Chandler Fry rummaged around in a big, black bag crammed full of small, colorful plastic discs.
Seconds later, Fry stood on a concrete pad on steamy August evening and eyed a metal basket tucked between several Yauger Park trees.
The basket – called a “Pole Hole” was 345 feet away.
Fry froze, coiled his body and then sent the disc hissing toward the basket. The disc curved between two troublesome trees and landed about 10 feet away from the basket.
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“OK,” said Fry, who is 19 and the Washington state professional disc golf champion. “That’s OK, but my longest drive was 515 feet.”
Fry rummaged for his “putter” disc as he marched off toward the basket. He had to keep moving, as other disc golfers were approaching the tee.
Disc golf – where players use small, plastic discs that resemble Frisbees to shoot around a long course with baskets instead of holes – is soaring these days in South Puget Sound and across the nation. According to the Georgia-based Professional Disc Golf Association, an estimated 12 million people have made a disc golf shot.
Another group, the Disc Golf Association, estimates that 2 million people in the U.S. now play disc golf regularly.
The numbers of South Puget Sound Disc golfers increases every year, said Raymond Seick, a player since 1986 and pro at the Fort Steilacoom course.
“Oh, it’s multiplying fast,” Seick said. “When I started in 1986, there were only three courses in the Northwest, and now we’ve got dozens.”
There are at least 45 disc golf courses in Washington, and one of the top courses in the United States is located at Fort Steilacoom. Most major towns and cities have installed disc golf courses at parks.
And just about all of those courses gets heavy use most of the year – especially on long summer evenings.
THIS IS NOT FRISBEE
Frisbees – the plate-sized plastic discs from Wham-O that have sailed across beaches, parks and graduation ceremonies for decades – were used in early disc golf games during the 1960s.
But today’s discs are smaller, made of several different kinds of plastic and are much more specialized.
“It’s like golf – where you have drivers and putters and approach clubs,” said Jeremy Gaskill of Steilacoom, who was playing an evening round with his girlfriend, Michelle Drapela. “In disc golf, we have driver discs, sidewinders – that curve to the right or left – other discs for approach shots and putters.
“We carry so many discs because they all do something different.”
Mid-range discs are thinner than drivers, and they often will curve around obstacles. Most disc golfers carry bags with several discs. Gaskill had more than a dozen discs in his bag. Chandler’s bag, which resembled a hiking backpack, had dozens of discs.
The whole idea is to have a disc that can handle a particular shot – and help you put the disc in the hole without going over par, said Gaskill, a disc golfer for 5 years.
Most discs cost between $9 and $20.
That said, it’s possible to start out with one general disc - and have lots of fun, Drapela said.
“This sport is fun and chill,” Drapela said. “You can buy one disc and really get into it, and it doesn’t cost anything to get on the course.”
Many disc golfers savor the simple, inexpensive parts of the sport. There are no special shoes, clothes – it is common to see men without shirts – country clubs or greens fees.
It is easy to spend several hundred dollars on discs, but you can buy your kids a Frisbee – or a general-purpose golf disc – and get into the game for just a few bucks, Gaskill said.
“It’s a real family-friendly sport,” Gaskill said.
Justin Veit plays the Fort Steilacoom course several times a week, and he savors making the shot.
But Veit also loves the simple pleasures of hitting the course in the evening, being outdoors with his friends – and making new friends on the course.
“It takes lots of patience,” Veit said. “But it’s also really casual – you meet lots of people, and there is a great community of people who play almost every day – it’s something positive to do with your time.”
The sport is booming because it appeals to all ages, it can be played almost anywhere, players with all skill levels – including beginners – have a good time, and it is social, Seick said.
“You see kids as young as 6 years old – and well into their 80s – throwing discs,” said Seick, who is 82 and still plays several holes most days. “It’s fun to aim that disc and throw it.”
A HAPPY ADDICTION
A disc golfer can play 18 holes in an hour to 90 minutes, and that makes it easy to fit in several rounds a week – or even in a day.
Gaskill plays several times a week.
“It’s very peaceful, and it’s a great way to calm down,” he said. “It’s my stress reliever. When you’re playing, you don’t think about anything else.”
Ryan Garcia and Jessica Haynes, of Olympia, play four to five times a week.
Haynes sailed her disc in a curve around a big Douglas fir tree, grinned, wiped her forehead and rummaged around for a putter disc.
Haynes said the sport was fun from the very first throw.
“I’m going to keep playing,” she said.
“I think it’s kind of an addiction,” Garcia said after he curved his disc around a stand of Yauger Park trees and then sent his putter clanging into the chain basket. “Making the good shots is what keeps you coming back for more.”
Fry, who will represent Washington at the U.S. Disc Golf Championships in Rock Hills, South Carolina in October, plays at least two rounds a day.
But Fry, who is a pro, still pretty much plays for fun.
“I love being outdoors, and there is the satisfaction of seeing a good drive and making a good putt,” Fry said. “And it’s a great way to meet people.”
Then Fry picked up another disc – a driver – and sent it sizzling towards the next Pole Hole.
There was plenty of time left in the evening to play a few more holes of disc golf.
The sprawling disc golf course at Fort Steilacoom Park is considered one of the best in the country. The course at 8200 87th Ave. S.W. in Lakewood has two 18-hole courses. For details, go to www.discgolftacoma.com. The disc golf course at Yauger Park in Olympia is popular with players – especially during summer evenings. The 18-hole course is at 3100 Capital Mall Drive S.W. Learn more at tiny.cc/BhW4X.
Disc Golf History
Disc golf – in one form or another – has probably been around since humans first flipped a flat, pancake disc through the air, said Raymond Seick, disc golf pro at Fort Steilacoom.
According to the Professional Disc Golf Association, the first documented roots of disc golf date back to 1926, when kids in Vancouver, British Columbia, sent the tin-can lids spinning at targets. The kids called their game Tin Lid Golf.
In 1965, recreation counselor George Sappenfeld got the idea of using Frisbees on a golf course. In 1968, the Wham-O company sent Sappenfeld, then a recreation director in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Frisbees and Hula Hoops to put on a tournament.
Disc Golf flared up and died out in these ways until the early 1970s, when the sport spun into critical mass.
Disc golfers organized in Rochester, New York in 1970, and created clubs, courses and tournaments.
Other areas also were catching disc golf fever.
Ed Headick, founder of the Disc Golf Association, is widely credited with putting disc golf on the map from the 1970s through his death in 2002.
Headick’s will called for putting his cremated ashes into a number of discs, and friends and family now carry a little bit of him in their disc golf bags.
There are now at least 2,354 courses in the United States – with more created every year.
According to the Disc Golf Association, about 2 million people in the United States now regularly play disc golf, and it is considered one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation.