How to start disc golfing
No sport is getting more attention than this accessible and fun activity
They are popping up in green spaces across Canada and the United States, poles with metal mesh baskets perfect for incoming hunks hard plastic flung from a couple of hundred yards away. It’s got a counter-culture, laid-back vibe, and requires a unique skill set. Yes, my outdoor-loving friends, the time of ball golf is so over. It is all about disc golf.
In Toronto, for example, disc golf courses are popping up all over town and in the surrounding area as more and more people take up the sport. And the same trend is evident across the continent. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a more than 30 per cent increase in membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association. A whopping increase. And if there was ever a sport that found its participants during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, it is disc golf.
Philo Braithwaite is one of the most recognizable names in the sport. He is a long-time professional disc golfer and instructor with Innova Discs. He was a ball golfer before he found the disc.
“Well, the story goes a little like this. I was in college and working out at In-N-Out Burger. And back then I was just acquaintances with a guy who turned out to be my best friend,” Braithwaite says. “He introduced me to this girl. We were talking sports one day, and she asked me what I like to do in my spare time, when I told them I like to play golf, regular golf, h said, ‘when you're done playing with your balls, I got a real game of golf to show you.’”
Disc golf follows the same rules as the other golf game. Instead of a cup on a glistening bed of tiny grass, disc golfers must toss their discs from the tee down the fairway and into a basket. Scoring is the same.
Disc golf dates back to the ’60s and ’70s. The Frisbee was invented by the Wham-o toy company in 1966, the disc golf target in 1975, but like other disc sports such as ultimate, the exact history is a little sketchy.
Disc Golf Hall of Fame member Jim Palmeri puts it like this:
“Sorry, but this turns out to be impossible to answer. There are many historical accounts of people playing golf with a flying disc, some of which pre-date the advent of the plastic flying discs by many years,” he says. “Each account was an isolated instance of recreational disc golf play, and none of the participants knew of anyone else playing disc golf. Indeed, most of these instances were isolated not only geographically but also isolated in time, so they couldn't have known about each other.”
This brings us back to Philo, and his introduction to the sport.
“That's where the interest began and I started playing with a bunch of guys that had already been playing for ages, and they beat me pretty badly and kept taking my $5,” he says. “So I figured I'd start practicing and that's kind of when the passion hit.”
Braithwaite has been a registered professional disc golfer since 2005. He has 38 PDGA tour wins, has earned a living as a full-time player for more than a decade, and has played the sport in 21 countries. For him, the game just never gets old. When asked what it is about the sport that really does it for him, and he says “pretty much everything.”
“One of the main draws to me was the community of people that I got to be around pretty much any given day of the week. There's that part to it,” he says. “ And I'm a very competitive person by nature, you know, athletically, for sure. And there's so much to learn. It's like a never-ending process. You know, golf is just one of those sports where you never win the game, you just play the game, you know. And that really drew me to this sport where there was always something to work on. It really depends on you.”
Braithwaite says, with disc golf, there are no teammates and it all depends on a willingness to work to get as good as you want to be. But, spending all his time outside in nature is pretty sweet, as well.
That also really drew me to the game, being outside in nature, being able to travel around and play different courses, different topographies there are so many variables in this game that are just exciting on so many different levels,” he says. “And I think that's really what kept me interested is that there's always somewhere new to play. There's always something new to learn, a new shot to work on, a skill to hone. And there are so many cool people to meet all across the world.”
But it didn’t happen overnight for Braithwaite, who says he worked on his game for four years before it all clicked for him.
“I started dedicating more time to practicing and other players around me started to recognize my skill level was going up and encouraged me to train a little harder and, you know, take a stab at playing with the pros and see what happens,” he says.
In addition to being a touring pro, Braithwaite spreads the disc golf gospel around the world.
I do Ambassador work traveling to different countries representing my sponsors, and spreading the word of disc golf to growing communities,” he says. “And I have my own brand, Team Philo, which focuses on workshops and clinics, you know, private lessons, teaching people fundamentals and getting them going in the right direction.”
And that leads us to a discussion on the three things that most players are thinking about when playing disc golf that every new player should be thinking about as well.
