Ka-ching is a pleasing sound to all disc golfers," says Tournament Director Tom Snyder. He's referring to the noise his disc just made as it landed in hole two of the Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course in northern Philadelphia. For a disc golfer, the sound is equivalent to the 'clunk' a golf ball makes as it drops into a hole, and the satisfaction is much the same. Snyder is visibly delighted as he collects his frisbee and moves to the next hole.
Tom "Snuffy" Snyder is a teddy bear of a man, and his giant yellow sweater accents his approachability. It doesn't say "proceed with caution," but rather "I don't take things too seriously." He chuckles as he calls the sweater his "yellow beacon of hope," a touch of optimism in his normal outing apparel. The rest of his outfit consists of an unmarked blue hat, jeans and white sneakers. He has a small messenger bag hanging off his shoulder, and he reaches into it, revealing a colorful assortment of frisbees. The discs vary in width and are neatly organized into designated slots. The frisbee logo on the front pocket suggests this bag was specially designed. What first seems like a simple game of tossing a frisbee into a basket could have deeper roots.
Frisbee golf, "frolf" for short, or officially "disc golf," is a game similar in rules to traditional golf. That's not to say disc golf is without tradition -- Sedgley Woods, the second oldest disc golf course in the nation, was established in 1977, while the sport was known to exist several years before that. The primary objective is the same as golf, completing an 18-hole course in as few strokes as possible. Although it may seem strange for a disc golfer to call his or her throw a "putt" or "drive," much of the same lingo applies to both sports.
Most of the holes are par three, meaning three throws to reach the target is normal. Anything less than three throws is the goal, and anything more is, of course, unfortunate. Many holes are designed to allow for an "ace," landing the frisbee in the hole in the first shot. Sinking this shot is about as rare as making a hole-in-one in golf, but it happens. While some players refer to single shots as "eagles" and taking two shots as "birdies" (as in traditional golf), the more common names are "ace" or "one" and "deuce" or "two." "Twos are good," Snyder says with a smile, "but ones are obviously better."
The holes in disc golf aren't actually holes, more like steel baskets raised about three feet above the ground and spanning roughly three feet in diameter. Chain links droop from the top of the basket, creating a sort of industrial chandelier. These chains don't serve any aesthetic value. Instead, they more or less guide a speeding frisbee into the hole. This is no simple game though. Imagine tossing a disc into a small receptacle over 200 feet away. Seasoned veterans can make this shot or at least land close enough for a quick two.
As in any game, there is a set of more detailed rules, but the general guidelines beg for a game that's easy to pick up. "The beauty of this course is that we're open to players of all ability, players of all walks of life. We encourage everyone to play." Snyder mentions a homeless man who regularly plays at the course. "Unfortunately, we have homeless people [in the world]," he says, "so we help them out when we can. We have a food drive every year [and collect] 250 pounds of food. Many [tournaments] are centered around charity." With the goodwill of the disc golf community, it's reassuring that disc golf is more than a localized sport. Hot spots exist all over the country and all over the world. A member of Sedgley Woods went to a recent World tournament in Japan and met the woman he would later marry. The 2005 World Championshiop will take place in nearby Allentown, Pa. in July.
Snyder is here today because he's coordinating and participating in the annual Mixed/Transgendered Doubles Tournament. The point of today's tournament is encouraging female participation. The competition is still fierce, but the objective is more about getting women involved in the sport than shooting the lowest score. Instead of a typical matchup of two to four males, Snyder is joined by his wife Peg and another couple, Kevin Bolshaw and Trish Mangan. "I play twice a week," Snyder claims. "[Peg] plays once a month."
The tournament's actual name is a bit misleading, but it only means that if two males want to team up, one must dress in women's clothing. "The man down there isn't normally in drag," Bolshaw quips. "You need a female partner, so the penalty is you need to wear a wig and a dress." He's referring to Mark, a man wearing a flowing orange wig and a black and yellow floral dress. A white T-shirt covering the top half of the dress reads "Beat Bush" in large bold letters. The disc golf community is comprised of a high number of former-hippies, so the shirt's sentiment is a common one. Later in the afternoon, I'll see him without his wig, and the transformation is uncanny. He held nothing back in his get-up, a testament to the laid-back attitude and sense of humor of many frolfers.
