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By Kathy Laluk

FEATURE: Disc Golf in Rochester 

By Kathy Laluk

Poised atop a small grassy knoll, Dan Hastings lines up his shot. He gets a feel for it once, twice, three times, all the while grasping a thin, neon-yellow piece of plastic by the very edges of his fingertips. The fourth time, he lets the disc fly - no, soar - clear across the park.

"Get over - over!" he urges the disc around a tall oak tree in the way. Almost like it can hear him, the disc curves at the last second, narrowly avoiding a branch and floating gently to the ground.

"Wow!"

"Nice shot!"

"Yeah, that's a beauty!"

The three other players are impressed, but by the end of the night, Hastings isn't satisfied with his score of two under par. In a matter of days, 19-year-old Hastings will be up against more than 400 of the best amateur disc-golf players from around the world, and he's got to bring his A-game if he wants to beat them.

"Sure, I want to win," he says. "But I've got a lot of practicing to do still."

That's why Hastings is taking advantage of every league night offered by the Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club, and playing all seven courses in the Greater Rochester area. Hastings is just one of dozens of local players preparing for the Professional Disc Golf Association Amateur World Championships, which will take place in Rochester July 24-30. Players say they're ready to show off the growing popularity and strength of the disc-golf scene in Rochester.

Disc golf is much like regular golf - or as disc-golf players sometimes refer to it as, "ball golf." Players throw from a tee area at a target, the most common being a Pole Hole. The two- to three-foot metal pole is surrounded by a basket and metal chains to cushion a disc's landing. The goal is to get your disc into the basket in the least amount of throws, called "strokes."

Tony Inzana, a professional disc-golf player and current vice-president of the Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club, says disc golf isn't just about throwing a Frisbee around. "It's throwing a Frisbee with the same mindset as if you were trying to hit a golf ball," he says.

Like golf, players carry different discs for different shots. "Putters" are heavier discs that don't go as far, but are more accurate. The thinnest, most aerodynamic discs are reserved for driving, and tend to go farther. And mid-range discs, as you might guess, are somewhere in between. Players carry around anywhere from 10 to 20 discs during a game. That may seem extreme to the disc-golf neophyte, but, "It's much lighter than a bag of golf clubs," Inzana says.

Disc-golf players are like mailman: not rain, nor sleet, nor hail can stop them from playing. Of course, sunny weather with little wind is ideal, but for the die-hard players, the Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club offers a Saturday morning league that runs year-round.

"Especially in the wintertime, it's more about getting outside for three hours and just exercising, and there's some camaraderie," Inzana says.

Unlike regular golf, you won't find man-made sand traps or water hazards on disc-golf courses. But players say the natural landscape of a course can be hazard enough. "Basil has really tight woods," Hastings says of the Basil A. Marella course located in Greece. "If you don't throw a good shot, you're gonna know it when you hear it whack a tree." Most courses designate roads and ponds as out of bounds, but there are no hard and fast rules.

There are ways to rack up penalty strokes in disc golf, however. If your disc flies out of bounds, or "OB," you add a stroke to your score for that hole. Some courses are also designed with "mandatories," or "mandos." These are obstacles that a disc must pass in a certain way. So if a tree is marked "right mandatory," the player must throw their disc past the tree's right side or get a penalty stroke.

Disc golf seemingly sprouted up across the country out of nowhere in the late 20th century. And while the game has its roots in California, some of the best seedlings grew here in Rochester.

The emergence of disc golf is closely linked to the somewhat mysterious history of the flying disc, especially after it was introduced to mainstream culture as Wham-O, Inc.'s trademarked Frisbee. Some players say the sport may have evolved as early as the 1900's, but the current game we know as disc golf starting growing in the 1960's.

The theories about who invented the sport are as numerous and diverse as the people who play disc golf today. "They were kind of independent," says Gene Beaumont, a local player and treasurer for the GRDGC. "There was a whole thing going on in California and they were doing their thing. Rochester is kind of where the competitive side of the sport started."

"We weren't the ones who invented or discovered disc golf, but we were on the forefront of the sport," says Tony Inzana, a professional disc golf player and current vice president for the Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club. That club is also one of the oldest established clubs for disc-golf players - second only to many of those in California. The Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club was formed in 1971 by Frisbee enthusiasts, who began organizing weekly, semi-informal matches around the area.

Today, there are more than 3000 official disc-golf courses in the United States, and at least that many more worldwide. The Professional Disc Golf Association estimates that about 87 percent of those courses are free.

