A crowd of golfers on Sunday trickled through Forest Hills Park, which wraps around a stretch of University Drive in Durham, but they were not the type you might expect. They were disc golfers.
The park played host to the final round of the Midtown Chiropractic Disc Golf Tournament, and almost 140 participants turned out for tee times ranging from 8 a.m. to early afternoon. Competitors paid between $50 and $100 to participate. At stake in the professional division was a $1,000 first place prize and more than $5,000 in total prizes.
Most competitors came from North Carolina and nearby states. A few, however, traveled from faraway places such as Norway to compete in the Disc Golf World Championships last week in Charlotte and came to the Triangle for one more competition before heading home.
Its my first time in the United States, said Olav Bakke of Oslo. Its a good reason to travel. I love disc golf and other disc sports, and this has been a great experience.
Robert Leonard, director of this weekends tournament, said the world championships were the biggest ever for the sport, with 1,100-plus competing in an array of divisions. Leonard and a small group of participants and supporters spread some 10,000 feet of boundary fences, marked the course with 600 flags and set up the 18 chain nets for which the golfers take aim.
The course started just at the edge of the parking lot, on the other side of a playground sparsely used by noon when the windless heat had taken full effect. Most opted instead for the nearby pool. A crew from Moes Southwest Grill was also nearby, with a tent set up under a covered picnic area and an occasional shout of the familiar welcome to Moes saying when people would filter in and out.
What makes this worth all the work is how many people are getting an idea of the sport that never would have known it existed, Leonard said. Were nearing a critical mass where we could see the sport could grow in interesting ways.
The sports origins are difficult to trace, but the Professional Disc Golf Association says the game goes back to 1926 in British Columbia but then it was played only by school children. Not until the 1970s, when interest and technology began to improve, did the sports popularity start to grow.
The sport has seen rapid growth over the past 20 years, Leonard said, especially around college campuses, where cheap outdoor activities can always draw a crowd. Today, the PDGA claims some 12,000 active members.
For some, a professional organization similar to what the PGA does for traditional golf is the ultimate aspiration. There are similar rules and strategy: competitors throw a disc into 18 nets organized into a course in as few attempts as possible, and the lowest score after a few rounds wins the tournament.
Beyond the format, the popularity of the disc game remains much different than the country club pursuit. Only a few full-time professionals make a living from disc golf, but there is a push for more courses and more attention to be turned to the sport.
Nick Morris of Raleigh sees potential for business in the sport. A few companies engineer discs of constantly improving quality, but Morris recently started a company that specializes in shirts, hats and other equipment designed specifically for disc golfers.
I see an opportunity to step in and fill the market for products no one else is making, said Morris, whose company is called Orion Disc Golf. I played all types of sports growing up, but this one really fits well, and its great to see it grow the way it has.
One of the guys that has made a run at earning a living from disc golf is Barry Schultz, who finished fourth and took home $525, but has made more than $40,000 in tournament winnings alone in multiple years and has sponsorship deals backing him.
I remember when it was just frisbees and not much else, said Schultz, 42, of Rock Hill, S.C. I think the sport will keep growing with younger generations the way it has for us.