Disc golf is about having a good time and breaking down the rules that make traditional golf primarily a sport for the upper class male. Most courses, including Sedgley Woods, require no fee whatsoever to play. Entering tournaments may cost between $2 and $10, but the profit goes toward course maintenance and prizes for the winners.
Today's tournament participants certainly don't resemble the Wall Street Sunday golfers, but appearances can be deceiving. Everyone might be dressed in T-shirts (some tie-dyed,) have long hair in ponytails and unkempt beards, but the players aren't slackers. Snyder is an engineering designer, and the course membership includes a dentist, a few doctors, an actual rocket scientist and a Jeopardy contestant.
"It's a pretty broad spectrum of people that play," Snyder says. "Paul Fein is 70 years old. He comes out here all the time to play. So it's [ages] 12 to 72." Fein is somewhat of a course legend, and he recently hosted a humorously titled "Paul Fein Not-Yet-a-Memorial Tournament." Fein is a small man with a thick beard, John Lennon sunglasses and a grandfatherly smile. Despite the wide variety in player backgrounds, disc golf is still very much a niche sport. "You wouldn't imagine the number of people you invite to play disc golf and they say, 'What?'" Bolshaw adds.
Bolshaw is a hefty man with dark hair. He's wearing a grey shirt, khaki shorts and brown boots. With a Yuengling in hand, he says, "We're pretty relaxed. We try not to attract the attention of park services. So we'll have some beers." Snyder also enjoys a few indulgences, smoking a number of cigarettes during the span of 18 holes. He smokes several in succession near the end of the course when he starts to miss close shots. The sport has a reputation for being associated with marijuana use, but that doesn't prove true today. Still, none of these activities would ever be allowed at a traditional golf course. The group wouldn't even pass the collared-shirt and no jean dress code. Disc golfers might look down on the stringent rules of country clubs, but they have a clique of their own. Just replace polos with plaids and spikes with sneakers.
Bolshaw is simply hilarious, and he makes jokes even when it's his turn to shoot. Snyder might be here to win, but Bolshaw is here for the good time. He tries to write his own description for my story, mimicking a journalist's voice. "A pleasant, witty gentleman with an aspect much like Ben Affleck," he dictates. His wife Trish joins the parody of me, saying, "Two middle-aged couples attempt to prove they're athletic." Bolshaw finishes the impersonation, saying, "I could barely muffle my laughter." He then assumes the voice of a stereotypical southerner with an uneducated drawl, saying, "You say you're a gerbalist? What do you do with gerbils?" Meanwhile, Snyder discusses the next shot with his wife.
"That's what you want to do. That's beautiful. A little kicky at the end but we're right where we need to be." Snyder keeps saying "we" because the rules for mixed doubles are different from one-on-one play. From the opening shot, each male and female takes one toss. Depending on which disc is closest to the pin or in a preferred position, both teammates take the next shot from that place. That way it's a cooperative team rather than a competitive rivalry. Regardless of the co-ed matchups, the men take the game more seriously than the women. "It's very hard to birdie this whole," Snyder says intently. "If you come out of here with a three it's like preserving a shot. Defensive golf is important. Course management is important. If you try to force a birdie you could end up with a four."
We descend a long hill as we approach the second shot, eyes open for the four frisbees.
Snyder and his wife's frisbees are about equidistant from the hole, but they choose to play Peg's because of its better lie. Snyder never stops coaching or encouraging. "Nice solid throw up the hill. Try to nestle it up there," he says. His positive attitude is not just for his teammate, he extends it to the other team. After every shot, he tries verbally coaxing the disc into the hole. "Get in there," he'll say. "That's a beauty," he'll compliment. Peg's second throw is less than spectacular, but Snyder understands. "It's hard to throw uphill because your body plays tricks on you," he explains. "You end up with too high of a release. The object is to throw across the hill." Peg is harder on herself, claiming she's hit every tree on the course.
