For a man who had an oak tree standing between him and a birdie for a world title, Scott Martin was not especially perplexed. Moments earlier he had cranked a 275-foot drive from the par-3 16th tee onto the green. If he sank this putt, he would have a virtually insurmountable three-stroke lead. But first there was the matter of the oak tree smack dab in the middle of the green.
Last summer, on the final weekend in July, Martin and 153 others met in Indianapolis to compete in the fourth Professional Disc Golf Association World Amateur Championships. Despite the oxymoronic title (the Pro Disc Golf Association sponsored the event), the four-day, seven-round tournament pitted only amateurs from 31 states and Canada. At stake: the honor of being hailed the world's best amateur disc golfer. Says Martin, a 27-year-old from Peoria, Ill., "Disc golf will be the next Olympic sport."
Wipe that smirk off your face. Disc golf is serious stuff. Did you know that 300 disc golf courses exist in the U.S., Canada, Japan and Europe? That for $18 you can purchase a year's subscription to Disc Golf Journal, the bimonthly that bills itself as "The World's Finest Disc Golf Publication"? That there is even a disc golf pro tour? "You can make money as a pro," says Al Guerrero, a coordinator of the Indianapolis event and proud owner of a Jerry Garcia-autographed disc, "but not enough to quit your day job."
Actually, Dan Parks did—and he's an amateur. A week before the world championships, Parks, 34, an electrical engineer from Nashville, got miffed when his boss reneged on a promise to let him take vacation time to compete in Indianapolis. So he quit. (He was later rehired.) "I had practiced just putting for an hour a day," says Parks. "I wasn't going to miss this."
Parks broke his big toe a few days before the first round but still played, waking up at five o'clock each morning for an hour of physical therapy before hitting the links. "The toe hurts," he said in Indianapolis, "but at least I'm here."
Lest you believe that Parks is living proof of the demise of Western civilization, be advised: Disc golf demands athletic prowess and brains. Not only do these players toss discs the length of a football field, but they also land them within five yards of the pin. What's more, said Guerrero, "you'll see more strategy here than you'll ever see in ball golf."
And more tie-dyed shirts. "Deadheads with discs" is how one female disc golfer describes her brethren. Take Scott Kipp. Three years ago Kipp, 38, president of the Motor City Chain Gang (a disc golf club, not a prison work program), took a long, strange trip in his Mustang GT. He drove from Michigan to Florida to California "just to play the best disc courses in the U.S.A." And when Martin arrived in Indianapolis, he had put 16,000 miles on his '92 Ford Ranger, truckin' from Peoria to "play tourneys every weekend."
Golf and disc golf have much in common, even if their participants do not. Disc golf courses have 18 holes, but the distance from tee to hole is about one third of what it is on a golf course. A par 4, for example, runs 375 feet rather than 375 yards. Instead of aiming at a hole in the green, players aim for a disc pole hole, which looks like a barbecue grill on a pole. "I know of a round that was broken up because a family was trying to shish kebab on the 12th hole," says Bob Thurmon, the head official in Indianapolis.
The disc is smaller, heavier and easier to control than the platter you fling at the beach. Players have more than 70 disc models from which to choose, and they lug as many as 20 in a disc bag during a round. Why? "Because that's as many as they can lift," says Parks.
"The disc you choose depends on the desired degree of 'hyzer' you need for a particular shot," says Ed Headrick, 69, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of disc golf, who shortly after leaving his position as CEO of Wham-O toys in 1975, invented the disc pole hole. "A hyzer is the natural curve of the disc's trajectory. When a lefty tosses a disc, it tails off to the right and vice versa for righties. A lefty uses another model disc if he wants the shot to sail to the left."
Why not fling the disc straight at the hole? Because unlike golf, in which trees line the fairways, disc golf has trees obstructing the fairways, not to mention the greens. Thus, although Martin flung an elegant 275-foot hyzer to within a few yards of the 16th pin in Indianapolis, he was laid up at the base of an oak tree.
Credit Headrick, a peripheral visionary if ever one existed, with flinging plastic discs from the fringes of sport into the mainstream—or closer to it, anyway. In 1964, when he joined Wham-O in San Gabriel, Calif., the Frisbee, a trademark of Wham-O, was not especially aerodynamic. He spent 10 years perfecting the Frisbee and finding new applications for it. Frisbee golf was one such application, but not until Headrick came up with the disc pole hole did disc golf takeoff. He experimented with 54 versions of the hole before building one that satisfied him. He placed it in a park in La Canada, Calif., and within a few weeks the "course" was attracting players in droves.
By 1984 more than 200 disc golf tournaments were held throughout the country; today there are pro tours in North America and Europe.
But discs are toys and toys are for kids, so nobody was surprised when after five rounds of the world championships in Indianapolis, 14-year-old Rivers Sherrod was one of the leaders. At 5'3" and 95 pounds, Sherrod is disc golf's Doogie Hyzer, a distinction that has brought him some ribbing. "Rivers likes to jump on the swings," said Steve Peck, a member of Rivers's foursome, pointing to a nearby playground. "We hope he gets dizzy."
It is easy to see why a kid would take to the sport. A disc runs about $7, and courses, most of which are in parks or on college campuses, usually cost nothing to play. "I used to play ball golf," said Peck as he watched Sherrod, who faltered in Round 6 and didn't make the cut for the final round. "I got into this because it's cheaper and the people are friendlier."
At a banquet on the eve of the final round, Headrick rose to address the audience. After delivering what can only be described as the most moving speech in disc golf history, the guru gazed upon his disc-iples and implored one and all to "stand up and hug somebody." Would Nick Faldo embrace Curtis Strange?
On the 16th hole the next day Martin, nursing that two-stroke lead, faced a "gorilla putt." Tom Schlueter, 39, who has been publishing Disc Golf Journal for three years, explained that a player faces a gorilla putt when he places one foot on his mark and stretches the rest of his body around the trunk of an obstructing tree. Martin's rangy 6'4" frame, Schlueter said, gives him what is known as "a real good ape index."
A second later Martin's green putter disc, which is more pliable than a driver, sailed into the basket of the disc pole hole. The gallery, 200 strong, erupted in the knowledge that the outcome of the 126-hole discathlon was no longer in doubt. Fifteen minutes later Headrick was congratulating Martin, who had just announced that he would turn pro, which, given the fact that he was unemployed, seemed like a good idea.
"It's like a religion," said Headrick of his sport. He watched Martin wander off to accept kudos from comrades and said, "I like to call them Frisbetarians."
Whatever you call them, the disc golf faithful are growing, and as Martin proved, their sport will play even in Peoria.