Frisbees on Course
Disc golf soars, adding players, professionalism
By Matt Karwoski
Throwing colorful Frisbee-like discs at large metal baskets might seem a bit weird, but many revere it as a hallowed pastime and a rapidly growing, professionally sanctioned sport.
The name of the game is disc golf, and over the years it’s taken root in the Milwaukee area.
Discs were soaring Wednesday despite 40-degree weather, forbidding clouds, and a swamped course. Terry Miller’s spring league players met to test their skills at Valley View Park in New Berlin. The group of about 35 consisted of young and old, male and female.
The objective is the same as traditional golf. First, players throw a disc from a dirt or concrete tee pad. They then throw again from where their disc landed, attempting to make it in the basket with the fewest throws.
One reason disc golf is so appealing to players is the low cost. Discs average $12 each, and 85% of the world’s courses are free. Ben Habanek is a local player who got started without even paying for a disc.
“My friends and I were able to fish discs out of a pond that was on a course, and so right off the bat I didn’t have to put any money into it,” he said.
Miller, 33, has been playing disc golf for 18 years.
“It’s outdoors so people can get out and be outside. It’s so accessible and friendly to so many different people, and your economic background and education really don’t matter. I feel like it spans across all demographics,” he said.
Players also love the sport because they can play almost anytime.
“You can play it at night with glow discs, and for the most part in Wisconsin you can play it year-round. There’s very low potential for serious injury, and it’s very casual. It’s more based around just getting out there and having fun as opposed to really strong competition,” Habanek said.
Terry Miller, disc golf enthusiast
In addition to directing the New Berlin disc golf league, Miller is the elected volunteer state coordinator and tournament director for the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). He grew up in Appleton and has numerous tournament wins at the amateur and professional levels. Miller’s passion for disc golf has taken him all over the world, to places like Asia for the Japan Open Disc Golf Championship.
He was introduced to the sport in middle school.
“Actually I went to a church camp and they had us throwing regular Frisbees with Geoffrey the Giraffe from Toys “R” Us on them into red grocery baskets,” Miller said. “A few weeks later I found out that there were actually courses that had baskets, and then from there I was completely hooked.”
He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2000 with a degree in information technology, and soon had a full-time career at Kohl’s corporate headquarters. However, Miller would eventually discover his true calling.
“I was finding that I was running tournaments and doing demonstrations and helping with leagues and clubs and all sorts of things,” he said. “One day I decided to up and quit, and I decided that if anyone was going to make a living at promoting disc golf full time, it was going to be me.”
Miller founded Lifetime Disc Sports in 2003. His company promotes the sport with leagues, demonstrations, corporate outings, fundraisers, and nationally sanctioned tournaments. Miller is a registered disc vendor, selling a wide array of drivers, mid-ranges, and putters in various colors, dyes, and plastics. He has also designed dozens of courses. Miller is known for interviewing professional players on his YouTube video log as “The Disc Golf Guy.”
“It is really exciting knowing that I have full access to all of our sport’s top players. I have a pretty good rapport with most of our top players and I love bringing that to everyone else who doesn’t have that connectivity to them,” Miller said.
Past, present, and future
Tracing the origins of disc golf is difficult. There are accounts of school age kids playing golf games with tin lids in Vancouver, BC as far back as 1926. In 1960, a company by the name of Copar Plastics attempted to market a packaged game they called “Sky Golf,” but it never caught on.
The concept made a triumphant return in 1965 thanks to George Sappenfield, a recreation counselor from California. He set up a makeshift course for kids using traditional Frisbees and throwing them at targets like trees and poles. Ed Headrick, a Wham-O toys employee, picked up where Sappenfield left off and designed the first standardized target course in Southern California. By the 1970’s, courses began to appear in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
In recent years the sport has grown swiftly. In 2000, only 1,145 courses existed in the world. Today there are more than 3,000 courses in over 20 countries. The number of PDGA sanctioned tournaments has grown from 361 in 2000 to over 1,100 in 2010. By 2009 there were more than 14,000 PDGA registered players, and that figure is steadily increasing.
Miller predicts there will be multimillion-dollar tournaments in the future.
“We need some big corporate sponsors to really see that our demographics are there and that our players and customers are loyal to the sport. Skateboarding, snowboarding, basketball, and soccer were all tiny sports at one point. I think what most people forget is that disc golf has only been around for 30 years,” he said.
Gary Obernberger is a player from Oak Creek who participated in Miller’s league Wednesday.
“I hope it gets bigger. I just want to see it explode and be on a national level like everything else,” he said. “Olympic disc golf? That’d be awesome.”