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Disc golf takes off in St. Albert

High-flying sport proves popular during pandemic

There’s a satisfying “toonq!” as an airborne disc bounces off an orange bucket hanging from a tree in St. Albert’s Langholm Park.  

Disc golf player and park neighbour Nick Legault has just made par. 

In June 2020, Legault hung these buckets in Langholm Park to create a temporary disc golf course, expecting maybe a dozen people to use it. Instead, he got hundreds, with some 600 rounds played here last year. Now, he’s working with city officials to create the city’s first permanent disc golf course

Legault said disc golf has taken off in St. Albert in the last year, as it is a cheap, quick, and fun sport anyone could do safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s easy to get into, but hard to get really good at it.” 

From Frisbee to “fore!” 

Legault said he first started playing disc golf in 2018 after his brother introduced him to it. Now, he tries to squeeze in a few games a week year-round. 

Disc golf is basically golf with a Frisbee from a rules perspective, he explained: the goal is to get your disc from the start of a hole to the end in as few throws as possible. Players must make their throws from wherever their disc lands, and take penalties if their disc lands out-of-bounds. To finish a hole, your disc must either hit a designated target (which can be anything from a propane tank to a can on a post) or land in a chain-lined basket.  

Unlike regular golf, you don’t need to spend a fortune on fancy clothes, clubs, or tee times to play disc golf, Legault said. You don’t need to be athletic, but having a good throwing arm helps. 

“As long as you can swing your arm or flick your wrist, you can play disc golf.” 

Vicky Yeung, who runs the Edmonton Disc Golf Association’s women’s league, said disc golf is a great family activity, as it is open to all ages and not particularly strenuous. 

“You’re pretty much going for a stroll in the park,” she said. 

Yeung is one of the roughly 160-some players and volunteers who were at Edmonton’s Rundle Park July 17 and 18 for the 24th annual River City Cup, which is the main disc-golf tournament for the Edmonton region. Players whipped colourful discs over rolling hills and between tall trees, hoping to hear that satisfying “clink!” of a disc striking a basket’s chains. Some cheered or clapped at skillful shots, while others groaned as their throws ricocheted off trunks and rolled out of bounds.  

Disc golf has exploded in popularity in the last 18 months, and this was one of the biggest turnouts for the Cup yet, said Edmonton Disc Golf Association president Tim Plamondon.  

“I think people were just looking for a new thing to do outside and this was a pretty easy one,” he said. 

Setting up a basket on the practice range was Craig Burrows-Johnson, a certified tour official with the Professional Disc Golf Association and disc-golf player since the 1980s. He agreed that the sport took off during the pandemic — there are hundreds of players around Edmonton now, compared to maybe two dozen back in the 1990s, and new courses are popping up everywhere. 

Burrows-Johnson said the history of disc golf is linked to the history of the Frisbee, which started in the late 1800s when university students started tossing around pie plates made by the Frisbie (note the spelling) Pie Company. Walter Morrison produced a plastic version in 1948 variously called a Pluto Platter or Flying Saucer, and later sold it to Wham-O Toys, who dubbed it the Frisbee. While historians disagree on who first played golf with a disc, Ed Headrick was considered the father of the sport, building the first official disc golf course in 1975 and founding the Professional Disc Golf Association in 1976.

Tricks of the trade

Players at the River City Cup came equipped with all sorts of fancy multi-coloured discs and carriers.  

Legault said he typically lugs about 18 discs with him in a backpack, but acknowledged you can play with a little as one disc. 

“You wouldn’t get as far, but you could play with a dinner plate if Mom let you, I guess.” 

While tournaments require your gear to meet certain specs, Yeung said casual players can play disc golf with any Frisbee-like object. A three-disc starter pack typically costs $30. 

Disc golfers typically carry three types of discs with them, Legault said: drivers, which have thick rims and thin edges for maximum range; midrange, which have blunter edges and thinner rims for medium distance; and putters, which are smaller and made of rubbery plastics less apt to bounce out of a target basket. Most discs will have four numbers printed on them to indicate their potential range and flight characteristics, allowing players to pick just the right disc for any occasion. 

Disc golf is a game of skill over strength, with technique, timing, and shot selection being the most important part of your final score, Legault said. Players use forehand, backhand, and overarm shots of different types to control the disc’s flight path. You might use The Grenade to get over a tall tree, a Skip shot to bounce under a low branch, or a Roller to make the disc roll on its edge over a long, flat stretch.  

Legault and Leung agreed that the key to an entertaining disc golf course is variety. Hitting targets in a flat, open field is boring. Add trees, hazard areas, rolling terrain, and holes of different lengths, and you introduce much-needed variety.  

Nature is another important element, said Burrows-Johnson, who has designed many disc golf courses (six last year alone). Part of the appeal of disc golf is getting out into beautiful landscapes such as the North Saskatchewan River valley or the badlands of Drumheller that also offer challenging terrain. Care must be taken to avoid environmentally sensitive vegetation, though, and to manage the impact of foot-traffic — many of the tee boxes at Rundle Park have serious erosion issues. Builders should conduct extensive talks with area residents, and ensure their course designs direct flying discs away from playgrounds and high-traffic areas.  

In an email, City of St. Albert spokesperson Cory Sinclair said the city plans to hold public talks on the design and location of a permanent St. Albert disc golf course in early August. The Langholm Park course is set to get formal disc golf baskets later this summer.  

Legault encouraged people to come out to a disc golf tryout event at Langholm Park on Aug. 21. Visit the St. Albert Disc Golf Facebook page for details.  

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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