Disc Golf: A good hike ruined?
Aspen Times Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
SNOWMASS, Colorado ” I assumed Frisbee-philes were a quirky bunch.
My college roommate, a photography major with a propensity for fashioning clothing out of food for photo shoots (I particularly liked the bacon bikini and the Fruit Roll-Ups dress) captained the women’s ultimate team.
Her boyfriend, a member of the boy’s squad, Scooby Doom (I still don’t get the connection), dyed his hair the color of Papa Smurf, managed a cookie shop, listened to NOFX religiously and attended the school of forestry. During one semester, he collected bugs and mounted them on an oversized Styrofoam board propped against his apartment wall. (I once gave him a beetle I trapped in the bathroom ” you would’ve thought it was Christmas.)
A different crowd.
I didn’t quite fit in.
I figured the same would be true when Snowmass summer lift operations manager Taka Sakai recently agreed to take me on my first Frisbee golf excursion. I carried two notepads, two pens, an energy bar and a pocket full of preconceived notions to the base of the Burlingame chair two weeks ago.
I was all wrong.
Frisbee golf bears little, if any, resemblance to its flat-ground namesakes: golf and Frisbee. Yes, the golf part of the name is apropos, considering that you try to traverse each hole in as few shots as possible. On the other hand, you don’t even use a Frisbee. Participants here throw personal-pan-pizza-sized hard-plastic discs, not the oversized saucers that litter college quads and can hold three beers (Scooby Doom did host entertaining parties).
Here, you traverse overgrown undulating slopes, not sunbathing coeds. Here, a good high-mountain hike through the wildflowers has the perfect complement.
So, from here on, let’s call the sport by its proper name: Disc Golf. (Indeed, if you call it Frisbee, you’ll draw the ire of Sakai, the mountain’s resident guru.)
The four men with whom I took to the slopes to play a round are surprisingly laid-back and refreshingly normal. More so than most, even. They are middle-aged men, fathers, window washing company owners and restaurant workers. They are Texans and New Yorkers. They are Red Sox and Mets fans.
They are the four horseman of Snowmass disc golf. They helped design the mountain’s 27-hole tract, and were the inspiration behind the recent Snowmassive Disc Golf Open ” the valley’s first Professional Disc Golf Association-sanctioned event.
They are diehards.
Keepin’ it simple
Jesse Lee III says he’s been playing disc golf for little more than six years, but he’s not fooling me. I’d be willing to wager that the father of two from Redstone is descended from a long line of saucer enthusiasts.
Lee’s fluid, powerful motions mimic those of an orchestral conductor on speed. He has a seemingly innate ability to fling a disc 400 feet, then make it abruptly fade hard to either side as if on cue and tumble to the ground near the target. It’s like he’s guiding a remote-controlled airplane.
I’m convinced Lee spends hours honing his technique in front of the bathroom mirror. That, or he practices hitting an overturned kiddy pool from across his backyard. Either way, I’d love to take this guy to the fair ” we’d need a U-Haul to truck home all his prizes.
Don’t let the soft Texas drawl, laid-back persona or cantaloupe-colored T-shirt fool you. Behind those dark sunglasses, I’m sure Lee’s eyes are deep in contemplation.
You should see his bag. His oversized lunch bag/dog carrier looks like a Sports Authority is crammed inside. He must have more than a dozen discs of all different colors in there. And apparently, they make discs for everything: Wooded holes, downhill holes, tailwind holes, even for hitting it through the clown’s mouth.
Sakai, a pint-sized New Yorker with a cup-sized toy box terrier named Homey in tow, pulls two saucers ” a shiny blue one with a drawing of a longhorn on top and an Innova Disc Golf Aviar X Juliana Korver Signature Series putt and approach disc ” from his quiver and hands them to me on the first tee.
Good, I say. Let’s keep this as simple as possible.
I would not use the word simple again for the next three hours. My play would’ve made Korver, a five-time PDGA champion, cringe.
Lee steps up to the first tee ” a short uphill hole where it’s mandated that each person’s tee shot split two tall trees spaced about 20 feet apart ” and uncorks a perfect throw through the uprights that lands 40 or so feet short of the basket.
Sakai follows with a similarly-majestic shot. So, too, does Tom “Duff” Duffin, a native Rhode Islander who, despite 20 years in the valley, still hasn’t lost his Pawtucket brogue. And Amos Hall, a Houston native with a big laugh and an even bigger follow through, does the same ” and then some. Some of this guy’s throws travel farther than Bode at Kitzbuhel.
