Beginner’s Primer To Disc Golf
We’ve gotten a big response to the two columns I wrote on disc golf. Much of it came from those who had heard of disc golf but were largely unfamiliar with the game. Disc golf interested them.
Almost all asked about how the game is played. Pam and I can give a true beginners’ set of perspectives because the only part of disc golf that we know well (currently) is how to start — we are beginners. And we know that part of the game really well.
Should you use a professional teacher or coach? We do, and it has shaved many months, possibly even a year or two, off of our learning curve. And, as with most sports, that is helpful. In regular golf it’s almost impossible to start without taking lessons from a pro or highly experienced player. However, you’ll do fine in disc golf if you start without a coach. I would be willing to bet that 99% of the people playing disc golf have never taken a “lesson” from anyone other than a good friend or family member.
You probably know someone who plays disc golf and can show you the ropes. And there are several clinics held each year (generally in the Rock Hill area by the Rock Hill Disc Golf Club or Rock Hill’s PRT department). These clinics are usually free to the public and are intended to increase public awareness and participation in disc golf. Go to the clinics because they can really help a novice.
As your experience level increases you’ll outgrow most of the tips I’m giving you here. The game itself and the basic rules are easy to learn. The most important aspects of the sport that an experienced player or coach can show you are throwing techniques that greatly increase control and distance. But the best way to master disc golf is to play and practice your throws.
Basic Disc and Start-Up Guide
To start, you need at least one disc specifically designed for disc golf. While you can play with a Frisbee (the original version of this game was played with Frisbees), golf discs will give you better control and distance. You can buy golf discs at several area retailers or online.
But, before you buy your first disc, know what you’re buying. Discs are specifically designed for different tasks and functions. Some discs fly straight (stable), some are designed to hook or fade more sharply to the left (overstable), and others turn to the right during the first part of their flight (understable). Some can even do a combination of turns in the hands of an experienced thrower. Because of that, discs can be friendly to new players or a major frustration.
Typically, most beginners need understable or stable discs. These are easier to control when learning. And beginners are often better served by starting with lighter weights on discs used for longer distances (distance and fairway drivers). Most discs weigh between 150 to 180 grams, though some are outside of this range. We actually started with heavier, mid-weight drivers (165-170 grams) and then moved to lighter, 150-class drivers (150 grams), which we really like. Pick a beginner-rated driver and go for the 150-class.
Discs come in many types of plastic. Resist the temptation to buy the more costly and professional-level discs at first or discs made from the expensive plastics. Those discs are more durable but can be slightly trickier for a novice to master. Put some throws under your belt, then buy upward. Great discs cost under $10, and top discs are less than $20 (the type of plastic and special colors drive the price). Mini-markers cost $2-$3. The equipment isn’t expensive.
There are several disc manufacturers, and of those, Innova and Discraft (in that order) provide the most information for beginners. We’re partial to Innova discs because we know their products and they have a major facility in York County — Innova is a local company. On Innova’s website a beginner can locate much of what he or she needs to know, including recommendations for the novice on discs, grips, and throwing techniques. Innova works hard to support and develop the game. One hour of research on the Innova website is like taking your first half-dozen disc golf lessons.
An important bit of information is to learn what discs are beginner-friendly. Make a list of those and buy from that list. Don’t buy a disc simply because it looks cool. Learn to throw your first disc first, then buy the cool discs.
While one disc can do most of what you need to do when starting, it’s better to have at least three discs — fairway driver, mid-range, and putter. You also need one mini-marker, used to mark your lie before picking up a thrown disc.
A driver is used for any long shot, but that distance depends on how well you can throw the disc. The mid-range is used for shorter, more controlled shots and approach shots. The putter is used for short approach shots, and any shot within putting distance. If you’re just starting and want only one disc, buy a good mid-range and a mini-marker — for a novice, a well-thrown mid-range disc travels almost as far as a driver and can also be a decent putter. After you learn to throw the mid-range and your distance improves, add more discs.
Disc golf has rules. The rules keep the game fair and courteous. But, some of the rules aren’t really necessary except in tournament play. I’m going to discuss the most important rules here, not the detailed stuff that can drive you crazy. I’m also going to round off some of the measurements and convert them from the metric format. If you decide to play in a tournament after you gain experience, you’ll need to learn the actual PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) rules.
Where to Play
At this point you have your discs, and hopefully, you located tips on grips and throwing. Where can you play locally?
Most of the schools in Rock Hill have disc golf courses open to the public that are great for beginners, but the courses are closed during school hours. These courses range from six to 12 holes and are relatively easy. The first few times you play, choose courses in open areas without many trees.
Boyd Hill and Fewell parks in Rock Hill both have courses. Fewell is easier and short. Winthrop University has 27 holes that range from fun to brutal. Winthrop’s Gold Course is the setting for the United States Disc Golf Championship (USDGC) each year in early October. Winthrop also has large, grassy areas for practicing throws.
