When Steve Rico's shot caromed off a maple on the par-3 14th hole, he walked up to the nearest tree trunk and started kicking it. He'd already sworn, stomped and had a testy exchange with the tournament gallery earlier in the round. Now he was just standing there, kicking a tree.
Golf was laying claim to yet another man's sanity.
True, this was disc golf, but its damaging effect on the psyche was no different from that of the traditional variety. Rico was one of 300 professional disc golfers who came to the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania in late July to compete in the 24th annual Pro Disc Golf World Championships. Conducted on four of the state's 31 disc golf courses, the tournament had drawn such disc golf greats as Dave Feldberg, Des Reading, Barry Schultz and Juliana Korver -- all household names, if you happen to live in a household where nicked discs hanging from your walls count as interior decorating.
Invented in the mid-1970s, disc golf is regular golf's poor cousin. The top prize in the most competitive men's division at the Worlds was US$5,000 (each golfer paid a US$180 entrance fee, out of which the prize money was rationed), and the spectator galleries rarely swelled to more than half a dozen until the last day of the six-day tournament.
The sport is based on traditional golf (or ball golf, as practitioners of the disc game call it), in that players negotiate a 9-, 18- or 27-hole courses by using the fewest number of throws and tallying up their score at the end. A disc golf "hole" is actually a metal basket sitting halfway up a pole; from the top of it hang metal chains that provide a target for the thrower. A disc hitting the chains the right way will drop into the basket with a distinctive ching.
In disc golf's infancy, lampposts, trees or other fixed objects were used as holes, but the invention of the basket by Ed Headrick "brought finality to each hole and professionalism to the sport," according to Jim Davis, known as Rocco, a Worlds tournament director. Headrick, the founder of formal disc golf and the designer of the "modern" Frisbee for Wham-O in 1964, is still a regular presence at disc golf courses -- his cremated remains were pressed into several thousand discs after his death three years ago.
Back at Nockamixon State Park, the most treacherous of the four Allentown-area courses being used for the Worlds this year, the 11-time world champion Ken Climo was peering down the fairway at a waving figure. "Is he giving us the all clear or is he going to the bathroom?" he asked. A few moments later, Climo gave a shrug and, with a hop-step off the rubber tee pad, launched his disc. "Cabbage!" he yelled as it veered off course and disappeared into the foliage. An errant shot into the woods is usually called "salad bar" by disc golfers, and is considered a good thing only when it becomes a "drive-through salad bar" by re-emerging safely and landing in the fairway, which Climo's shot decidedly did not.
Climo, a lanky, immensely broad-shouldered Floridian known simply as the Champ, has been a full-time disc golfer for 17 years, and with over US$260,000 in prize money, he is by far the career earnings leader. Sponsorships and bonus money paid by companies like the disc maker Innova double his yearly take. And yet being the greatest player ever to heave a golf disc is not unlike being the king of Tuvalu -- your subjects revere you, but the world at large is oblivious to your achievements.