Disc golf enthusiasts Joey Baltz and Jason Denette show their stuff on the green.

Fore! In disc golf, fun is the main hazard

Published 7:51pm Monday, May 21, 2012

At one particular public golf course in North Suffolk, the clubs are circular, plastic and fluorescent-colored, greens keepers are as absent as buggies and the attire is decidedly less formal than usual.

A sporting craze that in recent decades has swept the world, one that doesn’t require hefty membership dues or gear worth thousands of dollars, has well and truly landed in Suffolk.

According to one Suffolk enthusiast, 33-year-old Joey Baltz, disc (not “Frisbee” – that’s a trademark) golf is a communal sport that’s only destined for even greater heights of popularity.

Baltz and Jason Denette, also 33, are warming up for a round one recent weekday.

It’s before 3 p.m. and they’re not the only ones on the course. (Scores of “golfers” can flock to the Bennett’s Creek course on a sunny Saturday or Sunday.)

“It’s a way to get out with your friends and get some exercise,” says Baltz, before letting fly toward his buddy standing a couple of hundred feet away. “It’s also a professional sport; people make a lot of money off of it.”

The bright green disc cuts through the sky like a flying saucer.

It hooks left, landing 30 yards from Denette, who dutifully trots off to retrieve it.

At the 18-hole disc golf course at Bennett’s Creek Park, Baltz and Denette are engaging in some back-and-forth practice throws to get the feel of some new discs before hitting the first fairway for real.

“Every disc has a different flight pattern,” Baltz says. “Some cut to the left, some cut to the right. Some stay dead straight. Some stay straight then cut right.”

Thomas Mathews, a ranger at Bennett’s Creek Park, explains that disc golf works in much the same manner as regular golf.

“The disc is the ball, and you aim for the basket, which is the hole,” he says.

As in regular golf, each hole has a par attached to it, and the difficulty level is somewhat similar to golf.

“Four hundred yards is about a par five,” Mathews says. “A lot of the holes (at Bennett’s Creek) are out in the woods, so you are trying to go around trees; and there’s a couple where you are going out in the marsh.”

According to the Professional Disc Golf Association, the sport’s popularity blossomed only after a series of abortive attempts at getting it off the ground.

In 1960, a Chicago plastics company attempted to market a plastic disc-based game they dubbed Sky Golf.

It didn’t catch on.

Sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s, acting on a tip from a summer camp counselor who had observed his inventive charges playing something akin to the modern sport, Frisbee manufacturer Wham-O started pushing disc golf.

Then it lost interest.

A few years later, Wham-O employee Ed Headrick decided to include disc golf in the 1975 World Frisbee Championships. In 1976 Headrick left Wham-O to start the Disc Golf Association Company, which finally lit the fuse for good.

The sport has now spread throughout the world, and the PDGA Disc Golf World Championships is an annual affair.

Disc golf course designer Bret Dukelow, who lives in the Western Branch area of Chesapeake, says he and friend Keith Zetts approached Suffolk about bringing the sport to Bennett’s Creek Park, where golfers play free of charge, about six years ago.

Suffolk’s Ace Run Ranch has a pay-to-play course, and disc golf can also be enjoyed at Bayville Park and Munden Point Park in Virginia Beach, at Newport News Park, as well as at Williamsburg’s New Quarter Park.

“It’s very big in Norway and Japan,” Dukelow says. “It’s popular everywhere.”

At least 15 to 20 companies now manufacture the beveled-edged plastic discs, Dukelow says. “It’s a good family sport,” he adds. “The serious guys don’t necessarily want to be around (recreational players), so they do tournaments.”

Back at Bennett’s Creek Park, Baltz says it can cost as little as “30 bucks” to get started in the sport.

“You get three discs in a bag — long, medium and short,” he says.

Baltz, who doesn’t consider himself a professional disc golfer, usually carries “12 to 18” discs when he takes to the course. Denette carries about the same.

Having sorted out the flight patterns of their new discs, the bearded men are now playing their first hole of the afternoon.

Narrowing his eyes and assuming a putting stance — weight slightly on the front foot and one arm folded behind his back — Baltz gently flicks a pink disc toward the “hole,” a larger hoop of steel and smaller hoop of steel about two feet apart atop a steel pole four or five feet high.

With a metallic chink, Baltz’s disc passes through the closely spaced chains hanging between the two steel hoops. It’s a successful putt, and he cracks a smile as he prepares to walk to the next hole.

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