How disc golf became the ultimate pandemic sport

With dad, Robby Jay, and brother, Taiga, 13, looking on, Masami, 10, rips a drive off the first tee at the Ashbridges Bay disc golf course on June 3, 2021. PHOTOS BY GLENN LOWSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Three nights a week, Robby Jay, his wife and their two kids grab a bag of plastic discs and walk to a park near their Toronto home to find relief from the doldrums of pandemic life in their newfound obsession.

Prior to the pandemic Mr. Jay, a stay-at-home father, was a devoted golfer. His 13-year-old son loved to meet friends at a local skate park. His 10-year-old daughter danced and played basketball.

Now they are a committed disc golf family.

Mr. Jay, in disc golf parlance, gives the disc ‘a good rip’ on hole nine.

“We’ve just found a love for it,” Mr. Jay said. “We can have good talks on the way down to the course and then we have fun when we’re playing, and then you re-live all the shots you loved on the way home.”

Disc golf, a niche sport long reputed to be the exclusive domain of bros with a hippie-ish bent, has become a massive hit during the pandemic. With a relatively easy learning curve – who can’t throw a Frisbee? – the game is low cost and gives players the head-clearing pleasures of playing a competitive game out in nature. With an influx of new courses across Canada and a relatively new change in course-design philosophy intended to encourage new players, it’s no wonder the sport is enjoying a never-before seen level of popularity.

“Disc golf is just really perfectly suited for the circumstances of the pandemic,” said Matthew Rothstein, a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Professional Disc Golf Association, the sport’s official sanctioning body.

Masami putts out on hole 1.

The game is simple enough: Throw a Frisbee, or disc, into a metal basket that can be more than 500 feet away in as few shots as possible. You could use the Frisbee that’s been collecting dust in your garage, but the discs specially designed for the sport, including drivers, mid-range discs and putters, are used by more experienced players the same way the clubs in a golf bag are used to hit different shots. An 18-hole round can be played in under two hours.

It’s physically distanced by nature, played outside, most courses are free and can be played by people of just about any age, Mr. Rothstein said.

Last year, the PDGA saw its largest rise in membership in the organization’s history, going from 53,000 active members worldwide in 2019 to 71,000 active members in 2020.

Demand for discs is so high that retailers can barely keep up, said John Gould-Thorpe, owner of Ace Runners Disc Golf, a store in Surrey, B.C.

Masami displays a few of the disc golf discs out of her dad’s golf bag after a round of golf.

“A lot of the manufacturers have got to the point where they’ve had to limit the number of discs that they will sell to retailers,” he said.

The proliferation of courses has also helped make the game more accessible to a broader range of people looking for new activities to fill the days during the pandemic. After all, a person is much more likely to try out an activity if they stumble upon it at their local park.

Canada now has the third-most courses of any country in the world, behind the U.S. and Finland, said Josh Lichti, co-founder of Udisc, an app that catalogues courses around the world, among other things.

Of the more than 500 courses in Canada, more than half have been built in the past five years, including 35 courses installed across the country so far this year, Mr. Lichti said.

For Kathryn Tang, a program manager at Shopify who took up the sport last fall, the appeal is seeing the forest in a whole new way. At the courses she plays near her home on Vancouver Island, discs need to be thrown over or around trees, or curved around bushes.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she said.

She now plays six times a week to clear her head from a long day of working from home.

“I found it was such a nice way to disconnect after a work day,” said Ms. Tang, who usually plays with her husband.

Ms. Tang is part of another of disc golf’s successes during the pandemic: the rise in female participation.

While female participation has historically been stuck between 7 and 10 per cent, last year it jumped approximately 30 per cent, Mr. Rothstein said.

That is key to helping disc golf shed its dude-centric reputation.

“It’s definitely something all of us in the sport are putting a lot of effort behind,” Mr. Lichti said.

The desire to diversify the sport, not just by gender but also by age, has prompted an evolution in course-design philosophy.

“A lot of it comes down to thoughtful course design and making sure that we’re building easier courses for new people to get started on and putting them accessible to people,” Mr. Lichti said. “Disc golfers traditionally like to design courses for themselves and so they make them too long for new players.”

Taiga looks on while his mom, Kirsten Manley-Casimir, tosses a disc on hole 7.

The two newest courses in Toronto are representative of the new philosophy. Both are relatively short nine-hole courses designed with beginners in mind.

Creating courses short enough for new players to possibly get a hole in one or make birdie is the way to turn curious dabblers into committed players, said Jeff MacKeigan, the Toronto-based designer who co-created Toronto’s two newest courses, both of which have been hits during the pandemic.

In 2019, approximately 600 rounds were logged by players at The Beaches course on Udisc, said Goran Mitrevski, manager of parks for the City of Toronto. In 2020, that number jumped to 3,000.

Approximately 4,000 rounds were logged at the course at Marilyn Bell Park, installed in November, 2019.

Shorter courses not only serve as a gateway for new players but are also family-friendly.

“It’s hard when they’ve been on the screens all day,” Mr. Jay said of encouraging his kids to do outdoor activities. “You can go around the course playing terribly and if you just have that one really good shot, that just brings you back.”

Mr. Jay and Masami chat while they make their way towards the basket on hole four.

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