A good walk made better

It’s debatable whether Mark Twain ever quipped, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” But who cares? Sooner or later, somebody was bound to say it. Golf is a game that’s both widely loved and widely cursed, and it’s usually aficionados doing the cursing.

I should know. I played golf for years before finally throwing in the towel. I’m not even completely sure why I stopped playing; after all, I still take considerable satisfaction in completing a given task in as few steps as possible — like crafting a streamlined sentence that achieves economy of language without sacrificing poetry and beauty.

I guess what increasingly bothered me about golf was the constant intrusion of technology and the growing cost. Woods are no longer made of wood, irons are anything but, and balls are now engineered by scientists with far too much time on their hands. Then there are the greens fees — even a day at the local public course can run you 20 bucks. Happily, however, there’s a way to enjoy golf without the expensive clubs and clubby atmosphere — all you need is a Frisbee(TM).

Disc golf, one of the events in this year’s Mountain Sports Festival, puts a new spin on a venerable pastime, banishing the Big Bertha Drivers, titanium shafts and course marshals (those draconic tyrants who were always barking at me to speed up my game). As a sport, disc golf has been around since the ’70s; recently, however, it has gained a loyal following in Asheville (which now boasts its own 18-hole course nestled atop Richmond Hill in West Asheville). Best of all, unlike traditional public golf courses, the Richmond Hill links are free.

For the uninitiated, disc golf is played with Frisbee(TM)-like flying discs thrown at baskets topped with hanging chains. Hit the chains just right and the disc drops gently into the basket. It sounds simple enough. But shooting par on a disc course can be every bit as challenging as traditional golf. First off, the game is played on tighter courses: Fairways are narrow, obstacles are abundant, and doglegs veer off at impossible angles. Secondly, the discs themselves aren’t like the standard Frisbee(TM) you’d toss around at the beach — they’re smaller, heavier and less forgiving on errant throws. The objective, however, remains the same: Get from the tee box to the basket within the prescribed number of throws (usually three, four or five).

I decided to try my hand at disc golf figuring it’d be far easier than the traditional kind. After all, I already knew golf strategy, and I’d spent the better part of my sophomore year in college throwing a Frisbee(TM). No such luck, though; the Richmond Hill course quickly humbled me.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I made my way up the winding road that climbs to the top of Richmond Hill. Here, in the heart of the city, sit more than 150 acres of mountain beauty — a verdant oasis of rhododendron, gurgling creeks and steep slopes. Stepping from the car, I realized I was in for a workout: You don’t walk 18 holes of disc golf in Asheville, you hike. My timing couldn’t have been better; the parking lot was filled with members of the Western North Carolina Disc Golf Club, a group of friendly folks who so love the game that they actually built the course themselves, with no assistance from the city.

Like most people, I’m reluctant to try any new athletic endeavor in front of strangers; I’d much rather embarrass myself in private. Disc golfers, however, are a patient lot, more than willing to teach the game to novices. As it turned out, Tuesday afternoons are when the club gathers for doubles tournaments — a perfect opportunity to be partnered with an experienced player in the disc equivalent of a “best ball” match.

After partners had been randomly selected, my foursome headed for the tee box. My partner introduced himself as Brooke Harris, a banquet captain at Biltmore Estate who picked up the game while living in New York. As for the pair opposite us … well, let’s just say they had some experience. I couldn’t tell this at first glance, of course; disc golfers come in all shapes and sizes, and these two were no exception. After introducing myself as a reporter who knew absolutely nothing about disc golf, I segued neatly to the essential question: “So, how do you play this game?”

Brooke looked down at his shoes, realizing that his chances of winning this doubles tournament had just been eliminated by the idiot with the notebook and camera. Our opposition, on the other hand, smiled and shook hands warmly. Opponent A, Ryan Pickens, introduced himself before proceeding to answer my question. “If you want to know how this game is played, just watch my partner Ted here — he’s the reigning world champ.”

Brooke let out a noticeable sigh.

Teddy Disc Golf

With a barrel chest and muscular arms, Ted Williams, age 72, is a legend in the game of disc golf. “I’ve been to the World Championship three times. The first time, I placed second; then third; and last year in St. Paul, Minn., I won,” he noted as we ambled down the slope toward the first basket.

