hauser said. “When I retire, I’m going to set up a clinic for disc golf addicts. I bet I’d have a big clientele, though most don’t want to be cured.”