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Disc Golf Puts a New Spin on an Old Game

Times Staff Writer

The putting greens are bumpy, the “holes” stand five feet above ground, the fairways are far from pristine, and yappy little dogs are allowed to roam the course.

But, hey, the greens fees are under $3, and shirts are optional.

The Huntington Beach Disc Golf Course won’t remind anyone of Pebble Beach. But for thousands of devoted disc golfers, the 5,600-foot-long course of tall trees, scraggly grass and sloping fairways in Huntington Beach’s Central Park are magical.

The 28-year-old facility -- the second-oldest disc golf course in the United States -- features a pro shop complete with a snack bar, a variety of discs for purchase or rent, a head pro, lessons and weekly tournaments.

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On Wednesday afternoon, a tournament drew 50 disc golf fanatics, as young as 13 and as old as 55, from as far as San Juan Capistrano and the San Fernando Valley. Phil Brathwaite, a 25-year-old disc golfer from Tujunga, didn’t think twice about the 90-minute haul down the San Diego Freeway at rush hour.

“It’s all about the people, the location,” said Brathwaite just before curving a 120-yard drive around a giant oak tree and landing his disc about 12 feet from the hole. “And it’s a great game.”

And a cheaper game than traditional golf, Brathwaite’s former passion.

“I played golf for 12 years, but it got too expensive and too time-consuming,” he said. “You can go play golf at Griffith Park and it can take you five or six hours. It’s not worth it.”

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As in traditional golf, injuries caused by flying objects are part of the game. Throughout their 75-minute round, Brathwaite and his playing companions ducked and bobbed after hearing screams of “Fore!”

“These things can really hurt when they hit you,” Brathwaite said. “I’ve seen people get stitches and really messed up.”

The rules are similar to golf. The object of the game is to throw a disc into a target -- an elevated metal basket sitting on a pole -- in as few attempts as possible. Players tee off from rubber mats, whipping their discs toward the hole. Most players use half-pound discs that are smaller and heavier than standard Frisbees. Instead of using yards as the measurement of distance, disc golf uses feet.

Some holes are tricky. The 11th hole at Huntington Beach -- a 295-foot par three -- requires precision and guts. Bordered on the left by a white wooden fence, the fairway is of maze of trees. At Wednesday’s tournament, one player’s slicing drive avoided the trees, but carried over the fence and landed on a dirt road next to the park’s Equestrian Center.

The player added a penalty stroke to his scorecard and took his next shot from the spot where the disc left the course. Most golfers wouldn’t scale an 8-foot fence to retrieve a ball, but then, golf balls don’t cost $15, as discs do.

Serious disc golfers carry up to 15 discs in small duffels, for use with long shots, medium-range shots and putting. Putters have blunt edges, helping them fly straight at slow speed. Drivers have thin edges, helping them fly straight at high speed.

Some players are so serious they carry up to three putters in their bags, for uphill, headwind and tailwind putts. All players know to keep quiet while their opponent is on the tee or about to hurl a disc.

The greens fees are 1/20th that of a decent public golf course, but the game can be just as maddening.

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“It’s just as frustrating when you’ve got a putt lined up and a gust of wind takes your disc off course or rolls over the basket,” said Ron Louther of San Juan Capistrano.

Jerry Davis, co-owner and head pro at the course on Golden West Street, said disc golf is as addicting as regular golf.

“Watching something fly 400, 500 feet and landing it where you want it to, it’s just like ripping a drive on a regular course,” Davis said. “And you can throw a bunch of cruddy shots, but if you drop that 100-foot putt, it can bring you back for more.”

Every year, more disc golfers have been coming back for more. According to Davis, rounds have increased 10% each year over the last five years -- making Huntington Beach the second-busiest disc course in the country, accommodating 5,000 rounds a month during summer. The sport is also exploding nationally. There are nearly 1,500 courses in the U.S., about three times the number of seven years ago. Orange County also has courses in Tustin, Irvine and Anaheim.

But disc golf is still a relatively obscure sport to many, including some who visit Central Park and find themselves wandering into the field of play.

“People show up out of nowhere walking their dogs, showing up with their families right in the middle of the fairway,” Brathwaite said. “But we don’t mind. We love informing and educating them about our sport.”


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