Archive for Thursday, July 23, 2009

Throw down: Disc golfers bring world championships to KC, struggle for recognition

World's No. 1 ranked women's disc golfer, Valarie Jenkins, who will be competing in this weekend and next week's Disc Golf World Championships in Kansas City.

World's No. 1 ranked women's disc golfer, Valarie Jenkins, who will be competing in this weekend and next week's Disc Golf World Championships in Kansas City.

July 23, 2009


So the story goes, “Steady” Ed Headrick loved disc golf so much he wanted to keep hurling Frisbees from beyond the grave.

Headrick is the guy credited with inventing modern disc golf back in the ’60s. He actually created the Frisbee while working at Wham-O!, established the first disc golf course and league, created the chain basket which serves as the “hole,” and even trademarked the term “disc golf.”

He dedicated his life — and apparently his afterlife — to disc golf. “Steady” Ed’s dying request was reportedly that his ashes, following cremation, be mixed in with plastic and molded into “Memorial Discs.”

Apocryphal? Urban legend? Surely, no one could actually be so passionate about chucking modified pie plates at something called a “Disc Pole Hole” that they would inject their remains into a Frisbee, right?

“That story is true. I have one of those Frisbees with his ashes in it,” says a nonchalant Valarie Jenkins, the world’s No. 1 ranked female disc golfer.

Past Event
Disc Golf World Championships, 2009

  • When: Saturday, July 25, 2009, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Where: Various locations in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan.
  • Cost: Free
  • More on this event....

“We still play catch with it. It was always his vision — he just wanted to fly. He was a Frisbee freak. It’s a great idea. Disc golf is my life, too. I’ve done it since I was born,” says the native of Hinckley, Ohio. “It will be with me forever. That would be a good way to go out.”

Jenkins is hardly alone in sharing the evangelical zeal with “Steady” Ed Headrick that drove him to bond for eternity with disc golf. She and more than 900 converts will make a pilgrimage to Kansas City this week to compete in the 2009 Professional Disc Golf Association World Championships. The tournament's events start Saturday and run through next Saturday for the championships at 12 different courses around Kansas City (see event listing for course locations).

Between them, Kansas City and Lawrence have more than 20 courses, so Eastern Kansas isn’t as unlikely a disc golf mecca as you might think. Players from as far away as Japan and Sweden will come here for the highest profile disc golf tournament in the world.

Hot Toss

Last year’s world champion, David Feldberg, is hoping to defend his title in Kansas City.

World's No. 1 ranked player, Dave Feldberg, putts at the 2008 World Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich.

World's No. 1 ranked player, Dave Feldberg, putts at the 2008 World Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“Kansas City is kind of a special place for me,” says Feldberg, who lives in Springfield, Ore. “It’s where I got my first national victory.”

While Feldberg is in the elite handful of pro players who can actually make a living at disc golf, his first exposure to “frolf” (the term for Frisbee golf popularized by “Seinfeld”) wasn’t quite as lucrative.

“I was at college in Michigan at Western Michigan University,” recalls Feldberg of a fateful wager 12 years ago. “One day, my friends said, ‘We’re going frolfing.’ I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I went with them and I lost. They took me for $6. I practiced for a week, then came back and challenged them. I managed to get $2 back, and now here I am.”

That sort of casual entry into the sport is one of the reasons disc golf has been gaining in popularity. It’s easy to pick up, but difficult to master.

“You’re not going to be winded, but it takes some athletic ability, believe that,” says Feldberg, who competes in upwards of 20 tournaments a year.

“Most of the players at the top are college athletes. I played college soccer. It takes speed, power and timing. You have to be able to coordinate your whole body to do only one thing. You have to get to the focus point of an athletic release.”

“You can be any shape, size, age, gender — it doesn’t really matter,” adds Jenkins, herself defending a championship title this year.

“It’s all about the form and the technique. My bother’s a big, muscular guy and he crushes. But then you’ll get a little skinny guy out there and he’ll throw it just as far because he has the same technique. It’s not all about strength, but the repetition of form. Accuracy is key.”

Attorney Kevin Babbit is likely the top player in Lawrence. He’s ranked No. 35 in the world, and he’s competed in five World Championships.

“The World Championship is highly competitive, but it’s as much designed for lovers of disc golf as it is for the professionals. Fun activities are set up surrounding the competition, and there are forums set up to discuss disc golf. It’s a gathering of people who care about the sport and want to promote it.”

Kevin Babbit with his daughter Katie, 5, watching the Lawrence City Band.

Kevin Babbit with his daughter Katie, 5, watching the Lawrence City Band.

He said there’s a sizable group of regular players on Lawrence’s three courses—Centennial Park, Riverfront Park, and Clinton State Park (maps to them are here).

“Most of them are students, but there's a smaller group of dedicated people like me. You see everyone from people just wanting to hang out and have a few beers to family outings, with dads dragging their kids out on the field,” he says.

“There are some excellent disc golfers in Kansas and I encourage people to try the game. A group of us league players get together every Tuesday night at Centennial Park. If people want to get into the sport, they’re more than welcome to join us.”

Who’s the Toss?

