The chain gang

As the weather warms, folks all over are digging out their shades and sandals, emerging from months of housebound hibernation. And while adrenaline junkies will soon be careening down near-vertical bike trails or slamming through class IV rapids, the less suicidal among us may opt for a lazy game of backyard hackysack or a round of disc golf at a local course.

For some, however, even the most seemingly casual recreational activity can quickly turn serious. This year’s edition of the Mountain Sports Festival will include a two-day disc golf tournament — reason enough for a cadre of local Frisbee freaks to get their game face on early in preparation for the big event.

“It’s just like ball golf in that it all comes down to putting,” asserts 32-year-old landscape designer/disc-golf enthusiast John Thelen. “Nine out of 10 times, the best players are going to be those who can putt most consistently,” he says, referring to the short-range shot in which players try to throw their disc into a chain-draped basket or “hole.”

Thelen, who plans to participate in this year’s tournament (to be held at Asheville’s Richmond Hill course), cautions that too much preparation may actually be defeating. “It’s like other sports in that you have to hit it in stride, let your brain turn off, and allow your body to do it. It has to be done automatically. You can overpractice and try too hard. It comes down to performing under pressure,” he says.

The tournament confirms the local arrival of a sport that continues to gain momentum and popularity nationwide. For Thelen, a former Ultimate Frisbee player who moved to disc golf two-and-a-half years ago, there are many reasons for the rise of disc golf. “To me, it’s a great sport because you don’t have to pay to play. There is no tee time; you don’t have to have the right attire. It gets you out in the woods, away from the stress of everyday life. It’s no big deal to take a few minutes at the end of the day to get away and play. It’s a great escape.”

And while traditional golfers often seem to fit a certain stereotype, disc golfers, notes Thelen, are a diverse lot. “You don’t have to be on a certain socioeconomic level; with disc golf, anyone can play. We’ve had BMWs out at the course, then we’ve had some guys drive stuff in that we’d have to push to help get into the parking lot,” he recalls.

The lack of a country-club mentality, however, hasn’t interfered in the least with the budding camaraderie among the sport’s enthusiasts, says Thelen. “One of the biggest things is that the [WNC Disc Golf Club] helped develop the [Richmond Hill] course,” he notes. “It’s been rewarding to get out and foster that sense of community, to build something and transform this place, get people attracted. I’ve received such a sense of accomplishment and built many friendships. For someone like me, who is buried in their work, it provides interactions outside of that time.”

Although Richmond Hill is considered the gem among local courses (there are others in Black Mountain, Brevard and Fletcher), it has gained a reputation as very unforgiving — and extremely difficult. “Oh, it’s gnarly, but I love it,” gushes Thelen. “The hardest part is definitely the trees; it’s the most wooded course around. The holes are long, all surrounded by woods, and it really challenges your accuracy. Most courses are out in the middle of fields, or in city parks. With our course, you have to thread the needle.” The club, notes Thelen, is still addressing issues such as muddy tee pads at the relatively young course.

Casual rounds among friends are one thing, but when the tournament begins, the intensity and competition increase, promises Thelen. “It’s pretty tense. It’s an individual game, and there is no animosity, but you definitely put pressure on yourself. People come in there wanting to win, and you’re always pulling for everyone to do well, to raise competition. The pressure on yourself is the biggest hurdle to overcome. You could hit a shot 100 times in your yard, but during a competition, with money on the line and people watching, it becomes a lot harder.”

Disc-golf tournaments typically offer 3 divisions — pro, advanced and amateur — with prizes ranging from small cash payouts (under $100) in the pro division to equipment or gift certificates for winners in the lower divisions. This year’s tournament, however, expects to field about 70 competitors with a top prize of around $600.

If you’re new to the sport, the good news is that equipment costs are minimal; discs (available at local outdoors shops) run about $7-$8 apiece. But Thelen warns that a pleasant diversion can soon become a serious habit.

“It’s a very addictive sport,” he notes. “I would say most people that are into it get out and play a couple times a week. It’s a bug that they catch; they’re always wanting to do better, to see how they can improve.”

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