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Golf with a Twist and a Disc

  • Erika Celeste

Disc golf follows the same basic rules as ball golf, however, competitors tee off from cement tee pads.

Fast-growing game mirrors its traditional counterpart

Chris Wojciechowski is a professional golfer, but he doesn't play the game with balls and clubs.

He uses round, flat, Frisbee-like discs and a good snap of the wrist.

"I mean, there's just a thrill in seeing a disc just go and go and go," he says. "Just watching it carry out [135 to 150 meters] is really cool."

The 20-something athlete hurt his knee running track five years ago so he switched to disc golf, a lower impact game.

Today, he's competing in the Freedom Flight Tournament at Ohio Northern University. His teammate, Jack Faust, a retired Air Force major, is a disc golf legend. He won one of the first disc golf championships in the country nearly 40 years ago.

"We'd just go out and mark trees with a dot and everybody would agree where you'd tee off from and you'd have fun," Faust recalls. "Now it's a lot more organized."

From tee to basket

Disc golf follows the same rules as ball golf. Competitors tee off from cement tee pads, working their way along a beautiful disc course that winds around cornfields, wind turbines, and a football field.

Instead of going into a hole on the green, discs are thrown into a raised metal basket that looks a bit like a trash bin covered in chains.

Tournament director Mike Michalak explains the chains stop the forward progress of the disc.

"It falls into the basket and that completes a hole. If for some reason the disc doesn't fall into the basket, you still need to tap out and into the basket."

As in traditional golf, each toss counts as a point. So if it takes three throws to finish a hole, the score is a three. The lowest score wins. The discs are smaller, heavier, and sharper edged than the familiar Frisbee flying toy. And just like golf clubs, they are specialized, for long, short and midrange distances.

Wojciechowski says the game is more physical than one might think.

Instead of shooting for a hole on the green, disc golf players aim for a raised metal basket.
Instead of shooting for a hole on the green, disc golf players aim for a raised metal basket.

"At the higher levels, when you're throwing hard, it is very, very leg and torso oriented. You're using a lot of power out of your legs and bringing it up through your torso as you pull through. You're not really throwing as much as it's called a pull, because your body is pulling the disc through."

As in regular golf, there are also hazards to deal with. But since most of the 3,000 permanent disc golf courses in the U.S. are built in parks and on college campus, hazards for disc golfers consist of things like fountains, parking lots, and ditches.

Professional sport with a playful history

Disc golf is especially popular on college campuses because it's inexpensive and can be played in any season, day or night.

While the modern game of golf began in Scotland, there are historical references to soldiers of the ancient Roman Empire playing something very like golf. A similar game called chuiwan became popular in China during the Ming Dynasty. No one knows exactly where disc golf started, but some credit it to a group of school children in Vancouver, Canada.

Jack Faust, a retired Air Force major, captured one of the first US disc golf championships nearly 40 years ago.
Jack Faust, a retired Air Force major, captured one of the first US disc golf championships nearly 40 years ago.

The sport is now governed by the Professional Disc Golf Association, which includes countries like Finland, France, Germany, and Spain.

Tournament director Michalak says that helps the sport grow. "If we just stayed all our separate little ways, the sport would never get momentum, so it's basically a national movement where we have one governing body kind of governing all the rules for everybody, so we all play by the same rules."

The sport has several divisions including four amateur groups, an open professional division for anyone, and age-protected categories for older players 40 and up. Amateur prizes consist of trophies and merchandise, while professional purses can run as high as $2,500 or more at events like the world championships.

While the money is good, it's not quite good enough to live on full time. So Chris Wojciechowski is planning to go to law school in Georgia this fall. He hopes to start disc golf competitions in the area.

As for Jack Faust, he's just thrilled to see how the sport has evolved.

"That's amazing how far we've come. I'd like to see it get better, but I'd like to see more people play and enjoy it because I do."