Why Sonoma County disc golfers are getting some overdue respect

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Laura Parker, an avid disc golfer who has been competing in local and regional professional tournaments for the past three years, believes her sport deserves more respect.

“For whatever reason, disc golfers get kind of a bad rap,” she says. “Maybe it’s the beer! But come on — ball-golfers party on their carts, and they’re still considered serious amateur athletes. I don’t know why some folks kind of shun disc golfers.”

Ever since the sport was invented and developed in the 1970s, at Sonoma State University and elsewhere, disc golf — formerly known as Frisbee golf or folf — has had a reputation as being a little silly. This reputation persists. When a receptionist with Sonoma County Regional Parks heard that the Press Democrat was doing a story about disc golf, she laughed. And this reporter, a longtime player, was not surprised. That reaction is common.

But by playing the sport, or just watching it played well, it is clear that it is a truly athletic endeavor that requires and develops serious skills.

Like its cousin (which disc-golf ers really do call “ball golf,” and definitely not “real golf”) the object is to traverse a course — usually 18 holes — and hit targets. Instead of mashing a ball with a club, the disc golf player is throwing an 8- or 9-inch, 160-to 180-gram disc toward a target, often an elevated basket strung with chains, that might be 300 to 400 feet away — in pro tournaments, much farther. As in ball golf, throws (“strokes”) are counted, and obviously the fewer the better.

Getting a solid strike on a golf ball is notoriously difficult. Similarly, getting a golf disc to fly properly involves coaxing it, with arm positioning and hand-and-wrist movement, to turn to the left or to the right, to get around trees and other obstacles. Or sometimes even to make it turn to the left and then to the right — or vice versa. Making this more possible and more complicated, golf discs come in hundreds of models that, because of their shape and weight distribution, display different flight characteristics.

Players carry several or dozens of these discs in shoulder bags or backpacks as they play. In recent years, modified baby carriages with racks for discs have appeared on courses — with cup-holders for cold beverages, of course.

The sport has developed a jargon to allow manufacturers to communicate each disc’s flight characteristics, and so players can tell golf stories. So you might hear someone at Plow Brewery’s taproom, which is frequented by disc golfers, mention a “hyzer” — a disc thrown with an angle of release that has the outside edge tilted downward — which will cause the disc to sail to the left when thrown by a right-handed player; or an “anhyzer,” (yes, pronounced like the first name of the beer company) which will have the opposite effect.

All told, a well-thrown golf disc can fly a lot farther than would seem possible, and can look like it’s being guided by remote control.

“If people could see what the players on the national tour, the real professionals, are doing — it is really impressive,” Parker says. “Sometimes it’s just flat-out amazing.”

Parker described a thriller of a throw she witnessed at the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA)’s San Francisco Open, which took place at Gleneagles Disc Golf Course back in May. It was tossed by Paige Pierce, who would go on to win her fifth consecutive PDGA World Championship on Aug.18.

“When it came out of her hand, it looked like it was going to go to the right,” Parker recalls, “but then it turned up, steadied out and went straight for a long, long ways. And somehow kept on flying, and finished left, way, way down the hill, and right in the middle of the fairway.

“She probably threw it 600 feet! And Paige is teeny-tiny! Maybe 115 pounds if she’s lucky. It was so impressive.”

Social media sensation

Online video-searches for “disc golf ace” or “disc golf hole-in-one” yield tens of thousands of clips showing hyzer-huckers working their magic. Perhaps partly thanks to its popularity on YouTube, the sport is experiencing an explosion nationwide.

Kevin Parkhurst, president of the United Flyers of Sonoma (UFOS) disc golf club, reports that when he joined the PDGA in the 1990s, he was assigned member number 9120. “There are now over 120,000 members,” Parkhurst says. “And most of that has happened in the last five years.“

Parkhurst says that the explosion in popularity has been immediately apparent in Sonoma County.

“Disc golf is going crazy here,” he says. “All of a sudden, when I go to meetings or tournaments, I don’t know half the people there,“ he says.

The UFOS is the oldest chartered disc golf organization in the country, and probably the world. Founded in 1976, UFOS built its first course at Crane Creek Regional Park in Rohnert Park. By the time Parkhurst arrived on the scene 20 years ago, that course had been disassembled for reasons that are lost to history. He says he spent the next 10 years working to convince local officials to allow him and his organization to rebuild it, at the UFOS’ expense.

Meanwhile, fellow UFO-er Shawn Sinclair made a discovery while hiking in Novato: what seemed to him to be the perfect setting for a course set in the steeply rolling oak-shaded hills above Stafford Lake. Sinclair invited Parkhurst and Jim Tobish, a teacher at Sonoma State and founding UFOS member, to scope out the place, and within 18 months the team put in 18 holes.

