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Have a fling: Disc golf at Austin's new championship-level course

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Damon Neth prepares to throw a disc at the new disc golf park. Photo by Phil West
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Damon Neth demonstrates the power grip. Photo by Phil West
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The 17th hole, with the Austin skyline in the background. Photo by Phil West
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First tee pad. Photo by Phil West
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First tee marker. Photo by Phil West
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Austin Author: Phil West

Damon Neth may look like an unlikely ambassador for disc golf — but he absolutely is one.

Wearing a "Disc Nation" polo shirt, cargo shorts, Vibram hiking boots and a weathered Boston Red Sox cap, the 44-year-old Neth looks more a prototypical American suburban dad than the patchouli-and-dreadlocked stereotypes many conjure up when thinking of disc golf aficionados.

Yet he has an unfailing enthusiasm for disc golf, those who play it, and the values he feels it embodies. He finds that disc golf players appreciate nature, have a strong sense of community and are very welcoming to those new to the sport.

As he explained to me this past Friday morning at the newly-opened disc golf course at the Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, his life has become about “spreading the joy and love” of disc golf.

 The new championship level course at Roy G. Guerrero is beautifully designed combining a pristine preservation of trees, prickly pear cacti, and other native plants with subtle, man-made elements designed to reduce the wear and tear that comes from disc golf traffic. 

In 2002, he and his wife were living in a Boston suburb about to change their lives dramatically. He was designing retail supply chain systems for the likes of Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and she was looking to re-enter business as a retail entrepreneur after pausing her career to stay home with their young children.

They had a vision of an Internet business selling disc golf equipment, with the retail systems know-how to make it incredibly efficient. Three years later, with their discnation.com site doing well, they decided to move to Austin, with its numerous courses which make it one of the nation’s best disc golfing cities — and started the Disc Nation superstore at 1218 W. Slaughter Lane in 2006.

Now, logging 50,000 orders a year online and 10,000 a year in the Austin store, Neth’s life is about the business of leisure — supplying disc golf players with an unfathomable choice of 600 different disc models for virtually every throwing scenario, being vitally involved in the Austin disc golf community and most recently giving the keynote speech for the new park’s opening on June 9 and working on growing the sport one potential player at a time.

On this particular Friday morning, that’s me — a rec league soccer player who ran a half-marathon earlier this year, fresh from a brief and unhappy experimentation with sand volleyball, who hasn’t thrown a Frisbee in years.

It’s his first time playing this course, it’s my first time playing any course.

As he walks me through my first round, he’s encouraging throughout, but judiciously dispensing advice as I register bewilderment at the angles and unsatisfactory distances of my initial throws. He kindly refrains from pointing out his throws, especially those from the cement “tee pads” that start each hole, are consistently going two to three times the length of mine.

As in golf, each hole has a starting point and an ending point, and the goal is to get from point A to point B in as few throws as possible. In disc golf, the target is a basket with a center pole, a top ring, and chains hanging from the top ring to the basket in order to help slow and settle a disc as it’s flung basketward. And like golf with its drivers, irons and putters engineered for shots at different distances from the hole, disc golf has an array of plastic discs — drivers, mid-range discs, and putters as they’re called, with a set of numbers printed on each one indicating speed, distance, and the ability to veer left or right when thrown correctly.

Neth notes that beginners can enjoy themselves even the first time out, as the learning curve on becoming a functional player isn’t as steep as it is in golf.

“I played ball golf a few weeks ago,” he says, “spent $150 between green fees and balls, it took nearly three hours to play the first nine holes, and at the end of the day, I didn’t really feel like I had played the game.”

On the course's 8th hole, I experience a moment of unconscious mastery of the sport on a throw from 50 feet out, for what I think will be putting myself in putting position. When I fling my disc and it finds the basket, Neth immediately raises his arm, smiles, says, “Up top." I dutifully high-five him. “We’re big on high fives in disc golf,” he laughs.

This came just one hole after seeing the difference between disc golf and ball golf (as Neth calls it) physically manifest itself. The fairway of the disc golf course's 7th hole borders an actual golf course; there's an obvious contrast between the manicured, water-consuming lawns that will stay unapologetically green through the summer, and players driving from grassy stretch to grassy stretch in golf carts, versus the cedar chip-covered, tree-shaded disc golf course that players are hiking through.

Beginners should know that while the new course at Roy G. Guerrero is beautifully-designed (combining a pristine preservation of trees, prickly pear cacti, and other native plants with subtle, man-made elements designed to reduce the wear and tear that comes from disc golf traffic), it’s not the easiest park in town to play. Neth calls it a championship-level course, meaning the Par 3 and 4 guidelines on the limestone-framed markers at each tee pad are really Par 3 and 4 for the true pro.

To get the hang of the sport, you need some practice and you need to understand how to throw. Neth says the throwing motion is more like cracking a whip than the casual fling of park Frisbee, utilizing a special “power grip,” with initial torque for the throw coming from the hips, further assisted by a three-step motion called an X step which requires a basic (and, in my case, distressing) grasp of choreography.

His store is beginner-friendly, with starter packs of discs as low as $20 for three, a driving range, a “fly before you buy” policy (allowing customers to test-throw discs), and even Saturday morning clinics designed for beginners to improve.

But Neth also notes that the disc golf community in Austin is so supportive and welcoming to newcomers that reaching out to one — like the Waterloo Disc Golf Club — might be the best way to learn more about the sport.

Someone there will certainly be waiting to high five you.

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The Roy G. Guerrero disc golf park is located on the east edge of the park, behind the Kreig Softball Complex. Turning east from S. Pleasant Valley into the softball complex, drive to the parking lot closest to the sand volleyball courts, and walk the trail at the parking lot's northeast corner to reach the beginning of the course. The next Saturday beginner's clinic at Disc Nation is June 30 at 9:30 a.m.

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