A new twist on an old sport: disc golf soars during the pandemic

by | Nov 4, 2021 | Disc Golf

The coronavirus has clipped the wings of many things. Not disc golf that has skyrocketed.

San Diego County’s courses, from the venerable Morley Field (one of the oldest in the country) to the newly renovated Mast Park in Santee, are packed even on weekdays. Disc manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand for their furthest-flying plastic. Tournaments with top players are by no means as lucrative as conventional golf and other established sports, but they attract more spectators and higher cash prizes.

One of the tournaments is taking place in Oceanside this weekend. The challenge at Goat Hill Park, part of the Disc Golf Pro Tour, includes men’s and women’s fields with players who have won national and world championships. Nearly 200 golfers from New Jersey, Florida and Toronto compete against each other Friday through Sunday.

“It is clearly the largest disc golf tournament ever played in San Diego County,” said Allen Risley, tournament director. A limited number of viewers are admitted through paid admission.

The sport’s popularity has been growing for years, but has accelerated during the pandemic. People had time and fewer places to spend it. Health guidelines promoting outdoor activities, socially distant activities, and disc golf check both boxes.

It’s also relatively cheap. The discs cost about $ 12 each, and many of the courses are free.

“That sounds bad to say, but COVID-19 is perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to disc golf,” said Clint Calvin, a 26-year-old San Diegan who won the US Amateur Championship in 2018 and is now one Touring professional. “Our community is growing and it’s really cool to see new people who are excited about it.”

UDisc, a mobile app that enables players to find courses and hold points, had the busiest month ever, well into the pandemic. At this point, a new lap was started somewhere in the world every 1.6 seconds.

The number of active members in the Professional Disc Golf Association (which is open to duffers and elite players alike) rose from 53,366 in 2019 to 71,016 in 2020. It is a predominantly male group – about 93 percent. (Regular golf has about 24 percent female participation.)

The number of courts they play on has also increased from 8,463 worldwide in 2019 to 9,342 in 2020.

“It’s a great way to get exercise and meet different people from all walks of life,” said Dean Velasco, 45, a computer scientist who plays four times a week, usually at Mast Park. “It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to when you throw discs or what your politics are. It’s just fun to be out there. “

Brodie Smith is training in preparation for the professional disc golf tournament.

(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pockets full of washers

The sport is similar to traditional golf in many ways. Instead of pounding a ball into a hole, a disc is thrown into a raised metal chain basket. The lowest score wins.

Players tee off at each hole and then make subsequent strokes from where the disc lands. You putt. They carry bags filled with a dozen or more discs that differ in thickness, weight, and aerodynamics. Some are used for straight throws across fairways. Others are thrown on arches around trees and other obstacles. Some are rolled on the ground under low-hanging branches.

Nobody knows exactly when disc golf was invented. For centuries people have been playfully throwing cake pans and other similarly shaped objects. Someone probably made it a game to see who can hit a tree in the back yard with the fewest throws.

As an organized sport, it dates back to the mid-1970s. The first official square was built in 1975 at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena, which set a precedent: the lion’s share of the spaces built since then are in public parks, such as Escondidos Kit Carson or Vistas Brengle Terrace. Others have gone to college campuses (Cal State San Marcos) or next to ball golf courses like Goat Hill Park, home of the tournament this weekend, or Reidy Creek in Escondido.

Morley Field in Balboa Park began in 1978 under the direction of Snapper Pierson, a professional player who has won numerous championships and is in the Disc Golf Hall of Fame. He still helps run the course, which is one of the busiest in the world and attracts more than 100,000 golfers each year. Its popularity means tee times are now required, a rarity in public places.

“Like regular golfers, disc golfers want variety on a course, so some of the baskets are open and easier to reach, while others are hidden and more difficult,” said Steve Lyons, head golfer at Reidy Creek, who added disc golf two years ago. Its holes range from about 275 feet to over 600 feet.

As interest in the sport increases, so does the number of commercial and educational appendages. Several companies produce discs in a dizzying variety of colors, plastics, and flight characteristics. These are not your father’s frisbees; they are smaller and lighter. Sometimes they have names that are meant to impress, if not intimidate: Destroyer, Thrasher, Stiletto, Undertaker. Some of the most popular discs sell out quickly and are resold in the secondary market for twice or three times their original price.

YouTube is full of videos with tips on how to correct “grip lock,” “rounding,” and other errors in the throwing motion. There are blogs, podcasts, and Facebook pages devoted to the intricacies of the game.

Many of the devotees stumbled upon the game by chance, such as Calvin one day when he met friends in Balboa Park and saw discs flying in Morley Field. “Boys throw plastic on metal objects?” He remembered thinking. “I’m done with that.”

At first he played for fun, then noticed that he was regularly beating the scores of more experienced players. He joined the Ruckus Disc Golf Club, one of several groups of players in the area, and became more competitive.

It wasn’t long before he asked another question: Do people do this and do they make money?

Become a professional

There are around 40 players who are considered “touring professionals”, elite competitors for whom the game is their full-time job. Many of them will be in Oceanside for the 54-hole challenge at Goat Hill Park this weekend.

The men’s field includes Calvin and some of the sport’s most iconic names: Ricky Wysocki, Garrett Gurthie, Drew Gibson and Philo Brathwaite. The Frauenfeld includes San Diegan Juliana Korver, a five-time world champion, Jennifer Allen, Jessica Weese and Lisa Fajkus.

What professional players make isn’t Fernando Tatis Jr.’s money, but it can run into six figures through sponsorship, signature model disc advertising, educational seminars, and tournament winnings.

The tour, which was recently restricted due to COVID-19, typically starts in February and lasts until fall. The tournaments are grouped geographically with players currently on their west coast sweep. After Oceanside, head north to Stockton and Portland before heading to the Midwest.

“Some of the players will cover 20,000 miles in their cars this year,” said Risley, tournament director of Goat Hill Laundromat Clothing. His son AJ is a touring professional.

One of the favorites this weekend is Thomas Gilbert (21) from Toronto, who won the 2019 tournament and finished second last year. Goat Hill, one of the longest courses in the world, favors players who can throw far. Gilbert crushed a 740 foot driveway in Goat Hill a year ago.

“It’s exciting to see all the new people who have started playing and have the chance to find out what disc golf is all about,” he said. “Last year was really good for the sport.”