Disc Golf as Lifestyle Sport
By Josh Woods, PhD ~
“At least give the dog a chance to catch it first” – N.B.
“Sports is a reallllly loose term nowadays” – J.C.
“Not a real sport” – J.L.
These were just a few of the snippy comments posted on ESPN’s Facebook page when the media giant uploaded a video clip of Eagle McMahon’s 380-foot field ace at the Glass Blown Open in April 2018. By the end of June, the clip had received more than 14,000 likes, 5,200 shares, 2.3 million views and 4,000 comments.
Anyone who has played disc golf for more than a week is probably familiar with this kind of commentary. Within minutes of appearing in the unforgiving click-lands of mainstream social media, disc golf is usually mocked, derided, compared to tiddlywinks, associated with golden retrievers, cannabis and craft beer, and of course excluded from the “real” world of sports.
There are probably several reasons for airing of such prejudicial sentiments. A lack of knowledge, perhaps. The basic human need to categorize people and things. An overidentification with traditional sports. Misguided feelings of superiority. A history of being picked last for kickball. A certain dimness that comes with eating too many chicken wings on the couch.
I could go on like this, I could. But allow me to play devil’s advocate and go in a decidedly different direction: Maybe they’re right.
Perhaps comments like “not a real sport” are partially true. What if a great number of people play disc golf in a fashion that is un-sport-like? What if, for instance, some disc golfers never keep score or track their progress over time? What if their most meaningful experience can be boiled down to standing on a tee pad with nothing in mind save the exhilaration of watching a disc fly through midair doing things that seem beautiful, intended and impossible?
Competitive disc golf is a thing, no doubt. To many people it’s the only thing. As discussed in Part 2 of Rise, the movers and shakers of disc golf are pushing the sport in this direction.
Yet, competitive disc golfers account for a small percentage of the total population. Beyond the modern achievement domain, there’s less consensus on the meaning of the game. Disc golf is a competitive sport to some, and a form of meditation to others. It is a social club and a solitary act, an unforgettable adventure and a mundane habit, an escape from family life and a family, a retreat from workplace pressures and a job, a momentary lapse in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle and a hiatus from more rigorous exercise, an excuse to use drugs and alcohol and the only thing stopping an addict from relapse.
Although reliable PDGA statistics suggest that something called “disc golf” is growing quickly, its participants may be experiencing the game in very different ways.
Given the diversity of disc golf forms, styles and motivations, how can it be defined? As it turns out, disc golf is not the only sport that’s hard to pack neatly in a box. Although few scholars have given disc golf its due, it belongs to a family of lifestyle sports that have received ample attention.
Belinda Wheaton (2004, 2013), known for her extensive research in this area, identifies nine characteristics of lifestyle sports. If reduced to a single word, they include: new, innovative, non-aggressive, boundaryless, homogeneous, alternative, participatory, individualist, and committed. These aspects reveal the limits of the modern achievement domain, while offering a road map to the lifestyle domain of disc golf.
In this installment of “Rise of an Unknown Sport,” I’ll consider the first five characteristics, and cover the remaining four in a later post.
A short history
First, Wheaton (2004) points out that lifestyle sports are a recent phenomenon. While modern sports developed in the nineteenth century (Guttman 1978), many lifestyle sports developed as late as the 1960s and 1970s.
Whether disc golf meets this historical threshold is ultimately a mystery. As Palmeri and Kennedy (2015) argue, no one knows who first threw a disc-shaped object at an intended target for fun. Conjecture about ancient peoples hurling strips of wood or stone in a disc-golf-like fashion is unsubstantiated but possible. Given its name and basic objective, disc golf might also be regarded as an adaptation of traditional golf (Palmeri, 2017), a cultural form that can be traced back through the centuries (Moss, 2001).
With these qualifications aside, there is little doubt about the contemporary origin of organized disc golf. Flying discs made of plastic were not available until the 1950s. The Frisbee, favored projectile of early players, was patented by Ed Headrick in 1967. The preferred target, known as the pole hole, did not emerge until 1975, the same year that the first disc golf course was installed in Oak Grove Park, Pasadena, California.
For years, the sport was largely inaccessible to Americans. Fifteen years after the first course went into the ground, there were only 250 courses scattered throughout the U.S. (Oldakowski and Mcewen 2013). Roughly 550 courses were added by 2000. Ten years later, in 2010, there were a total of 2,700 U.S. courses. Then, between 2010 and 2018, the number of courses exploded to more than 6,000.
Survey data suggest that playing disc golf is still a new experience for many people. In 2014, according to the State of Disc Golf survey, approximately 50 percent of disc golfers had been playing for three years or less (Infinite Discs, 2014). A second survey estimated that half of disc golfers had only two years of experience (Oldakowski & Mcewen, 2013). Regardless of what disc golf means to people, throwing plastic discs at metal chains is, unquestionably, a recent phenomenon.
Innovation and change
Lifestyle sports are not only younger, but also less institutionalized than traditional sports. For this reason, moving to Wheaton’s (2004) second characteristic, the groups and individuals associated with lifestyle sports are more likely to embrace technological innovation and change than traditional sports communities.
