Permanent human-made infrastructures are the key to growth
By Josh Woods ~
WATCH THE video ESSAY HERE:
Ed Headrick’s importance to disc golf is not a subject of debate. I mean, the guy perfected the flying disc, invented the pole hole, installed the first formal disc golf course and founded the Professional Disc Golf Association. And that’s only the first page of his resume.
But which of these deeds most influenced the rise of competitive disc golf? Now this is a question worth debating. As I often do when I wonder something, I recently took to the internet and posted a poll on Twitter.
A plurality of respondents said Headrick’s invention of the pole hole was his most influential achievement. Plausible, I thought, but I wasn’t convinced. And so, I sniffed around the internet until I came across a reply that really spoke to me. (Isn’t that why we all sniff around the internet?)
Responding to my question on Facebook, Chuck Kennedy, the mastermind behind the PDGA Ratings System, pointed to Headrick’s “relentless pursuit to install courses” as his most impactful achievement.
“He was the original Johnny Basketseed of our sport,” Kennedy wrote. “It’s one thing to invent or create something like the original pole hole. But it only has impact if the invention gets widely adopted.”
Headrick deserves applause for creating the first course at Oak Grove in California in 1975, but his ability to replicate this success 200 times, at locations in all corners of the US, at a time when hardly anyone, anywhere, knew about disc golf, was more amazing and more influential than any other of his notable accomplishments.
As Kennedy put it: “He traveled far and wide doing the song and dance to get park departments to buy into the sport along with supporting his regional lieutenants like Tom Monroe who designed and planted many in their regions.”
Eric Vandenberg, a noted historian of disc golf courses in the US and aboard, also noted Headrick’s amazing “salesmanship” in a recent interview. “He was everywhere, just all over the country,” Vandenberg said. “Alabama, Oklahoma, Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Indiana, New England.”
Headrick’s willingness to go for it and his aptitude for convincing a wide range of groups to put courses in the ground was Headrick’s great gift to disc golf land.
This is an argument I develop in my book, Emerging Sports as Social Movements. It was the pole hole’s permanence and the ability of Headrick and so many other trailblazers to install courses from coast to coast that most affected the future of the sport. Those chains in the pole hole were a stroke of genius, but it was the act of sinking the pole into concrete that converted the game of Frisbee into a sport.
The importance of a fixed and permanent infrastructure can be detected in the histories of most sports. As traditional US sports like football and baseball were increasingly played within fixed boundaries on permanent, single-use fields, the number and complexity of rules increased, refereeing took hold, standardization evolved, and competition flourished.
More recently, several lifestyle sports have developed in a similar fashion. The common thread running through the popularization of sports like skateboarding, snowboarding and rock climbing is the evolution of permanent, human-made infrastructures.
Where would skateboarding be without skateparks? How many people would watch Olympic snowboarding without the half-pipe? What’s driving the popularity of rock climbing? Actual rocks or plastic ones fixed to the walls of indoor climbing gyms? These days, even surfing can be done in a corporate pond on an artificial wave.
Disc golf and other lifestyle sports are still less structured and rule-oriented than most traditional sports, but they too have become increasingly enclosed, fixed, artificial and competitive.
Over the years, as more and more courses were planted in the ground, the sport seemed more real. Afterall, the alternative form – ad hoc object golf or “frolf” – is entirely made up by design. There’s a sense of security afforded by a permanent disc golf course.
A dad can drop his son off at one and feel relieved knowing that Kyle is not, as it turns out, obsessed with meandering aimlessly through the forest throwing Frisbees at randomly selected trees.
Fixed baskets and tee pads also made it more obvious and easier for people to experience disc golf not only as a fun game or whimsical adventure, but as a challenge that can be mastered, as a sport that can be won.
Like the indoorification of rock climbing, the rise of permanent courses grounded us, made us feel safer and certainly popularized disc golf. But it also dimmed the spontaneity and creativity that must have characterized the early days of the game.
There’s a kind of freedom in frolf.
And there’s a beauty to be found in impermanence. The unstructured fun of inventing a course and playing for the love of playing on a track that will never be played again fades with the installation of metal baskets and concrete tee pads.
For many lifestyle sport enthusiasts, as their sport became more rational and standardized, as commercial firms increasingly insisted on safety, efficiency and a reliable return on investment, as top players saw the benefit of professionalization, the sport became less authentic, less impulsive and less reflective of the original identity and lifestyle they held dear.
This fascinating push and pull between efforts to grow disc golf as an organized competitive sport and to experience it as a lifestyle can be seen throughout the history of the sport.
And that’s where I’m headed in the next installment: I’ll explain how organizational and technological changes have influenced disc golf over time, transforming it from a lifestyle to a competitive sport.
To follow along, you can subscribe to Parked by entering your email address on the website or hit the subscribe button on the YouTube channel. You’ll find 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, a sociology professor at West Virginia University and author of Emerging Sports as Social Movements, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2021.