Disc golf

A familiar sound filters through the trees at Richmond Hill Park, as common as the barking of the pileated woodpeckers that share these woods. It sounds like this: “Ching!”

Occasionally, it’s followed by another, more exultant call: “Woo-hoo!”

These are the peculiar noises of disc golf.

For some, this activity is a casual walk in the woods. But with the Mountain Sports Festival Disc Golf Tournament cranking up, things are about to get serious.

Never having been to a tournament before, I called up Eric Marx — a former runner-up for the disc-golf world championship who happens to live in Asheville. I asked if he would meet me for a quick round of golf.

Marx, who moved here several years ago, placed second in last year’s Mountain Sports Festival Disc Golf Tournament, and also holds the current Richmond Hill course record. I, on the other hand, am strictly a recreational disc golfer. I often play alone, and when I do join friends for a round of golf, I’m not usually the star of the group.

Still, this was the first time I’d ever driven to Richmond Hill feeling certain that I was about to get spanked.

At 47, Marx has been with the sport since the beginning. In the mid-’70s, he was winning the distance-and-accuracy tournaments that preceded the emergence of disc golf. He can talk you through the history — the evolution of the disc from a basic Frisbee design to the current compact, beveled-edge, weighted device.

But for those who’re still outside the loop, disc golf is pretty much what you might guess: a round of golf played with a flying disc (instead of a ball) that’s directed toward a basket (instead of a cup). These days, the sport is popping up all over the country; Asheville and environs now boasts three public courses and at least a couple of privately owned courses (with more in the works).

Now in its third year, the Mountain Sports Festival Disc Golf Tournament is growing in stature. A pro-level purse of at least $1,200 (the exact amount depends on registration numbers, and won’t be finalized until the day of the tournament) ensures a B-tier sanction from the Professional Disc Golf Association, two steps below the nation’s highest-ranking tournies.

More attention means more talent, and Nichols says pro players from South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee have begun registering.

“Disc golf is only 4 years old in this town,” notes WNC Disc Golf Club founder/tournament organizer James Nichols, adding, “We have more recreational players than pro players.” Still, he expects about 40 percent of the pros to be local. Nichols calls Marx one of “our local hopefuls.”

It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday when Marx and I meet; there’s only one other car in the parking lot. It’s still early in the day for disc-golf players, many of whom also share another hobby: drinking micro-brewed beer.

To the casual eye, watching a world-class competitor play isn’t all that different than watching a good player. This isn’t acrobatics; during play, the differences aren’t dramatic. But they add up, little by little, until eventually the score card reveals who the all-stars are.

Marx is not a hot dog, and an unforgiving course like Richmond Hill is no place for showing off. Like many great players, his strategy is simple: Don’t make mistakes.

Notwithstanding the trees at Richmond Hill, the key to disc golf is putting, often open shots from within 15 to 20 feet of the basket.

“Putting is the game, right there,” says Nichols. “Driving is just ‘Don’t get in trouble.'”

In other words, don’t hit a tree, land in a creek, get lost in the underbrush or any number of other hazards that are all too familiar to a recreational player like me.

As we play, Marx fills me in on the rules (handed down by the Professional Disc Golf Association) that separate tournament golf from recreational play: You must land on a specific mark (and not in front of it or behind it) when throwing approach shots; you can’t stumble forward on putts (even after the shot); you have 30 seconds to figure out your shot and throw the disc.

“I have to throw from there?” I ask when I find my disc jammed in an improbable mess of deadfall and covered by a short canopy of branches and vines. Marx informs me that I can move my disc a few feet out, but it will cost me a stroke.

For many, casual golf is just that: a small step here and there to get a better line is common. But like many pro players, Marx strictly follows tournament rules whenever he’s on the course, in order to keep in practice for the next competition.

“I want to win, no matter what I’m playing.” he explains. Then, more modestly, he adds,”Well, I want to play well.”

And then he casually sinks a long putt.

Since I’ve known only casual play, I ask Marx about the atmosphere on the course when fame and fortune are at stake. It depends on the players and on who you’re standing next to, he says. Like ball golf, the disc variety has an etiquette that dictates a respectful silence on the course during competition.

“It’s a quiet tournament,” Nichols agrees. “People are really concentrating, [paying] more attention to their shots.”

In such tense situations, a few outbursts of anger are perhaps to be expected. Marx says he’s seen temper tantrums on the course, but he thinks people sometimes take themselves too seriously. To put it in perspective, he reminds me that, even if there are 50 people on the course who are hanging on every shot, there are 6 billion people in the world who don’t even know disc golf exists.

“The sport’s got a long way to go,” he observes.

And speaking of concentration, I’d like to blame my many missed putts on the tension caused by Marx’s presence, but I really can’t. I just don’t putt well.

The Mountain Sports tournament is played over two days, with two rounds each on Saturday and Sunday. Registration continues up until the start of the tournament, so participation numbers won’t be certain until the start.

A maximum “full field” means 72 players. In order to get the games under way with everyone playing, the tournament uses a shotgun start, with the players spread out along the course and everyone starting at a different tee. Regulations dictate that a minimum of three players must advance together from tee to tee.

To keep things interesting, several holes at Richmond Hill have alternate pin placements and tee-box locations. Over the span of the four rounds, players will throw on every possible variation of the course.

“It’s a different course every time,” says Nichols. “It’ll get people twisted and turned.”

Many amateur tournament players, notes Marx, actually play below their skill level and should advance into pro-level tournaments. “It’s hard to convince people to take that step,” he says. And if Marx weren’t so modest, that would seem like a challenge.

Disc Golf Random Draw Doubles

[Friday, June 6, at Richmond Hill Park, with tee-off at 5 p.m. (open to the public), $5/person. Registration begins at 4:30 p.m.]

Mountain Sports Festival Disc Golf Tournament

[Saturday, June 7, at Richmond Hill Park, with check-in at 9 a.m. and tee-off at 10:30 a.m.; and Sunday June 8, with tee-off at 9 a.m. Players must participate in all four rounds.]

Directions

From I-240, take exit 4-A toward Weaverville on 19/23. Take the UNC Asheville exit, and turn left onto Broadway, then take the next left onto Riverside Drive, and then a right onto Pearson Bridge Road. After about a third of a mile, turn right onto Richmond Hill Drive, then take another right at the top of the hill. Follow the signs for parking.

Registration

Saturday June 7 at Richmond Hill Park, 9 a.m. The registration fee for Professional Disc Golf Association members is $50/open and pro masters levels, $25/amateur divisions. Nonmembers may join the Professional Disc Golf Association for $50 or become a member-for-a-day for $5. Last-minute registrants can call James Nichols at (828) 296-8775, or sign up at the tournament, space permitting.

Awards

The top third of the pro-tournament competitors will receive cash awards. Every amateur-division participant will receive a “player’s package” of disc-golf products.

Who to watch

The 2002 first-place winner “Tic-Tac” Osten, Tennessee’s Paul Dosher, Charlotte’s Matt King, and local Jay McCarthy. And, of course, Eric Marx.

Best viewing spots

Four out of 18 holes surround the parking lot, which will not be used for parking at the event. Spectators can follow their favorite players around the course, or pick a spot along the many trails that wind through the Richmond Hill Park course.

Further info

Go to www.mountainsportsfestival.com or www.wncdiscgolf.com, or call (828) 296-8775.

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