New Spin on an Old Game : Disc golf attracts a passionate following to the wooded course at Veterans Memorial Park in Sylmar. It's a contest of skills and use of the course is free.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Jeff Schnaufer is a regular contributor to The Times

You can make a hole in one with one hand tied behind your back. The soda cans you carry along are heavier than your golf bag. And best of all, there are no expensive caddies, country club fees or dress codes.

Meet the working-class golf game: disc golf.

Tucked away in a maze of trees between suburban back yards and park picnic tables, the disc golf course at Veterans Memorial Park in Sylmar lures a golf lover cut from a less aristocratic cloth, but whose passion for the game is second to none.

"That's what's so great about the sport," said Amy Rosenthal, 27, of Tujunga. "It's more for the common person. You don't have to pay to play. And people can come out with their families."

At first glace, the game seems like an easy version of traditional golf: T-shirt-clad participants walk around the course throwing their plastic Frisbee-like discs at 18 "holes"--metal baskets mounted on poles about five feet high. The fewer attempts it takes to get a disc into the basket, the better your score.

But fanatics such as Rosenthal, who gather regularly at the San Fernando Valley's only such public course, say disc golf is as much a contest of skills as golf.

Players fire off behind-the-back shots and count on memory when hurling discs at baskets obscured by trees. Basket markers are confusing, even to the veteran, and a novice can easily find himself shooting from the first hole to the 18th hole, skipping 2 through 17.

The playing field looks like a miniature obstacle course. A golf cart would wear its brakes out quickly on the sloping terrain, run aground in the bushes or slam into the many trees.

"There are a lot of hazards in this game," said Eric Garber, 29, of Chatsworth. "The discs can get stuck in a tree or over a fence where there's a big dog, and you're not going to get it."

But ardent players such as Garber realize that avoiding these obstacles is as much a skill as hitting baskets. And some hazards can actually be helpful.

"The tree can be your friend," said Rosenthal, who has been playing since 1986. "If your disc is going the wrong way and you hit a tree, it can put you back in the right direction or off a tree and in a basket."

With such obstacles, nailing a hole in one is clearly the ultimate test of skill--enough to draw a group of about 30 "disc jockeys" once a month to the Sylmar course. The group even gathered in the driving rain on a recent Saturday.

"We play, rain or shine," said Garber, shrugging off the cold. "We've played in worse. We've played in hailstorms."

Carrying their discs in pouches, the sneaker-clad group divides into small cliques and begins to hurl discs from the "tee off"--cement slabs pointing vaguely at the basket.

Like golf, there is silence at tee off, and players can choose from more than one disc--all of which are lighter and faster than the average beach Frisbee.

"I keep 12 in my bag," said Rosenthal. "Like in ball golf, where you have irons and woods, we have different Frisbees that do different things. You have ones that are your drivers, you have ones that you would use for a chip shot and you have cutters."

Unlike golf, players use three-inch-diameter plastic markers, rather than wooden tees, to define where shots land. Each "hole" is par 3 and less than 60 yards from tee off, making each game a brisk competition.

Kurt Headlund, 33, of Sylmar said the game is faster than golf.

"This is what I do for exercise," said the 33-year-old project analyst, hiking over a bed of pine needles up to the ninth hole.

But competition is the name of the game for most players. Many play in local tournaments, such as the annual Sylmar Doubles Championships, sanctioned by the Professional Disc Golf Assn. in Indianapolis. Players are not considered professionals until they begin playing tournaments for money, a privilege gained after winning enough amateur tournaments. Some even have their own trading cards touting their prowess.

This competition can be intense between the sexes as well. Rosenthal was once ranked second in the world among women by the Disc Golf Assn.

"The best feeling I get is knowing I throw as far as the men," Rosenthal said.

On this particular Saturday, the 18-hole game was over in 1 1/2 hours and players were back in the parking lot. No one nailed a hole in one, but no one was surprised, either. Such a feat is a rare honor. But when it does happen, it is the fellow players who are treated like royalty.

"If you get an ace, it's mandatory that the guy run down and buy a case of beer and say thank you," said one player.

Disc golfers know their beer runs may not be as high-class as toasting a hole in one in the country club bar at the other golf course. But neither do they worry that ball golfers look down upon them, or their sport, from their clubhouse.

After all, Rosenthal points out, their love of golf will put them all in the same boat in the end.

"I'll be doing the sport until I can't walk," said Rosenthal. "I could see myself at 80 out on the course, walking very slowly through each of the 18 holes."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Sylmar Disc Golf Course.

Location: Veterans Memorial Park, 13000 Sayre St., Sylmar. Enter park, make immediate left, then left again into first parking lot. Course is in wooded terrain west of parking lot.

Hours: Dawn until dusk daily.

Price: Use of course is free.

Call: For more information about the sport and where to buy discs: Professional Disc Golf Assn., P.O. Box 502858, Indianapolis, IN 46250. (317) 635-GOLF.

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