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Disc golf: from tee to target 

Identified flying objects

Click for larger image • Some disc golfers prefer to play with a beer in one hand and the disc in another.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • Some disc golfers prefer to play with a beer in one hand and the disc in another.

Disc golf may be the king of sports: It doesn't require expensive equipment. It can be played anywhere, anytime by anyone. And it is compatible with beer drinking. John Sheffield of Chapel Hill best describes the goal of the game: "The most fun wins!"

Disc golf was formalized in the 1970s by "Steady" Ed Headrick, the father of the Frisbee. (Interesting fact: Headrick requested that, upon his death, his ashes be molded into a limited edition set of discs so that he could "fly forever." Try out that piece of trivia at your next social event!) Like its cousin, "ball golf," players throw discs from a tee area to a target ("the hole"), and the object of the game is to complete the course in the fewest number of throws.

The first disc golf courses had no official designation; enthusiasts made up holes as they went along, picking telephone poles, trees and other objects to serve as starting points and targets. Players still use this method, though local disc golfers have the luxury of seven 18-hole public courses in the Triangle, with two more on the way.

"The main two elements in designing a disc golf course are safety and variety," Chapel Hill resident Matt Smith says. "Safety involves both safety to people—players and other park visitors—as well as the environment." Since most parks have basketball and tennis courts, walking paths, playgrounds and picnic areas, Smith and other designers have to figure out how to arrange the course to reduce the possibility of an errant disc flying into someone. In terms of environment, Smith considers where players will be walking and possible effects on erosion and drainage. Overall, course designers try to incorporate the environment into the course, using trees, creeks and the land's natural contours as obstacles. The UNC course is built on what was once Chapel Hill Country Club and therefore already had some natural fairways. "You want a course to be playable by both advanced and beginner players," Smith says, adding he also considers a park's physical structures such as parking lots, trash cans and bathrooms. "You want holes that curve left, curve right, are open and are amongst the trees."

Smith became involved with the sport while an undergraduate at UNC, through Ultimate Frisbee. Some friends introduced him to disc golf at the UNC course along Raleigh Road; he has helped design the courses soon to arrive in Southern Village in Chapel Hill and Anderson Park in Carrboro.

Disc golf courses benefit more than the players; they can alter the neighborhood. "They've found that in dilapidated parks where communities add disc golf courses, the crime in the park has gone down and the parks have become safer and cleaner," Smith says. "When the park is used by more people, it gets better. The disc golf community is really built on camaraderie and volunteering, and it's like its own neighborhood crime watch."

Disc golf courses and players also encourage investment into their communities' green spaces. Disc golf player Zach Ward and his business, DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro, have issued a $4,200 challenge grant to help complete the course at Anderson Park, and Carrboro Parks Projects hopes to gather the matching $4,200 from the public.

More serious players like Smith and Sheffield carry more than a dozen discs when playing, ranging from high speed distance drivers to controllable, low-flying putters. Though relatively equal to an untrained eye, hardcore disc golf players know how each disc reacts and have different ways of throwing it to hit the target. With a quick spin, Smith hurls the disc 300 feet to what appears to be far left of the target. But at the last second, the disc curves back right and lands a few feet away, just as he had planned.

Yet, in starting your disc golf career, stick with the basic disc—nothing fancy.

"The most common newbie mistake is to go out and buy the latest and greatest disc," Sheffield says. "They are usually more difficult to control and the player ends up overcompensating for the flight of the disc." This can lead to frustration that can end a disc golf outing before it even begins. "The best thing is to get a simple, plastic throw-and-catch disc, and just come out and practice, practice, practice."

Disc golf rookies are also more likely to "arm it" and end a session with sore triceps and back muscles. Using proper technique, the power is generated in the legs and hips. "It's a lot like baseball," says Sheffield, demonstrating how his body propels his arm and the disc forward and far out into the field.

Rookies and veterans are welcome at pick-up games, played Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at the UNC course. The $5 entry fee helps pay for course maintenance. Smith organizes these matches and pairs rookies with stronger disc golfers to help beginners improve their skills. Meanwhile, Sheffield offers tips to the players, promising a couple on this course, "Give me two hours and we could have you throwing 200 yards."

And while Smith, Sheffield and other local players have traveled the country to compete in tournaments, they are still happy to be hurling discs on their home course. Players throw well into dusk. As the last rays of sunshine light up the leaves, they finish the hole with a satisfying clang into the basket. The winner? Lacking a proper fun-meter, they call it a draw.

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