The zeal for disc golf is more than a mere fling

Contest: As the number of the sport's enthusiasts soars, a Baltimore organization holds its first tournament.

October 20, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Bryan Gawler felt funny when he first flung a plastic disc across a golf course six years ago.

Now he can't stop doing it.

His addiction to the little-known sport of disc golf has become so intense that Gawler, a 30-year-old automobile appraiser, took a new job last year - fewer hours, and half the salary - so he could play in the afternoons and on weekends. He introduced his girlfriend, now an enthusiast, to the sport, and they regularly take road trips with their dog, Putter, to play in tournaments in places as far off as Texas and Minnesota.

Yesterday, the Frederick couple didn't have to travel far to get their fix. With dozens of other players - some were 25-year veterans, some had never picked up a disc - they competed in the first Parks and People Disc Golf Tournament at Druid Hill Park. Corporate sponsors and individual players raised nearly $5,000 for the Parks and People Foundation, which works to improve the city's neighborhoods.

"All of our friends make fun of us - `You're freaks,'" said Rachel Mansir, Gawler's girlfriend. "I basically plan my year around tourna- ments. My mother [in Dallas] called me two months ago to ask when she could visit. She wanted to know which weekend I'm not playing in a tournament."

The sport was formalized in the 1970s, but it remains largely unknown beyond hard-core disc golf circles. That could change: Membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association has steadily grown to more than 16,000, according to the PDGA's Web site, and 1,200 disc golf courses have sprouted across the United States.

Eight courses in Md.

The Druid Hill course, one of eight in Maryland, was built 16 years ago. Until yesterday, the par-54 course was used by casual players to practice, but organizers plan to make the tournament a PDGA amateur event next year. The event brought a diverse group of dedicated players and families to a park that city officials call one of the nicest and cleanest in Baltimore.

"Our mission is to get people into the city's parks," said Matt Kostmayer, a disc golfer who serves on the Parks and People board of directors. "Disc golf makes sense - it's free, and it's not difficult getting tee times. The biggest stigma to this is no one knows about it."

The sport's rules mirror those of traditional golf. Players compete on 18-hole courses. They fling plastic discs - similar to Frisbees but smaller - toward a basket. The player who makes the fewest throws to complete the course wins. Just about anyone can play, but the best players practice relentlessly.

"It's all physics," said Gawler, who was introduced to the sport by a friend. "It's how fast you can release the disc."

Because Gawler competes professionally, his foursome was not allowed to win yesterday's tournament. The top prize - a disc golf basket - went to the Michel family, all first-time players, which shot a 3-over-par 57.

Valisha Wallace, 35, also was new to the sport. She brought her husband and their 10-year- old son to play after she received an invitation from her company. "It really is fun," said Wallace of Randallstown. "It will be a better game for the summer."

`Easier on your body'

Disc golf veterans say they are attracted to the simplicity and relaxed nature of the sport.

"Everyone I meet that picks up a disc and throws it has trouble putting it down," Dylan Behrens, 28, said yesterday as he pushed a stroller containing his 2-year-old daughter, Olivia Jade, up a hill to one of Druid Hill's holes.

Behrens, who became a dedicated player two years ago, was playing in a foursome that included Gawler, Mansir and Tom Transtrum. Transtrum, 49, began playing in the 1980s after knee injuries forced him to give up his other favorite sport, Ultimate Frisbee. "Disc golf was kind of the next progression," he said. "A lot of people usually started with Ultimate Frisbee. But as you get older, you look for something easier on your body."

Mansir, 25, belongs to the minority. Of the thousands of disc golf competitors, less than 5 percent are women, she estimates. When she and Gawler travel to tournaments, Mansir often competes against three women while he competes against 50 men. But Mansir is not discouraged - she knows that the sport is on the rise.

"Disc golf was in the past two World Games, and it went over very well," she said. "It's like skateboarding in the '80s and '90s. You have to start slow, but it's just a matter of time before disc golf gets to the same level."

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