Today’s culture clash began in the 1960s
By Josh Woods ~
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A while back 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’s amazing what you can find when walking through a crowded course on a Friday afternoon, or perusing disc golf handles on social media.
Viewing the sheer complexity of disc golf culture, I find it hard to look away. One thing I’ve learned through my research is that disc golf, like most fringe sports, is a still-developing thing, a DIY thing, a culture in beta mode. The guidelines for interpreting it are still unsettled. And so, its definition is unresolved.
The sport is so young, a mere blip on the timeline compared to traditional sports. Frisbee-based sports emerged during the counterculture movements of the 1960s and developed into multiple disciplines. Some enthusiasts and groups incorporated the Frisbee into their “anti-sports,” alternative lifestyles and deviant leisure. Hence, the stereotypes involving hippies and intoxication.
But, for many people, the Frisbee epitomized mainstream American values. Starting in the late 1950s, images of the Frisbee in news media, popular culture and Wham-O advertisements evoked idealized notions of play, individualism and white suburban family life, which nurtured a Frisbee passion among the conformist middle class, laid the groundwork for the Frisbee’s rise into organized competitive sports, and set the stage for cultural disunity between the rebels and the squares of Frisbee land.
Against this divergent cultural backdrop, the disc golf community began to grow, and yet, the thing we call disc golf today was still nowhere in sight. In the flying disc tournaments of the 1960s and 1970s, players often competed in multiple Frisbee disciplines, such as freestyle, double disc court, guts, ultimate and disc golf, as well as several individual events like accuracy, distance and discathon. Disc golf was merely one of a whole bunch of neat games that someone invented and convinced others to play.
In the early years, permanent disc golf courses were scarce, to say the least. Between 1975 and 1990, 244 courses were established, with clusters appearing in the upper Midwest, the mid-Atlantic I-95 corridor and the Pacific Coast.
Unless you were among the lucky few who lived near a course, you weren’t playing disc golf as we know it today. In fact, you were probably inventing the game yourself and creating the rules, boundaries and holes as you went along.
Disc golf land was an archipelago of clans, scattered across the US and separated by great distances. It was difficult and expensive to gather for tournaments. By the 1990s, it was still hard to find disc golf, even if you were looking for it.
Further complicating the geographical and cultural landscape, the meaning of disc golf was being shaped by a range of groups and individuals who were pushing and pulling the sport in different directions.
If viewed with a wide-angle lens, disc golf land was 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.
This lack of cultural cohesiveness hindered the sport’s ability to unite large numbers of players under a common flag and grow disc golf as an organized, competitive sport.
Think about this for a second: Over a twenty-year period, from 1980 to 2000, there were a total of 2,778 PDGA-sanctioned events. In 2019 alone, the PDGA sanctioned 4,651 events.
In 2000, there were 6,230 current PDGA members. Multiply that number by 11.4 and that’s today’s active member count (71,016). The number of existing disc golf courses stood at 1,145 in 2001. Now there are more than 11,500. Nearly two out of three counties in the US have at least one disc golf course.
What. The. Hell. Happened?
If I had to answer this question with a single name, I would at least begin with Ed Headrick. What happened? Headrick happened, and what he did transformed the game of Frisbee into a sport. But his most important achievement, at least in my opinion, may surprise you.
And this is where I’m headed in the next installment of Rise of an Unknown Sport.
Until then, please subscribe to the YouTube channel or to Parked by entering your email address below. You’ll find all the videos and written content under the category “Rise of an Unknown Sport.” You can also follow me on Twitter (@ADiscGolfBlog) for daily updates on all things disc golf, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.
Josh Woods is editor at Parked and author of Emerging Sports as Social Movements, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2021.