The populist bent of disc golf, inviting anyone to play, has been intrinsic since its inception. The low threshold for participation is often held up as a badge of honor in contrast with the sport’s more exclusive older sibling, tauntingly referred to by disc golfers as “ball golf.”

“Disc golf started out in public parks for free,” says Rick Rothstein, Disc Golf Hall of Famer and proprietor of the Kansas City store Disc Golf World. “Ball golf was a bunch of sons of rich fathers who had a plot of land that they turned into golf courses at the turn of the last century. It started out very elite and grew to the public, rather than the other way around. I have mixed feelings about ball golf. We steal a lot from them so far as structure, but they can’t quite shake some of the racist and sexist attitudes.”

The distaste is mutual.

“Ball golfers don’t respect disc golfers like they should,” Feldberg says. “Not all of them, but most of the people who play ball golf think disc golf is a knockoff, like it’s a secondary golf and they’re the ‘real’ golf. Golf is just a concept that can be morphed into anything. They’re greedy with the concept. Golf could be played with hacky sacks. It doesn’t just have to be golf with sticks.”

Jenkins says disc golf suffers from larger PR problems.

“I don’t think we’re represented as well as we could be,” she says. “Whenever it comes up, people usually go, ‘Oh, you’re just a bunch of pot smokers out there whipping around a Frisbee. Hippie!’ That’s not what we do. We’re out there touring, hardcore, every weekend. We’re professional athletes and some people just don’t get that. Us road warriors are trying to change that whole stereotype.”

Attitudes, however, might be changing with time, Feldberg says.

“If you look at the generation coming up below me, they’re not as country club-ish,” he says. “With the state of the economy, people are looking for more of a middle road. This sport fits better now.”

“The downturn has actually been good to us,” Rothstein says of the recession-friendly sport. “People can’t afford their health clubs and racket clubs or even their ball golf clubs. They’re looking for something to keep them active that’s challenging. I challenge anyone — I’ll challenge you — to find a better recreational value out there. A family of four can come into our store, and we can outfit them with one disc each for $35. There are usually no green fees. If they keep their eye on their disc, they’ll have hours and hours of low cost entertainment. It is fun, it is challenging, it is pretty easy to understand, and — of course — it’s very inexpensive to play.”

Jenkins, who was raised in a disc golf household and has never known a life without it, has a more personal connection with the sport than most.

“Community is the reason why I play,” the reigning women’s champ says. “Of course, part of it is the competition and playing well, but it’s the people that I meet every weekend and the crew I roll with. It’s a blast. We’re living the life. We’re traveling to a new city every weekend. Outside of disc golf, we get to see the city and hang out. It’s awesome. We’re on tour and palling around. That’s the best of it. You can’t always be serious and focus on disc golf. We make the most of it, for sure.”


mdrndgtl 8 years, 10 months ago

Btw, did you guys see Watson miss that 3 foot toss last weekend? What a shame. He should have went with a heavier disc for his approach thow. At 50, you can't expect your elbow to act as it did when you were a young, pot-smoking hippie without any money.

Fishman 8 years, 10 months ago

Henry Po! Have fun this weekend in Kansas City. Make Lawrence proud. Henry can really wing it as you that have played with him know.

Tony Kisner 8 years, 10 months ago

Rick Rothstein, Disc Golf Hall of Famer and proprietor of the Kansas City store Disc Golf World. “Ball golf was a bunch of sons of rich fathers who had a plot of land that they turned into golf courses at the turn of the last century. It started out very elite and grew to the public, rather than the other way around. I have mixed feelings about ball golf. We steal a lot from them so far as structure, but they can’t quite shake some of the racist and sexist attitudes.”

Wow I wish I was as open minded as Rick here.

Jock Navels 8 years, 10 months ago

it's hard to tell whether rick is open minded or not, because what he says about ball golf is patently true. ball golf is a decadent sport, causing incredible non-point pollution, using wastefully millions if not billions of gallons of water to green and preen large segments of desert, so that fairly wealthy folks, generally, can scoot around in little energy consuming carts, and call it exercise!!???. disc golf, as it is organised and played today is a great game, low cost, democratic, clean, healthy exercise, and fun... you make your choices.

Bursting 8 years, 10 months ago

Love the aricle!!! Good luck to all the Lawrence competitors and thanks guys for making me better on Tuesday nights at 6pm! I hope there is much more coverage of this!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 10 months ago

A couple of points-- quite a few disc golfers are also ball golfers, which is probably as likely an explanation for the need to differentiate between them. And while disc golf is usually done at somewhat of a leisurely pace, especially in competition, it's also quite common for players to jog through a round, which makes it a very good all-around form of exercise (try that with a full bag of golf clubs.)

localgirl9 8 years, 10 months ago

since I am not there anymore I can place a shameless plug for The Third Planet at 9th and Mass...they have Frisbee golf discs and are not afraid to use them!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 10 months ago

Ironically, "Frisbee" brand discs are considered inferior quality. Innova and Discraft are two of the top manufacturers of competition-level discs.

