Exploding in popularity, accessible, and cheap, disc golf offers a great way to get outside and have some fun.
You are at the park or a campsite with friends, someone has an old cheap frisbee with some random company’s logo on it. Tossing it back and forth is fun for a while, but with a few beers involved you start thinking of something a little more challenging. Your buddy says, “Hey, I bet I could hit that tree trunk over there.” The challenge is on, and the next thing you know you’re a roving band of maniacs trying to hit things from a distance.
As far as I can tell, this is how disc golf was invented. But, like agriculture, it seems to have emerged spontaneously in many different places and is more ancient than we think.
The act of throwing something for the hell of it seems to be an urge innate to humans. In the animal kingdom humans are slow, weak, and clumsy with little armor. We make up for this with superior ingenuity — we used our brains to transfer energy to objects. Then we innovated, as humans tend to do, to chucking spears. Soon came bows and arrows, catapults, firearms, and warheads. It’s all basically just hurling a rock at a target.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the first game of disc golf occurred thousands of years ago with flat pieces of tree bark or tanned animal hide discs. It may be one of our most ancient forms of recreation.
But, to become an organized sport complete with sponsored professional athletes, it needed a catalyst. That happened in 1966 when “Steady” Ed Headrick, an employee at Wham-O, observed the fun people would have tossing a flat plastic lid around as it would glide through the air. He patented the first flying disc branded as the Frisbee.
The popularity of the Wham-O Frisbee took off. It was in 1970 that some of the first known organized disc golf competitions began in Rochester, New York. The advent of the frisbee caused an evolution into informal disc golf competitions. That group of friends from New York seized on an opportunity and, in 1974, organized the National City of Rochester Disc Golf Championship.
After that first tournament in Rochester, Headrick, known as “the father of disc golf,” went on to invent and patent the disc golf pole hole in 1975. Disc golf’s popularity grew slowly but steadily. Within a couple of decades professional disc golfers would gain sponsorship contracts from disc manufacturers. The best of the professionals today can make a good living playing the sport.
Other than tossing around thrift store frisbees at campsites and a failed attempt to teach my fat Corgi how to catch one, I have no experience playing disc golf. I once tried to learn traditional golf, which was pretty much a disaster. So, with those experiences in mind I met up with Mitch Sonderfan, a local former pro disc golfer at Erie’s Coal Creek Disc Golf Course.
At one time Sonderfan was ranked as high as 33rd in the world. He has been away from competing for a while, but it was clear to me that his interest in the sport was still there.
The first thing that surprised me was the number of different discs an experienced player will carry. It’s a lot like regular golf where you have a range of clubs for different situations and distances. In fact, even the terminology is the same. There are putters, drivers, and mid-range discs.
Just like traditional golf, disc golfers carry a special bag for their discs, and some professionals even have caddies. A typical disc golfer might have a dozen or so discs, but Sonderfan explained that you only need one to get started. Preferably it should at least be a regulation disc and not that chewed up old thrift store frisbee.
I remarked about the surprising number of people out on the course, and Sonderfan said it was actually a slow day. As Sonderfan explained it, when COVID-19 hit, disc golf exploded. It is played outside, is easily accessible, just about anyone can play it regardless of age or physical condition, and it’s cheap. Recreational etiquette, unlike traditional golf, which can be very specific and stuffy, is simple — don’t hit someone with your disc.
After our quick introduction I was eager to give it a go. We sauntered over to the first tee, and Sonderfan went up to demonstrate a classic backhand toss. His driver sailed smooth and straight, about 200 feet or so. It was a nice approach.
My turn. My throw was abysmal. I wanted to throw it flat, like Sonderfan had just demonstrated. The result was a disaster. All that curving and unnecessary height resulted in a toss that traveled farther to the left than it did forward. Let’s just say I could have thrown a football farther and with a lot more accuracy.
Several bad throws later, we made it to the hole.
Sonderfan made an incredible throw that I thought for a moment might be an ace. His driver settled just a few feet to the left of the basket. He seemed quite pleased with it.
Now it was my turn again. Sonderfan reminded me not to try to throw it as hard as I could. So, I slowed it down, concentrated on keeping my disc level. It was like a dream. My driver sailed from my hand, low and tight, no wobble, its trajectory dead on to the target.
I thanked Sonderfan for his time and instruction. Perhaps other disc golf courses were different, but here I sensed no pretension.
I liked all of that. The simplicity and carefree nature of it all was refreshing. And, then there was that one almost perfect throw right at the end when everything just clicked. It was probably luck. But it hooked me in, and I spent part of that evening price checking discs and bags.