A Fling in the Forest

Into the woods with the players of the Professional Disc Golf Association

Muffled by a slumberous, powder-gray sky, the hush and hue of Golden Gate Park deepen as I pick my way through an aromatic grove of trees. All is stillness, until, out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a quick, silent tail of yellow and green gliding through a patch of distant trees. I turn to follow its trajectory but get only a glimpse as it sweeps to the right, landing, I assume, behind a large bank of bushes. I wait in the quiet. Moments later, a splash of pink follows route, then changes direction suddenly as it brushes against a low-hanging tree branch; a blue specimen travels closely behind, avoiding the branch and veering to the right as the first had done. I hurry toward the flight path, getting just close enough to discern a low-flying orange disc gliding between the tree trunks as it disappears toward the right. A minute passes in silence before four people appear on the wooded path, speaking in muted tones and stepping gingerly over saplings as they trail behind their flying discs. Each person in the company carries a square shoulder bag filled with a dozen or more brightly colored discs and a fluorescent bottle of Gatorade; they smile and offer me a quiet bob of their chins before disappearing behind the brush.

"What are you doing?" I ask as one of the men lays down a marker where his disc has fallen, then carefully selects another from his bag. Width and angle of the rim, I am told later, control the speed and direction of the disk.

"I'll explain in a second," says a woman, shushing me with her tone. The man steps forward on his right leg, pulls his right arm across his body, twists his back, and throws the disc with champion skill.

A disc golf player launches a drive in Golden Gate 
Park.
Ronna Foote/Malson
A disc golf player launches a drive in Golden Gate Park.
A disc golf player launches a drive in Golden Gate 
Park.
Ronna Foote/Malson
A disc golf player launches a drive in Golden Gate Park.

"Nice toss," says the woman before turning to me. "We're playing disc golf. See the basket?" She points down a slope between two thick trees where a little yellow ribbon flaps discreetly in the breeze atop a metal basket hanging from a pole.

"We have to get this in there," she says, picking up her disc. I squint at the basket and watch her disc land less than a foot from its base.

As a Californian, I'm a little embarrassed to say I've never heard of, much less seen, disc golf. The game, which boasts over 2 million recreational players nationwide and a worldwide paid membership of over 21,000 from 20 countries on five continents, began very near here.

Disc golf was the lasting love and unconventional brainchild of "Steady Ed" Headrick, the inventor who perfected and patented the modern Frisbee design for the Emeryville toy company Wham-O in 1967. About 10 years later, Headrick quit Wham-O and founded the Disc Golf Association, to which he remained a beloved and devoted accomplice until the end of July this year, when he suffered a stroke at the Amateur World Championships in Miami. Headrick passed away two weeks later surrounded by friends and family in his La Selva Beach home, just 12 miles from Santa Cruz's De La Veaga Disc Course (arguably the best of the 800 courses Headrick helped lay down throughout the world). In keeping with his inimitable personality, he requested a pre-death memorial party (so that he might attend), and asked that his ashes be molded into flying discs (so that he might make baskets in repose). The Professional Disc Golf Association, as it's now called, expressed its affectionate moxie by announcing Headrick's death using one of his own quotes: "Lock the doors and bar the windows, God. You're gonna have your hands full." But while numerous national publications, including Sports Illustrated, considered Headrick's death worthy of note, almost none of them mentioned disc golf.

"It's a relatively young sport," theorizes Edwin "Stick" Dissosway, organizer of this year's San Francisco Safari Tournament, a temporary course set up over 15 blocks of woodland in Golden Gate Park every year. "But mostly, I think it's because there's not a lot of money in disc golf. Anyone can play. You can buy a disc for under 10 bucks and get onto a course for a dollar or two. And, if there isn't already a course, you can make one up using simple markers."

That said, San Francisco players agree it would be a far better thing to have a permanent course set up in the city.

"This is one of the only major cities in the country that doesn't have a disc golf course," says Ross Hammond, who learned to play in Delaware eight years ago. "There's a course in Berkeley, but we shouldn't have to cross the bridge. Golden Gate Park is an ideal location, and studies have shown the impact would be minimal."

According to PDGA rules, a player may be disqualified from a tournament if he breaks, or even bends, a plant or tree limb obscuring a throw, but he is encouraged to pick up trash along the way.

Hammond throws a disc across the lake abutting 25th Avenue, followed by 12-year vet Greg Farleyand young Nathan Doss. Amy Campbellchooses to take a penalty shot and circumvent the lake entirely, but as a 12-year player who relocated to the West Coast for the privilege of year-round play, she heartily agrees that the joys of disc golf depend on natural, rough terrain -- the more trees, ditches, lakes, bushes, brambles, and hills the better. There is a basket, or pin, in the Grand Canyon that hangs from a tree at the top of a very steep hill; another pin lies hidden in the trees at the base of Hoover Dam; in Santa Cruz, the "Top of the World" (as the 25th hole is known) can barely be seen 580 feet below its mountaintop tee.

Hammond, who admits to being a mediocre player at best, is one of only four competitors to get a hole-in-one at the Top of the World with witnesses.

"It's an epic throw," says Doss, who was lucky enough to witness one of the other aces. At 17, Doss has already been playing for 10 years and competing as a pro for four. While his friends are thinking about high school exams, Doss travels the country for disc golf competition -- he recently placed second at the Masters Cup on his home course at Santa Cruz, losing to a 32-year-old vet by two strokes -- but he is not the youngest competitor at the San Francisco Safari.

At 15, Greg Barsbyand Myles Hardingare seasoned players. Before Harding took his first real throw at 5, his father, also a competitor, used to push him along the course in a stroller. Barsby grew up next to a course and considers the players with whom he travels to be family.

"I used to be involved in a lot of different sports," says Nevada City's Michael Traversthrough a chest-length salt-and-pepper beard, "but after I started playing disc golf, my family decided these were the only people they wanted to be around. And that was just fine with me. At the height of my activity I was playing 15 rounds a week, 40 tournaments a year. My daughter grew up in the game."

"On my 16th birthday, there was big sheet cake for me at hole 18," says 23-year-old Marissa Travers. "Everyone who played through got a piece."

Of course, not every hole is so sweet.

During the San Francisco Safari, 29-year-old Ian Iversonfound his disc lying next to a putrefying cat near hole 2.

"One eye was hanging out," says Iverson between swigs of beer. "The side of its head was all sunken in and its mouth was twisted. (It must've died screaming.) And it stank! I had to putt right over it, so I was breathing through my mouth really good, then right before I let go I took a big ol' whiff. Whew, dead cat! I missed the putt."

When I ask Iverson why he likes to play the game, he snorts, "I got nothing better to do." But 32-year-old Matt Scottdisputes Iverson's answer.

"He's got plenty to do," states Scott certainly. "That guy's a satellite engineer. Works out of Fremont." Scott, a tournament regular, shares a tale about a coyote that grabbed a disc in Tahoe and the player who chased after it.

"It's all on tape," assures Scott. "Since coyotes are a natural part of that course, that guy should have played it from exactly where the coyote dropped it."

Perhaps being in agreement with this ruling, all 108 players along the San Francisco Safari course pause for the dogs, joggers, children, and horses that cross their path. Most of the time, though, they are out of sight, moving through the trees with nothing but the swish of brightly colored discs and the occasional approving murmur to mark their passage.

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