Local course information is available on the Rock Hill Disc Golf Club website (www.rhdgc.com). Course locations throughout the Carolinas (and virtually anywhere) can be found and “explored” at DG Course Review’s website (www.dgcoursereview.com).
The Charlotte and surrounding areas have numerous, excellent, world-class courses. But few are even close to novice-friendly. Most are designed for advanced or expert level players, but some have “short tees” with shorter hole distances for the less experienced. Elon Park in South Charlotte is a fun, challenging, and somewhat beginner-friendly course from the short tees on the short course (beginners should ignore both the short course’s long tees and the long course).
If you want to avoid extreme frustration, learn to throw your discs in more open areas or easier courses first. If you don’t have at least some control over your disc, playing a heavily wooded or expert-level course is simply a game of hitting tree after tree until you finally reach the disc catcher. Here’s another tip — winter trees without their leaves are much less of a problem than during the green seasons. Wooded courses can change dramatically season-to-season.
When you select your course, the important thing is to find the first tee. Look for the disc catchers. The catcher is on a pole and just under five feet tall (though it might be mounted on something like an artificial mound to make it taller), often with a yellow or white top and chains hanging down in a rounded cone shape above a circular basket. It should be marked with its hole number. The catcher you’re looking for has a #1.
Your first throw on each hole is from the tee, so once you find catcher #1, you look for its tee area (the tee could be 100-300 feet away on shorter courses). Most courses have sign posts at each tee telling you the distance and par (number of throws it should require). The first tee often has a bigger sign because it might list special course rules.
Once you locate the tee sign, look on the ground for the tee itself. Tee boxes usually face their respective catcher. This could be a concrete pad, a natural area covered in wood chips, plain grass, or a worn spot on the ground. If there’s not a concrete or permanent pad, look for markers indicating the front corners of the box. The tee box is the area covered by the pad or the area covered by a straight line between the markers and going back in a rectangle for about 10 feet. If there’s only one marker, mentally construct a rectangle four feet wide pointing toward the catcher and extending back about 10 feet with that marker as a front corner.
Since disc golf courses are often add-ons to their park locations, room for a full 18 holes might be limited. Fewell Park is a good example. There are nine disc catchers and 18 tee locations. Fewell is set in relatively thick trees with narrow fairway paths. By having two tee locations for each of the nine catchers (called the short tees and long tees) they created 18 very different holes in limited space.
Well-designed courses often have several sets of tees for several levels of players. When learning how to throw, play the “short” tees (usually marked in red or white) until you gain experience. Tees marked as long or “pro” are not only longer but have many more obstacles and hazards.
Your First Game — Driving
Your first shot or throw from the tee is called your drive. You must throw from inside the tee box with all actual supporting points touching the ground inside the box. Your arms and all other body parts can be outside of the tee box, and you can be on one foot, but whatever part of you is touching the ground must be inside the tee box and not across the front tee line. You can take a run-up for the throw if you desire. Once the disc is thrown, your feet or hands can touch anywhere.
You throw from the tee toward the disc catcher as a general statement. However, sometimes trees, water, or other hazards lie between you and the tee. On those holes, look for an alternative throw path that might not be exactly toward the disc catcher.
One of the best playing tips that our coach gave to us was that the drive is all about positioning yourself for your second shot. A long, booming drive might be amazing, but if it leaves you in a tough spot for your second shot, it wasn’t a good drive for you. Resist the tendency to just throw the disc toward the target without thinking about the shot.
A fatal mistake for the score of a beginner is to assume that you can throw a disc through a tight spot, like between two, close trees. It’s better to assume that you can’t make the amazing miracle shot. Look for a safer shot. That said, if you feel lucky, go for it. Just make certain that you’re always advancing toward the hole with each shot.
Many casual players allow a second shot or mulligan on the #1 tee as a game warm-up. Then you play the best shot of the two. This is not an official rule of disc golf and is more typical in casual or recreational play. But everyone should agree up front on mulligans before the first throw.
Sometimes, when a throw goes badly, you just want to throw another disc to see if you can correct the mistake. This is a common practice in casual and recreational play, but you play your first shot, not the re-throw. For beginners, a re-throw is a great idea. After all, you’re learning, and scoring should only be a rough guideline to indicate how you’re progressing. Be courteous — tell the other players that you’re going to throw another shot and don’t let re-throws really slow the game.
After everyone throws their drives, start walking toward your disc. The first person to throw next is the player who is “away” or farthest from the disc catcher (hole). The person who is away is always the person throwing, no matter the number of throws he or she has already made. Pause while each person throws and stay behind that player as a courtesy.
If you throw a disc and it’s flying toward other people, yell “Fore” or “Disc.” A golf disc can seriously injure someone. Don’t try to catch a disc in mid-flight — it will hurt you (it’s not a throw-and-catch disc). Always make certain that the area into which you’re throwing is clear and safe.
