[July 20, 2006]
Disc matters: A growing sport has courses, holes and pars - but no golf balls or clubs(Sacramento Bee, The (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jul. 20--When the cherry-red disc leaves Mike Guerrero's hand, it flies high and far, about 385 feet, before banking right and just missing a hole-in-one.
Had Guerrero's disc gone into the metal chain basket, called a "pole hole" -- disc golf's equivalent to a hole in regular golf -- it would have been just the fifth time in 12 years that the 36-year-old had scored a hole-in-one. But the shot landed four feet away from the ninth hole at the Shady Oaks course at Orangevale Park in Orangevale.
So, Guerrero reaches into a shoulder-slung "disc bag" that looks like a shrunken version of a tennis bag. He produces a yellow disc from a set of 10 discs. That's his trusty putter, and it differs from the red driver in that its edge is more blunt, the body thicker and softer.
With the poise of Tiger Woods on a good day at the Masters, Guerrero fires the disc into the basket for a birdie.
Although he makes it look easy, it isn't. Disc golf -- played by an estimated 10 million enthusiasts, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association -- demands considerable skill, strength and coordination from elite players.
Like regular golf, disc golf has its drivers, irons and putters, except all of them are discs made of tough plastic.
In the realm of disc golf, discs are never called by the brand-name of Frisbee (which generally is a larger-diameter disc) even though they are thrown in roughly the same fashion. There is the standard across-the-body throw, of course, but there also are advanced maneuvers such as overhand heaves and the "hyzer," a backhand throw with the throwing edge of the disc angled toward the ground.
As in golf, each player starts from a tee and must throw again from where the disc last landed.
Many have the bug
When he plays, Guerrero belies the confidence and nonchalance of someone who has been playing disc golf since 1994.
"When I competed, I used to play every day, but now I only play once a week," Guerrero said. His job as a computer technician and the responsibility of being a father to three children keep him away from the competition circuit.
"Playing competitively demands constant travel and constant play," Guerrero said.
As a result, Guerrero is in semi- retirement. He's still one of about 1,000 Californians registered with the PDGA. There are more than 9,000 PDGA pros nationwide.
Guerrero, who lives in Orangevale, now plays more regular golf than he does the disc kind. It was his experience with disc golf that piqued his interest in ball golf.
On the occasions when he tells fellow golfers he's an accomplished disc golfer, he finds himself defending the nascent sport.
"People kind of blow it off as a fringe sport," he said.
But it takes just one visit to the Shady Oaks disc course to dispel that "fringe" slight.
From therapy to hobby
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the course was filled with golfers preparing their tosses on the concrete-pad tees while others waited on benches nearby. Though most were young men (92 percent of players registered with the PDGA are male), there was a smattering of women playing.
"There are roughly 60 people on the course on any given day," said Bruce Knisley, 39, who co-runs the Final 9 disc golf shop on the grounds of Orangevale Park. Knisley estimated that 250 rounds of disc golf are played there weekdays and more than 400 on weekends. It takes about an hour to play nine holes of disc golf.
The sport's greatest advantage, Knisley said, is that it's a bargain. Playing 18 holes at Shady Oaks is free, and a newcomer can get by with three used discs for $2 each, or new discs that cost about $7 each.
The well-stocked shop, which opened in 1997 and moved to the Shady Oaks Disc Golf Course in 2003, is a disc golfer's dream. The shop offers more than 3,000 discs in many styles and colors, from primary colors to exotic color schemes of sunburst and tie-dye.
But Final 9 is more than a shop. Co-owner Jim Oates likes to think it's the epicenter of disc golf in the Sacramento area. Oates and Knisley run several annual tournaments out of the shop and are tireless promoters of the sport.
For most players, launching a garden-variety Frisbee is the entree into disc golf, but for Oates, his introduction came by way of a soccer injury that left him with two broken feet.
