What happens when you mix golf with Frisbee? We sent Benji Haughton to Berlin’s newest disc golf course to find out.
“Pull me towards you,” say Manuel as he grabs my Frisbee. I try in vain to drag the disc away from my well-built instructor but we are locked in a tug of war. “Play through your body,” Manu advises as he finally lets go of his grip, leaving me to jerk awkwardly forward.
We’re playing hole number one of nine at the Lichterfelder DiscGolfPark, and Manu is patiently showing me and my seven fellow players the basics of disc golf – a previously obscure sport now enjoying growing popularity across Europe. As the name suggests, it is a bit like golf, but instead of hitting a ball with a club you play by throwing a flying disc (AKA a Frisbee) towards a raised metal basket which replaces the traditional hole in the ground. The aim of the game? Get the disc in the basket with the fewest number of throws.
Time for my first practice throw. I fling the disc at an impressive 90-degree angle, narrowly missing two bemused cyclists passing through. The course sits in the public Bäkepark, which on sunny evenings means plenty of human obstacles to be avoided. Located just within city limits by the Teltow Canal, it’s Berlin’s newest disc golf venue, having joined existing sites in Pankow and Wedding when it opened in June. I retrieve the disc and Manu explains the throw again with another tug of war.
In Germany, disc golf is often hyped as a trend sport, but in America it is long established. According to the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), the game emerged in the US in the 1970s and was included in the World Frisbee Championships in 1975 which introduced it to a wider audience. This intriguing slant on golf took off, and the PDGA says there are now 2,000,000 players – or “discoteers” – flinging and spinning their way across more than 8000 courses worldwide.
While Europe is somewhat behind the curve, disc golf is now emerging as one of the most talked-up sports, with a 20 percent year-on-year growth in the number of events across the continent according to the PDGA. “It’s particularly popular in Scandinavian countries,” says Stephen Defty, the British-born American who it’s fair to say is Berlin’s foremost discoteer.
Stephen is a multiple master winner, and since bringing the sport to Germany with him when he arrived from the US in 1982 he’s seen it grow and grow. “We would have held the 33rd Berlin Open this year had Corona not happened,” he tells me over the phone. The 63-year-old is part of a thriving community which includes five disc golf courses in Berlin and Potsdam and even a shop in Mitte called Discmania that sells all the gear.
Stephen typifies the laid-back, open vibe of the sport – a stark contrast to the buttoned-up image often associated with traditional golf. The PDGA emphasises how the sport is open to all regardless of age, gender and fitness level, and my experience bears this out: my beginner’s group includes everyone from sporty twenty-somethings looking to become the next pro players to grey-haired retirees just after a nice walk in the park.
Half an hour in and I’ve made some progress: I finish the first hole in four throws, which is better than I’ve ever managed at conventional golf. They say the game is supposed to be quick to learn, and it’s true: besides a few disc-in-tree incidents, almost everyone in my group is throwing the Frisbee in vaguely the right direction by hole number three.
As with golf, you have to play your next shot from the exact place where your last one landed, which in my case meant playing from inside a hedge a few times. Once you’re close enough to the basket, you are ready for your short game and a change of Frisbee from the high-powered driver to a more stable putter. As with golf, different shots call for different disc types, with a repertoire of drivers, fairway drivers, midranges and putters all with varying characteristics.
By hole four our group – and I suspect Manu – has had enough for one day. We return to the first tee and watch in awe as someone gets a hole-in-one, or “ace” in disc golf parlance. Could this be me next week? Unfazed by my patchy performance, I accept the challenge.