Professional disc golfer Holly Finley shows the proper throwing technique.
With light snow swirling around her, Holly Finley works her way down a line of about 30 people at Yahara Hills Golf Course. At this moment, they all are standing between what is — beneath a crisp layer of snow — the green for the west course’s ninth hole and the tee-off area for the 10th hole.
Each person holds a colored disc, measuring about 9 inches in diameter and weighing between 120 and 180 grams (about 4 to 6 ounces). After Finley approves everyone’s grip and body position, she steps off to the side and yells, “Throw it hard and make a face!”
Discs fly all over the place. Some go far; others don’t have a chance. All of the discs — depending on how hard they’re thrown — wind up either partially buried in the snow or skipping across it.
And so it goes at the Madison Parks Division’s first ever “learn to” event for winter disc golf on the final Sunday in January. Temperature: 25 degrees. The group practices more throwing and then gathers around a basket (which plays the same role as a hole in traditional golf) for a putting competition known as Ring of Fire, in which all participants release their discs at the same time. It should be noted this activity does not involve an actual ring of fire.
Finley is a professional disc golfer and international model (how’s that for a compelling combination?) who lives in Verona and, up until Yahara Hills’ winter disc golf course opened in late November, practiced during the colder months at Bird’s Ruins Disc Golf Course at Charles Langer Family Park in Marshall.
She also hosts random-draw doubles tournaments at Yahara Hills on Tuesdays at noon and Saturdays at 10 a.m., where up to several dozen winter disc golfers compete for cash prizes.
Disc golf is a fast-growing sport that dates back to at least the 1920s, and it adheres to the same general rules, terminology, scoring and etiquette as traditional golf — or “ball golf,” as some disc golfers call it — except players throw a disc at a standardized target.
It’s serious stuff, with more than 4,000 disc golf courses located across the United States, including several in the Madison area. Almost 600 people competed in the Professional Disc Golf Association Amateur and Junior Disc Golf World Championships held in Madison last summer.
Now officials hope winter disc golf will gain the same kind of popularity as the warm-weather version. The 18-hole winter course at Yahara Hills, located off the driving range in an area enhanced by blind spots and natural obstacles such as trees, changing elevations and a frozen pond, is Madison’s only public winter disc golf course.
People who are serious about disc golf are out there as often as possible. “We have two choices in Wisconsin: No disc golf or winter disc golf. And we will take disc golf anytime we can,” says Don “Duster” Hoffman, 72, who looks a little like Santa Claus and is considered the pioneer of disc golf in Wisconsin. He’s designed several courses around the country and served as a consultant for the winter course at Yahara Hills. Hoffman attended last month’s clinic to check out the next generation of winter disc golfers.
It’s hard to say how many people at that event will be back before the spring thaw, or even after the disc golf courses at Elver and Hiestand parks open for the warm-weather season. But Hoffman makes a pretty decent case for giving the sport a whirl.
“You’re outside among nature and tossing a Frisbee,” he says. “You can make this sport as complicated as you want, or it can be the simplest thing in the world.”
82: Number of participants in Madison’s first Charity Disc Golf Tournament, held Jan. 29 at Yahara Hills and benefiting Second Harvest Food Bank
$40: Cost of an annual city of Madison Parks Division pass to play winter disc golf at Yahara Hills (winter) and warm-weather disc golf at Elver and Hiestand parks
576: Number of participants that competed in the Professional Disc Golf Association Amateur and Junior Disc Golf World Championship, held in Madison in July 2016
86,000: Members of the Professional Disc Golf Association