In competition, disc golfers are divided into age divisions. Williams competes in the Legends Division (for golfers over 70). The name fits — in 2001, Ted defeated none other than “Steady” Ed Headrick, widely regarded as the father of disc golf (and, what’s more, the man who designed and patented the first mass-marketed Frisbee(TM) for Wham-O Inc.

“There were competitors from 12 countries; it was incredible,” said Williams, in between offering gentle pointers on the fine art of propelling a disc between closely spaced trees. He diagnosed my first problem immediately: “You’re trying to throw the disc too high in the air; keep it low to the ground.”

I listened intently, yet my efforts still resembled someone flailing wildly at invisible bugs. On one throw, I somehow managed to hit a tree just three feet in front of me. This being a “best ball” tournament, however, I could always count on Brooke to land a disc near the goal. Frustrations aside, I aped my companions’ moves and soon found myself in a comfortable zone where strength was balanced by finesse. Ryan, a career and personal coach by trade, also gave me pointers that quickly corrected my form. A beginning disc golfer, he explained, can acquire the basic skills within a few rounds; expertise, though, is a whole different disc game.

Like traditional golfers, disc golfers come armed with an arsenal of specialized weapons. Heavier discs, called “drivers,” can travel distances of 100 to 150 yards. Others are for “putting,” those soft throws used when the player is within a few feet of the basket. Seasoned competitors often tote around a dozen or more well-weathered discs sporting such names as Gazelle, Shark and Cobra. Unlike golf clubs, however, a top-of-the-line disc (available from local outfitters) will set you back a mere $15 or so. And many players opt for simplicity, carrying only a driver and a putter. In addition, club members (anyone can join for $25) often sell discs out of the backs of their cars at the course and offer discounts to fellow group members.

Ryan, who’s played courses from the Carolinas to California, raves about Asheville’s disc links. “It’s easily one of the top 20 most difficult and most beautiful courses in the country; out-of-state players are blown away by what we have here.” Local volunteers, he notes, are the key to this treasure.

As for mountain sports, Ted and company may well have found the perfect blend of athletic endeavor and communing with nature. Some holes offer breathtaking views; the walks between holes are therapeutic. Asked why he’s so passionate about the game, Ryan replied: “A big piece of it is getting outside in natural surroundings. But it’s also about focused energy; the mental aspect of this is huge. There’s also the community aspect of this [nodding toward Ted]; you get to meet some interesting people.”

Then I asked Ryan to describe Ted’s style (we had some time to kill as we crawled through the underbrush, searching for my lost disc). Andy looked over at his partner, who was 20 yards from the hole — stuck behind a tree and facing an impossible shot. “Ted is interesting; he’s a deeper sort of man. It’s not just a competition for him; it’s focused attention. It’s fun to watch him play; he won’t miss a shot in his short game.”

Just then, from behind the tree, I spotted Ted’s arm flinging the disc sidearm and upside down. It floated through the air, slowly righting itself just in time to clang into the chains and drop softly into the basket.

Exactly as it was supposed to do.

Schedule and more info

WNC Mountain Disc Golf Experience, Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, 9 a.m., Richmond Hill Disc Golf Course.

This two-day disc-golf tournament includes two rounds of golf on Saturday and Sunday. Tee-off on Saturday is at 10:30 a.m. Play resumes on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. Sunday. The tournament is open to all age groups and skill levels; however, the course is not handicapped-accessible.

Participants will need at least one disc, which can be purchased on site.

Registration: On-site registration will take place at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 1. Registration fee is $50 for open and pro masters and $25 for pro women and all amateur events. Players’ packages are available while they last.

Directions: From I-240 take exit 4A onto Highway 19/23 north toward Weaverville. Go one-and-a-half miles. Take Highway 251/UNC-Asheville exit and turn left at the bottom of the ramp. Immediately after going underneath the 19/23 overpass, turn left at the stoplight onto Riverside Drive. Go one-half mile and turn right onto Pearson Bridge Road. Go one-third mile and turn right onto Richmond Hill Drive, the first street after crossing the bridge. Go past the Richmond Hill Inn. At the top of the hill, take a right. Take a left at Richmond Hill Road. At the bottom of the hill, take the gravel road into the park.

For more information, call the Western North Carolina Disc Golf Club at (828) 296-8775.

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