Disc golf flying high in Arizona
Thursday, March 24, 2016
SCOTTSDALE — On weekends, Vista del Camino Park in Scottsdale is a busy place for runners, walkers and bikers. But over the past decade, the park has become a hotbed for another popular activity in the Valley: disc golf.
“We’ve got a nice little community down here,” local disc golfer Spencer Mallett said. “There are plenty of courses around, there are lots of people that play, there are tons of different groups that go out, there’s a league or tournament almost every day or week.”
The Valley is home to numerous opportunities in the golf-Frisbee hybrid that has seen a significant rise in popularity around the world in the last decade.
In 2005, the Professional Disc Golf Association had 9,629 active members, according to a report released by the organization. Ten years later, there were more than 30,000.
During that period, disc golf courses have sprung up around the world, going from just under 2,000 courses internationally in 2005 to more than 5,500 last year, according to the PDGA. Most are in the United States, and more than 50 are in Arizona.
The sport has come a long way since 1975, when the PDGA had just one course in its course directory.
Helping cultivate the enthusiasm locally is Keith Murray, owner of Spinners on the Green, a disc golf pro shop located just off the course at Vista del Camino Park. Murray started in the industry in 1998, when the sport was still fairly unknown.
“Back then, maybe two out of 10 [people] would have an idea of what you were talking about,” he said. “Now, it’s the majority.”
Disc golf is similar to traditional golf in that players navigate around trees and water hazards to reach a goal. But they do it with different sized discs and, instead of holes, disc golfers target chain baskets that catch their discs.
Throwing discs around a typical course only takes a couple hours, which is a draw for many new players.
Now that word has gotten out about the sport, Murray estimates he sees five new faces a day coming through the shop. That new, sustained activity in the sport not only keeps his business alive, but has created numerous events and opportunities for professional and amatuer enthusiasts all over the world.
Murray directs the annual Memorial Championship, one of the biggest disc golf tournaments in the country, which is played at three courses across the Valley. In its 28th year, almost 650 people from around the world played in the tournament earlier this month. This year, the online broadcast peaked at more than 5,000 concurrent viewers, according to Murray.
The championship also kicked off the sport’s annual national professional tour, something else Murray said has grown over the last decade. With more and more people entering tournaments, it’s become more than just a game for many players.
This year’s pro winner at the Memorial Championship, Paul McBeth, took home a $4,000 prize. While it does not come close to what a professional golfer might earn after winning a PGA Tour event, McBeth’s career tournament earnings have surpassed $250,000, according to the PDGA website, with more than $70,000 coming last season.
Besides the new faces in his shop every day, Murray sees more corporate functions and school programs introducing people to the game. With many courses in public parks, and the relatively cheap cost to play, it’s easy for newcomers to try out and stick with the game.
The more people find out about the sport, the more Murray expects it will pick up.
“It’s not slowing down,” he said. “We always say it’s the fastest-growing sport in the world and that’s just what we see.”
All the success has attracted some traditional golf courses which have taken a hit financially in recent years. Disc golf is an alternative that can help courses recoup lost green fees, especially in the summer when golfers avoid long hours in the heat.
“It’s going to be the thing of the future due to economics,” said Frank Buchanan, the manager at Fiesta Lakes Golf Club in Mesa.
Buchanan brought disc golf to Fiesta Lakes three years ago and had a disc course layout designed to best mix both games over the traditional nine-hole course. So far, disc golfers and ball golfers have coexisted without issues.
“If you set it up right, you won’t have a problem,” he said.
Numerous disc golfers pay to play at Fiesta Lakes thanks to its association with the Memorial Championship and the difficulty of its layout, according to Buchanan. The additional income has helped the course, so much so that he wants to see more opportunities for disc golfers.
“I want to hold demonstrations, I want to have youth classes,” he said. “I think it’s really up and coming.”
Even with all the growth and the sports’ seemingly bright future, Murray believes disc golf still needs to target other groups – specifically women and young people – to continue its momentum and become mainstream. But now with so much exposure in the public, that growth almost seems inevitable.
“In the next couple years, it’s going to become real big. I think there’s going to be a lot of coverage on it,” Mallett said, pointing to recent coverage on outlets like ESPN. “It’s booming right now.”
“Kids getting involved, women getting involved, that’s going to be big,” Murray said. “Hopefully I’ll see the major growth in my lifetime, but the way it’s going, it’s keeping me on my toes as it is.”