Gleneagles Golf Course leans against the backside of a steep hill in San Francisco. It sits on the southern slope, over the hill from McLaren Park, the second biggest park in the city after Golden Gate. The fairways are as hilly as the city’s famous streets. The roughs are rugged and burly, gnarled with fallen eucalyptus and limbs of cypress trees. Its greens, though, are emerald and properly groomed. The only downside of this idyllic spot is the persistent wind. All told, though, this golf course feels like a perfect theater for drama. Speaking of which, I’m here for the Disc Golf Pro Tour’s (DGPT) first major event in the city — and to figure out why the amateurs, like my friend Derek, are so dedicated to the sport, a four-dimensional game of curves and flight.
Walking into Gleneagles, the first thing I notice is the crowd. There are plenty of long-haired, bearded dudes rocking comfortable clothing. They’re mostly Gen-Xers. The better-dressed men are millennials. They often look like former jocks — guys who played baseball in college on scholarship, women who played softball or soccer. The non-jock millennials look like they enjoy board sports — skateboard, snowboard, surfboard, you name it. The youngest disc golfers here — the ones not really drinking, smoking pot or vaping — are from the iGeneration, or Gen Z. They’re part X-Games competitor, part Twitch star. All flat brims and fast thumbs. They’re here to compete and have fun. In that order. But they’re not dicks about it. No one here is.
Lastly, there’s a healthy sprinkling of the sports’ pioneers — the silver-headed Boomers — throughout the crowd. Real old school hippies. Some of them even unironically sport tie-dyed shirts.
As the lead card — a foursome comprised of the two highest-rated disc golfers in the world, another voted in by the fans online and a local pro nominated by the local club — heads out onto the course, I trail after them. A gallery of roughly 150 people follows them from hole to hole, kinda like lazy paparazzi. All four golfers carry a backpack with their personalized complement of discs, matched for their skills and style of play. To that end, there are discs for driving and approach discs that reliably bend into left or right turns; others perform helical curves, twisting like DNA in the sky. There are also thick putter discs meant for your close-in game. That’s when players like to jump-putt shots into the basket.
One thing they’re not: Frisbees. There’s a very big difference, according to everyone — as in, everyone — I talk to. This, they inform me, is a sport of flying discs.
I’ve never seen men look so strangely graceful before. For example, when they step up to the tee box and throw their driver disc — for a frozen moment, just after the release, as they watch their disc take to the air — they resemble bizarre Greek statues. There’s also this strained face (the “huck face”) they make at that moment of release. A pro, in fact, just made that face. Now, we’re all watching his disc bend and arc as it carves a long curve across the blue sky.
Walking behind the gallery on the fairway, I chat with Seth Munsey from Disc Golf Strong. He’s a trainer for many of the top pros and also hosts a popular YouTube channel dedicated to training for disc golf. His sunglasses, flat brim ball cap and short beard are what you’d expect to find on the head of any surfer from here to Maui. We walk and talk, as he watches one of his clients — the reigning pro disc golf champion, Ricky Wysocki — throw a high, arcing drive that curves hard, and then falls away into the brush, just past the first hole. This seems to be exactly what he wanted it to do.
“I started Disc Golf Strong just over two-and-half years ago,” Munsey explains to me. “My background is in exercise science and strength conditioning. Before this, I worked for the Anaheim Ducks as an intern strength coach. But after I started disc golfing, I realized there’s an approximate 83 percent injury rate for regular disc golfers. So I saw a need for strength conditioning.”
As a newbie to the sport, I ask Munsey what’s considered a long disc golf career — 20 years? Fifteen years? Is a young pro like Wysocki aiming to play competitively until he’s in his late 30s?
“For some of these guys in their early 20s, I’d say, they could stay competitive into their mid-30s. Some of the top players at this level are in their mid-30s. Patrick Brown — who just threw — is a San Francisco local. He just turned 50. He’s a former pro skateboarder. He’s got that grit, that determination. His athleticism is unbelievable. He also takes good care of his body to make sure he can compete at this level.”
