In one flick of the wrist Brian Hauptman unleashes a disc uphill to the trees on hole one at Novato’s Stafford Lake Park. After he hikes to the fallen disc and makes a few more attempts, it sails into an awaiting metal basket, and Hauptman high-fives his opponent as they make their way to the next hole — where they’ll have to avoid a bevy of poison oak to land the shot.
As golf’s more relaxed cousin, disc golf is an easy sport to learn and play—yet still hard to excel at—and unlike traditional golf courses, which can require tremendous upkeep and high green fees, disc golf courses simply adapt to their surroundings, be it a densely wooded area or an overgrown field of grass. All that’s needed is a disc, which can be found for as little as a few dollars, and a metal basket (or even a simple target). Disc golf’s roots go back to “Steady Ed” Headrick, known as the “father of disc golf.” Headrick also founded the PDGA, the professional disc golf association, and is credited with patenting the design for the modern Frisbee.
Hauptman says the rules are simple. “When teeing off, don’t cross the front of the tee until you have let go of the disc.” The discs are divided into three basic types: putters, mid-range and drivers. Putters are designed to slowly fly straight, mid-range discs have slightly sharper edges, which allow them to cut through the air, and drivers have the sharpest edges and are the hardest to master. All of your next throws after the tee-off are then played from where the previous throw landed and the disc farthest from the target throws first. The hole is complete when the target is hit or when the disc comes to rest in the basket.
“Disc golf officially has been around since the ’80s, but in the ’70s a lot of us in college would play Frisbee golf,” says Jim Waltermire, a Novato resident and volunteer coordinator/liaison between Marin County’s Department of Parks and Open Space and those who want to use the Novato course. “The game has now evolved where now we have special discs, not just Frisbees.”
The 139-acre Stafford Lake Park offers lake fishing, a nature trail, picnic areas and Marin’s only disc golf course. It has the longest Bay Area hole, at a distance of over 1,000 feet from tee to basket.
What also makes the Novato course special is that “it’s a big course and there are a lot of elevation changes,” Waltermire says. “There are uphill and downhill shots, whereas the other courses are just flat with trees. At Stafford Lake, when you play you’re going for a good three-mile hike.” The nearest other courses are up north in Ukiah, at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa, at Aquatic Park in Berkeley and in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Mill Valley resident David Martin, who has been playing disc golf for more than 20 years, has traveled the world participating in disc sport tournaments and recently came in fifth place in the masters division at the Stafford Lake Open. In the 1980s Martin was invited to a game of the disc sport called Ultimate at the College of Marin while he was kicking around a Hacky Sack with friends. “It was there that I met all of the disc freaks and was soon playing disc golf too,” he recalls. “I started by playing on Mount Tam, where we would play a great natural hole course using specific rocks and trees as the targets. To this day we still go up and play the course on Mount Tam.”
To get involved in the sport, just go to any course and meet the players, Martin recommends. Most will be willing to help you learn and “probably set you up with discs to play with.” Waltermire, whose group United Flyers of Sonoma (UFOS) started at Sonoma State in 1976, conducts a clinic for beginners at least once a year. And “every Saturday at noon there’s a weekly meet-up where we get out there and play random doubles,” he adds. “Anybody is welcome to come.”
REI (Corte Madera) 415.927.1938, rei.com
Professional Disc Golf Association pdga.com
Stafford Lake disc golf course Jim Waltermire, 415.897.4093