Writer: MARSHALL CEARFOSS / Photographer: JOSHUA PAYNE /Jan.-Feb. 2017
The sun occasionally peeks through trees at Lindsey Park in Tyler, Texas, on an early Friday morning. The grass drowns in dew. On the ground, a smoking cigarette rests atop a Millennium brand flying disc.
“I really never smoke unless I’m playing,” Chris Farnham says. “I guess it keeps me distracted. If I over-think my throws, I mess up more.”
He takes a disc and sends it through the air. In flight, the disc curves around a clump of pine trees. “I play my best golf when I don’t think about golf,” Farnham continues. “It’s like writing in cursive, you know? You don’t think about it, you just do it.”
The 39-year-old electrician is an avid disc golfer. For 15 years, he has made discs soar to intimidating distances. He once was ranked by Professional Disc Golf Association as one of the top 50 disc golfers in the world.
GO AND HAVE FUN
- Everything you need to know about competitive disc golf: http://www.pdga.com/
- Tips for beginners: http://www.discgolfreview.com/resources/tips.shtml
- Find a course near you: https://www.discgolfscene.com/courses/Texas
Now, executing a shot closer to the target but still many yards away, Farnham tosses the disc and watches it drop into a basket on a pole.
He often begins playing early in the mornings and continues all day. He walks many miles on courses that meander through woods and across long fields and sometimes ends up with blisters. But he says that isn’t a problem when he’s focused on getting a low score.
For Farnham and other avid players, disc golf is more than a hobby. It’s a challenge and exploration that sometimes leads to interesting discoveries.
“I’ve seen a lot in these woods. I’ve walked up on snakes and all kinds of animals. I’ve run into people out here.”
To understand how to play disc golf, look no further than to, well, golf — or as disc golfers call it, ball golf. In ball golf, the goal is to strike a ball with clubs to get the ball into a hole in the fewest strokes. Using that description, replace “strike a ball with clubs” with “toss a disc,” replace “hole” with “basket” and replace “strokes with “throws” and your understanding of disc golf is coming along just fine.
The better players use different discs (much like ball golfers use different clubs) depending on many factors: the terrain that must be maneuvered through, wind direction and speed and the player’s skill level and comfort with taking risks.
The choice of which disc a player uses, more than anything, is dictated by the golfer’s distance from the basket.
Players use the driver for throws that need to cover the longer distances. Thin and with sharp edges, this disc quickly slices through the air. They throw the mid-ranger disc on long shots that require more control. The putter’s rounder edges snag the basket’s chains more effectively than its thinner siblings.
There are endless subsets of specialty discs. Some of these are designed to maintain a straight and steady flight while others are designed for shots that require the disc to curve in the air.
Golfers seek to get the disc into a pole hole, a basket built around a pole. They aim for a series of chains suspended from extensions encircling the top of the pole. The chains stop the flight of the disc and cause it to drop into the basket below.
The popularity of disc golf is booming. Between 7 and 10 million people have played disc golf, estimates the Golf Disc Association, the organization that governs competitive play.
There are more than 2,500 courses in the United States, according to the GDA. Pro players compete in more than 390 sanctioned tournaments and the annual World’s Championship.
Lindsey Park, a sprawling sports complex that also has baseball fields, soccer fields and mountain bike trails, has three disc golf courses. Each has a unique set of demands.
Jerry Power of Tyler also is an avid player.
“I played casually for a while and then I kind of got involved with some tournaments” he says.
The 57-year-old diabetic uses disc golf as a way to stay healthy and active.
But there was the time he attempted a lengthy drive during a tournament that did not end well.
“I pulled back and I tried to pop that thing with as much speed as I can get,” Power recalls. “When it came out of my hand, my shoulder went pop and I thought, ‘That wasn’t right.’ And then, instead of quitting, I played four more holes.
“My shoulder was locked and I couldn’t get it above this high,” he says, just barely holding his arm at shoulder height. “I ended up having to have surgery.”
The injury forced him to quit the sport temporarily.
“I pretty much quit playing for about a year. But then my brother got me back in. He was playing World’s Doubles, and his partner had to drop out. So, he calls me up and said I had to play with him. We actually did pretty well, we got sixth. Considering I hadn’t been playing for a year, it wasn’t too bad.”
Power and Farnham are among a group golfers who regularly play at Lindsey Park.
They agree that to be that good at disc golf, players need to be good putters. As Farnham puts it, “you drive for flash, but putt for cash.”
“I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I’ve put 10,000 hours into practicing my putts throughout my career,” Farnham says. “I’ve definitely put the time in.”
Power plays interesting mind games when approaching a putt. “When I’m close enough to putt, I don’t aim to hit the basket. I focus on a single link in the chain and aim right for it.”
He says another trick to achieving a low score is making smart choices on a course.
“The real difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs look at that little gap in the trees and they make it sometimes. And they’re real excited about making it. Whereas the pros look at the gap and they think of the percentages. What’s the percentages of hitting it? How’s it going to cut through that gap? Where’s it going to land afterwards?”