Like Brown, most of the pros got their starts in other sports. “A lot of them are baseball players,” Munsey says. “Ricky pitched in the Little League World Series as a kid. Paul McBeth was a baseball player. We also have some volleyball players. Sarah Hokom [the top pro on the women’s side] was a three-time All-American volleyball player. There’s Eric Oakley, too; he was a big soccer player.”
The day in which kids would trade Little League for disc golf, however, doesn’t seem that far off. “Over the last two, three years, it’s started to feel legitimate,” Munsey explains. “I mean, the original pioneers have been there, laying the groundwork. But I think now, with the growing media coverage and the Disc Golf Pro Tour, it’s accelerating that growth. Years ago, you never would have had this.”
After the top pros shoot 18 holes, we all head back to the clubhouse. There, I spot a familiar face push through the crowd. Although he’s super lowkey, you can’t miss him: He’s a 6-foot-3 black man with super long dreadlocks. His name is Philo Brathwaite, and he’s a fan favorite. Sponsored by Innova, the biggest disc-maker in the game, he’s famous for having the single-most watched disc golf clip of all time. (It even made it onto SportsCenter.)
As one of the one few faces of color out here, I ask him what’s it’s like being him in a sport best known for white hippies and geeks. “Uh, I don’t think — even when I first showed up — that there was any kind of wariness. It’s probably because I’m a pretty quiet guy and I keep to myself most of the time,” he responds. “There’s enough going on between my ears just trying to compete, so I definitely don’t look to start any drama, or to stand out even more. I do feel a sense of responsibility with it. But I don’t think about it because it’s not an issue. There’s nobody that’s giving me a hard time because of where I come from or what I look like.”
“In this sport, the founding fathers of this game said, ‘The one who has the most fun wins,’” he continues. “I’m sure you’ve probably heard that phrase a few times. Although we are very competitive, we’re all really close, too. So, there’s a level of respect. That’s the culture of our game: Be excited for people who do something great, even if you’re playing against them.”
On Day Two of the three-day tournament, I once again track the lead card as they work their way through the course. My friend, Derek, keeps pace with me and patiently explains the intricacies of the game as it plays out in real time. It’s like having my own color commentator. In particular, he points out how and why a disc golfer treats the wind differently than a traditional golfer. A sphere in flight performs one brief gravity-defying flight — it’s a sloping curve that returns the ball to earth. But a disc can perform two curves as it slides across the sky. It can go right, come back left and then fall away back to the right. That’s all by design. Pros can do amazing S-curves through trees, eventually parking a disc just feet from the bucket.
For all that aerial poetry, though, Derek is mainly here for the people. “You build different friendships in different sports, in different ways,” he explains. “That’s due to how the sport is, how you train, how you play games. Your soccer friendships — sure you’re out there every day practicing, but most of the time, you’re far away from each other, running around. This is so different.
“It’s like, there’s this one buddy I golf with. He said something once that I think about. I said, ‘Since I started playing disc golf, this is the most friends I’ve had since high school.’ My buddy replies, ‘This is the most friends I’ve ever had.’ That’s a very profound quote for me. Like, I have friends. I’ve had friends. But that sticks with me.”
Along those lines, later on, back at the clubhouse, a fortysomething dude pushes through the room. He’s not big, but he’s big enough. He looks intense, like he knows how to give a man a hard time — whether with words or fists. Yet, when he sees Derek, he’s suddenly all smiles, the glower completely gone. His name is Nate LaChance. He and Derek know each other from playing at the Golden Gate Park disc golf course. Nate’s competing in the open tournament, but he’s not expecting to win money. Like Derek, it’s the fellowship he finds most rewarding.
