Disc, Compacted

Local basket cases go gaga on the disc-golf course

Perhaps you have wandered through one of the fine parks of St. Louis County and come upon one of the contraptions. You saw the metal basket mounted several feet up a pole, with metal chains hanging in a peculiar way above the basket. What on earth is this thing, you must have thought.

Wonder no more. These odd assemblages spreading across the public parks of America are Pole Holes. What the cup is to golf, the Pole Hole -- that's a trademarked name; many golfers simply call it the basket -- is to disc golf. Yes, that's disc as in flying disc, like a Frisbee.

More and more folks are getting turned on to disc golf as a recreational sport. Played much like "ball golf," as the disc golfers call it, disc golf involves teeing off, driving, putting and going for the lowest score. But instead of whacking a ball at 18 challengingly situated cups, disc golfers throw flying discs at 18 challengingly situated baskets. Golfers use discs of varying weights, materials and shapes, not unlike the clubs of their ball-golf counterparts. Most similarly, disc golf can be as maddeningly difficult and addictive as its older cousin.

Whereas golfers have sand and water hazards to deal with, disc golfers have trees. Check out Endicott Park in St. John, and you'll find enough trees to drive a golfer batty or force him to improve his game, pronto. There are even holes on this course and others in the middle of the woods. In the words of St. Louis Disc Golf Club president Bob Shirley, "the woods holes are nice, because they force you to be accurate. You end up knowing the trees by their first names." Novices have to be concerned that their discs may land at the bottom of a sheer drop-off or in a wet creekbed, or get stuck up in a tree.

These discs are a bit smaller and heavier than a traditional Frisbee, and they're made with slight variations for putting or driving mid- or long-range. Many golfers carry bags specially designed to hold as many as 15 or 20 discs. The sport is growing, and you can find the discs for sale at most major sporting-goods stores in the area.

The two main strategies for driving are known as the hyzer and the anhyzer. Most right-handed people throw a natural hyzer, which tails to the left. It takes practice and good spin to throw an anhyzer, which tails to the right. If an errant shot has left you in the woods, you may be forced to throw the tomahawk, a downward chopping stroke intended to cut through the bushes and get you back onto the fairway.

The Pole Holes are designed to catch a disc with loops of metal chain that deaden its motion, then drop it into a basket below.

It is 10 a.m. on a Sunday at Endicott Park. A small local disc-golf tournament is about to begin. About 15 guys sit around two picnic tables, smoking cigarettes and joking around. They are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Others are practicing putting at a nearby basket. Many are routinely able to sink 20- and even 30-foot putts. They make it look easy, but it takes lots of practice.

Everybody spreads out across the 18-hole course for the shotgun start, which is not a shotgun but, rather, guys yelling at the top of their lungs through the expansive public park that it's time to start.

The 36-hole tournament requires surgical accuracy. Poor throws on certain holes require entering the woods, full of thorny plants and poison ivy, or the creek area, full of mosquitoes. Everyone has to deal with mud and puddles from recent rains, and at one point, along a path leading to the next tee, the competitors must pull themselves up a steep slope, grabbing tree roots so they don't slide back down in the mud. This sport may be similar to golf, but it's not nearly as genteel. Completing some of the St. Louis courses in the summer humidity, with their mud and steep hills, requires a real weekend warrior.

Of course, this is nothing compared with certain extra-challenging events held annually. The motto for January's Ice Bowl is "No Wimps, No Whiners." This tournament, which cannot be canceled for reasons of inclement weather, has been played in a snowstorm. (Hint: Avoid white discs.) The Iron Man Rally requires competitors to rise before dawn to squeeze in every hole in St. Louis before sundown -- that's eight courses. "Glow" tournaments are played -- you guessed it -- at night with glow-in the-dark discs and baskets illuminated by break-and-shake light sticks. (The next one will be held in October, on Friday the 13th).

At the close of the Endicott tournament it is 36-year-old construction-company owner David McCormack, who claims first place in the top division. His score of six under par is good for a purse of $60. He's the man to beat at most local tournaments, ranked in the top 50 in the world. He makes and sells discs for competition and even built his own ultrachallenging course in Vichy, Mo. (One golfer says that he imagines childbirth is almost as hard as playing this hilly, heavily wooded course).

The beer comes out, and the competitors agree that the Endicott course is one of the toughest and best in St. Louis County. (There are no disc-golf courses in the city at present).

With more than 800 disc-golf courses in the U.S. and 1,000 worldwide, Shirley foresees the continued growth of the sport leading to televised disc golf tournaments. "We think we've got a product that's good for television," he says, "because through editing we can do an 18-hole tournament in an hour." He is hoping to advance the sport through a disc golf vs. traditional golf tournament, with mobile baskets set up right next to the golf pins. Though regular golfers can drive much farther than their disc golf counterparts, the disc golfers are able to one-putt most holes. Shirley says he believes that Tiger Woods might even go for such a wild proposition.

And why not? The addictive challenge of disc golf is worth a shot.

The St. Louis Disc Golf Club sponsors a 18-hole minitournament at 10 a.m. Sunday, July 9, at Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, Dorsett Road and Marine Avenue. Call 965-3940, or visit surf.to/discgolf or www.gatewaydiscsports.com for more information.