I am next. As I step up to throw, all the tips I received on the ride up started racing through my head.
Keep the disc flat. Flick the wrist ” “Like you’re giving someone a rat tail,” Sakai says. It was the perfect analogy, considering that in high school I was 140 pounds, played saxophone in the marching band and had a bowl cut.
I contort my midsection, fling my right arm from back to front like I’m trying to knock my shoulder out of its socket, and release the disc. It immediately darts hard to the left as if being redirected by gale-force winds, sputters and falls into a field. I conservatively estimate I am 200 feet away from the gap.
I would’ve been just as effective had I had tossed a dinner plate.
Not quite par
After the one stroke penalty and a few subsequent dead duck attempts, I am in sight of the basket, a contraption that looks like a yellow hat rack wrapped with a Mr. T necklace. I switch from the blue disc to the Korver model and subsequently miss long and left before hearing the soothing sound of plastic hitting metal.
Considering every hole is a par 3, this is hardly the auspicious start I envisioned.
“It takes a while to get the hang of it,” Duff assures me. “You have to figure out what the disc will do for you, or, in my case, what it will do to you.”
Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs resonate from a small radio tucked in Sakai’s bag as we head to the third tee. Lee tells me there’s a basket tucked into a large cluster of pines some 400 yards uphill, and I take his word for it. Since I’ve been slicing more than a sous chef during the first two holes, I decide to overcompensate by aiming 100 feet to the right. The plan works. Sort of.
It still takes me three shots to reach the trees. That’s when I realize the basket is strategically tucked among at least five trees ” or goalies, as Sakai jokingly refers to them. Predictably, my first shot hits a trunk and rolls back to my feet.
This happens twice more.
Judging by the course layout, I wonder if these guys are sadists. At the very least, they have quite a sense of humor.
“This Frisbee has bad intentions today,” Lee says at the fifth as we all watch his shot fade into the aspens. After 10 minutes spent trudging through weeds as tall as an eighth grader, I decide my disc has a reckless disregard for human life and vegetation. I hope these ecosystems aren’t fragile.
By the eighth hole, my swing ” which looks like a mix between an off-balance shot-putter and a drunken baseball player ” is progressing. I jokingly ask if I get extra points for bouncing the disc off a snow gun up the right side. No one laughs. Homey barely lifts his head as he continues munching on grass.
I settle for hitting a dead log, though not on purpose. At least I didn’t drill any mountain-boarders.
“That’s why they wear helmets,” Lee jokes.
At the ninth, I sink my first putt of more than 10 feet. I have finally arrived.
Or so I thought. I revert to form at the 10th, nearly hitting the Sam’s Knob Chair (it was so far left, I didn’t even think it was in play). The two technicians perched on top of the lift break out the golf clap to commemorate the effort.
I always appreciate sarcasm.
Not to be outdone, Hall launches an awkward shot that drifts over the trees and makes a splash landing into a small pond. While the rest of stop to gaze and chuckle, Hall breaks off a dead branch and fishes the disc out. Somewhat miraculously, he goes on to card an eight.
“You don’t see a lot of snowmen out here in the summer,” Duff jokes.
Unless you play with me.
While my playing partners were quick to praise my progress, they also drop not-too-subtle hints. Like urging me to play from the drop on one hole over a small pond. Or lending me a disc that floats, assuming I’d find a far-less conspicuous water hazard under the Village Express.
I get it. I’m a work in progress. But I also show flashes of brilliance on the second and third nines, most likely because I am more worried about sunburn and my allergies than scrutinizing every aspect of my so-called swing.
On one hole ” a short dogleg to the right that requires a tee shot to cut sharply through a small opening in the trees ” I come 10 feet away from picking up an elusive ace. The par is a joy to me, but not Duff; he vows to hand me his discs and give up the sport if a rookie picks up a hole-in-one before him.
His equipment is safe on this day.
I do, however, avoid the tall grass, streams and dusty service roads on four consecutive holes, walking away with pars.
Now that’s worthy of a golf clap. Now that’s what will bring me back for more.
That and the inviting atmosphere. Here, there’s no dress code (Sakai doesn’t even wear a shirt). Here, you’re free to move at your own pace (unless you’re playing with me, in which case I’ll need help finding my disc).
Here, everyone from first timer to three-time-a-week journeyman is welcome. Here, all preconceived notions are shattered.
After three-plus hours spent traversing slopes in the shadow of Sam’s Knob, I catch the bug ” and what appears to be poison oak.
With all due respect to my roommate, this is the ultimate.