As we stood in the parking lot looking around for the start of the disc golf course, my 12-year-old son spotted what looked like a perfectly flat, emerald green patch of ground through the trees.
"Oh, cool, a putting green," he said.
Not quite. There are no putting greens in disc golf. Or balls or clubs or holes, for that matter.
"It's a bog," said his 10-year-old brother, delighted to correct an older sibling. Sure enough, as we walked closer, we could see partially submerged logs in a shallow pond covered in algae. The swamp lay between our tee and Basket 1, threatening to swallow my new Frisbees, whoops, I mean discs.
I had brought my two sons to play our first-ever round of disc golf on the 18-hole course at Acorn Park in Roseville. The goal of the game is to walk through the woods and rolling fields tossing a plastic disc into a series of metal baskets on poles, using the fewest throws possible.
"Disc golf can be played at a completely casual and recreation level all the way up to a competitive level on a national tour," said Todd Petersen, an avid disc golfer who manages Air Traffic in Burnsville and oversees the stores' extensive disc inventory. He has seen the sport grow over the years, and more recently among families.
"I introduced my daughter to it at the age of 8. She loves it. And it's absolutely, completely recreational for her," he said.
Minnesota has 175 disc golf courses, second only to Texas, according to the Professional Disc
Despite its prevalence here, I had to leave the country to learn about disc golf. On a plane heading back from a family vacation last summer in Scandinavia, we sat by a Swedish man on his way to the world championships in Santa Cruz, Calif. Apparently, disc golf is huge in Sweden. He unzipped his carry-on bag to show my kids dozens of neatly stacked discs and gave them a tiny marker disc as a keepsake.
SPORT IS BORN
I was intrigued. So this spring, I bought a beginner set of three discs -- a driver, a mid-range disc and a putter -- for about $25. The boys spent a day tossing them around a relative's huge yard. In retrospect, this was a great idea. It gave us a feel for the discs, which are smaller, heavier and less floaty than a Frisbee.
My sons designed a "course" around the house. The first target was an oak tree, the second was a pine, the third was a rock and so on. I ended up throwing a disc onto the roof of the house, but I'll blame the southwestern Minnesota wind for that errant shot.
It turns out we were re-creating the origins of disc golf, when people tossed Frisbees at ribbons tied to trees, fire hydrants, benches or any other easy-to-spot target. The game became formalized in the mid-1970s, thanks to Ed Headrick, who worked at Wham-O Manufacturing Co., maker of the modern Frisbee. He consulted with players around the country to create official rules, encouraged the use of standard metal baskets and, in 1976, started what became the Professional Disc Golf Association.
A quarter century later, the game has evolved to support more than 1,000 tournaments and $2 million in prizes last year alone. Just last week, 200 players hit the Twin Cities to play the 25th annual Minnesota Majestic, with $10,000 in cash prizes. Millions of people play the game recreationally.
Compared with the traditional game of golf, disc golf is easy to learn and inexpensive to play, which makes it great for families.
We found our first tee above the bog, a strip of asphalt pavement about 4 feet wide and 10 feet long where we stood while throwing our disc. Our target was on the other side of the water more than 300 feet away, a metal basket on a pole topped by dangling chains designed to trap the flying disc.
I was sure I would lose my new disc in the water, so I was relieved to realize that most holes have two tees, with one closer to the basket. We walked around the bog to an easier tee, and my 10-year-old threw the first shot. We followed simple rules: Whoever threw the disc that landed farthest from the basket went first on the next round of tosses. Everyone stayed behind the thrower.
On my third toss we heard the satisfying metallic jangle as the disc hit the chains and dropped into the basket.
"You got par!" shouted one astonished son.
It was beginner's luck. I made six tosses at the next basket, three over par. I stopped counting after that, but the boys liked measuring themselves against something. They came in two, three, even four over par on most shots, but it didn't dampen their enthusiasm.
"Can someone hand me the driver?" asked my 12-year-old, sounding every bit the pro as he stood on a tee facing a long, grassy slope leading to Basket 2.
A "driver" goes fast and far. The putter has a bigger overhanging lip and flies more predictably but less far. The mid-range disc is just what it sounds like.
The boys liked the variety of discs, but truthfully, we could have played with one mid-range disc apiece and it would have been simpler.
Basket 3 was at the top of a hill of bare dirt. At Basket 4, we waited on a bench and let a pair of twenty-something guys play through. It's courteous to let faster players go ahead, but I also felt self-conscious and didn't want them to watch me fling my disc into a tree.
They were the fourth pair we had seen on the course, all men. Membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association is 93 percent male, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
"Wow, a hole in two," said my 12-year-old son, watching one of the men sink the disc in two throws.
We were less accomplished. Our discs sailed into the bushes, bounced off trunks and got lost in stands of tall grass. On a downhill, my disc veered off the narrow corridor between the trees and into a wetland. I had to throw my next shot from a boardwalk.
By the time we hit the halfway point, the course had opened into a field dotted with purple alfalfa flowers. We decided to stop at Basket 9, after an hour of play.
On our last shot, we discovered we were not only over par but also aiming at the wrong basket. Somehow I had gotten the map turned around. Oh well, at least we weren't keeping score.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Disc golf
Where: Acorn Park, 258 W. County Road C, Roseville
Target audience: The game attracts males in pairs, but kids and females welcome.
Crowd pleaser: The metal clang as your disc hits the basket
Avoid: Losing a disc in a pond
Tip: Print a map of the course from one of the online course listings. It can be difficult for newbies to know which basket to play next, especially on courses that lack signs.
More information: Look up local courses and reviews, basic rules, discussion forums and more on pdga.com (Professional Disc Golf Association), mnfrisbee.ning.com (Minnesota Frisbee Association), dgcoursereview.com or playdg.com.
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