The Stafford Lake Disc Golf Course has since grown to 23 holes, and is rated as one of the top courses in the country, drawing a number of national tours every year.

Rohnert Park revival

Back in Rohnert Park, local leaders eventually warmed to the idea of disc golf at Crane Creek. The rebuilt course, which re-opened in 2009, is generally regarded as a good beginners’ course. Most of the holes are fairly open — no “tunnel holes” that require expert disc-threading through trees. (Be aware that there are also cow pies, and this time of year, ticks.)

The third UFOS course, at Lake Sonoma, was a cinch, Parkhurst says. “We worked with the Army Corps of Engineers on that one,” he says. “They had already been putting disc golf courses around various reservoirs that they manage, so it was pretty straightforward.”

The course wraps around Sonoma Lake, and is set up in an unusual way: There are nine tee boxes and 18 baskets; players hit the yellow baskets on the way out, and the orange baskets on the way back. The course is in an open, park-like setting, and many of the UFOS tournaments are hosted there. The next takes place on Oct. 5.

By the time he and the UFOS had finished putting in the course at Lake Sonoma, Parkhurst recalls, he had gotten to know people in county government and at the parks district — some of whom had become disc golfers, probably thanks to the UFOS courses.

“They came to me and said ‘Hey Kevin, we’ve got this piece of land at Taylor Mountain and we’re about to open a park. How would you like to put a disc golf course up there?’ And I said ‘Absolutely!’ So they gave us that little bit of land.”

The Taylor Mountain course, located minutes from downtown Santa Rosa, wraps around a hilltop featuring beautiful trees, rocks and vistas. Laura Parker says it might be her favorite course because she lives nearby and gets to play it all the time.

“It’s a super-varied course, which is nice,“ she says. “There’s open shots; there’s tunnel shots; there’s elevation changes. So it challenges different parts of your game.”

Adam Domenick, another UFOS member, reports that the group is at work on a course at Youth Community Park, otherwise known as Rosa Park, across from Piner High School. In early July, 30 UFO members helped clean up 40 acres in the back of the park, which had been a large homeless encampment. They put up nine temporary baskets and held a small tournament, and are hoping to make it a permanent course.

“We’ve had help from the police and fire departments,” Dominic says, “and are hoping this can be a place where families and students from Piner can come play.”

Escape in the landscape

Like the sport that inspired it, disc golf is mostly played in beautiful locations. Unlike groomed golf courses, however, most disc golf courses are located in public parks and set in some version of the wild. One benefit of this arrangement is that the vast majority of disc golf courses are free. The other bonus is that playing the game is a fun way to commune with nature.

Vince Ferracuti, who works at the Plow Brewing Co. and organizes Plow-sponsored events for the United Flyers of Sonoma, says playing disc golf helped him develop a deeper understanding of the landscape. He says this is something he learned as the student outdoor director at the College of Idaho, which has a course on campus.

“It just really helps you get to know a place in a different way,” he says.

Laura Parker, who brings her dog golfing with her on many evenings, quotes a friend who says of the sport: “It’s hiking with a purpose.”

On a recent scorching-hot afternoon at Taylor Mountain, Wes Sitchler, a disc-golf newbie, said he definitely appreciated the beauty of the surroundings, but was more focused on getting good.

Sitchler says he gets out three or four times a week. His stepsons turned him on to the sport about a year and a half ago, he said, and after three or four outings he grew tired of getting beat so badly. So he bought some discs, watched some videos and started hitting the links with intent. A few months ago, he attended a beginners’ tournament hosted by Plow and UFOS and picked up some pointers from local pro Dale Gatlin.

All of this “work” appears to be paying off, as was evident on Taylor’s Hole 11 — a course favorite, and a bit of a monster. The tee box is set on top of the hill, and looks down across an expansive meadow. The target basket is set in a little oak grove 400-plus feet away.

With the temperature in the high 90s, Sitchler rested in the shade for a few moments before walking to the sun-blasted tee-box. Then, with his feet planted squarely and perpendicular to the target, knees slightly bent, disc held shoulder-high, he initiated the classic five-step disc-golf-drive footwork, made a whip of his arm, and let fly.

There was nothing fancy about his throw, but it was perfect. The disc flew and flew, and landed in the shade of the oaks surrounding the basket, maybe 20 feet out. It would’ve been a tricky birdie, but Sitchler made an easy par. Maybe next time.

Visit United Flyers of Sonoma Disc Sport Club on Facebook to find out about tournaments and events throughout the county, which take place every day of the week. Visit Plownchains on Facebook to learn about Plow Brewery-sponsored events, including Disctoberfest, which takes place Oct. 5.

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