Two perspectives on disc golf and why we need them both

By Jim Palmeri ~

Cover photo

Why is disc golf such a fun, fast-growing recreational and competitive activity? Part of the reason is that disc golfers embrace two different perspectives on the game.

Advocates of the first viewpoint—the ball-golf perspective—believe that disc golf should encompass all the subtleties and nuances that make ball golf the widely celebrated sport that it is today. The other viewpoint is the Frisbee perspective, which began with the fun and merriment of the early guts players who created the International Frisbee Tournament (IFT) and the original International Frisbee Association (IFA). This perspective evolved as numerous Frisbee advocates joined the IFA and added their own Frisbee subcultures to the mix.

By combining the best aspects of each perspective, disc golf has the potential to become a truly great sport and recreational activity. But how exactly do these perspectives differ? Where did they come from? And why do we need them both?

The Ball-Golf Perspective

Years ago, when I learned about disc golf, I thought it should imitate ball golf as closely as possible. As an early organizer, I began searching for friends with whom to play, held a competitive tournament, and eventually started up an informal club to engage more people in Frisbee-based golf on a regular basis. For many of us, the aim was not to get involved in Frisbee culture, but rather to engage in an intriguing, new form of ball golf.

Over the years, I spent a lot of time, money and effort promoting disc golf, especially in competitive events. To me, the key to growing disc golf was to understand the appeal of ball golf—a mainstream sport that currently has roughly 24 million adherents in the U.S. alone—and translate it to disc golf.

The traditional game of golf offers a range of enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating, challenges. Ball golf requires three main skill sets. The first one is the long game off the tees and long fairways. The long game is one of exhilaration, power and control. Making the ball soar far and in the intended direction generates a great sense of joy and satisfaction.

The second skill set involves the shorter game—mid-range, approach and chip shots—where hitting the ball with fine-tuned accuracy is key. Being able to chip the ball close to the hole is important for championship-caliber play.

And the third skill set involves the intrigue, precision and finesse of the putting game. Putting is the extreme counterpoint to long drives and mid-range shots. Even golfers with the strongest of long and mid-range games will not succeed at the highest levels of the sport without a solid putting game, and vice versa.

You need all three skill sets to be good, and therein lies the appeal of ball golf. The complex challenge of bringing these diverse abilities—power, control and finesse—together in a single round keeps people coming back for more.

Designing a course that gives all three skill sets equal importance is the principal objective of ball-golf course design. Long par five holes play to the advantage of long ball hitters. Par four holes are designed such that virtually all the players who participate in competitive tournaments can reach the green in two shots. These holes reward mid-range accuracy rather than raw power. Par three holes remove distance skills from the picture, and reward accuracy and finesse. Long-ball hitters and shorter-hitting golfers are equal off the par three tees.

As an avid ball-golfer who began organizing competitive disc golf events in the early 1970s, I was not looking for a new way to play Frisbee. I was looking for a convenient, fun, and low-cost way to play traditional golf.

In my view, ball-golf had it all, so I tried to apply its principles to the disc version of the game. For the first three years of promoting disc golf, I was totally unaware that anyone else on the planet was playing it.

The Frisbee Perspective

But as the disc version of the game started to grow, it attracted mostly Frisbee enthusiasts who had their own perspectives and traditions. They played disc golf to have fun and for social interaction. Disc golf was a new and innovative way to play Frisbee, not ball golf. In fact, to some Frisbee enthusiasts, disc golf was a refreshing alternative to rule-oriented, traditional sports like ball golf.

Advocates of the Frisbee perspective preferred playing on courses with tight, technical holes in heavily wooded areas, where the unique flight characteristics of discs took center stage. The interest in throwing long, powerful drives in open space was supplanted by the intrigue of tight lines and the desire to play in a captivating natural environment.

The disc golf course in Basil Marella Park in Greece, New York is an excellent example of a Frisbee-perspective course. Located deep in the woods, this adventurous course requires touch and finesse to progress down narrow fairways. Players who usually rely on powerful drives to beat the competition can run into trouble on the shorter, technical layout of this course.

Course photos
Located near Greece, New York, Basil Marella Park (left) epitomizes the Frisbee perspective, while a course located 10 miles away in Ellison Park (right) represents the ball-golf perspective.

The course at Basil Marella plays quite differently from a neighboring course located in Ellison Park, about ten miles away. If a player is looking for a disc golf course built in the ball-golf tradition, Ellison Park is the place to go.

It is important to understand that neither type of course is better or superior in an objective sense. They’re just different. The same goes for the two perspectives that these different courses represent.

A disc golf game that incorporates the best features from each perspective, mixed in the proper proportion, may represent the ideal form of disc golf. Courses built in this mixed tradition would likely attract the largest and most diverse community of disc golfers.


Jim Palmeri

Hall of Famer Jim Palmeri (PDGA #23) has been a promoter of disc golf since the early 1970s. He has organized numerous competitive events, including the 1974 American Flying Disc Open and the 1984 PDGA World Championships. He is the coauthor, with Phil Kennedy, of A Chain of Events — The Origin & Evolution of Disc Golf.



Photo sources: Follow the links for the cover photo of Ken Westerfield and Arnold Palmer, and the course photos of Basil Marella Park and Ellison Park.


Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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