"I could hardly throw a Frisbee when I was younger," Oates said. But that all changed when his doctor prescribed walking as a therapy for his soccer injury. So Oates tagged along with his brother on disc golf outings. At first, Oates watched from his wheelchair, but as his feet healed, he followed around on crutches until he was able to walk again.
"One thing led to another, and the next thing I know I'm playing well and winning tournaments," he said.
Oates went on to win a Flying Disc Championship in 1991 and the PDGA Masters World Championship in 1999, and has been an advocate for the sport ever since.
Now he's the disc golf pro at Shady Oaks.
"It's kind of turned into a hobby gone wild," he said.
A bargain sport
The sport has been increasing in popularity ever since the PDGA began keeping records on players in 1996. The PDGA's membership since has more than doubled, from about 4,000 to 9,629, and so has the number of disc golf courses, which has increased at a rate of 11 percent yearly.
"It costs much, much less to put in a world-class disc golf course than it does to install a similarly good ball golf course," said Dan Roddick, director of special projects for the PDGA. Some courses, such as Shady Oaks, grow out of existing parks. Others are built on private land.
There are more than 18 courses in Northern California, including one of the nation's oldest in Berkeley's Aquatic Park, which has been around since 1978. That course is considered a "Pebble Beach" course for its close proximity to water and frequent high winds.
The sport also is gaining popularity worldwide, with the PDGA's international membership up 79 percent from 2004 to 2005. The sport is popular in Japan, Finland and Sweden. The latter has 65 courses and some of the top players in the world.
"Disc golf is now approaching the critical mass required to attract mainstream sponsorship and media coverage," said Brian Hoeniger, executive director of the PDGA, which is based in Appling, Ga.
"I think that, in the next handful of years, you will begin to see us more on your television sets and you'll begin to hear of household-name sponsors associated with the sport," Hoeniger said.
"I would say that 20 years from now the sport will be three times the size of what it is today."
Hoeniger expects the sport to grow to the point where within a generation top disc golfers, who currently earn $40,000 to $60,000 per year on tournaments and manufacturer endorsements, will make $250,000.
The father of disc golf
The sport owes a great debt to "Steady" Ed Headrick. It was in 1964 that the Emeryville-based Wham-O company hired Headrick to find a profitable use for the miles of hula hoop tubing that lay in the company's warehouse. The result was U.S. patent No. 3,359,678 for Headrick's Frisbee, which he has described as his version of a flying saucer made out of plastic. Headrick was not the inventor of the flying disc, but he is credited with improving its design.
It is unclear how the flying disc earned the name "Frisbee." Some contend the disc got the name for its resemblance to the pie tins made by the Frisbee Pie Co. of Bridgeport, Conn. According to legend, those pie tins, which had the word "Frisbee" stamped onto them, became popular throwing discs for students at Yale and Dartmouth in the 1940s. Others say the name originated from an 1800s news- paper cartoon character named Mr. Frisbee.
The sport got its official start in 1975 when Headrick built the first formal disc golf course in Pasadena's Oak Park, which today is called Hahamonga Park. The following year, Headrick took out a patent on the "Pole Hole," the disc-catching device -- or to use a golf analogy, the "cup" that is standard today on disc courses. Headrick also founded the PDGA and designed 200 of the more than 1,000 disc courses in the United States, before his death in 2002.
Many of the courses he designed are unique, said Guerrero, who has played on the Headrick-designed Highland Springs Disc Golf Course in Lakeport, near the shores of Clear Lake in Lake County.
"That course is unique because you get six tee placements (choices) per hole there," Guerrero said.
At Shady Oaks, most holes offer only two configurations, with only one available at any given time. Although each hole -- or basket -- has a descriptive sign with hole information, in some cases, the golfer must locate the hole to tell which configuration is being used that day.
It can consume time
With both the sun and his putt at the ninth hole sunk, Guerrero tucks his discs into his black bag.
