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Disc golf taking off in New England

Jeff Fleury (left) and Cooper Arnold watch a shot during the Eastern Massachusetts Championships of disc golfing at the Pye Brook Park Course in Topsfield.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Jeff Fleury (left) and Cooper Arnold watch a shot during the Eastern Massachusetts Championships of disc golfing at the Pye Brook Park Course in Topsfield.

LEICESTER — Steve Dodge crouches as he stares down the fairway of hole 4 at Maple Hill Disc Golf Course. The shot from the tee goes downhill through the woods to a barely visible basket on the shore of a pond. Dodge selects a driver disc, steps onto the tee, and flings the disc cross-body in a powerful, compact motion akin to the way Mike Napoli swings a baseball bat. The disc threads the needle of the narrow path between trees, stalls in midair, then drops suddenly about 15 feet from the basket. More curve and it would have been in the water. Less force and it would have ricocheted through the trees. Dodge has thrown the hole many times, but even he is pleased with the shot.

The tricky hole is a favorite of devotees who play the 18-hole course that Dodge and his cousin Tom Southwick, both 46, opened on their family farm in Leicester in 2003.

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Taught the game in the 1980s “by a bunch of hippies,” Dodge, a former mathematician for the US Navy, says he played 150 courses around the country before he, Southwick, and course pro Dave Jackson designed Maple Hill. With four color-coded levels of play from novice to advanced, the course meanders across more than half of the 70-acre farm, skirting the Christmas tree fields and several ponds while traversing the hillside hardwood forest. DiscGolfCourseReview.com rates Maple Hill one of the top 10 courses in the world.

That’s no small accomplishment, given that New England was slower to catch on to disc golf than much of the country. The game consists of flinging spinning discs — akin to Frisbees but heavier and more specialized — into a basket on a pole surrounded by chains to keep the disc from flying through. The fewer throws it takes, the better. Like all deceptively simple games, the devil is in the details. Formalized in the 1970s, the sport has been growing exponentially ever since. Unlike some other golf-inspired sports, like the relative newcomers, FootGolf and FlingGolf, the disc game is played on specially designed courses instead of traditional links. Of more than 150 disc courses in New England, roughly a third of them opened in the last five years. Players, including those at Maple Hill on a weekday morning, tend to describe their commitment as an addiction.

For Peter Bean, 27, of Worcester, disc golf has even been something of a salvation. He took up the game in 2009, shortly after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I did physical therapy in the hospital and started playing when I got out,” he says. “At first I couldn’t throw 50 feet; now I throw 400.” Bean hits the course two to three times a week and hasn’t had any attacks since he started playing. He loves the challenge as much as the health benefits — and he’s definitely amused by the quirky nature of the somewhat-obscure sport. “Some people think the baskets are deer feeders,” he says. “And I’ve seen people try to grill on them.”

ESPN employee Mahmoud Bahrani, 24, of Bristol, Conn., brought his friend Joe Sullivan, 23, who was visiting from Chicago. The aficionados clearly know a basket from a barbecue grill. “Every shot is important on this course,” says Bahrani, who had first tried disc golf as a fun date. “I wanted to play again the next day,” he recalls. “Once you buy your first disc, it gets out of hand. Now I have this $200 backpack and 30 discs.”

A wide range of people play — from grade school kids to retirees — but the principal demographic seems to be men 25-35. League play is stacked to encourage mixed-gender teams and all-female tournaments are attracting more women to the sport — the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) has even developed a recruiting slogan: “You wish you could throw like a girl!”

‘Once you buy your first disc, it gets out of hand.’

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Anyone who can throw a Frisbee can learn disc golf. Beginners can get by with a single all-purpose disc that sells from $8 to $20, available at many sporting goods stores or from on-line vendors. Many beginners opt for three. A deep-rimmed disc that flies slow and straight is called a putter, analogous to a putter or wedge in traditional golf. The driver (like a No. 1 wood) is a larger disc with a sharp edge. It flies farther and faster but is harder to control. A mid-range disc (comparable to an iron) is sharper than the putter but has a blunter edge than a driver and is easier to control. Beyond the basics, disc makers provide all sorts of angles, weight balances, and other small variations that make a disc tend to swing left or right depending upon how it is thrown. Most players throw backhand across their bodies, as with a Frisbee, but some throw forehand (called “flick”), which makes the disc fade in the opposite direction of a backhand throw.