Hitting trees happens in traditional golf, but not the way it does in disc golf. While many disc golf courses resemble traditional golf courses, most of them cut through narrow openings in the woods. Instead of working your way through open greens, disc golfers trudge through bushes, under branches and between giant tree trunks. A normal disc golf situation might involve guiding a frisbee through a strip about 15 feet wide and 100 feet long before the second shot. No throwing path is necessarily better than another, but seeing the same hole several times certainly creates an approach strategy. With the temperature in the '60s and the fall leaves starting to drop, I assume today is the ideal day for disc golf, but I'm wrong. "They come out into this sport all year round," Snyder corrects. "That's the beauty. People now are gearing up for the winter season."
Playing year-round means different strategies work better during various seasons. The popular "skip" technique, which involves purposefully letting the frisbee hit the ground at a specific angle so that it pops back up for more distance wouldn't work as well in the winter snow. The same goes for the "rolling" technique, where the player tosses the frisbee at a 90 degree angle to the ground so that depending on the leveling of the course, the disc could roll for extra distance. The winter snow may provide extra challenges, but veterans welcome the added pressure. The goal is being proficient in every climate. Traditional golf courses close during the winter season, but for disc golfers, their courses become entirely new. New Year's is one of the biggest times for any disc golfer, especially those who frequent Sedgley Woods. The course hosts one of their largest events of the year, attracting the most skilled players to a wild tournament flowing with champagne, food and prizes.
But the disc golf community isn't always fun and games. Much of the revenue used to maintain courses comes from donations and fundraising. Most of the course maintenance is done by a group of volunteers. In addition, disc golfers have to deal with problems caused by Mother Nature. Bolshaw explains, "The big story behind Sedgley is that erosion is a constant battle. We had a couple of really dry years. You could hear a shushing sound and trees would just fall. You can see it to this day." As hard as the elements come down on the course, the volunteers fight harder to keep it playable and challenging.
The next hole brings smiles to the whole group as both teams birdie. "We call that a star frame," Snyder explains. Instead of high fives going around, the players stick out their index and middle fingers and slap them against the other teammates' fingers. "We all get to do this. That means two," he adds. This will be the last time that everyone is equally happy, as Snyder gets increasingly frustrated as the day continues. He isn't making the shots he usually makes, and he receives little luck from the course itself. "I've been playing for 15 years. You've been playing for one," he replies when Peg tries to take some of the blame. Snyder demands the best from himself, desperately working to save every stroke. He distances himself from the pack, walking quickly to the next hole.
It doesn't help that Bolshaw rubs in every missed shot. "I dropped out of the womb onto a frisbee," he says in a Snyder-like voice. Snyder ignores him and tries to make the best of his round. He responds less and less to his comments, hoping Bolshaw will get the point. As much as Bolshaw jokes, it's obvious he means no harm. Snyder even laughs at a few jokes, and it looks as if this has all happened before. Snyder lights another cigarette and takes a nervous puff while Bolshaw sums up their differences. Bolshaw calls himself the Goofus to Snyder's Gallant. The Highlights for Children reference isn't lost upon the rest of the group, who laugh heartily as he elaborates upon the comparison. "Goofus makes farting noises," he says. He's talking about the raspberry sound he makes as Snyder winds up for his shot. "I waited until after he let go," he pleads. He dispenses jokes to everyone's delight, saying, "Gallant ends up in a mental hospital. Goofus ends up living to 95."
Despite Bolshaw's incessant prodding, Snyder still enjoys the round. The main reason he continues to play is not for the sport itself, but for the great relationships he's formed. "I played once and I thought, 'That's pretty cool,'" he tells me. "And once I met this great group of people, the camaraderie brought me back. I've been coming back steadily since 1990. We're about 200 members strong -- one of the leading disc golf associations in the region." Sedgley Woods has an active board of directors with elections that take place every two years.
When we wind up our round, the group heads over to the benched area at the front of the course. A man is sitting there, lacing his boots. "I've seen him before," Snyder says. "But I don't know who he is." He walks directly to the stranger and introduces himself. Disc golf survives on community, where no one is an outsider. Outsider or not, I can already see the appeal of entering the woods with a bag full of discs, a few beers and a guy who won't shut up.