Unlike in his competing days, he is done for the day. In the past, he would sometimes play two rounds a day. He probably will not play again for another week.
"Competing takes away a whole weekend from your family," said Guerrero, who seemed wistful for the days when he was on the road from one competition to the next.
When Guerrero was asked whether he would welcome his children's desire to play the sport at the tournament level, he hesitated before answering.
"I think I would be supportive of that," he said. Guerrero added that his 8-year-old daughter, Michaela, is his odds-on favorite to have a disc golfing career.
"She throws pretty good and hard," said Guerrero, who remains so committed to disc golf that he installed a pole hole in his backyard so that he can play with his children.
How to get started playing
Where to playIf you're interested in a fling with disc golf, check out one of these area courses. Complete Northern California course listings can be found at www.pdga.com. Information about a disc golf organization aimed at women can be found at www.womensdiscgolfassociation.com.
Auburn: Auburn Regional Park, 18 holes; contact Richard Poplin, (530) 305-4536, or www.pickyourdisc.com/ PickYourDisc/CoursesPlayed.jsp.
Carmichael: Albert Schweitzer Park, 18 wood posts; contact Mike Guerrero, (916) 729-8375.
Davis: Oxford Circle Park, nine holes.
Grass Valley: Condon Park, 18 holes; www.skycatz.com.
Grass Valley: Toney's Mountain Golf, 18 holes; contact Mike and Virginia Toney, (530) 477-8855, or www.toneysmountaingolf.com.
Orangevale: Shady Oaks Park, 18 holes; contact Jim Oates, (916) 987-3472, or www.final9sports.com/courses/index.html.
Oroville: Riverbend Park, 36 holes; contact Jason Sehon, (530) 899-8397, or www.hereandthere.com/ DiscGolf_New/discgolf.htm.
Placerville: Lions Park, 15 holes; contact Charlie Callahan, (530) 620-0050.
Rocklin: Rocklin Disc Golf Course, 18 baskets; contact: Dave Pena, (916) 276-5498, or www.hereandthere.com/ DiscGolf_New/discgolf.htm.
Sacramento: Regency Community Park, nine baskets; contact Sacramento Parks and Recreation, (916) 808-5200.
Woodland: Fern Park, nine holes; contact Matt Weishahn, (530) 668-8959, or www.hereandthere.com/ DiscGolf_New/discgolf.htm.
The different discs
Disc golf uses three types of discs with distinct flight characteristics.
-- Putter: Resembling a regular Frisbee, the putter is designed to fly straight and slow. It is the easiest for a novice to throw.
-- Midrange: This disc has a slightly sharper edge than a putter to help it cut through the air. It is more difficult for a novice to throw.
-- Driver: This has the sharpest edge of all, with most of its mass concentrated on the outer rim. The driver is the hardest disc to throw, since its flight is more unpredictable than that of a midrange disc or a putter.
Most discs, usually a bit smaller in diameter than a Frisbee, weigh about 6 ounces and range from $7 to $15.
Join a club
Shady Oaks Disc Club: www.final9sports.com. This 3-year-old club has 240 members and is associated with the Shady Oaks disc course in Orangevale, whose recent improvements make it one of Northern California's premier disc golf courses.
Mutha Putters: www.muthaputters.com. This club, whose home course is in Carmichael behind Albert Schweitzer Elementary School, has 214 members. The club has a tournament the first Sunday of every month.
Skycatz: www.skycatz.com. This club serves the western Nevada County disc golf community by maintaining two disc golf courses at Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley and Condon Park in Grass Valley. The club meets every third Thursday of the month at various locations.
Starrs searches for a lost disc in a creek. The Orangevale course has 18 holes. Sacramento Bee/ Autumn Cruz
Kris Johnson, left, Cameron Tew and Bonnie Missall tote their gear to the next hole during a disc golf game at Shady Oaks Park. Sacramento Bee/ Autumn Cruz
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