Philo’s Three Pillars
“The first thing is you want to understand what the disc likes to do. No two discs are really identical. Even if it has the same name, the characteristics of each disc can vary because the process of molding isn't so dialled in yet that every disc is identical,” he says. “So each disc is going to have its own variables and nuances to it. And once you kind of understand what the disc likes to do, then you can start to manipulate the disc by altering your swing path.”
So that’s the first of what we’ll call Philo’s Three Pillars: Focus on understanding what the disc likes to do,
The second is to start working on creating the three main shapes of the swing for the backhand throw. And the third, says Braithwaite, is where you aim — the trajectory.
Sounds easy. But, there is so much more beginning with a basic understanding of the types of discs, which fall into three categories.
“There are discs that like turn left, we call that overstable. Some discs have a lot of glide, which we call straight in our game or flat flying discs. And then there are discs that have a tendency to taper to the right, we call that under stable,” Braithwaite explains. “So depending on the shape of the rim of the disc, and the lean of the disc will determine how air gets trapped underneath and the characteristics of flight.”
And they are all different, there are hundreds of models of discs produced by a pile of manufacturers.
But once you have a set of discs, and Braithwaite suggests getting an introductory set from a well-known brand such as Innova, which will include a driver, fairway driver, and a putter.
Of course, Braithwaite usually has a bag of about 30 discs when he’s playing, but admits to having a couple thousand at home.
Once the mechanics of flight are understood, it’s time to figure out how to swing. Like ball golf, the swing is the trickiest and most important part of disc golf.
“So there are three main swing techniques in our game, there's hyzer swing which makes the disc go left turn only, okay, there's a flat swing that promotes a straight flight. And then there's an anhyzer swing which makes right turn only,” he says. “So if you kind of follow the three categories and three subcategories you have your disk, the three different flight characteristics, and the three different swing shapes, Then the trajectory, which is where you aim. And once you get those three things working together, the game comes to a whole lot faster.”
Here is one of Philo’s instructional videos teaching how to throw flat
Braithwaite says there are basically two schools of thought, one of which is the most rudimentary hold that basically involves curling fingers under the rim of the disc. While the other grip, most commonly used by professionals, the pads of the fingers are fanned out on the flight plate of the disc.
“The finger pads on the disc is what the pros are using,” he says. “Most people just kind of like grip the disc and make a fist and then just wing it out there. And it's really hard to control the disc angles like that.”
The Flight Ratings
Another important part of disc golf is to decipher the seemingly random series of numbers put on the face of the disc. Understanding what these numbers mean early on, is a great advantage for new players as they won’t grab a disc that demands too much torque or technique.
“So when you see the disc, the numbers on the flight plate of the disc or on the top of the disc, it's describing the speed at which the disk is meant to be thrown, or where it's most optimally thrown if it's a lower number, that means you don't have to go so fast to make it fly,” he says.
Generally speaking, when you're just starting out, you want to disk with a lower speed number to start because it'll be easier to control if you don't have a lot of arm speed, which most new players don't, right. But should you be like an athlete and you've got like a natural snap, and you're kind of accustomed to throwing a frisbee or a ball and you understand that transaction of energy, then you might want to bump up the speed a little bit.”
The second number in the series of four is glide.
“So that means how much this disc to glide through the air versus turn, okay,” Braithwaite says. “Turn would be the kind of sliding to the right. And fade would be the last number, which would be the turning to the left if you're a right-handed thrower. Okay, so you got speed, glide, turn and fade.”
You’re talking about practice?
Although there is no substitute for getting out and logging as many rounds as possible to improve your game, Braithwaite suggests hitting the range as well.
“Take some time and do some fieldwork, basically, the driving range, just create your own driving range in an open field and just try to get accustomed to what the disc likes to do try to find the similarities and flights,” he says. “Try to understand the angles you need to release to promote a straight flat flight.”
One of Braithwaite’s favourite places to play disc golf is in Portland, Oregon at Milo McIver State Park. It’s where, in 2016, Braithwaite shocked the world when a video landed on ESPN showing him throw an 850-foot drive landing him a three-under-par albatross.
It only took him a couple decades to nail this shot, so get practicing.
For Braithwaite, he is excited to see the growth in the sport, spurred on by the pandemic, and the accessibility of the sport, usually free to play, outside of buying some discs. And he’s loving it.
“I never thought disc golf would take me on the journey that I'm on now that's for sure,” he says.