Fore! Look out, disc golf is a growing sport

Published 9:25 am Thursday, March 20, 2014

Playing disc golf can be a great way to get out and enjoy nature. (Photo by Kathy Leonardi)

Playing disc golf can be a great way to get out and enjoy nature. (Photo by Kathy Leonardi)

MICHIANA—Back in the early 1980s, my oldest brother gave me a special “Frisbee” made especially for playing what he called “Frisbee golf.” He had bought it so we could play together at a nearby park. Our city had constructed a Frisbee golf course there, consisting of strategically-placed baskets with signs that indicated the par for that “hole.”

It was a fun activity that got us outside, walking through the woods and meadows and exercising our competitive spirits at the same time.

Over the past 30 years, the sport has become a great deal more popular. Sporting a new name, “disc golf,” courses for the sport have been sprouting up in parks all over the nation.

“Back in the 1980s, it started getting popular, and it was called ‘Frisbee golf,’ but Wham-O invoked trademark law, and so people had to start calling it something else,” explained Larry Leonardi, operations and new ventures manager with Essential Discs. “The confusion over its name caused it to fade. But, it started regaining popularity in the mid-1990s, and they put in a lot more courses.”

Leonardi, who runs Essential Discs with his wife Kathy, hopes that the disc golf trend continues to build. Their Watervliet-based company designs and builds courses, as well as organizing and promoting tournaments to help grow the sport.

“Disc golf has been experiencing 10 to 15 percent growth annually,” Leonardi said. “By about 2009, 3,000 courses had been put in all around the country.”

Leonardi credits the relatively low cost of constructing disc golf courses for their popularity among parks departments.

“Parks departments love it because it doesn’t cost a lot to put in a course,” Leonardi said. “Baskets cost between $400 and $500 each. Then, you need a couple signs for about $20 each, and you have a disc golf course.”

It’s also an inexpensive game for the players. The amount of necessary equipment is minimal, and the cost of that equipment is surprisingly low.

“On the players’ side, discs aren’t nearly as costly as all the equipment you need for regular ‘ball golf,’” Leonardi said. “You can get three discs for about $20 total, and you’ll be set up to play with a driver, a mid-range disc, and a putter.”

Over the years, the sport has become especially popular in southwest Michigan and northwest Indiana, thanks in part to enthusiastic disc golfers who want to share the sport with others.

“There’s just a plethora of courses here. I’ve never seen so many courses in one area,” said Joe Rutkowski, who moved to South Bend three years ago. “It’s crazy how many amazing players we have in the area.”

Together with fellow disc golfer Nick Radecki, Rutkowski started the Southside Disc Golf Club in order to promote the sport.

“We have so much talent, but not much organization here,” said Rutkowski. “I felt like it was my calling. This is me.

I want to help grow the sport. I want Michiana to experience disc golf. It’s our tool to bring people together.”

From humble beginnings, Rutkowski’s club now has between 30 and 40 people involved. They can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. There, people can learn about tournaments and other activities that the club has planned, including projects to beautify and enhance certain parks, like Rum Village in South Bend. Madeline Bertrand County Park also has a course.

“We feel like we can do something big. We’re excited to be spreading the word,” Rutkowski said. “We are completely nonprofit. We’re just trying to grow the sport from the grassroots.”

Rutkowski and Radecki are willing to do whatever they can to help get more people involved in playing disc golf, including giving away discs and matching beginners up with experienced players who can coach them on the basics.

“People can call me at (574) 309-6139. No matter where they are in the area, I can hook them up with somebody from the club,” Rutkowski said. “We’re giving away free discs. We’ll show you what you need to do to get started, and we’ll even give you the discs to do it.”

Some coaching in the sport is helpful because discs for playing golf are slightly different than the typical “Frisbee” style of disc. They are both smaller and heavier, which causes them to react differently than the larger discs do when they are thrown. For that reason, disc golfers use a different throwing motion when playing the game.

“Throwing a disc is a lot different than throwing a ‘Frisbee.’ With a ‘Frisbee,’ most people use a swooping arm motion, a sort of windmill pattern,” Leonardi explained. “With a disc, it’s a motion that’s more like pulling a lawn mower chain—across your body.”

Rutkowski points out that the sport appeals to a wide variety of people, especially those who enjoy getting out in nature.

“Disc golf is really for anybody who enjoys walking in the woods and getting outside,” Rutkowski said. “Unlike other sports, disc golf is one of those sports that unites everybody.”