Disc golf: more than a sport, it’s a culture 


Editor’s note: CN+R Reporter Casey Mann, an avid disc golfer, spent her weekend with fellow enthusiasts celebrating Saturday’s National Disc Golf Day. Here’s her take on the growing sport and her experience.

Three private disc golf courses in Chatham County in two days — that’s how we celebrated National Disc Golf Day.

Did any of us really care about National Disc Golf Day? Probably not, but it was a good excuse to play some disc golf.

Not like we needed an excuse. The sport is growing so quickly that it would be easy to find a course to play in North Carolina any day of the week. In just about every county in the state there are public parks, small community tournaments, and “doubles” events — where you get paired with another golfer and take the best of both shots per hole.

Disc golf is a sport similar to ball golf, but played with flying discs. Some in the disc golf community don’t really like calling ball golf “traditional” — it gets under their skin like a micro-aggression, especially since many disc golf players also play ball golf and view both sports equally. Courses are typically 18 holes and players throw discs at baskets with chains, akin to the “holes” on a golf course, aiming for the fewest strokes possible. Like ball golf with fairways and greens, players hope for birdies, eagles, and the elusive hole in one.

Its origins can be drawn to the 1970s where the first patent for a disc golf basket was issued and the sport has grown ever since. The Professional Disc Golf Association created National Disc Golf Day, celebrated the first Saturday in August, to “celebrate one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.”

Here in Chatham, there are several public courses including Rock Ridge Park in Pittsboro, which the Pittsboro Parks and Recreation notes is the top-ranked public disc golf course in the Triangle and Triad areas. Rock Ridge was designed by John Houck of Texas, who has designed more championship disc golf courses than anyone living today. But for the dedicated disc golfer, building your own course on your private land is the ultimate reward.

Professional disc golf play involves tournaments, sponsorships and player rankings. But in casual play, it’s usually only first names or nick-names, small payouts, and the game centers around a community of people who love the game, the outdoors, and spending time with each other. Nicknames are part of the culture of the disc golf community — they allow the players to define themselves and their place in the community. Since the community and courses are on private property, typically someone’s home, the News + Record is limiting personal information to protect the owners’ and the players’ privacy.

As someone whose disc golf skills are, at best, in the developmental stage, I appreciate the options and affordability of the sport. True, it costs you some for your startup discs, but you really only need one or two when you’re starting — a putter and a mid-range. Public parks are free and you don’t need to pay green fees, rent a golf cart, or spend much other than for water and snacks. And it gets you out in nature. It’s a lovely sightseeing walk where you get to be mildly (or significantly) competitive and you might even see some amazing athleticism.

But it really boils down to the community.

First Round

On Saturday morning I joined at least two dozen disc golfers on a private course on a disc golfer’s farmland just off an unassuming gravel path west of Pittsboro. As the mid-morning sun removed the chill from the air, the players gathered their bags full of discs and coolers waiting for the tournament director to yell “bring it in.” 

“We’re outside so obviously there are ticks, chiggers, snakes, and holes,” said Noah, who ran the event. “We have bug spray.”

A quick guide to the course was given, teams and cards assigned, and the players began their walk to their first holes. The course was arduous, with several long par-4 holes. At each hole, the team with the lowest score gets to go first on the next one, or “take the box.” The highest scoring team on the card is “BOB,” or “bottom of the box.” I tend to spend a lot of time as BOB. We trudged up and down hills, powering through long drives of more than 250 feet, desperate to avoid trees, and hoping to make those putts take the box.

As the morning wore on, the heat of the day began to wear on the players. Fortunately, to celebrate National Disc Golf Day, smoked pork butts, homemade coleslaw, and the most delicious cornbread ever created awaited us when we finished our round. Though there were winners and losers, the scores were less important than the camaraderie.

The elders of the game have been playing for decades — growing a burgeoning sport. They continue to play not just for the love of sport, but for the community connections. Plus, as aging joints begin to wear and slow the body down, disc golf is low-impact though still exercise. Some courses are miles long. That’s part of the reason why disc golf attracts me. I have titanium bars and pins in my lower back from an accident I had more than 25 years ago. Playing the game keeps me active and healthy.

“In 1982 we started throwing Frisbees to targets (signs/trees etc) because we were bored,” recalled Taka, a disc golfer from Davie County. “We thought that we had invented Frisbee golf.”

“I was tossing wham-o discs back in the late 80s and then one day I went to Kentwood Park in Raleigh to toss my wham-O at a disc golf basket,” a player who calls herself Double-A of Wake County said. “A man walks up to me (Joe Who) and hands me a cobra disc [a type of disc golf disc made by Innova] and says, ‘Here, snap it out in front between 11-1 o clock.’ I thought to myself, ‘This thing looks like a Corelle plate. It’s not going to fly worth a damn.’ Well, I was wrong. It flew so much farther and was more accurate. I played voraciously from that day on, deciding I would do what I could to promote the sport and even have my own course one day on my land in Raleigh.”