Disc golf isn't just limited to college campuses and parks. There are recognized courses, players, and clubs in more than 40 other countries, according to the PDGA. It also claims that the sport has grown at an annual rate of about 12 percent to 15 percent for more than the past decade.

Disc golf is an easy sport to pick up, says Inzana, and once you do, it's addictive. Of the seven free courses in the Greater Rochester area, he says that EllisonPark's is the best for beginners. "This is a great course, because you can just throw down the hills, and people love to watch the discs fly," he says. Each course has its own tricks, with Parma and Basil offering up the most complicated games.

The learning curve for disc golf is fast - really fast. "I've seen people start as beginners on hole one, and by about half-way, two-thirds of the way through, they've already started to learn," Inzana says. "It doesn't take long to learn how to get that Frisbee to fly straight."

"It takes a long time to jump your skill level with a lot of practice, but people play one round of 18 holes and they have a pretty good idea of the sport," he says. "It takes a lot longer to get comfortable hitting a golf ball."

Inzana says that makes the sport even more enticing as a family activity. Not to mention that every single disc-golf course in Rochester is free of charge.

If you do want to learn to play, Inzana says hitting the course solo is just fine. But if you're looking for some insight from the pros, the GRDGC offers disc-golf clinics throughout the year and hosts a doubles' league every Tuesday throughout the summer. That league pairs a "pro" team with an "amateur" team so the newer players can learn from the best.

"It's a good way to get involved with the club, and also to learn from somebody who's more experienced," Hastings says.

League nights will cost you about $8 to $10. Part of that money goes toward the club and local course maintenance - the lawns and trees are maintained by the parks department, but the tees and pole holes are the responsibility of the GRDGC - but the bulk goes to the payout purse. For an extra buck you can also get a mulligan shot, essentially a do-over on a hole where maybe you didn't do so well.

Still, the cost is low enough to bring players out in droves. Inzana estimates that there are anywhere between 300 and 500 recreational players in the immediate Rochester area, and on a recent league night there were about 70 players on the course. When I asked what the best part of the sport was, almost every single person said without hesitation: "It's free!" That point also brings out some other flying-disc fans: ultimate Frisbee players.

"They'll use their ultimate discs. You know, they don't fly the same way, but they have remarkable control over those," Inzana says. "[The players] will run the course to keep their endurance up. ...There's definitely a crossover of skill sets there."

Gene Beaumont, a longtime player and marketing director for the PDGA AM Worlds, says the sport is catching on so fast that parks are having a hard time building courses to keep up with demand. New courses "are springing up everywhere," he says. In addition to the seven in the Greater Rochester area, there is a course in Sweden and another along LakeOntario near Albion. SUNY Geneseo also has plans to add a disc-golf course to its campus over the next few years - something MonroeCommunity College already did in 2007.

The PDGA Amateur World Championships kick off in Rochester on Sunday, with somewhere between 400 and 500 competitors from at least eight different countries. "Rochester's actually one of the birth places of the sport, so we have a lot of history," Inzana says.

This is the third time Rochester will play home to a World Disc Golf Championship tournament - we previously hosted the professional tournament in 1984 and 1999 - but the first time it will be for amateur players, like Dan Hastings. Inzana says that he doesn't expect Hastings to be an "am" for long, though. "This kid is just progressing so fast. He'll be a pro in no time," he says.

Hastings is currently ranked fourth in the GRDGC's Tuesday league. He is confident, but says he's still learning.

On the lengthy ninth hole at the Chili Disc Golf Course at Widener Park during a Tuesday doubles-league game, Hastings boasted about his knowledge of the setup, and of professional players.

"I can hit that basket in three," he says to his partner for the night, Gene Beaumont. It's more than 900 feet to the target from the tee.

"You think? Only two pros pulled off that shot last time," Beaumont says, with a teasing hint of sarcasm.

"At the World Ams, I'll get it in three for you, Gene-o!" Hastings jokes back.

Hastings has been playing for just about five years. He started when he was 14, after stumbling across the course at Ellison Park while walking his dog. He threw a regular Frisbee around and eventually his dad roped him into it.

"I thought it was kind of lame at first," Hastings says. "Once I started buying golf discs and figured out how to throw, I really went at it from there."

Hastings got involved with the club shortly thereafter and paired up with one of the local pros. "After a year of playing, people started giving me pointers," he says.