Although all sports evolve over time, establish new rules and gradually introduce technological improvements, Wheaton (2004, 11) argues that these changes are often dramatic in the case of lifestyle sports, and sometimes lead to entirely new forms of activity. For instance, the 1950s version of surfing looks nothing like the tow-in-surfing of today. New technology has led to significant changes in rock climbing, skateboarding and snowboarding as well.
Enormous sports centers are now being built that allow people to participate in outdoor sports like skiing and skydiving in safer, more predictable indoor settings (Van Bottenburg and Salome 2010).
If characterized by the pace of innovation, disc golf’s early years differ from the contemporary context. As mentioned, transformative technological changes occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of the Frisbee and pole hole. Several later inventions continued to push the sport forward, especially in disc technology.
Like the relationship between skaters and their boards, or climbers and their gear, the connection between disc golfers and their discs is an essential part of the culture. In the 1980s, this culture evolved rapidly. As Roddick (2016) explains, discs became smaller and increased in weight, which allowed for longer throws. The biggest step forward, Roddick adds (2016), was the beveled-edge rim. Invented and patented by David Dunipace in 1983, the beveled-edge golf disc provided greater distance and flight control than previous models.
A sign of the rapid evolution of disc technology can be seen in the history of world distance records, as illustrated in Table 1. In 1970, Victor Malafronte threw a Wham-O Professional Model Frisbee 84.1 meters or 276 feet. In 2016, David Wiggins Jr., using a modern disc (the Innova Boss), quadrupled Malafronte’s effort with a throw of 338 meters. That’s 1,109 feet, more than three football fields in length.
Although new inventions continued to play a role in the sport’s evolution, the rate of change slowed as the institutions of disc golf strengthened. According to Roddick (2016), by the early 1990s, safety concerns about the increased rigidity and speed of new discs led to a “comprehensive set of standards for discs.” The PDGA created standards for weight, size, rigidity, rim depth, rim configuration and edge sharpness. The new requirements sparked debate and controversy, but almost all the disc manufacturers complied.
In short, to protect the modern achievement domain, the PDGA slowed innovations in disc technology.
The age of aggression
Wheaton’s third point is that lifestyle sports are usually non-aggressive activities. They rarely involve bodies colliding or intentional efforts to physically harm opponents. While disc golf is certainly a lifestyle sport in this respect, its historical trajectory involves some movement toward more aggressive play.
Much of this evolution can be traced to the technological changes discussed above. The Frisbee of old was leaf-like in comparison to the modern disc. It floated in the breeze, hoovered in midair, and faded gracefully to the ground. People “flipped” Frisbees to one another. A child could catch one.
“Unless it landed in the potato salad,” Roddick (2016) quipped, “it probably wasn’t a big deal if it floated into a picnic.”
By the 2000s, disc speeds reached 80 miles per hour. In 2013, Simon Lizotte captured the speed record with a throw of 89.5 mph. Today disc golfers “crush” drives, and catching one presents a significant health risk. As seen in the two videos below, the modern drive looks like a herculean act of belligerence compared to the Frisbee flips of the past.
Drives by Wiggins, Koling and Gurthie, 2014 (Jomez Productions)
Drives by Malafronte, 1983 (wwhamer)
Prior to the 1960s, the history of disc golf is a bit foggy, but there’s sound evidence that people played a game akin to disc golf by throwing various flat, round objects at existing or homespun targets, such as garbage cans, stop signs, lamp posts and chicken wire baskets (Palmeri and Kennedy, 2015). Emulating Wheaton’s fourth characteristic of lifestyle sports, disc golf, in its early forms, was usually played in free-form public spaces.
In contrast to the square or rectangular boundaries of traditional sports, disc golf courses were established in “appropriated outdoor liminal zones” (Wheaton, 2004, 12; see Shields 1992). In some cases, the rules, boundaries and holes were invented, impromptu, by the players as the game progressed.
Often referred to as “object golf,” players trekked through fields, forests and suburban landscapes, dreaming up fairways, landing zones, greens and pin placements. Compared to a PDGA-sanctioned disc golf tournament, early players were guided less by rules, boundaries and positions, and more by an appreciation for nature, adventure, friendship, creativity and the pleasure of redefining urban and rural landscapes as disc golf courses.
As it relates to rules and boundaries, contemporary disc golf is still more lifestyle-like than most traditional sports, but it has become, literally and figuratively, more rectangular, fixed and artificial over time. Most natural tee pads have been replaced by rectangular pads made of cement, artificial turf or other synthetic materials. Modern targets, now made of fabricated metal, are standard in shape and design and fixed in permanent positions. Thousands of disc golf courses have established geographical locations, even mailing addresses.
Boundaries are more vivid and abundant, especially on championship-level courses during major tournaments. Marked with spray paint, ropes or signs, boundaries indicate whether a player’s throw is out-of-bounds or in a hazard, where drop spots are located, whether a lie is inside or outside the putting area (“the circle”), and whether a player has successfully negotiated a required flight path (“mando”).
