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Disc Golf's For You: Sport steadily growing under the radar in SWFL

Jan 24, 2021 02:53PM ● By Jeff Lytle
Disc Golf's For You: Sport steadily growing under the radar in SWFL [20 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Shawn Messman knows a lot about disc golf for someone who’s been playing since only last spring. Pausing to answer questions during a game with family and friends at Estero Park and Recreation Center, he carefully and patiently reaches into his backpack for samples of discs. He holds them up to show differences in weight and design that make some discs fly farther than others—what makes them “drivers” as opposed to “putters,” to use ball golf language—on the trek from tee to hole. Everyday players can throw the length of a football field; pros can throw twice that.

Messman knows exactly what disc to use in any situation. Then he lets you know why you should give him credence: He’s an aerospace engineer with a local airplane parts maker.

Others in his game group on a beautiful autumn morning have interesting credentials as well. One is an elementary school principal; another is a financial adviser; the third is studying to be a police officer. And they all came together via another sport—softball.

Welcome to the dynamic world of a sport steadily growing under the radar in Southwest Florida, which has five disc golf courses from Naples to North Fort Myers. Those are among an estimated 7,500 across the U.S.

In fact, you may have been on a course and not known it. Courses blend into parks, using trees and lakes as obstacles. At Bonita Springs Community Park, the disc golf course meanders around ballfields and playgrounds all over the property, with five holes on the banks of a large, scenic lake. Players embrace a credo to stop and let park visitors walk through, so you maybe thought those polite folks waving you on were just tossing Frisbees. 

Actually, the inventor of the Frisbee—made from recycled hula hoops when that fad faded—also invented Frisbee golf as a marketing tool. Ed Headrick kept going and developed the funny-looking basket or pole-held target that includes chains to snag or cushion the landing of discs, which became more specialized since the 1970s. His final legacy to the sport that evolved into disc golf came when his cremation ashes were made part of discs for family and friends in 2002. 

Fundamentals of the Game

  • Throw discs toward targets (as golfers hit balls with clubs). Each throw counts as a stroke, as in ball golf.  

  • Never throw a disc anywhere near bystanders who are not watching and could get hurt. Discs leave average players’ hands at 50 miles per hour.

  • Respect the course and never harm plants; i.e., removing tree branches that may be in your flight path. Pick up trash generated by you or others.

  • No golf carts. Let faster groups of players play through, as in ball golf.

  • Heed signs that tell players which side of a tree denotes a correct flight path; no shortcuts. 

  • Be good representatives of the sport and help beginners with rules and skills. Stand behind fellow players and be quiet when they throw.

At Estero Park and Recreation Center, good sportsmanship is taken to the next level with an honor system for errant discs. Players are encouraged to write their names and contact info on their discs, so any of them found in lakes or bushes can be posted on social media, for retrieval. 

The Attraction

Disc golf is like most other sports, especially games that carve out a niche rather than a broad following such as baseball or football. Players tend to be passionate. It can be as fun or as serious as you want.

Lance Pate of Cape Coral and Travis Leo of Bonita, two accomplished players at Estero, play for money every Saturday with 10 to 15 others who ante up $10 to $13. A hole-in-one can bring $500 if the shotmaker chips in the extra $3.

A research engineer and elementary school teacher respectively, Pate and Leo embrace the combination of exercise on the hilly Estero layout with gaming. Pate used to run ultra-marathons and Leo once was a scratch golfer (using a golf ball) who craves “a competitive way to go hiking.” Both have played in disc golf tournaments as far away as Las Vegas and California.

The Estero course is regarded by players as the best around. It has the added attraction of abutting a dog park, so family members can tag along for a few holes and then go play with the pups.

More Than a Game 

Disc golf is so big at Estero that players have formed their own board—and work to give back to the community. “We have a thriving disc golf community at the Estero park,” says John Goll, 48, a board member who runs a pest control company and lives near the park. “We have weekly leagues that play on Mondays at 5:45 p.m. and at 8:45 a.m. on Saturdays, as well as a doubles gathering every Friday at 5:30 p.m.

“Our signature fundraiser event is the Corkscrew Open, where we raise money to benefit the Harry Chapin Food Bank,” he continues. “This is a large event with players traveling in from all over the state. We raised over $11,000 in the first two years of the event and are excited to see it continue.”

Corkscrew Open 3 took place on Oct. 25, 2020. A total of 86 players, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, competed in four skill categories.

For Goll, who has played for eight years, disc golf is perfect. “I used to play in competitive basketball leagues,” he says, “but after my second knee surgery, I had to find something different. When a friend introduced me to the sport, I found it unique—challenging but with great rewards and fun. 

“Also, I found I could play it much more quickly than regular golf, which is about a five-hour commitment. The equipment (discs and bags) is a cheaper initial investment than regular golf, and there are no greens fees.”

Beginners can get a set of discs for $20, a carry bag for $15 to $40, and a cart for pulling your gear for $200. Specialized shoes go for $70, and you can put a target on a pole in your own neighborhood or yard for $120. Shop around on Amazon, eBay and Walmart for deals. 

There are plenty of instructive videos online at no charge. (For $20 you can even buy T-shirts with disc golf humor, such as: “STUPID TREE—definition—a woody plant deciding to block a perfectly thrown disc.”)

“So there are a lot of advantages, especially with being able to play anywhere and take a few discs in your luggage,” Goll adds. “There are disc golf parks all over the country in nearly every town.”

Charlie Steinhauer of North Fort Myers is the volunteer leader of disc golf at his neighborhood’s Tortoise Run course, at North Fort Myers Rec Center. Steinhauer, a sales rep for Pepsi Cola, has played for more than a decade and is a member of the board of the Southwest Florida Disc Golf Organization, representing courses in Naples and Bonita as well. Saturday mornings are the big times at Tortoise Run, when 60 to 70 people turn out for league play. 

Wednesday evenings are special occasions at the Bonita Springs Rec Center course, when sport leader Matt Mahmet organizes friendly competitions. From November through March, because darkness comes early, games are played with lighted or glow-in-the-dark discs.

A spokesperson for the city of Bonita says the course is busy but seldom crowded, with about 15 players on a peak day. “I always see people of all ages out there using the course,” says Mahmet, who’s been playing three years and takes part in local tournaments. “Disc golf is a fun sport that is growing rapidly,” he observes, summing up: “It’s a great way to meet people and get some fresh air and exercise.”

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.


Bay Oaks Recreation Center
2731 Oak St., Fort Myers Beach

Bonita Springs Community Park
26740 Pine Ave., off West Terry Street, Bonita

Estero Park and Recreation Center
9200 Corkscrew Palms Blvd., Estero

Palm Springs Park
921 Palm Springs Blvd., Naples

Tortoise Run at North Fort Myers Rec Center
2000 N. Recreation Park Way, North Fort Myers