Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Discgolfering a new sport

What do you get when you cross golf with frisbee? Well if you had to answer, it is likely to be close to disc golf. Played in the UK for over 20 years, the sport is rapidly expanding all over the country and it could take place in a future Olympics. Matthew Kiernan went to Lloyd Park in Croydon to find out more.

"It’s a deer feeder isn’t it?" one woman asks as she approaches the pod like metal structure from across the park. "No it’s not, it is a booster cable for television signals," suggests another, prodding it like an alien habitat from Close Encounters. Such conversations have become commonplace across the country, as puzzled onlookers attempt to discover what these multiple steel constructions truly are. The answer of course is that it’s a disc golf target…obviously. Welcome to the world of disc golf.

A sport of US origin, disc golf has formally been in existence for nearly 50 years. A game full of flying discs and metal caged targets, the sport has been steadily growing here in the UK over the last few decades and now London has its very own course. So what is like to play?

The rules are simple. It’s basically just like golf, except instead of flagged pins as targets you have metal cages to aim at, and you use round plastic discs instead of a set of clubs. There are different types of discs too, with "drivers", "approach discs" and "putters." Again like golf, there are 18 holes each with a par difficulty level and plenty of hazards to guard the targets such as trees, hills and brambles.

Quite a change then from what I'm used to. As an experienced weekend golf hacker, who churns up courses on a weekly basis it was with some trepidation I met the Croydon Disc Golf club on a Sunday morning for their weekly practice. The reason for my apprehension is that its golfing counterpart has such a staunch upper class air about it. If you are not of a high standard, you are generally looked down upon and that can be quite intimidating for a beginner. As enjoyable as it is, to me it just seems to be about what clubs you have, having the right dress code and acting with the correct etiquette, and that's even before you've started.

With disc golf though, things couldn't be more different. There's no dress code to speak of, I'm sharing some discs from my group and everyone appears to be more relaxed than on a golf course; certainly ideal for a beginner like me.

Needless to say, despite these initial fears being calmed, there's the quite fundamental problem of me having never thrown a Frisbee since childhood. Surely they'll all just laugh at my inept lack of skill? And surely I'll just be holding them up during the round? The fact it's raining, near freezing and blowing a gale doesn't help settle my nerves ahead of my inaugural round. Why is this a good idea again?

We begin with a quick lesson, courtesy of Richard Wood, the chairman of the club. "So have you ever played disc golf before?" he asks.
"Er no..." I reply.
"Have you ever played Ultimate Frisbee before?"
"Er no...," fully expecting him to banish me from the course before we've even started.
"Great! A real novice then," he smiles and the lesson continues.
It’s this welcoming, ‘open to all’ attitude, which is definitely the most attractive things about the sport. Anyone of any age can go along and give it a go. I haven't touched a Frisbee since I was a kid, and yet these experienced guys, who happen to be brilliant, are prepared to let me join them.

As the lesson continues, I learn that the perfect technique involves standing side on to the target, followed by a run up, before a full 180-degree side on arm rotation to the release. In order to assist with the technique, I’m told it’s akin to flicking a towel at another school kid in the PE changing rooms. Sadly I was the regular recipient of such an act in my youth rather than the instigator, so such an analogy is lost on me.

With the imagery not working, the first hole understandably goes horribly wrong. After seeing my more technically versed partners produce perfectly curved attempts to within metres of the target, mine isn't worthy of comparison. With the wind bordering almost upon gale force proportions and the rain continuously beating down, my disc heads high and left, 45 degrees to where I'm standing to be precise, and into the adjacent playground.

"Don't worry it'll get better," say the others. Personally I'm not so sure...

Still at least I can take solace from the fact that I’m not the only one going through this as the sport itself is now steadily on the up in the UK. There are now nine British courses available and a year-long British tour of events to compete in. Croydon’s course is the newest of these and is the first of its kind in London. "It is not a massively serious game," explains Richard Wood. "You can make it serious if you want to, but generally speaking its people getting out there enjoying the fresh air, enjoying the social side of things and having fun." Another major plus point is that it is really cheap to play. You only need three discs to start off with, which will cost about £15-£20 and it’s free to play a round, which you can do at any time of the year. In these difficult economic times, it’s certainly a credit crunch beating sport to say the least.

