Rise of an unknown sport (Part 1)

By Josh Woods ~

Where is waldo cover art Second Option D2

The other day I was working on a Where’s Waldo puzzle with my daughter when my mind began to drift to where it so often drifts.

Gazing at the strange assortment of people in the puzzle made me think of disc golf. It is amazing what you can find while walking through a crowded course on a Friday afternoon, or perusing disc golf handles on social media.

Viewing the sheer variety and complexity of disc golf culture, I find it hard to look away. With nearly the same appetite for finding the perfect line between the poplars, some part of me, some curious, insistent part of me, wants to keep looking, wants to understand the game I love.

And not just its definition. Anyone can learn one of those awful descriptions that inevitably include references to other, better-known sports.

A suitable definition of disc golf should, it seems to me, reflect what the sport means to people, why they play it, what people think about as they voyage through fields and forests.

Disc golf is not one thing, but many. Like Waldo’s world, its definition depends on where you look. The community is made up of multiple groups and identities. Even a small circle of friends may disagree about what disc golf means, or why they play it.

To an extent, this is true of all sports—true of all things, really. No person, no object, no game has a meaning until someone assigns it. And cases in which everyone’s meaning matches are rare.

But this kind of conceptual slipperiness presents a special problem to small emerging sports, ones that don’t receive much attention from mainstream news, popular culture, large corporations, or school systems.

Disc golf, like all things residing in the normative margins, is a still-developing thing, a post-embryonic thing, a DIY thing, a culture in beta mode. The guidelines for interpreting disc golf are unsettled. And so, its definition is equally unresolved.

Still, these various understandings are not randomly assigned, nor are they too numerous to list. While the following categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, I argue that most people experience disc golf in one of three ways: (1) as a modern achievement sport, (2) as a lifestyle, or (3) as general recreation.

Figure 1: The Three Domains of Disc Golf

Venn Diagram D2

Each of these domains is organized in a different way. Each attracts people with a particular set of motives. And each has a distinct social identity. As people increasingly identify with one of the domains, they become more committed to it, more likely to evaluate it positively, more willing to support it with their time and money, and more inclined to conform to its norms and values.

At the same time, the diverging organizational styles, interests and identities of the three domains generate disorganization in the disc golf community, and blur public perceptions of the sport. If viewed with a wide-angle lens, disc golf land is like a Where’s Waldo puzzle, a mishmash of organizations, companies, clubs, tribes, friends and individuals occupying public lands in ways that dazzle and confuse the mind.

In this multi-part essay, I’m going to change the focal length and take a closer look at disc golf. Drawing on the work of noted sociologists, anthropologists and historians, my first aim is to define the three domains of disc golf. The second goal is to show how the community’s diverse meanings are both attracting more people to the sport and constraining its ability to forge a coherent identity.

I argue that material and ideological divergence is, at once, increasing the population of disc golfers and hindering the sport’s ability to break through to the mainstream. Hence, the series title: “Rise of an Unknown Sport.”

In the next installment, I’ll focus on disc golf as a modern achievement sport and examine what disc golf means to the Professional Disc Golf Association. If you’d like to read more, please sign up for Parked’s free newsletter by entering your email address below. And consider helping us out with a like on Facebook.


Thanks go to James McDonald, editor at Full Metal Basket, for adding one disc golfer, four discs and one basket to the Where’s Waldo cover art above.


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

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