May 29, 2010 9:14:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
The golfer steps up to the tee. Evaluates distance, line, the breeze. Focused on the fairway, he assumes position. His friends stop their easy banter, falling still and silent.
Similar scenes play out thousands of times every week, at golf courses the world over. But there are no clubs and balls here. The golfers at Lake Lowndes State Park are trying to beat par with ... plastic and rubber discs.
It''s disc golf, and its fanbase is growing across the Golden Triangle and North Mississippi. While played much like traditional golf, it boasts two primary differences -- equipment and cost. Instead of a bag filled with irons and woods, recreational players could conceivably play a course with one disc. Instead of a cupped hole in the ground, the ultimate target at each fairway''s end is a "pole hole," draped with chains to capture a flying shot.
But like traditional golf -- which spans skill levels from putt-putt to the Masters -- disc golf gets competitive, too, and can be pursued all the way to world rankings.
Matt Reid, of the Whispering Pines Disc Golf Association in the Golden Triangle, talked about his favored sport while playing the course at Lake Lowndes on a hot, sunny Sunday. He and his co-players are training for the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) tournament there June 12-13. He''s optimistic about disc golf''s future.
"I think it will explode here, the same way it did in Tupelo," Reid, 24, predicted. Tupelo has six local courses. Starkville currently has a nine-hole course on the Mississippi State University campus, with another nine holes to open this summer. In West Point, a move is underway to secure a grant to put in a small course. And at Lake Lowndes, a second course will soon be unveiled.
"Lake Lowndes is one of the top notch courses in the state," Reid said of the current 18-hole lay-out, all par 3''s.
Anticipation is high that a course will be incorporated into the new sports park proposed for downtown, behind the Farmers'' Market.
Roger Short of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority confirmed, "It''s definitely something we''re looking at. That''s one of the things we want to do."
Why disc golf?
Clayton Nash, 26, is a native of the Tupelo area, but currently resides in Columbus. He annually plays the pro-open divisions in about 25 to 30 tournaments throughout the Southeast and beyond.
"You''re talking about a family sport, cheap to play, for all ages, enjoying nature, getting good exercise while having fun ... " Nash reeled off.
Even as he and Reid -- along with Chris Gustine and Whispering Pines vice president Chip Strain -- picked up their "golf bags" packed with 20 or more discs of varying thickness and weight to move on to another hole Sunday, a family playing the hole behind them haphazardly tossed a couple of shared discs, laughing out loud. The contrast drove Nash''s point home -- no matter the commitment or skill level, there''s something for everyone.
"I think the sport would have grown anyway, because it''s fun, but I think the economy is helping, too, because it''s inexpensive to play," said Nash. Spontaneous golfers at Lake Lowndes can rent discs for $3 at the Multi-Sports Center.
Nash began playing about six year ago, when friends at Itawamba Community College invited him along. Now he''s on a course almost every day, perfecting different shots.
"I have a pretty competitive personality, anyway," he admits. "The more fun it is to play, the more competitive I get." With a stinging release, he sends a disc cutting through the air, silently sailing down a green fairway lined with tall pines, dappled by sunlight.
As in traditional golf, players have discs called putters, for throws close to the hole. And disc golf''s drivers (for fairway shots) are marketed with names like "Wraith," "Destroyer," "Beast" and "Archangel." Every new bevel, every tweaking innovation is geared to appeal to the determined player..
"Golfers pride themselves on ''no wimps, no whiners,''" shared Nash, when asked if winter is time off. "You just dress warmer. There''s even an Ice Bowl of disc golf."
Reid added, "You don''t get to choose the weather at tournaments, so it helps to learn to play in different elements."
Lake Lowndes State Park manager Barbara Caldwell testifies to the sport''s local popularity.
"I would dare say there are people out there playing 90 percent of the days of the year. We get a lot of compliments on this course, and have people from all over come play here."
Mississippi''s state parks offer 14 or 15 disc golf courses, Caldwell said. She praised the association for the effort in getting the soon-to-open Lake Lowndes course built.
"Chip Strain especially has worked really, really hard on it," she praised. "They say it''s going to be a real challenging course."
The public is invited to come out June 12-13 for the Summer Sizzler Tournament. See what all the disc golf fuss is about. Entry to the park is $3 per car.
Nash said, "I''ve seen tournaments with little kids and then people in their 80s. This is definitely a sport for all ages -- men and women. ... You really can''t beat it."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.