At Creekside Park in Holladay, it’s mid-January (read: cold), it’s muddy, and rush-hour headlights are growing brighter than the retiring sun. These aren’t ideal conditions for disc golf (aka Frisbee golf or frolf). Yet there are still a few of us, bundled up with hand-warmers in our gloves, tossing discs at metal baskets.
You can attribute that to dedication and addiction.
“Off season?” asks Salt Lake Community College freshman Zack Ralphs. “What off season?” Ralphs started playing disc golf at 19 and hasn’t stopped. He’s 34 now. “I need to play or I have serious withdrawals. There is no weather condition that will keep me from it. I played in two feet of powder once.”
“I’ve played in rain for hours, with ice and snow on the ground – sometimes you just gotta get out,” says 34-year-old SLCC alumnus Erik Johnson, who has been playing since the mid-2000s. He’s likewise a die-hard, and is accustomed to throwing “every day in the summer.” So, too, is Ralphs and thousands of other Utah disc golfers.
Disc golf is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, mainly because it’s universal. Anyone can play, regardless of age, gender or athletic ability. It’s easy to pick up because the rules are the same as golf: get the disc to the target in the fewest number of throws. Disc golfers do this with a variety of discs designed for long drives, controlled midrange shots and short putts.
A huge part of disc golf’s allure, however, is watching the discs fly.
It’s a virtual air show. A disc golf driver can fly as fast as 80 miles per hour, and can take graceful, swooping paths. In winter, they can take tremendous “rainbow skips” off ice, adding excitement to the game. “I had two hole-in-ones last winter that were skips,” Ralphs says.
Disc golfers also appreciate the beauty of their environment. “It’s also about being out in nature, and appreciating the beauty of it all,” said Johnson. That doesn’t have to mean looking at wildflowers and checking out the moose that wander onto the course at Solitude. A blanket of snow is just nice to look at. “Winter golf can be very serene,” says Johnson. “When it snows, everything seems so silent.”
Creekside’s course is called the Walter Frederick Morrison Disc Golf Course, honoring the Utahn who invented the flying disc. It’s the spiritual home of disc golf in Utah, one of four courses in the Salt Lake Valley – and nearly four dozen courses in the State. Other disc golf hotspots include the Roots course (at the old Jordan River Par 3 golf course) in Rose Park, a majestic 27-holer at Solitude Mountain Resort and another 27-holer at Riverpark in Riverdale. Each year, as disc golf wins more and more fans, more disc golf clubs pop up to host tournaments and “grow the sport,” as disc golfers like to say.
Lately, the growth of the sport has meant larger groups and slower play. In winter? Not so much. Less people on the course means Ralphs – a disc golf pro who plays tournaments across the country – can polish his technique without slowing anyone down. “If you don’t keep playing throughout the winter, when spring arrives your arm will be stiff and cold. You may not even remember your putting style from the previous year. I really dig not waiting in line on a hot summer day.”
That doesn’t mean Ralphs wants people to stay away. Disc golfers are proud of their game, and eager to help anyone out. On that note, Ralphs and Johnson offer some winter disc golf tips. “Keep your throwing hand warm,” Johnson says. “And never take your eyes off the disc or you’ll lose it in the snow.”
Ralphs seconds this, and recites a litany of essential winter disc golf gear for anyone who might decide to brave the cold. “I get my disc golf bag ready with water, beanie, gloves, snacks, umbrella, towel, music jam box, dog waste bags… I have two layers of thermals that I wear with my favorite hoodie and scarf. I don’t like to wear too bulky clothes or it can affect my shot, so I bring a back-up windbreaker in case it gets too windy or cold.”
Considering what both men happily endure in order to play their game, one has to wonder if that’s even possible. Johnson says he has a threshold. “One time I quit because my back was soaked, and I could no longer throw discs correctly.”
Photos by Guadalupe Sandoval Rodriguez