“The way people treat each other — it’s the ultimate family. Especially in Golden Gate Park,” Nate says, his voice warm with emotion. “After I moved to San Francisco I found Golden Gate Park, and dude, you’re so accepted there. It’s instant respect. Actually, I’ve grown from it. The last years I’ve been playing, I’ve gotten all my employment through disc golf. And now, in the last two years, I’ve become a plumber. Another disc golfer, a contractor, gave me a chance. He said, ‘I heard you’re a good worker. I see you have good ethics. Let’s see what you can do as far as plumbing.’ It’s a network that, for me, created a path to a better life. It’s really cool.”
I ask him what about disc golf attracts so many positive people.
“It’s something that’s a lost culture — it’s a bunch of dudes having fun, sporting together and it’s very difficult,” he responds. “I call it my healthy addiction.”
“I learned to be a better man here,” he adds. “To be honest with you, that thought crosses my mind every day. I play every day. It keeps me on a positive note even when I’m at work. I wasn’t always positive. Things still piss me off. But for the most part, now, with clients or whomever, I’m always happy. Happy to be alive, man. To play a game like this. To have a job. That’s it.”
It’s the final day of the tournament — the championship round. The energy is tense. For the first time, it feels like it’s not purely all fun and games. The men’s lead card steps up to the tee box. A respectful hush falls over the crowd. Like a church in the wild.
For the first few holes, one half of the lead card foursome, Wysocki and Paul McBeth, the two top-rated disc golfers in the world, stay neck-and-neck. The crowd clearly loves them both. Meanwhile, both men are tightly focused. McBeth doesn’t even have a caddy to chat with between holes. It’s just him and his disc bag. Like a workman showing up with his tools, or an executive with his briefcase.
By the ninth hole, the gallery is getting emotional. We’re at the halfway point, and Wysocki and McBeth have kept things tighter than a zentai suit. Both men are at 16 under par. Meanwhile, Drew Gibson, the dandy of this quartet, is giving solid chase. At 13 under, if Wysocki or McBeth make any big mistakes — or hit a stretch of bad luck — he could easily overtake them. To keep things dramatic even more dramatic, all of them will have to contend with the wind that’s beginning to pick up as we head deeper into the afternoon.
At the 15th hole, though, the logjam breaks. Wysocki attempts a questionable putt to shave a stroke and catch McBeth. It’s a bad call, and it costs him. Instead of gaining a stroke, he widens the gap. You can see the hope drain out of him. One of the volunteers for the event, who’s done for the day, smokes a joint. Between puffs, he coughs out his assessment of Wysocki’s blunder, “Oh man, he’s just giving the round away.”
Three holes later, McBeth gives himself a nice safe leave near the basket. It’s a super short putt, just far enough away that he can’t easily drop it in. He bends at the knees, with that familiar workman attitude, and putts it in. Clean. The basket chains sound. He wins the round — and the tournament. In his first major flash of emotion in three days, McBeth smiles. The tournament director beams a wide smile as he proudly raises McBeth’s hand and declares him the winner. The crowd erupts into applause like Beyoncé just came out for a second encore.
I attempt to interview Wysocki, but as I try to track him down amidst the chaos of jubilant drunk and high disc golf fans, I can’t find him anywhere. I hear from others that he looked quite angry when he grabbed all his stuff and left the course. The sport’s chill temporarily cooled by the agony of defeat.
Instead, as the crowd thins and only the drunk and truly devoted remain, I sidle up to Marco, a local amateur. He didn’t do well this weekend, he says, as he didn’t qualify for any money. But now, he can legit say he just spent three days rubbing shoulders with all the top pros. (Any other day, he’d just be watching them on YouTube.) “This sport is nothing like, say, football,” he tells me. “Disc golf is in a place where everyone is optimistic and positive. Things are changing. We’re getting more golf courses. It’s spreading. There’s more girls. There’s more young people. The sport is growing up. You get that positive energy from knowing that you enjoy doing something that other people are getting to deeply enjoy, too. That’s where it’s at.”