On a sunny Friday afternoon, I shanked my flick Hyzer into Copperhead Row in the company of the Doctor, Yoda, and the Kid.
For those uninitiated into the manners and lingo of disc golf, allow me to shed some light on the situation. First the translation: Whilst playing disc golf with three friends, I threw a Frisbee very poorly, and it landed in the weeds next to a drainage ditch on the Western Carolina University campus.
Now, the wake-up call. Disc golf is one of the region’s fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation, and you still haven’t played.
Dr. Justin Menickelli, a fitness professor at WCU who created the course on campus, describes the sport succinctly.
“It’s ball golf for Democrats,” Menickelli said. “I like ball golf, but it’s expensive, it takes a long time, and it’s... the same.”
Menickelli, a.k.a. the Doctor, has been the force behind the sport’s growth at WCU, where he estimates students play an average of 200 rounds a week on the 12-hole course. Menickelli and his colleague, Chris Tuten, built the Catamount Links in 2006 as a joint project between the school’s Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and WCU Intramural Sports.
The idea was to create a safe, fun course that didn’t require any maintenance without altering the existing landscape. The result is that disc golf has already become a defining characteristic of the school.
In disc golf, the “holes” are actually chain baskets mounted to poles and trees. One round at Catamount Links takes about an hour and the Tuesday night scramble, which involves playing the course twice, takes a little over two hours.
“What other sport can you take up for an initial investment of $8?” Menickelli asked.
The lure of disc golf –– besides its charm as an environmentally-friendly, wallet pleasing past time –– lies in two of its most basic elements. The first is throwing a disc, which the Greeks made popular and which involves twisting your body to create torque and timing the release with precision to establish a clean flight.
The second is that disc golf, as Menickelli said, is golf. You have to drive the fairway, plan your approaches, and make putts under pressure to win. You can play alone or with friends and it’s equally fun. By the end of a round, you’ve walked two miles.
The perfect sport
Menickelli hails from upstate New York and his physique is appropriate to his profession. He was an avid ultimate Frisbee player as a PhD. student at Louisiana State University, but didn’t discover disc golf until about 10 years ago.
On the morning of his wedding in 2004, Menickelli played disc golf, not ball golf, with the men of the group, and since then he has been galvanized by the game.
“I love playing against par,” Menickelli said.
The moniker he uses to describe the game –– “golf for Democrats” –– points to disc golf’s roots as a public park sport nurtured by hippies who had had enough of the dislocated shoulders from their ultimate Frisbee days.
Menickelli says disc golf’s low impact, low cost and fast pace make it the perfect alternative to “ball” golf, which costs upwards of $50 per round, uses a lot of water and fertilizer, and takes four hours to play.
The sport of disc golf is in the midst of a growth spurt, but it emerged first in the mid-‘80s, when a few hundred courses were created around the country. Its roots can be traced all the way back to 1965, when George Sappenfeld, a camp counselor on summer break from college, realized the kids on his playground could play golf with Frisbee discs. Sappenfeld later became the Parks and Recreation supervisor for Thousand Oaks, Calif., and institutionalized Frisbee golf with underwriting from Wham-O, a Frisbee company.
Today there are over 3,000 disc golf courses in the U.S., more than 100 in North Carolina alone, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Clark Lipkin, a.k.a. Yoda, runs Lipkin Land Surveying in Cullowhee and remembers his first ace (hole-in-one) at a course in Springfield, Va., in 1982.
Lipkin has never stopped playing since the early days. When he discovered the course at WCU, he became a regular at the Tuesday night doubles scramble. The baskets and the courses are much like they were when Lipkin started, but the discs have changed dramatically from the Frisbees thanks to the innovation of companies like Innova (www.innovadiscs.com.) These days, serious players fill their bags with specialized discs that turn right or left, emphasize distance or accuracy.
The reason for the evolution of the Frisbee is that disc golf enthusiasts want to experience the perfect shot.
“Once you hit an ace, it feels great and you come back for more,” Lipkin said, explaining how he got addicted
In response, his doubles partner Drew Cook, a.k.a. The Kid, responded, “Damn, you’re old.”
At 25, Cook is a Menickelli product. He’d rarely played disc golf before 2006, when as a junior at WCU he got addicted to the Catamount Links. For Menickelli, the growth of the sport at WCU has justified his decision to build an easy course.
“We were shooting for a one-hour, low intensity, aerobic activity that’s fun,” Menickelli said.
If Asheville’s Richmond Hill is the Pebble Beach of disc golf, then the Catamount Links is like the course down the street –– sunny, approachable, and fun. Menickelli is currently engaged in a nationwide study sponsored by the Professional Disc Golf Association and a nonprofit called Education Disc Golf Experience (www.edgediscgolf.org) aimed at quantifying the fitness impact of disc golf on young people.
Iowa has the most per capita disc golf players in the country, and Texas has the most total, but North Carolina is second in both categories, making it one of the sport’s strongholds.
In the mountains, the disc golf is growing so rapidly that Menickell’s description of it may already have run its course.
Ryker Helms, a 22-year-old WCU student from Charlotte, showed up at the Catamount Links Friday wearing long mesh shorts and a black on black Duke Blue Devils hat. Helms said he doesn’t identify with a political party. He first saw the sport during a high school tennis match in Charlotte. People were playing the Hornets Nest course, and Helms didn’t know what they were doing. Now he plays once a week.
“I just want to see how far I can throw stuff,” Helms said.
As Helms stepped up to the first tee, another group of students looking like ex-football players was just finishing up their round.
Menickelli’s sport is still growing and it’s taken on a more competitive edge. The WCU Collegiate Disc Golf Team won the 2009-10 Western North Carolina Intercollegiate Disc Golf Challenge.
Now all disc golf needs is its own Tiger Woods... or Phil Mickelson rather.
• Waynesville Recreation Park. 18-holes located along Richland Creek
Greenway starting from the Waynesville Rec Center on Vance Street.
• Haywood Community College. 18-holes on the HCC campus near Waynesville.
• Catmount Links. 12-hole course on Western Carolina University Campus.
Course starts at Commuter parking lot. www.wcu.edu/7925.asp.
• Richmond Hill in Asheville is an 18-hole, heavily wooded course with
elevation changes that make it one of the most difficult in the region.
• Fontana Village. 18-holes in highly forested setting on Fontana Village in
Graham County. www.fontanadiscgolf.com.
To find other courses in the region go to www.wncdiscgolf.com/courses.