EASTON — Let’s get started: Position yourself at a 90 degree-angle from your target.
Plant your feet in a comfortable, wide stance. Swivel your body, cross your throwing arm laterally across your chest — then release and follow through.
This is the basic drive — or starting/distance shot — in disc golf, known less formally as Frisbee golf.
You might be thinking: Frisbee? That’s easy, right? Played it in my backyard as a kid.
But consider disc golf the evolution — and revolution — of what you know of the simple backyard game.
“It’s still considered a niche sport, not a lot of people know about it,” said Matt DeAngelis, president of the nonprofit New England Flying disc Association (www.nefa.com), after a Sunday-morning round at Borderland State Park (www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/borderland). “But every day, we see new faces out here.”
Disc golf is a burgeoning sport that is similar to a typical game of golf: Flying discs are used to tee up, drive, shoot mid-range, and putt, all with the goal of landing a shot in a ground-mounted, chain-draped basket using the smallest number of throws (or strokes, if you prefer). Games are typically 9 or 18 baskets, and players work with a variety of discs that range in size, weight, and thickness, (and feature uniquely beveled edges to cut different swaths through the air).
As DeAngelis explained while showing off his collection of discs in a spectrum of colors, “it’s not a standard Frisbee you’re used to throwing.”
Like many, the North Easton resident got into disc golf in high school as a “natural progression” from Ultimate Frisbee (which operates more on the principles of soccer) and good old-fashioned golf. Since then, he’s become part of the committee that keeps up an 18-hole course at Borderland (www.borderlanddiscgolf.com), as well as the New England Flying disc Association, which has about 500 members throughout the region, as well as parts of New York and New Jersey. The nonprofit hosts numerous events, and also provides grant money to help improve and establish courses.
“It’s all about getting more people involved in the sport,” said DeAngelis.
And more players are, indeed, letting the Frisbees fly. According to the Professional Disc Golf Association (www.pdga.com), its members in the United States have increased from 8,304 in 2003 to 18,089 in 2012. Likewise, the number of courses nationwide has nearly tripled, growing from 1,512 in 2003 to 3,762 in 2012.
Meanwhile, there are ever more prevalent local, regional, and national tournaments, as well as both male and female pro sponsored players. Borderland was recently the location of a popular “Spring Fling” tournament on June 8 and 9 that attracted 77 male and female players, with the top prize fetching $215.
New England has more than 80 permanent courses, according to the New England Flying disc Association. Twenty-four of those are in Massachusetts, peppered throughout the state, from Amesbury, to Athol, to Barnstable, to Conway. Borderland is one of the more popular destinations, according to numerous ratings sites, as is Maple Hill Disc Golf in Leicester, which is set to host the 2013 Vibram Open in August, described as one of the sport’s premier amateur tournaments in the world.
As for the sport’s inception: It’s about as easy to track as a drive lost in the brush. According to the Disc Golf Association (www.discgolf.com), it has waxed and waned in one form or another since the advent of flying discs in the late 1940s. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that it started to (quite literally) take off, spurred by Ed Headrick of California, who designed and installed the first course, coined the sport’s name, invented the first target, established the first tournaments, and founded several governing bodies, including the Disc Golf Association, Professional Disc Golf Association, and Recreational Disc Golf Association.
Today’s enthusiasts say they are drawn to the sport for numerous reasons — most notably, the competition, relaxed atmosphere, and camaraderie.
“Everybody I’ve met so far, I’ve been happy to shake their hand,” said 34-year-old Tavis Dunne of Fall River, who regularly plays with his two brothers, 26-year-old Dylan and 14-year-old Kealan, and their dad, 58-year-old David.
He described the aerodynamics, strategy, innovation, and skill involved, and a “finesse” and beauty in watching a great player work a course. All told, “it’s a laid-back, very therapeutic environment. There’s nothing better.”
And as fellow player Jonah Kurman-Faber, an 18-year-old from Sharon, noted, it’s a sport that can be whatever you make it.
“You can take it as seriously, or as non-seriously, as you want,” he said, pointing out that some people are incredibly competitive, while others are decidedly nonchalant. In any case, it’s a “great time to catch up with friends, a great bonding experience, and great for all ages.”
And he promised one thing: “If you give it one chance, you’ll be hooked.”
That has certainly been the case for the Dunnes; they try to play every day, whether on a course like Borderland, or a homemade one they created adjacent to their homes in Fall River.
Ultimately, they all agreed, it allows them to be together as a family in a non-cloistered, non-stressful setting.
“I wanted to be closer to my kids, have a good outlet without invading,” said David, sweaty from a walk up the green at Borderland, black baseball cap corralling a gray ponytail.
All in all, he described it as “frustrating fun.”
Dylan, who got his family into the sport, was introduced to it while living in Florida, where one day a group of buddies “said they were going to go throw Frisbees around in the woods.”
It took him 14 drives to get the disc to finally go straight — and when that happened, he described the feeling of being “hooked.” Now, he’s able to throw a drive about 500 feet, and is described as being in the “professional” class by the Professional Disc Golf Association.
His youngest brother, Kealan, hopes for that distinction, as well. “You can have a great future in the sport if you start young,” he said, a bag stuffed with 21 discs of various designs and colors — yellow, orange, purple, red — plunked at his feet.
The crew was just back from a round at Borderland on a picturesque Sunday afternoon. Groups of players traversed the park’s two woodsy courses cloaked with willows, maples, and pines, pockmarked with rocks, and often emerging into wide green fields. Some baskets were perched precipitously atop boulders; others were obscured by a maze of trees; one was set against a backdrop of the park’s 1910 three-story stone mansion with its intaglio of vines.
“It’s a relaxing alternative to enjoy the outdoors, get some exercise,” Kurman-Faber said after finishing up, calling it an “interactive hike.”
And if you’re just beginning?
DeAngelis suggested using lighter-weight discs — widely available in starter packs found at most major sporting goods stores — that offer better control and more consistent shots.
And when throwing, “don’t move too much, keep it simple,” he advised.
If you stick with it, you’ll eventually need to carry a wide range of discs — just as a golfer keeps a cache of numerous clubs — typically toted in a rectangular, shoulder-slung bag.
“As you get better, you’ll want to have the right disc for the right shot,” DeAngelis explained.
You’ll probably also progress to more sophisticated moves; advanced players gain more power and momentum by taking lead-up steps, or grapevine-style runs, before releasing.
But above all, DeAngelis and others stressed, don’t get discouraged.
“We were all horrible” at first, said David Dunne. “Practice is half of the game.”