Perhaps the most obvious example of this trend occurs when a professional disc golf tournament is held on a traditional “ball” golf course. In many cases, the average length of holes is greater, and the number of obstacles is reduced, which pushes players to throw longer, less creative shots.
In an interview with Ultiworld Disc Golf, professional disc golfer Eagle McMahon lamented this trend: “It’s crush after crush after crush, and honestly I’d much rather have a course where there’s a lot of variety” (Hill, 2016). McMahon suggested that playing disc golf on a ball golf course requires less creativity, versatility and skill than playing the typical wooded course. “Everything is just overstable shot after overstable shot. I hope disc golf doesn’t go in that direction, because it’s not fun. I want to maneuver my discs.”
In an interview with Parked, disc golf enthusiast and landscape architect Mike Plansky offered a similar view: “It’s hard to say what an authentic disc golf experience is, but the spirit of adventure and discovery, which runs through many lifestyle sports, may be hard to find on some ball golf courses” (Parked, 2017).
As it pertains to the culture of space and place, the movement of disc golf onto ball golf courses represents a shift away from the lifestyle domain and toward the modern achievement domain. Like rock climbing in a gym or surfing on an artificial wave, the experience of disc golf on a ball golf course is different.
The lifestyle player’s emotional connection to disorderly woodlands, bushy fields and brambles, teakettle ponds and streams, suburban roadways-turned-fairways, the reinvented cityscape, the unwise if invigorating flight line through an angry neighbor’s backyard is replaced by the financial and institutional efficiency of running large-scale events on carefully crafted imitations of nature.
As Plansky put it: “The challenge of building a great course is like the difficulty of writing a great story. The audience shouldn’t be confused about where it’s headed, but they should still be curious about what will happen next. I’m not sure a pop-up disc golf course on a ball golf course can do that …” (Parked, 2017).
Participation over spectating
One of the most important, if obvious, aspects of lifestyle sports is in the name.
Skateboarding, windsurfing, and rock climbing all involve a style of life, an often-intense, immersive experience in the given activity. The fact that disc golf fits the bill of a lifestyle sport in this respect—Wheaton’s fifth, if you’re still counting—may seem self-evident to most disc golfers. Disc golf, to put it plainly, is about doing it. From local clubs to major manufactures to top course designers to the PDGA, the sport is composed almost entirely of players. Some people make a living at it, but participation is the geodetic north of disc golf land.
For all but a few, the only way to become deeply involved in disc golf is to play it.
This is what distinguishes disc golf from many other sports. Thousands of owners and managers and coaches and advertisers and journalists and administrators of big-time sports dedicate their lives to their jobs. Millions of NFL fans devote large, emphatic portions of their lives to spectating their favorite sport. Billions of passionate fans follow soccer.
But to live the disc golf life, one needs a willingness to play, a readiness to participate, an inclination to spend hours and hours throwing a plastic toy through a public park.
Like other lifestyle sports, disc golf involves a series of often exhilarating performances that are ultimately futile and carried out in the absence of utilitarian purpose. To many disc golfers, this is not a shortcoming. For some, it is the material uselessness of disc golf and the fact that people play it anyway that makes it so appealing, so intoxicatingly fun to play. As Lasch (1977) put it, “the ‘futility’ of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal.”
Although disc golf, by the end of the 2010s, was primarily a participation sport, it began showing signs of commercialization, an uptick in fandom and a slow move toward the modern achievement domain. Media coverage of major tournaments was improving and increasing quickly. The number of spectacular moments caught on high-quality video—Brathwaite’s albatross, McBeth’s -18 round, countless aces—was rising.
Better coverage brought an increase in clips shown on ESPN, the crown jewel of Western commercialized sports media. Regular television coverage of disc golf was nonexistent, but viewership of prestigious tournaments on YouTube and other social media was growing fast.
For instance, a YouTube search for two major events—the United States Disc Golf Championship (USDGC) and the PDGA World Championships (Pro Worlds)—showed that the number of views has more than doubled over a five-year period. As of July 19, 2018, the final round of the 2013 Pro Worlds had 57,732 views, while the 2017 Pro Worlds had 134,730 views. As shown in Table 2, a similar increase was found in the case of the final round of the USDGC.
Disc golf experienced strong, consistent growth on Facebook and Instagram as well. Since the earliest disc golf groups emerged on Facebook in 2007, the number of active groups increased uniformly between 2008 and 2015, and stabilized in 2016 (Woods, 2018).
Even traditional news outlets increased their coverage of the sport. Over a twenty-year period, local newspaper coverage of disc golf increased faster than news coverage of ninety-two other sports (Woods 2017). While media attention was growing, and spectating disc golf was becoming more popular, the absolute size of the audience was small compared to that of traditional sports and many lifestyle sports as well.
If commercialization is a key characteristic of the modern achievement domain, disc golf is still closer to the lifestyle domain.
So far, I’ve only applied five of Wheaton’s nine characteristics of lifestyle sports to the case of disc golf. In my next post, I’ll take a deep dive into disc golf demographics and examine the diverse attitudes, beliefs and ideologies of disc golf land.
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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
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