Saturday, December 30, 2006

Thirty Good Years

In the 1960s, while employed as a designer/marketer at Wham-O -- the same company that had previously created the 1950s Hula Hoop craze -- Ed Headrick (1924-2002) redesigned the Frisbee. Among other things he began to stabilized it, which facilitated its conversion from a novelty toy into a rather sophisticated piece of sports equipment.

Now the visionary Headrick is seen as the father of Frisbee-golf. While it might have started as an outdoor pastime for Southern Californian hippies, his child has since become a sport played by millions of people all over the world. You say you’ve never heard of Frisbee-, or disc golf?

Well, it’s played very much like its model -- the golf game invented by men in kilts -- but with a thrown disc instead of a golf ball struck by a club. In disc golf, the tee and fairway are the same as ball golf, but instead of putting the ball into a hole in the ground the disc golfer tosses a disc at a chosen tree, or into a basket mounted on a base.

In the 1970s Headrick, also known as “Steady Ed,” quit Wham-O and began tramping across the country, evangelist-like, to spread his game and to sell its equipment he had designed -- special golf discs and then the metal baskets he patented. Virginia became one of his most fertile markets.

In 1976 the first Greater Richmond Frizbee-Golf Association course was laid out by Larry Rohr, Stew Whitham and your narrator. A Californian co-worker of Whitham’s had shown us the game’s concept to get the ball rolling ... or, perhaps I should say the Frisbee flying.

Larry has been the group’s overseer and record-keeper ever since. He has written down the scores of thousands of rounds of golf, as well as what were the given day’s weather conditions, notes about extraordinary happenings, etc., all in his little notebooks.

In 1993 Richmond’s first official Professional Disc Golf Association approved course opened at Gilles Creek in Fulton Bottom. Since then two others have been established in Henrico County -- Dorey Park and Castle Point. A new regulation course is in development in Bryan Park, at this writing. On each of these courses the tees are clearly marked and players are obliged to throw their discs into the aforementioned baskets mounted waist-high.

However, the GRFGA’s links are what is known as “object courses,” which are unmarked and thus invisible to the untrained eye. With this style of play the participants throw their discs at trees, poles, or other designated objects. Naturally, this throwback version predates the basket style.

Each of the GRFGA’s five courses are made up of nine “holes,” which conform to the same pattern: There are four par threes, four par fours and one par five. All of them are located in the Byrd Park area of Richmond, near the James River. The names of the courses are (with the year they were designed in parenthesis): Shields Lake (1976), Carillon East (1977), Maymont (1978), Carillon West (1980), Dead Dog Nine (1993).

Larry Rohr (pictured left) won the GRFGA’s first 27-hole singles tournament in the spring of 1978. The name GRFGA was invented that day, only to put at the top of the scoreboard. It was a goof. Actually, the first tournament was more of a party than anything else, but the name stuck.

Twenty years later Larry had the distinct pleasure of seeing his son, Leo Rohr, win the 42nd edition of the twice-a-year competition in the fall of 1998. Leo, now 25, began playing the sport when he was about three years old. “I remember my Dad taking me to Maymont and throwing thumb-rollers,” he says.

The tournament’s prize, a pewter cup known as The Cup (pictured below right), was purchased at the old Sportsman Shop in Carytown. That was just before the fifth of the group’s singles tournaments, which was staged in 1979.

Ernie Brooks, who lives in DeeCee, has won the champion’s prize three times. He recalls taking The Cup with him to an Orioles game later in the summer of 1988: “The guy at the ticket gate said I couldn’t take it in with me, as I could throw it at a player on the field. I asked him to study The Cup, and note all the engraved names on it -- including my own -- and he completely changed his tune and said, ‘I can’t imagine someone letting go of such a nice piece.’ [He] let me pass.”

Alas, that same prize cup was passed from one winner to the next, twice a year, until Hank Brown let it go. Hank lost The Cup after winning it in the fall of 1992. Its disappearance remains a mystery.

Then, the original trophy’s replacement was passed from one winner to the next until it was retired in 1998. It was given by the group to Larry for his 50th birthday. The current singles winner’s prize, the third pewter cup, known as the Larry Rohr Cup, has been in use since.

“In my first tournament I had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play at Maymont,” says Richard Koechlein. “Larry birdied the seventh, to close within one; we parred the eighth, and he birdied the ninth, while I bogeyed it.” While Richard missed his chance that day, with his 12 first-place finishes he now has more singles tournament wins than anyone else in the informal club, which, by the way, has no dues or treasury.

At this writing the GRFGA has staged its singles championship 58 times; the current list of winners includes 15 names. They are (with number of wins in parenthesis): Bill Benish (8), Ernie Brooks (3), Hank Brown (2), Chuck Clifton (4), Jack Colan (1), Donnie Grossman (1), Richard Koechlein (12), Terry Rea (5), Larry Rohr (6), Leo Rohr (7), John Sullivan (1), Bobby Truax (1), Glen Todd (2), Doug Walker (4), Butch Walpole (1).

The tradition of regular Friday afternoon rounds at Maymont, the GRFGA’s Augusta National, began in the fall of 1978. Colleen Dee became a GRFGA regular nine years later. On a mid-1990s Friday, Colleen’s tee-shot on the ninth hole struck a hornets nest perched in an overhanging Magnolia limb. The hornets swarmed and we cleared out. Colleen’s disc remained lodged in the side of the nest.

There it stayed the rest of the summer. In time the hornets modified their nest to gradually engulf the plastic intrusion and use it like an aircraft carrier’s deck. Each Friday we’d check out the nest for changes. Of course, Larry has the episode documented on a page of one of his notebooks.

Colleen’s hornets nest disc bore little resemblance to the Frisbees used in the 1970s. Modern golf discs have sharp rather than rounded edges; they are smaller and much more dense. They also travel much faster and for more distance. Drives in excess of 500 feet are not uncommon among the top-shelf players.

However, by sticking with the original “object” concept for targets the GRFGA grew on its own, apart from the more regimented -- and admittedly more popular -- basket version of disc golf. As well, by eschewing gambling, early on, it has kept everyday GRFGA competition much more friendly than what one might find on the average ball golf course. Any sort of cheating, however minor, is so frowned upon that it is quite rare.

Moreover, the GRFGA’s style of play has facilitated holding onto something that most organized sports inevitably lose -- the natural joy that children feel playing outdoor games of their own invention, without supervision.

Of his game’s development, Steady Ed once observed: “...Thus we have a new generation of young and old whom we can welcome into our home, our parks, and yes our lives, with confidence and open arms. The vast majority set examples for others on a daily basis. They share their lives, teach others and most of all, they clean up other peoples trash!”

-- 30 --

-- Photos and art by F.T. Rea

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I enjoy frisbee golf but I much prefer Ultimate...I used to play in Fredericksburg extensively. I can appreciate someones adoration for anything disc related! Kudos.