Teeing off on a new sport

Disc golf fans build course for Juneau's latest outdoor activity

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

It's a warm summer day in Juneau, and you're on the front nine, trying to determine what driver will get you to the hole under par. After making a selection, you step up to the tee, draw your shoulders back - and let the disc fly.

Disc golf has arrived in Juneau and the fact that it's played with what looks like a Frisbee doesn't make it any less challenging.

"It's still golf, so it's totally got the mental part - the concentration and the mental drive, the control," said James Brown, a disc golf enthusiast whose petition to build a nine-hole course at Dimond Park was approved last month by the city's Parks and Recreation Committee. "At its essence, you're still playing against the course."

The difference between disc golf and traditional golf is the use of a Frisbee-like disc rather than a golf ball and clubs. The ultimate goal of both sports is the same - getting to the hole in the fewest number of shots.

Starting at the tee box, players throw a disc to the pole hole, a 3-foot-high, above-ground target with a chain basket attached, Brown said. Players continue their drive toward the hole, throwing each subsequent shot from the spot where the previous throw landed.

Courses can range in size from nine to 24 holes, and par can vary on each hole. Due to space constraints, each hole at the Dimond Park course will be par 3, but Brown plans to install two tee boxes for each hole, one for advanced players and the other for beginners. The beginner tee boxes will be closer to the hole, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will be less difficult.

"In long holes the difficulty is in length," Brown said. "But in short holes, the difficulty might be that (the course) is tight, or trees might be in the way."

Disc golf can be played using a regular Frisbee, Brown said, but a disc designed specifically for the sport will provide more satisfying results.

"The discs are smaller in diameter than a Frisbee, and they're thinner and more dense," he said. "They're made for long distance and accuracy."

For the beginner, Brown suggests a multi-purpose or midrange disc, which costs between $10 and $12. As golfers become more serious about the sport, they can purchase additional discs designed for different drives, as in traditional golf.

"There are all types of different discs. Some go farther, some go shorter. Some go right, some go left," he said. "Then you have putters. They're kind of softer, more stable, flat discs" used from shorter distances to get the disc into the hole.

Serious players can walk onto a course with anywhere from one to 12 discs, Brown said. But because the Dimond Park course will be smaller and tighter than other courses, players will only need three or four discs, he said.

Those with even a little bit of skill throwing a Frisbee should encounter little difficulty when throwing a disc, Brown said, but the technique is different.

"A lot of times you throw from your hip and your wrist is more open," he said, describing the method most people use when throwing a Frisbee. "In disc it's more arm speed and flick." The goal is to maximize the disc's rotation so it will fly straighter and longer, he added.

"It definitely is hard if you can't throw at all," said Jeff Jemison, a self-described disc golf enthusiast who played in college. "It can get frustrating. But if you have a little bit of skill, it can be fun."

Without an established course in Juneau, golfers have been playing on "object" courses at Dredge Lake or Back Loop Road. On an object course, players select targets - such as a rock or a tree - and take aim, said Jemison. But for the player who wants to watch his or her game progress, an object course falls short because it can change from game to game.

"I like an established course for the reason (that) you get to know all the contours," Jemison said. "You can start to estimate your shots, know which way things curve."

For that reason, Jemison and fellow enthusiasts signed on in support of Brown's proposal. Even players of Ultimate Disc - a flying-disc team game that uses elements of soccer, basketball and football - and people who just thought it sounded like fun supported building the course.

"We thought it'd be a real positive, additional activity for our kids to be involved in," said David Blair, who works in the University of Alaska Southeast Housing Department. "I would do it if they had an established course. I think it's something that would be fun to do."

"I'll probably use it to practice my throws," said Peter van Tamelen, an ultimate disc player who, like Jemison, occasionally plays disc golf at Dredge Lake.

Because Brown volunteered to design and clear the course, the only cost is the $2,600 necessary to purchase the nine baskets, he said. The city Parks and Recreation Department is paying roughly half the cost of the baskets, and sponsors, including Trail Mix, are covering the rest, he said. He hopes to have the tee boxes and baskets in within a month.

"As soon as you get the tee boxes and the baskets in, you can start playing," Brown said. "Hopefully we can get that in in a month or so, and then have it all cleared out in a couple of months. It all depends on how much help I get."

Fans of disc golf - "You can't call it 'Frisbee' because that's a trademark," said van Tamelen - say part of its appeal is that it can be played alone or with a group.

"It's just kind of a good way to get people together," Jemison said.

"The beauty of disc golf is you can go out by yourself and play, or with a group of friends," Brown said.

The accessibility of courses and the low equipment cost is another positive feature, Brown said. It shuns the elitism some people feel surrounds traditional golf, avoiding tee times and expensive green fees, he said.

"Disc golfers welcome people into the sport," Brown said. "There's no tee times, there's no fees. It's open to the public."

But the ultimate appeal of disc golf, say its fans, is simple.

"It's fun," said Jemison. "Try it. You might like it."

And if you give it a chance, you may become as big a fan as Brown.

"I'm just really hooked on it," Brown said. "I think it's the sport of the future."

Amy Maio is a Juneau free-lance writer.



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