Before he was old enough to drive a car, Hastings was driving discs at his first amateur world tournament with a paying sponsor in tow, an East Rochester pool business. Don't let the word "amateur" fool you - Hastings knows what he's doing. This will be his fifth amateur world tournament, but his first outside of the juniors division.

Players' ages run the gamut in this game. This year's tournament features a 10-and-under category, as well as a 70-plus group. Inzana says most of the groups will play each of the seven courses in the area at least once, some more than once for scheduling reasons.

On the course, Hastings is quiet and focused as he prepares each shot. His eyes squint at the far-off basket, noting each tree and obstacle in his path to an ace. His focus shifts the instant the disc leaves his fingertips. His eyes are zoned in on the small piece of plastic, soaring through the air. Behind that intense gaze, he's already calculating his next throw.

His demeanor shifts on league nights if he gets a lousy shot. "Perfect! Right into the tree," he says sarcastically. His dad, Jim Hastings, although proud, isn't above heckling his son. "What, no aces, yet?" he shouts from the 11th hole. "I was waiting for you to watch," his son fires back.

Disc golf has been a way for the Hastings to spend quality father-son time. It also helps Jim stay in shape. "It's perfect," Jim says. "I get to hang out with Dan, and I get the exercise in without feeling like his old man. He still kicks my butt, though."

Inzana is already prepping his son to kick his butt one day, too. Inzana's son is only 9, but he's already gearing up for this week's tournament. "He's been throwing Frisbees since he was old enough to stand," Inzana says. His son's muscles are developing and his attention span is getting better. ("He played two whole rounds last week!" Inzana says with a sense of relief and pride.) Nine-year-old Michael will compete against at least a half-dozen other kids in the tournament.

"It just goes to show it can really be a family-unity kind of sport, where everyone can play" Inzana says. "We do have a lot of history here, but most of what's happening now is new blood."

And there are plenty of old pros who are more than happy to teach the next generation. Roughly 30 percent of disc-golf players are more than 40 years old, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association. Inzana says the sport is heavily dominated by guys (about 80 percent to 90 percent of American players are men, according to the PDGA), but that doesn't stop women from playing.

Melinda Apton was the only women on the course when I stopped by one of GRDGC's doubles' nights. She is modest almost to a fault and insists she's just there to have fun, but this amateur player gave some of the boys a serious run for their money. A former state disc-golf champion, Apton's been playing the sport on and off for about six years, mostly with her father. He also happens to be her biggest fan; he beams as he describes his daughter's win from a few years ago. Apton brushes it off and heads to the first tee to practice before the league night begins. Ultimately she proved she can keep up with the boys just fine, placing third overall for the amateur division.

With the amateur world tournament rapidly approaching, Hastings has upped his practice time to at least two hours a day, every day. Still, Hastings isn't about to psych himself out for this tournament. "My first tournament I was nervous, but now it's just another tournament," he says.

Hastings has played against some of the biggest names in the sport all across the country, but this time is different. This time, he knows the courses and gets to be the big dog on his home turf. "This time they're coming to me. Right now it's a lot more of a confidence feeling than a nervous feeling," he says.

Inzana says hosting the tournament and having big players come to Rochester will boost morale for local players and highlight the strong presence disc golf has in our area. "It's really going to help the disc-golf scene here in our area, and that's fantastic," he says. "With this little extra boost - phew! No doubt in my mind the popularity of disc golf is just going to soar."

For more information on the 2011 PDGA Amateur Disc Golf World Championships visit 2011amworlds.com. For more information on the Greater Rochester Disc Golf Club visit grdgc.org.

Local disc-golf courses

The Greater Rochester area boasts seven full disc-golf courses, and more are on the way. The best part: they're free and open year-round for anyone who wants to try their hand at this high-flying sport. For more information on the courses, including directions, maps, and more, visit grdgc.org.

Ellison Park 1819 Blossom Road, Rochester (Parking nearest to the course is off of Landing Road North)

ChurchvillePark Disc Golf Course 45 N. Main St., Churchville

BasilA.MarellaPark 975 English Road, Greece

GeneseeValleyPark 1000 E. River Road, Rochester

MonroeCommunity CollegeBrighton Campus. 1000 E. Henrietta Road, Rochester

Parma Town Park 1300 Hilton Parma Road, Hilton

Widener Park 400 Scottsville Chili Road, Scottsville

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