The Fairway and Approach Shots
The throw after the drive is called a fairway shot (throw or drive), or if the needed throw is much shorter than your drive distance, it’s an approach shot. Pick your disc according to your ability to throw, probably a fairway driver or mid-range disc.
Before you throw your next shot, make certain that your lie (disc position) is marked. There are two ways to mark your lie — you can let the originally thrown disc mark its own lie while you throw another disc, or you can mark the lie with a mini-marker. You cannot use or move the disc on the ground before your next shot unless you mark its lie properly.
To mark your lie, take your mini-marker and place it directly between the disc catcher and your disc on the ground. If there was a line on the ground running from the disc catcher through the center of your lie, the mini-marker goes on this line, touching the front of the disc (the edge of your thrown disc facing the disc catcher). When you mark your lie with the mini-marker, you can then pick up the originally thrown disc and throw it for your next shot or put it into your bag.
Most casual players don’t use a mini-marker or even mark their lie. This is one of the rules that is most commonly broken, and it can result in a complete change of the game. For the first few times that you play, skip the mini-marker and concentrate on your shots. But quickly add the use of a mini-marker because it’s important to how the game is played.
Using a mini-marker or properly marking your lie is essential to a fair game between players. The reason is to keep a player from artificially improving his or her playing position. The imaginary line running from the disc catcher and through the center point of the mini-marker marks the position of your most forward support point or foot. Your foot must be on this line and within 12 inches (rounded) of the back edge of the marker when the disc is thrown. No other support point can be forward of this foot when you throw.
You can stretch your arms and torso as far forward or to the sides as you want, but your most forward support point must not go past the back edge of the marker until the disc is thrown. As with the drive, you can take a run-up for the throw if you desire. Also, once the disc leaves your hand, your feet or hands can touch the ground past the marker as you complete your follow-through.
Once you’re within 10 meters of the disc catcher (rounded would be 33 feet or 11 paces), you’re on the “green.” This is important because it defines a new throwing stance. The same rules apply about marking your disc until you finish or “hole out.”
In this case, your forward support point cannot move (but it can rotate), and if you raise your other foot, you must demonstrate that you have complete balance control (pause for a second) before any foot goes beyond the marker. You can reach as far forward (or in any direction) as you want, but your front foot must be planted.
You’ve finished or holed out when your disc is captured and held by the chains or the basket below the chains. It does not count as holing out if your disc strikes the catcher or chains and bounces off, your disc comes to rest on top of the catcher, the disc goes into the basket or chains and pops back out, or the disc goes through the chains. In all of those cases, you need to mark your disc and take another shot. A disc that momentarily comes to rest on top of the catcher and then falls down into the chains or basket is considered holed out, but not if it stays on top.
If the disc stops and is suspended inside the chains, is in the lower basket, or is held or supported by the lower basket (including hanging on the outside of the basket), the putt is good. Go find the next tee.
Par and Penalties
Certain infractions cost you a penalty stroke. I’ve simplified some of the major rules so they’re easier for a novice to use.
Some holes have “out of bounds” areas. If you throw into an out-of-bounds area, locate the spot where your disc crossed into the out of bounds and move it from the out of bounds to this spot. You then move the disc one meter (just over three feet) away from the out of bounds line, but no closer to the hole. You can also re-throw from your original lie if that is a better option. Both cost you one penalty stroke in addition to the original throw. Basically, the same situation applies if you’re in a spot where you can’t throw the disc (unplayable lie) and you need to move your lie — add a penalty stroke.
If you throw a disc and you know it’s lost (it flies into a lake, pond, or large creek; over a cliff; into heavy briars; or the like), throw again. In this case, the lost throw is one stroke, the replacement throw is one stroke, plus you add a penalty stroke. Everyone in the playing group should help look for missing discs for three minutes as a matter of courtesy. If you find and can play the missing disc, treat it as a good throw, play it, and disregard the penalty and re-throws.
Courtesy and littering violations cost one stroke after a first warning, and cigarette butts count as littering. The official rules actually require smokers to dispose of cigarette butts properly. Acting in an unsportsmanlike fashion is a courtesy violation.
Par is the number of allowed throws on the hole. Par for beginners on a given hole is often one stroke higher than for pro-level players. Finishing at one under par is called a birdie, and two under par is an eagle. Three under par (very rare) is known as an albatross, while a hole-in-one is called an ace. One stroke over par is a bogey, two strokes over is a double bogey, and so on. Track your score to track your progress, but don’t let your start-up scores worry you. You’ll improve quickly as you continue to play.
It’s fun and cheap. Most courses are free, and we have courses all over this area. It’s a family sport. All ages can play year-round. On all but the longer courses, men, women, young, and old play equally. Start now.
Article was first published in the June 2010 issue of YC Magazine. Click here to download a copy.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 22 September 2010 20:52)