Most discs are made of plastic, but when Dodge approached Vibram, a Concord maker of rubber soles for shoes, to sponsor a tournament, the company decided to get into making rubber discs, which are tougher, more rigid, and heavier than plastic discs. Most players carry a variety of discs and prize those that are “broken in” — as in dented and deformed by hitting trees, or flexed enough to fly predictably. The first thing a player does is write his or her name on a new disc with an indelible marker, because it will surely get lost. Maple Hill’s computerized lost-and-found lists about 1,300 discs, which are stored in the back of the course shop. During tournaments, a dog often helps retrieve discs from the ponds.

Lost discs aside, the sport is cheap. Maple Hill, a private course, charges $10 to play all day. Public courses, usually built and maintained by aficionados, are often free.

The grass-roots nature of the sport is part of its appeal. For example, the 18-hole course at Burgess Park in Marstons Mills is maintained by the Cape Cod Disc Golf Club. The course, one of New England’s first, opened in the early 1990s. It had poles in a field, recalls Todd Lapham, 30. He played the course as a teen, became serious about disc golf after college, and now runs the club with Greenleaf Garrison, 35. “We just don’t grow up,” he says.

Garrison was more of a latecomer. He first learned of disc golf five years ago when he was running a group home for troubled teens in Florida and thought it would make a good activity for the kids. “I started playing on my own,” he says with some chagrin, “and I got hooked.”

With 8 acres of playable land, Burgess Park is one of the shortest courses in New England but is what golfers call a technical course. The tees are tucked into the woods, and the circuitous course passes through shady glens and arching bowers. In addition to challenging holes — try cutting a flight path that turns 60 degrees after it passes a clump of trees to head toward a basket invisible from the tee — there are also perks. After the 8th hole, players can pause for a swim in Hamblin Pond. In the evening, there’s a nice sunset view over the water from the tee on the 16th. Lapham notes that the Town of Barnstable counts 600 visitors per summer day to the park; about two-thirds of them play disc golf.

Garrison is the Massachusetts state coordinator of the PDGA, a governing body that sanctions tournaments and promotes the sport. (Of the 65,000-plus active and inactive PDGA members worldwide, 627 are from Massachusetts.) For a grass-roots sport with very laidback roots — it’s been called “Frisbee without the tie-dye” — disc golf has developed a lot of rules that can make it seem more complex than it is in practice.

“The official rule book is so technical,” says Lapham. “Just throw from inside the tee box and play from directly behind where your disc lands.” Everything else — like how to place a disc after throwing out of bounds — can be learned as the need arises. It’s more important, Lapham says, “to learn how to throw correctly from the beginning and to master the mid-range discs and putters.”

Lapham plays three days a week and runs New England Team Challenge, a league founded as an excuse to throw in the winter. It began in 2005 with six teams of 12 players and has grown to 26 teams of 20 players. “It’s bracket style, like March Madness,” he explains. “The team aspect takes disc to a whole new level. As far as I know it is unique to New England.”

Like amateur tennis, competitions fuel the sport. There’s a tournament every weekend somewhere in New England from now through September, and tourney play continues at least into November. Most of these events are sanctioned by the PDGA or the New England Flying disc Association (NEFA) — or both. Typically, tournaments welcome amateurs and professionals.

“The top pros are able to go out on tour and make some decent money,” notes NEFA president Matt DeAngelis, 33 in a phone interview. The recent Maple Hill Open, for example, boasted a total pro purse of $40,000-$50,000. Top pros also earn income from sponsorships and endorsements. “The rest of us are weekend warriors,” says DeAngelis, who made the transition from Ultimate Frisbee to disc golf in high school. “But we do take our tournaments very seriously. We may not be out on tour, but our players definitely try to improve.”

Nate Doss, 29, of Bend, Ore. , a three-time
PDGA world champion, learned the game tagging along after his father, who took up disc golf because he liked Frisbee in college. Doss competed as an amateur, turned pro at age 14, and has played in 15 countries and across the United States, including at the Maple Hill Open and June’s Nantucket Open. Speaking by phone before flying off to play the Japan Open recently, he says that he relishes the challenge of New England courses with their woodland topography.

And he loves his sport. “I almost guarantee that anybody who hasn’t tried it and gives it a shot will say ‘Wow, I had fun doing that.’ For those people who have never played, I would just say give it a shot and just have fun with it.”

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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