Tim DeFranco steps up to a spray-painted line and plants a foot behind him, settling into a wide stance. He swings a neon disc back and forth, extending his right arm from his chest out and back again. His thoughts are lost in hand-eye measurements until suddenly, he swings his arm and the disc flies. The group holds its breath and watches it sail silently until — thwack — it hits a thick tree and falls to the ground just feet from a metal basket.
With a groan, DeFranco turns as if to shield himself from the scene of a disaster.
“Well, that’s what makes this course interesting,” he says, breaking into a devil-may-care smirk.
Schenectady’s Central Park does make a good disc golf course. The Capital Region has only a handful. The one in Coeymans has a whopping 28 holes and smooth open fairways. A privately owned Galway course is tucked into the woods. A course on Hunter Mountain offers a challenge, if elevation changes are your thing.
The Central Park course was designed three years ago, but already came with natural elements ideal for the game. There are woodlands, creeks, grade changes and Monument Hill — one of the highest points in the city. Not to mention, there are tons of picturesque views — the Rose Garden, Iroquois Lake and the Central Park fountain.
The basket DeFranco was trying to reach was about 240 feet away and situated between two large trees just steps from a densely wooded area. That’s where 60-year-old Mike Delisle threw his disc next.
Delisle drove all the way down from Plattsburgh for the Play It Again Open II, one of dozens of tournaments held across the state each year. On Saturday, about 60 to 70 members of the Capital Region Disc Golf Club gathered inside the Central Park Pavilion to talk shop before hitting the 18-hole course. They carried duffel bags and backpacks, all stuffed with a rainbow of discs specially designed for speed and accuracy.
They call them putters because, after all, this is golf. Kind of. Many people know of the sport by its more enjoyable moniker, frolf. But technically, players said, that implies it’s a combination of Frisbee and golf.
“Frisbee, of course, is a trademark,” said tournament director Jeff Wiechowski. “But the basic gist is just like ball golf, regular golf. The same strategies are applied. The fewest number of strokes wins a round. Everything is set up just like a ball golf course, except it’s in feet instead of yards, so it shortens the game up a bit.”
The game apparently started as far back as the 1920s by people who discovered it independently and organically. Throwing a disc at a target was just a variation of throwing a disc to another person. And it was fun. It didn’t really become official until the late ’60s when a recreation leader in California began organizing tournaments at city playgrounds. The targets were hula-hoops and rules were established regarding hole lengths, pars and penalties.
Kevin Rounds was living in San Diego when the sport had become so popular that cities and towns began building their own courses.
“A guy I played softball with said, ‘You gotta check this disc golf thing out,’ ” he recalled. “Now it was 1979 and they were just starting to put these courses in when I got into it.”
Rounds is now 61 and living in the Greene County hamlet of Hannacroix, but he has played all these decades and helped spread the sport’s popularity in the Capital Region. The sport has grown steadily since the formation of the Disc Golf Association, a membership organization launched by the father of disc golf, “Steady” Ed Headrick, in 1976 in an effort to promote the sport around the world.
The game’s biggest appeal is cost.
“A bag of golf clubs and golf balls is going to cost you upwards of a couple thousand dollars,” said Wiechowski. “You could play this with one disc, which costs you maybe $15. And it’s just the disc and your arm. And most courses around the country are free. And if they aren’t free, they’re a nominal $5 or so.”
Club Vice President Bob Hoffman said most players carry 15 or 20 discs that they’ve accumulated over the years from various tournaments. In addition to being cheap to play, the sport can range from free form recreational to highly competitive. Hoffman, who is 60 years old, has risen through amateur ranks to the advanced grandmaster division.
For that reason, he added, it attracts players of all ages.
“My son is a teacher over at Schenectady High,” he said. “So we gave the school a package of three baskets and 40 discs, and now they teach it in phys ed. They’ve had it over there for two or three years now. It’s really caught on.”