It's kind of a strange sight: Watching grown men rear back, take a hop step and launch a plastic disc, aiming for a metal basket lined with chains a few hundred feet away. Those baskets, as well as tee boxes marking where players should stand and hurl, spotted City Park on Veterans Day for the first disc golf tournament at the park since Hurricane Katrina.
The Nov. 11 tournament was the culmination of years of hard work from a small but dedicated continent of disc golf players whose ambition is to give the Crescent City its own course. They call themselves the "NO Team" and they, along with other aficionados, have a big hand in the addition of 18 baskets and tee boxes spread around the lagoon at City Park. NO Team member Mark Laborde spent more than a hundred hours purchasing and refurbishing baskets. Royden Peabody painted tee-box markers (gold fleur-de-lis on a white background). Course designer Mike Kernan was up early the day of the tournament to put up the course map and decorate it with a ceremonial ribbon.
Kernan, who designed the existing 24-hole course at Lafreniere Park, says it's been his dream for years to get a disc golf course in City Park, but the obstacles have been formidable: getting permission from the park, finding suitable land and figuring out maintenance. Then there was the challenge of designing a course with so few trees and so many low-lying areas.
"You come out in the rain to see where it floods so you don't build there. You use what trees you have and you look at the lagoon and the roads," he says. "You want to get nice greens like under a big oak tree or the bridge. That's a really interesting hole."
"The bridge" is on Palm Drive and marks the out-of-bounds line on hole 11. This forces players to choose whether to throw between a gap lined by palm trees and over a water hazard (a one-stroke penalty) or over the bridge and risk having the disc fly out-of-bounds (also a penalty). At 164 feet, it's the shortest hole on the course, but likely the most interesting — and fun.
It's that mix of strategy and enjoyment of the game that brought the 50 or so people from all over to the City Park course opening. In attendance were some of the biggest names in the sport. Jim Orum, the godfather of Gulf Coast disc golf, drove in from Mobile, Miss. His son was also there — 22-year-old Matt Orum, ranked No. 8 overall by the Pro Disc Golf Association (PDGA) and fresh off a 9th-place finish at the U.S. Disc Golf Championship.
"I love it," Matt Orum said of the course between rounds (he also squeezed in a few practice holes during lunch). "I've been waiting for a course to be built out here because I've spent about a year and a half out of the last five in New Orleans."
The Gulf South disc golf community is a tight group. More than 20 years ago, Jim Orum led a group of players looking to found the Southern Nationals Disc Golf Series to unite Southern tournaments from Florida to Texas into a traveling series. Since then, it's established itself as one of the most competitive in the world, and 13 of the Top 50 disc golfers come from Southern Nationals states.
Competition aside, Jim Orum says the Southern Nationals is mostly a group of friends who wanted to organize and localize disc golf in the Southern U.S. The tournaments serve as a social gathering. "Look at all the different people out here, the different ages," Jim Orum said before the tournament began. "It was the players that got me hooked."
The players are mostly male, but vary in age and background. There's J.C. Cannon of Mobile, Ala., who sported one of several custom-build carts spotted on the course. He struck up a conversation with New Orleans audio engineer Michael Seaman, who had his own hand-built cart (with cooler) to show off.
Though I'd played a good number of casual disc-golf rounds in Metairie and in City Park, this was my first tournament and I was a little nervous. Would this be like ball golf with its traditions and ceremony?
The question was answered immediately on my arrival. There was a beer cooler where players could grab a can or two for the course. Some people played music in of their cars while they waited for tee-off. Michael Plaucher, a chef at the Windsor Court Hotel, showed up in a sleeveless T-shirt and large novelty Uncle Sam hat.
I played my first round with Seaman and Kernan, and it was casual enough that Kernan let me ask questions through the course (it didn't affect his game, as he finished second in the Pro Master division). In the afternoon round, I was paired with Plaucher. After I walked in his sight-line while he was trying to putt, he reassured me with a fist pump and kind words: "Seriously, it's nothing. We're out here to have fun."
Besides the equipment involved, disc golf varies greatly from ball golf in terms of ease. Disc golf is a simple game to pick up and hold on to. For all the purple prose and hushed whispers around the world ball golf circuit, any casual player can attest to the maddening ordeal that goes into actually playing it. After spending close to half a grand on clubs, you also have to buy golf shoes and golf balls, and pay for tee times, greens fees and cart rental.
And then there is the issue of skill. Ball golf requires a tremendous amount of practice, power and technique in order to just to be an OK player. You have to spend hundreds of hours hitting thousands of golf balls under the direction of a swing coach if you want a decent handicap. But anyone interested in being a casual disc golfer need only buy a putter and driver (between $5 and $10 each) and show up at a course. You can play at your own pace and even take multiple tee shots (though, as in ball golf, it's still customary to allow faster players to play through).
It's also not as hard to achieve success in disc golf as it is in ball golf. Any memory I could recall of hitting par on a ball golf course would be, at best, an outright lie. In disc golf, I shot my first par on my second outing at Lafreniere Park and on my sixth hole at City Park. For me, that was enough to register as a disc golf amateur (one step above "novice").
None of this is to say that disc golf is easy. While I've figured out how to heave a disc long and straight, it only happens occasionally when I put my full weight behind a throw. Putting is also frustrating, as I've yet to find a reliable throwing motion. For the most part, though, my best shots come when I'm not trying so hard.
Reaching the highest levels of disc golf, however, requires the commitment put in by any professional athlete. For our afternoon round, Plaucher and I were joined by Metairie native Eric Tracy, who unleashed more than a few shots that left me in awe. Tracy played 12 years of professional disc golf, and at one point was ranked No. 4 in the world. How did he do it?
"I practiced my ass off," Tracy says, adding he threw discs every time he had a chance and drove as far as Toronto to play a tournament. "It's just what I did."
Players on the PDGA Tour can win up to $3,000 for winning a tournament. Matt Orum, currently ranked No. 8, has earned more than $13,000 in prize money and sports an endorsement deal with disc maker Innova.
Tracy says he finds the mental side of game is on a level with ball golf. "There are definitely differences, but it's still all about keeping your breathing steady and keeping an even temperament," he says.
Tracy is a convert. He remembers playing ball golf with his dad on the old City Park golf course. Once he began playing disc golf, Tracy and his father imagined disc golf courses throughout the park. "Seeing a disc fly through the air is a more satisfying experience than seeing a golf ball just disappear," he says.
On Dec. 11, New Orleans will host its first Southern Nationals Qualifier, and Tracy says he hopes to return and shoot for a better score. From the looks of it, he won't be alone. And with more and more disc golf players at City Park every day, the sight of all those people throwing discs around the lagoon won't seem so strange anymore.
To learn more about disc golf, go to the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) website at www.pdga.com. The site has rules and a history of the sport, along with listings of courses, current standings, tournaments, information about the PDGA Tour and more. To stay up to date with courses and tournaments in the Gulf South, visit the Southern Nationals Web site at www.sndg.org.