Despite these clear benefits though, attracting new members to the sport has been a challenge. "Attracting local interest into actually playing is very difficult. We’re a small club and have 20 members, but in the long term we hope to have 100 plus members regularly playing and just get the game more widely known." With a substantial number of local Croydon schools having already having been trained and are teaching the sport; this looks like a strong contender for the national curriculum.

Back on the course, and things aren’t going well. We’ve just finished the front nine and I’ve just been informed things are about to get harder. Thus far, my wayward throwing has ensured I’ve spent more time out of bounds in the bushes than on the course itself. To hear things are about to get worse isn’t exactly appetising.

As we approach the 10th hole, I reflect upon my previous perceptions of the sport and how staggeringly different they are from reality. I thought you’d just stand a couple of feet away from the target, throw the disc in with little fuss and repeat 18 times and it would all be over within half an hour. How hard can that be? But halfway through, I’ve spent the last 90 minutes throwing a disc about 10 metres on average and been attacked by every type of bramble the park can throw at me when attempting to retrieve my wayward discs. I’m also about 50 over par (that’s not good if you are asking) and despite the best efforts of my colleagues showing little signs of improvement. I now find myself staring blankly at the traversing downhill tenth hole, with the tiny target a spec on the landscape, and it happens to be flanked by holly bushes and brambles and guarded front on by trees and puddles. Brilliant…

But just as I was about to give up something amazing happened. After what felt like a lifetime, I finally produced an effort that resembled a throw close to my playing colleagues. This was much to the delight of my mentor for the morning Jerry, who has been valiantly attempting to keep my spirits up during the round. "Now we’re getting somewhere," he says excitedly. For the first time today I actually believe he’s right and suddenly the remainder of the round doesn’t look so daunting.

So with team GB conquering all sports before them, could disc golf become their latest event in which they excel in 2012? Er…well… no, as the line up for the London Games has already been decided. It may well be included in the future however, and with notoriously physical sports like chess and darts being Olympic demonstration events in the past, Britain might be topping the podium yet. There is even a petition running to get disc golf into the 2016 Olympics with over 1400 signatures. Andy Cotgreave of the British Disc Golf Association isn’t so sure it can get there though. "Any sport has the potential to be an Olympic sport, but it involves a lot of politics and money and it’s all about the International Olympic Committee’s preferences. I don’t think we’ll see disc golf in the Olympics for the next 40 to 50 years." At least you’ll have time to train for the2060 Games then. But although its place in the Olympics may be far away, Cotgreave feels there are more pressing challenges ahead for the sport. "Disc golf is steadily growing. Quarry Park and Croydon have opened up recently and have been doing a great job, but in terms of disc sports we’re definitely in the shadow of Ultimate Frisbee. There used to be a steady flow of players changing from ultimate frisbee to disc golf as they got older, but that’s not happening as much any more. We’ve just got to keep spreading the word."

Meanwhile back on the course, we’ve just finished the 18th and I must say I’m absolutely shattered. Both physically (there were about ten hills too many for my puny legs) and surprisingly mentally as well. The concentration level needed on every shot is phenomenal. One slight lapse or slip of the fingers and the disc will simply fly in the wrong direction or worse still, not go anywhere at all, in my case! I’m now on first name terms with every bramble Lloyd Park has to throw at me. It makes the skill of my playing partners even more impressive. Match this with their enthusiasm in abundance for the sport and welcoming attitude to new players and it makes for a winning combination. So despite being soaked through from torrential rain and shivering from head to toe, this reporter is certainly converted.

And with such committed and welcoming players involved in the sport already, I’m sure I won’t be the last either.

For more information about Croydon Disc Golf visit http://www.croydondiscgolf.com/