John Porterfield throws a disc at the Whitefish disc golf course.
BY DAVE REESE, Montana Living
Plink. Clank. GONG.
If you were walking past the disc-golf course at the end of Whitefish Lake, you might think you were walking past someone playing a xylophone.
But these sounds emanating from the deep woods off of East Lakeshore Drive are not from a musical instrument; they're coming from 18 different wooden poles in the ground, poles covered with a variety of tubing and pipes, each one with their own distinct sound, each sound made by a Frisbee disc being thrown against it.
The poles are the "greens" in this 18-hole Frisbee golf (folf) course at the northeast end of Whitefish Lake. (Making the sound with your disc means you've made a successful "putt.")
This secluded forest setting has been making plenty of music lately, too. This folf course is the site of one of the Flathead Valley's disc golf courses, where people of all ages come to enjoy a sport that's rising in popularity like a Frisbee thrown into the wind.
Unlike the sport of the 1980s that was played on college campuses, fraternity lawns and family back yards, the game played with a modern-day Frisbee is a seriously competitive sport. Disc golf players use specially made plastic flying discs and throw them for 'par' at an above-ground target instead of a hole in the ground. There are different types of discs used for different purposes, the same way that golfers use different clubs.
The object of the game is to throw a golf disc at a pole that makes a sound or into the target, typically a "Pole Hole" basket (a steel basket), in the fewest number of throws. The player begins by driving from a designated tee area and continues toward the target, throwing each consecutive shot from the spot where the previous throw landed. A successful putt sends the disc into the target, creating the telltale sound.
Most disc golf courses have 18 to 24 holes. Holes lengths vary, but generally fall between 150 and 500 feet each. Trees, shrubbery, water and terrain changes offer hazards to avoid, and the Whitefish Lake course is a test in hiking, if not in folf. The course winds over about 15 acres of rolling, wooded terrain, with plenty of elevation changes and target challenges.
The holes range from long, 300-yard fairways, to shorter, target-specific holes. It takes about 90 minutes to complete the 18-hole test.
Local retail stores are witnessing the surge in popularity of folf, and have not missed this market. Bill Brist, athletics buyer for the Sportsman Ski Haus in Kalispell, said the sport has "been a pretty good item for us."
Serious folfers use several discs on a hole, from a driver to putter. The drivers are stiffer and carry longer distances, while the putters are softer and can withstand impact on the poles. The stiffness of a disc will dictate how straight and how far it will go, while softer materials can handle impact better but won't fly as straight.
"Good Frisbee golf players will learn what works best for their styles, and will gradually increase their bag with new discs that will help their game out," Brist said.
The discs are relatively inexpensive and average about $9. "Professional" discs (yes, you can make money at tournaments) run about $16 to $18. "It's not an overwhelmingly expensive sport to finance," Brist said.
While some people will simply throw their discs against trees in a casual setting at a local park, there are several established courses around the Flathead Valley that offer folfers a place to enjoy their sport.
The City of Kalispell Parks and Recreation Department put the finishing touches this week on a folf course at Lawrence Park in Kalispell. Eagle Scout Jacob Hardman made the folf baskets and installed them on newly made poles. Maps for the nine-hole course are available at Kalispell Parks and Recreation, 35 First Avenue East. The course is on relatively flat ground, so the holes were made longer to create a challenge.
WHILE the sport is popular, it has its detractors, who say the sport damages trees and disrupts other recreationists. It raised a stink in Billings, where some residents were trying to get it banned from city parks because of noise and "flying discs," folfer and Billings resident Barrett Kaiser said.
As the sport has grown, so has its organization of competitive events. The Northern Rockies Disc Golf Alliance brings together competitions and tournaments. The alliance has about 15 tournaments each summer throughout Montana, including the Montana State Championships.
Still, like it's older brother the Frisbee, disc golf is meant to be a laid-back game that you can play with the family or with a beverage in one hand.
"It's more of a lifestyle," Brist, of the Sportsman, said. "It's a game you can be outside and take advantage of being around nature. It's a game most people grew up with, but in a different sense."
On the Net: Northern Rockies Disc Golf Alliance, www.nrdga.com