Residents Tackle Fast-Growing Sport Of Disc Golf

"Sport for all ages" played in J.B. Park

Course captain and long-time disc golf enthusiast Mark Dudenhoeffer sets up for a putt from the brush at the disc golf course at Jefferson Barracks Park. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
07/06/2012 - On a typical Tuesday afternoon in June, about 80 people gather near Black Hawk Shelter in Jefferson Barracks Park to play one of the fastest-growing sports in America: disc golf.

Most of the 80 participants are men in their 20s and 30s, but anyone and everyone is welcome to play in the competitive doubles league. Disc golf is, after all, "a sport for all ages, from children to grandparents," as 32-year-old South County resident Aaron Walther describes it.

Like most of the 80 people that converge at J.B., Walther, a six-year disc golf veteran, has become captivated by the sport that's easy to learn, exceptionally difficult to master. As with conventional golfing of the club-and-ball variety, the object of disc golf is to shoot the lowest score possible at the 9- and 18-hole courses, which are typically located in parks.

Only disc golfers use sleek, colorful, Frisbee-like discs that glide through the air with a simple flick of the wrist. And instead of aiming for a tiny hole, disc golfers target a basket with metal chains that resembles a birdcage, usually located 250 to 350 feet from the tee box.

"If anyone enjoys playing golf, there's a strong possibility they would enjoy playing disc golf and/or spectating disc golf," Walther said. "I've been playing for six years, and if you have ever seen some of the top professionals in the world throw a disc, you realize what type of sport it is."

One of the top disc golfers in the world calls St. Louis his home — 23-year-old Nikko Locastro. The Professional Disc Golf Association three-time Player of the Year is one of a select few to have made a career out of playing disc golf.

"Most people might not know what disc golf is, but if they see it and went out and played one time, I think they would have a new perspective on, 'Oh, that game's awesome,'" Locastro said. "It's just about getting the sport out there to show people what disc golf is all about and how amazing it is to control the flight of a Frisbee."

Disc golf player Ryan Gorman brought a cooler packed with discs for sale to Jefferson Barracks Park. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
Local Club Helps Disc Golf Grow

Mark Dudenhoeffer, a 50-year-old Oakville resident, fell in love with disc golf when he began playing in 1994. Since then, he's been on more than 100 disc golf courses, including ones in Minnesota, Florida and Louisiana.

Dudenhoeffer, an ice cream distributor who doubles as the captain of J.B.'s 18-hole disc golf course, said the sport is growing in popularity because of its inexpensiveness.

"You can go out there, have two or three Frisbees and play it all day," Dudenhoeffer said. "It doesn't cost you anything. Anybody can do it."

St. Louis's volunteer-driven disc golf club, the River City Flyers (RCF), aims to keep their affiliated courses free to play. All but one of the 23 RCF-affiliated courses costs nothing to play. Chris Kinsella, the club's membership manager, said the River City Flyers poured $15,000 to $20,000 into St. Louis courses the past three years.

Semi-professional disc golf player Aaron Walther attempts a shot through the trees at Jefferson Barracks Park. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
That money comes from membership fees. The yearly cost to be a club member is $20, which is reinvested into local courses, enabling St. Louisans to play for free. Kinsella said there are currently about 540 River City Flyer members, which is more than double the number of members from three years ago. He added that the club, which was formed in 1989, is the largest disc golf club in the U.S. for the third consecutive year.

The River City Flyers' growth has caught the eye of Locastro.

"They're doing a really good job of promoting disc golf, getting people to sign up for the club and getting them to come to the tournaments," Locastro said. "All the good people that play disc golf are helping to expand the sport. Although it has not grown as fast as I would personally like, it is steadily moving along and more people are playing every single day. If you've played disc golf for the last five years, you can see the level of talent that is rising and the amount of players."

The numbers back up Locastro's claim. Kinsella estimated there to be 10,000 disc golf players in St. Louis. Dudenhoeffer said he has counted 5,000 J.B. scorecards the past six to eight months. Every U.S. state has a disc golf course, as do 36 countries.

Disc Golf Expansion Efforts

But the fledgling sport, which has only existed for about 35 years, has a long way to go to become mainstream.

"For disc golf to take off, I think it just needs more media, more attention than what it's getting," Walther said. "It is getting quite a bit of attention, but most of the attention is from people that already know about the sport. There are still people all the time that I talk to who have never heard of disc golf."

Locastro and Dudenhoeffer agree that big-name sponsorships could be the key to disc golf's growth.

"Sponsors like Budweiser, Geico and Nike need to get involved with disc golf so that instead of having $1,000 pots, we have $100,000 pots," Dudenhoeffer said. "So that people who play in tournaments can actually win some money and survive out on the pros. Right now, they have a hard time because they only win $300 to $400."

Where disc golf goes from here may be impossible to predict, but one thing is for certain: Locastro will be an important piece of the sport's future success. The disc golf icon said he has hundreds of ideas to expand the sport, some of which are already in action. Locastro likes where disc golf is headed but knows there is still plenty of room for growth.

"There are a lot of people playing. The courses are getting more packed and more courses are getting put in every year," Locastro said. "But the money is still not rising for the disc golf tournaments. When it comes to the World Championships, the payout has been the same for like the past 20 years. I just want to play my role and try to do something to grow the sport. I really think this sport has way more potential than it shows right now."

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