Disc golf

At last, a sport that isn’t driven by testosterone! It’s cheap, it’s eco-friendly, and you don’t even have to know the rules to enjoy a pleasurable round with family or friends.

But don’t let the laid-back attitude fool you — at the Mountain Sports Festival presented by RBC Centura, you’ll soon discover that there’s far more to disc golf than flipping Frisbees in the park. The champion disc golfers who’ll compete in the festival’s Mountain Disc Golf Experience can make their specialized discs snake around trees or do barrel rolls in the air. And the 18 basket goals scattered through the woods are at least as challenging to hit as the holes on a conventional golf course.

Disc-golfers (including a number of the world’s top players — see “Who to Watch”) will be in action all three days at this year’s MSF. The Disc Golf Blind Draw Doubles on Friday afternoon will set the table for the Mountain Disc Golf Experience, a two-day, B-tier tournament happening Saturday, May 8 and Sunday, May 9 (see detailed event info below). Both events will take place at Asheville’s Richmond Hill Park. Parking is always a challenge there, so spectators should park at the WNC Baptist Home on Richmond Hill Drive and catch a shuttle. The park’s dinky dirt lot actually serves much better as a viewing area, since it overlooks several of the best holes. Spectators are allowed to follow golfers around the course; as in conventional golf, of course, etiquette calls for respectful silence while golfers are making their shots.

“There are a lot of people who take it seriously, and a lot who play casually. So many people play in this town — it’s just amazing!” exclaims Meredith Nichols. Growing numbers of locals are finding their way to the course that she and her husband, James Nichols, started building in the rolling, wooded park three years ago. The Nicholses also founded the WNC Disc Golf Club.

About 25-30 percent of disc golf players are women, notes James, though Meredith complains that few women compete in tournaments. The sport is increasingly popular with couples and families, and the Nicholses are no exception — on the day I visited the course, their teenage son Ken was enthusiastically practicing his drives and putts. Even their 3-year-old had proudly gotten a disc to roll all the way to a basket a few days before.

The secret to improving at disc golf, says James, lies in one word: “Frequency.” Beginners, he insists, should relax and not worry about mastering rules or techniques.

“Play six or eight months, then we’ll talk about the rules,” says James, urging, “Enjoy the game.”

Most local sporting-goods stores sell golf discs. For a more unusual shopping experience, however, head over to Richmond Hill Park on Tuesdays, Fridays and the first Saturday of every month, when the WNC Disc Golf Club offers hundreds of multicolored, multiform discs for sale under the trees. The dazzling array seems like some field of mutant wildflowers crossbred with UFOs. And the proceeds are used to maintain the course.

However you make your purchase, for a few dollars you can buy a tie-dyed disc that not only looks cool but is also quite practical — no two patterns are alike, so it’s easy to tell which disc is yours. Or you could consider getting the latest translucent “candy plastic” disc, which won’t “taco” (permanently warp) if it hits a tree trunk too hard.

“We’re not sure of our fate here,” James admits. The National Guard is considering moving its armory from West Asheville to the site of the disc-golf course. If the deal goes through, however, city officials have promised the disc golfers that they can set up a new, larger course on the far side of the park, he explains. The city will also provide amenities that he says are sorely needed — such as a paved lot with more parking, restrooms and picnic tables.

The new site could actually prove to be a better course, says James, who’s also designed other local courses (including the nine-hole Crookstone Disc Course at Fletcher Community Park and one now under construction in Marion). The area in question has more contours than the current site — and more old-growth forest, making it well suited to a sport that’s a big hit with environmentalists. (The current top player in the North Carolina amateur division, for example, is Ryan Pickens, a business instructor at Mars Hill College who ran in the last Asheville City Council election on a pro-environmental platform.)

Seeing top players in action during this year’s festival is bound to inspire still more local folks to take up the sport and further boost the appeal of this family-friendly sport. So whichever part of the property it ends up on, the Richmond Hill disc-golf course will probably continue to grow in popularity as a place to enjoy nature, shake the kinks out of your muscles, and sink some flying discs.

Disc Golf Blind Draw Doubles

Friday, May 7 at Richmond Hill Park, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; $5 per person. This event kicks off the weekend tournament.

Directions

From I-240, take Hwy. 19/23 north. Take the UNCA exit and turn left onto Broadway, left again onto Riverside Drive, and then right onto Pearson Bridge Road. After 0.3 miles, turn right onto Richmond Hill Drive, then take another right at the top of the hill. Park at the WNC Baptist Home’s lot and catch a shuttle to Richmond Hill Park.

Registration

Preregister on Friday at the park, starting at 4 p.m. Tee-off is at 5 p.m. For more info on MSF disc-golf events, check these Web sites (www.mountainsportsfestival.com or www.wncdiscgolf.com) or call 296-8775.

Mountain Disc Golf Experience

This two-day, B-tier tournament happens Saturday, May 8 (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and Sunday, May 9 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). The event features two rounds of singles each day, for a total of four. The lowest cumulative score for all four rounds determines the winners in each division. (See directions above.)

Registration

Saturday, May 8 at Richmond Hill Park, 9 a.m. For Professional Disc Golf Association members, the fee is $60 for open and pro masters levels, or $40 for amateur divisions. Nonmembers may temporarily join the PDGA for $5. Last-minute registrants can call James Nichols at (828) 296-8775, or sign up at the tournament (space permitting).

Awards

Winning pros will divide a purse of at least 110 percent of entry fees; amateurs receive payout in merchandise. Sign-ups will determine the divisions to be played.

Who to watch

Tim “TicTac” Owsten has won first place three years running. Eric Marx, last year’s second-place winner and a runner-up at the world championships. Walter Haney and Larry Leonard from Raleigh, and 11-time world champion Cam Todd, “the Michael Jordan of disc golf.”

Best viewing spots

Four of the course’s 18 holes are visible from the parking lot. Spectators can follow players around the course or watch from any point along the tree-lined trails.

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