CooperArnold 8 years, 10 months ago

Hello, my name is Cooper Arnold and I am a disc golfer. Sounds a little like an AA meeting intro doesn't it? But after some of the scathing comments about this article I guess it also seems appropriate. I want to take just a few minutes to defend and clarify a few points about the article and about the disc golf community as a whole. I will not defend the writing of the article that BABBOY was so intent on attacking, frankly I don't care about those attacks. First, about Rick's comments, I think that there is some level of veracity within them but that they definitely came off too hard-edged to be considered the gospel truth. I don't think anybody will disagree that ball golf is a sport for the privileged. Not only do a decent set of clubs cost hundreds upon hundreds of dollars but greens fees, even at the lowest level courses, are still around $20 for an 18-hole round. The main point that Rick was trying to make was that you could go out and by 2 discs for $20 and go to a local park like centennial or riverfront and actually get good at a sport without taking expensive lessons or committing hundreds upon hundreds of dollars (at least) in greens fees. Overall, the most important thing to remember about Rick's comments are that he is a good guy with a heart that beats to further enhance a sport he loves, a little bit of passion never hurt anybody. Now let's talk about BABBOY's comments about Dave Feldberg. I'm going to ignore the parts about him being a stoner and a wimp because they are ignorant ad hominem attacks made by someone who does not understand argumentation. The part where BABBOY talks about Mr. Feldberg being insecure about ball golf may be the best thing that BABBOY says in the entire argument. Almost any disc golfer will openly admit to anyone asking that ball golf, with the number of variables involved, is a much tougher sport to master than disc golf. For some time I attempted to learn ball golf on my own, just like disc golf, even going so far as to work at Orchards golf course in Lawrence to get free greens fees so I could practice more. The only thing I got was frustration. I had no where near close to the right technique and couldn't even get close to hitting the ball where I wanted it. But that is part of what is appealing about disc golf, anybody who picks up a disc will of course not be immediately proficient but they will, after a much shorter time than ball golf, be able to at least do kind of what they are trying to do. This is part of its appeal both as a recreational and as a competitive sport.

CooperArnold 8 years, 10 months ago

So, I think I've covered everything I had hoped to cover, and for my closing argument I would implore you to go to KC over the next week sometime and watch what those great golfers can do. If you get a chance, go on one of the days when the pros are playing at Water Works or Blue Valley as they are two of the best courses in town. And if you want to even better understand how good these people are go to sunflower bike shop or third planet and pick up a cheap disc (Innova DX line or Discraft Pro D line) and try it at centennial park before you go watch. If you do that there is no doubt you will be impressed with what the pros can accomplish and you may even get the itch to start showing up to leagues and bettering your game too

staff04 8 years, 10 months ago

When I was in Lawrence, I used to play at Centennial almost daily when the weather was nice...but still could get in a few rounds even through the winter.

As a collegiate ball golfer, one of the things I loved about disc golf was the striking similarity in the skill set required for the game. Just like ball golf, disc golf is a game that almost anyone can go out and play. Also like ball golf, to be good at disc golf took a shocking (to me) amount of practice and precision--I was never even close to being as good at disc golf as I was at ball golf.

I haven't played in a few years, but this article makes me want to see if there is a decent course around here. I know there are some great courses, but Centennial's large paved "tee" boxes and varied terrain still keep it at the top of my list.

mdrndgtl 8 years, 10 months ago

Okay, so we are serious about calling it Ball Golf?

Bursting 8 years, 10 months ago

Wow, who knows how many comments and we are still comparing apples to oranges... They both have things in common; the name golf and the same scoring system, oh jeeeez I must argue which is better and more legit.. no i must not, appreciate skill and practice and dedication and overall recreational value and entertainment plllllease!!!

sharkstar 8 years, 10 months ago

Actually we call disc golf golf and the other golf stick golf. For real.

Tony Kisner 8 years, 10 months ago

Bursting - the unfortunate comparison appears to be the quality of person who participates in each. It is an ugly world.

CooperArnold 8 years, 10 months ago

Mr. Donald, I dare you to go out and try to shoot anywhere around par (54) at centennial park. It is a challenging game, just like its bigger brother, ball golf. I think you are really underestimating the skill required to throw a golf disc with power and precision. Staff04, where do you currently live? In my opinion centennial is an ok course but it doesn't compare to some others around the country. You may want to try to find a local course and get back out there.

Dmoney 8 years, 10 months ago

Dang all the hostility between two sports that all the players show the same passion, try and go out and put the lowest score on the card. I have played both, they are both addictive, and fun, it is all in what you want to do, swing a club or monover your body into hurling a disc. There are stoners in disc golf, and there are stoners in club golf( that is what i refer to it as) they are everywhere this day and age get over it. Don't even let the Rothstein commets bug anyone, he is a hippocrit who is just upset that alot of his life has gone by with him spennding this much time with a sport he loves so much and not get the exposer it needs. The sport does need to get more exposer it is tough and would be pretty cool to see on tv in high definition, i don't know if too many people would be dosing off on sunday with the chinging of a basket. Oh well i had my ramble added to the bord, just go outside and do something rather then sit around and complain about what someone else likes to do for a hobby.

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