The scenic view from Mary Moore Searight Park’s 15th hole is also a daunting one. The tee pad, perched at the top of a sloping hill, overlooks the rolling green tree line of Southwest Austin. Three hundred and four feet below the tee, nestled somewhere among the gangly cedar branches and limestone rock bed, lies the basket.
Launching a disc from the top of the hole is like high-diving into a barrel: The possibility of success is small; disaster, large.
A note to those unfamiliar with disc golf: It’s a lot like traditional golf, but more laid-back and way cheaper. Collared shirts are not required. Actually, shirts of any kind aren’t required. Discs — basically highly engineered pieces of plastic — cost around 10 bucks. And most courses are in public parks, and most of them are free.
The rules of disc golf are simple: Get the disc to the basket — a chest-high metal pole fitted with a shallow cage draped in chains — in as few throws as possible. The etiquette? Common sense. For example, don’t talk during some else’s throw and don’t walk past someone else’s shot. "It's almost exactly like ball golf, except their rule book is real thick and ours is real thin, " says Rick "King Rat" McNutt, a member of the South Austin Disc Association.
The stereotypes of disc golf are simple, too: hippie slacker types, possibly under the influence.
Yes, the stoner image often is associated — and not entirely unfairly — with disc golf. However, most passionate disc golfers resent the tag, saying that all types of people are into the sport. For example, South Austin Disc Association treasurer Matt Burton is a project manager for computer companies, and club president Aaron Stair is a commercial plumber. A lucky few are able to scrape out a living playing disc golf professionally, competing for prize money on the national tour and lining up industry sponsorship.
Even dogs participate. Burton keeps his dog, Sachi, tethered to the bag that holds his assorted discs. As Burton sets his bag down, Sachi, a purebred Shiba Inu and a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, dutifully stands guard. "A lot of guys train their dogs not to chase the discs, " Burton says. "But Sachi isn’t really interested. The discs are too fast."
Austin is a natural magnet for disc golfers.
"Austin is a very forward-thinking, progressive city with a lot of people that enjoy the outdoors, " says Mike Olse, one of the area’s top professional disc golfers.
Six courses, including Searight, lie within the city limits, and several more are just outside of town (see the map on page 28). The mild weather of Central Texas allows for disc golf year-round. Two active clubs, SADA and the Waterloo Disc Golf Club, provide the bulk of volunteer course maintenance. And the city's large student population ensures a steady supply of new players.
Austin also is Disc Nation's highest-ranked metropolitan area in sales of disc golf equipment and places to play, says Damon Neth, the owner of the Austin shop, which moved here from Massachusetts in 2005 and is also the home of the online shop www.discnation.com.
The three basic types of discs — drivers, midrange discs and putters — can be picked up at a variety of sports stores, including Academy Sports & Outdoors and Rooster Andrews Sporting Goods. But for expert advice on how a 170-gram long-distance driver will fly in a stiff headwind, most players go to Dave Moody’s pro shop (run out of a cart in Pease Park), Disc Nation (1218 Slaughter Lane W., 280-1115) or the Circle R Disc Golf Course pro shop (11801 RM 2325, Wimberley; (830) 833-1227).
Seated on a picnic table at Pease Park with fellow SADA members, McNutt puffs on a wooden tobacco pipe while reminiscing about his 30-plus years of disc golf experience. McNutt’s nickname, "King Rat, " originates from the former caretakers of Searight, the Dirty Rat disc golf club.
The first disc golf course in Austin was a target course in Waterloo Park, McNutt says. In lieu of baskets, players aimed for large trees, rocks and statues. "You can still see the red stripes around many of the trees out there, " he says.
Things have changed for the sport since the mid-’70s. Even with so many courses available, Austin’s most popular choices — Searight, Pease Park and Zilker Park — often are overrun with disc golfers. While a round of 18 holes typically takes an hour or two, long tee lines on weekends and weekday evenings can double that time. But Olse, who's also helped design many of the area’s disc golf courses, says two new venues will ease the congestion soon. A public course in Manor is set to open this winter, and a pay-for-play course at Little Walnut Creek Park near 51st Street and U.S. 183 is in negotiations with the city.
Olse says he learned what he knows about designing disc golf courses from John Houck, one of the world’s top course designers and the owner of Circle R Disc Golf Course near Wimberley. Already enshrined in the disc golf hall of fame, Houck is responsible for many courses in Austin, across Texas and beyond. Every spring at Zilker Park, Houck hosts the World's Biggest Disc Golf Weekend, a noncompetitive event that draws hundreds of participants and raises money for charity.
For those dedicated to disc golf, giving back is an important part of the sport.
"I have two young grandchildren, and I’m looking at a long-term future of making it better for them when they grow up, " says South Austin Disc Association vice president Del Stair, who on this day at Pease Park is dressed in the club’s official tie-dye T-shirt. Ever since his son, club president Aaron Stair, introduced him to disc golf, Del Stair has relied on the sport, rather than regular walks, to keep fit. His son-in-law, Lynn Wright, is the club’s secretary.
According to Del Stair, SADA — which includes more than 40 members — has logged more than 6,000 volunteer hours at Searight and Slaughter Creek parks. The volunteers perform tasks such as "laying down truckload after truckload of mulch" to help ease erosion on the heavily trampled parkland. This year, the club used a grant from the Austin Parks Foundation to install signs and benches and improve tee boxes. Recognized as the organization that made the best use of a grant, the club recently was given the Nancy Bowman Neighborhood Park Grant Award by the Austin Parks Foundation.
Volunteers from the Waterloo Disc Golf Club maintain Austin’s other courses. With more than 200 members, Waterloo is like SADA’s more-established older sibling. The club will host the 29th Annual Waterloo Disc Golf Classic at Waterloo Park Oct. 20-22.
Event organizer Gordon Maxim-Kelley says that although singles registration for the tournament is full, people are welcome to compete in the doubles tournament Oct. 20, to play casually during lunch hours Oct. 21 and 22, or, simply to watch. The tournament also will feature a silent auction and skill competitions, the highlight of which is the "Tayloe Toe Throw Contest, " in which competitors try to throw a disc as far as they can using only their feet. All proceeds from the tournament benefit the Ronald McDonald House. Visit www.austindiscgolf.org for more information.