Double-A opened her course, Sunshine Acres, in 1994 and over the years has designed stamps for discs, artwork for t-shirt designs for tournaments, tie-dyed everything she could get her hands on and helped to “piggyback on the notion that disc golf builds great community.”  

Sometimes you’ll see two generations of disc golfers on the course. Double A’s daughter, A-Squared, has been on a disc golf course most of her life. She doesn’t play competitively like her mother has, but she comes to enjoy the company and the disc golf family. And then there’s “The Real McCoy” who has two sons who play the game; the elder is on tour and sponsored by a disc company. And Chris Brown’s daughter, “the young Hope Brown” continues to smash on the professional juniors tour.

Second Round

After the first round, we made our way to the next private course at the home of another disc golfer outside of Pittsboro. Most of the players made their way to the course and were joined by other players who hadn’t made it in the morning, bringing the player count to about 30 for the day. I didn’t have the stamina for the second round. Heat and lack of skill got the best of me. Then again, there are worse things to do then sit on an old porch surrounded by nature while watching folks with mad skills hit their mark and bang those chains.

Some players have an arm that gives them a massive drive while others have the finesse to land every ridiculous putt around a mass of trees. Some are blessed to have both those skills. Those are the athletes that are the most fun to watch. Even when they’re bad, they’re good. 

The second course was a combination of wide open field holes with rolling hills and tight wooded holes. There were amazing long drives and crazy long putts. As the heat of the day began to subside, the players settled deep into their second round. The drives were long and it takes strength and skill to get that “snap” on the disc for it to fly the distance and the direction the player intends. Backhand throws, flicks, and jump putts were just some of the techniques on display on the course that day. As the round ended, the players were greeted with yet another delicious meal, stuffing their bellies as they lounged on the porch, recovering from the long day.

Disc golfers are young and old, men and women, experienced and novice and yet we are one community. 

“I play because I love it,” LizLime of Durham said. “It’s the best people on earth. And I still haven’t gotten an ace so there’s always something to shoot for. Disc golf is incredibly accessible. All shapes, sizes, ages, abilities can play. Low impact on your body AND the environment.”

“The good shots obviously [keep me playing],” The Dactyl from Mecklenburg County said. “And the community of friends I’ve made. There are some amazing people I might have never met if it weren’t for the game of disc golf.” 

Final Round

Sunday morning brought another course and different disc golfers. We traveled to Bear Creek to meet another 25 disc golfers. This private course is terrifically shaded with a creek running through it keeping the temperatures at bay. The creek also means there are holes that have “OB,” or out of bounds, adding a new challenge for the player.

First Sunday doubles — a tradition in itself — is a favorite among the community. The course is beautiful. It “plays well” and is an equalizer as it’s not dependent on powerful drives. The course is a lot of finesse which allows both men and women to compete against each other. I may not be able to do a 350 feet drive with my upper body strength, but I might be able to make a killer up shot when your “power drive” hits a tree.

The opening hole’s tee pad sits atop of stone cliff, with players having to throw a long drive off the edge and over the creek to land in the green. The front nine holes are tight and technical holes through the woods, which have been painstakingly cared for. The back nine is longer, but still wooded, with challenging topography to consider when throwing your shots.

As morning settled into early afternoon, the players began to finish their rounds, welcomed by another meal. The winners, who shot nine under par, received the top honors. Sunday’s course also included rewards for “CTP” or “closest to the pin.” CTP’s are usually items players have donated — on Sunday there were discs and insect repellent towelettes. As the final round of the weekend came to a close, those who completed all three courses were fairly wiped out, myself included. 

“Disc golf is more than just a sport — it is a culture,” said Rando Lando, of Franklin County.  

“When you start playing with the right vibe, it is like seeing the ocean for the first time,” said Detroit Drew, of Wake County. 

There’s something about family — the culture — something that brings all these random folks together beyond the sport. We diverge on politics, occupations, religions, perspectives, but we put up with each other. We come together at times of need. Like when Bear was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. The community came together to hold raffles, create commemorative disc, and more to raise money for his family to pay medical bills and funeral costs.

We feed each other, spend time with each other, compete against each other. It’s more than the “good stops” at the tee box, the tough shots, the long putts, the par saves. It’s the sounds of laughter, the “woots,” and “aw’s” of the close calls that carry through the woods. The camaraderie of the people that have developed with friends old and new.

“It’s still fun, especially with real discs and baskets,” Taka said. “Add some good friends, a sweet course, and you’ve got yourself a good time. Disc golf is like the Grateful Dead. Not everyone gets it but the people who do are a higher life form.”

We brave the elements — heat, rain, cold, ticks and chiggers — and it’s all worth it. We have taken the box.

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.