On a spectacular Saturday morning'the kind sent from above by the gods of golf'Doug Smith stepped up to the 14th tee. The green sat on the other side of a creek flowing fast and loud with spring runoff, making the shot challenging, but certainly makeable for a pro. After a few warm-up snaps of his wrist, Smith let fly. His shot hit the water about two feet from the edge'then skipped up to land safely on the shore.
Try that when you’re playing with a ball.
Smith'the president of Team Utah Disc Golf'was one of the Masters (over 40) division favorites in a first-round fivesome at the Creekside Open. The officially sanctioned event of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) was played on a course honoring Walter Frederick Morrison, the Utah-native inventor of the Frisbee. Formed in 1976, the PDGA formalized the playing of disc golf, in which players send Frisbee-style discs toward elevated “hole pole” baskets, playing for low score just like in traditional “ball golf.
And the players are just as serious about their equipment as ball golf players. Participants in PDGA events carry a bag containing anywhere from a dozen to 20 different discs. Sharp-edged “drivers” are used off the tee for greater distance; blunt-edged discs more like the Frisbees familiar to most of us are employed for “putts.” According to Scott Sharp'vice-president of Team Utah, co-tournament director of the Creekside Open with his brother Steve, and an assistant principal at Cottonwood High School' “There are some designed to go straighter, some to the right or to the left. There are mid-ranges and approaches, some better for certain wind conditions. The player only needs one disc. But that’s not recommended.
Especially not if you want to have a chance at an event like the Creekside Open. Though only listed as a “B-tier” event'above it in the hierarchy are A-tier, national tour events and majors'the field of 99 entrants included quality players among both pros and amateurs. In the Open division, Mike Milne'the highest-ranked Utah player in the PDGA standings, tied for 91st worldwide'entered as the favorite. In the Open Masters'the division in which Doug Smith is competing'tough challenges were expected from Craig Myrick, current leader in the Team Utah Masters division standings; and Peter Shive, a lean and fit 62-year-old geophysics professor at the University of Wyoming who made a five-hour-plus drive for the tournament.
Though there’s actual cash money at stake, the atmosphere on the course is far more collegial than cutthroat. Players routinely pull for one another’s shots to take the necessary hard turn in mid-flight; birdies on the par-3 holes are cheered with a call of, “Nice deuce.” They chat between holes about their choice of disc for a given shot. In short, they behave more like buddies out for a casual round than opponents vying for a check.
Still, the competitive fires clearly start burning when it’s crunch time. In the final round at Creekside, Shive sent a tee shot at 16 careening left into the creek, costing him a stroke penalty. The body language that followed would be recognizable to frustrated golfers of all kinds anywhere.
While fully a third of the pro-am field at Creekside was playing for cash, “pro” is still a relative term in the world of lower-visibility sports. According to Brian Hoeniger, executive director of the Appling, Ga.-based PDGA, only about 100 players are defined as touring pros whose places are reserved in major tournaments, with only 20 of those players earning enough from sponsorships and tournament winnings ($25,000-$50,000 per year) to make it their full-time career.
But the sport clearly is growing in popularity. PDGA membership has grown since 1996 at an average rate of 8 percent to 12 percent a year, with a current membership of more than 8,500. The total number of PDGA events rose from 500 to over 600 from 2003 to 2004, with a jump in total purses from $1.1 million to $1.3 million
The winners at Creekside aren’t going to be quitting their day jobs anytime soon. For winning the Open division by two shots, Mike Milne took home $719; Craig Myrick, able to cruise comfortably through the final round after shooting a third-round 49 on the par-60 course, earned $505 for winning the Open Masters. Peter Shive'who tied with Doug Smith for second in Open Masters'made back more than his round-trip gas money with a $234 take.
But for everyone involved, it was clearly about more than checks, T-shirts and trophies. The word “fun” slipped liberally from players’ lips as they slapped hands after the final round. They wrapped up the weekend with a frenetically entertaining “ring of fireâ€'50 participants in a circle firing in unison at a practice basket 20-some feet away, in rounds of elimination until the last made “putt” remains'before honoring the winners and heading home. They’ll be out on the courses again for Team Utah events in weekends down the road'dreaming like golfers everywhere of skipping that perfect shot off a raging river.
The Riverpark Open will be held June 4 at the Riverpark Disc Golf Course in Ogden. For information on Utah events and courses, visit www.teamutahdiscgolf.com.