"ARE WE READY to have fun yet?" asks Tom Barron with a wry smile. It's a foolish question to ask the group of golfers assembled before him.
Still, they manage to wait out Barron's pre- tournament instructions, enduring his tantalizing talk of the links: tee off, dogleg, par and hole-in-one. Pure agony for any golfer. Of course, they're not just any golfers.
They're Frisbee golfers.
The fifty competitors gathered for the tournament at Burke Lake Park are on the sailing edge of a game so popular hereabouts that sporting goods stores can't keep enough golfing plastic on the shelves. More than a thousand people in the area play the sport regularly, estimates Barron, president of the Northern Virginia Disc Union. And six official courses lie within thirty miles of the Capitol.
Just a glance at the tournament players makes it easy to see the sport's appeal. First of all, they carry around gear weighing only a few ounces instead of a thirty-pound bag of clubs. If there's a "greens fee," it'll top out at $3.50 instead of the $20 or so you'd pay to use a country club; and a disc won't cost much over eight bucks -- considerably less than a $300 bag of clubs. And best of all, a quick 18 holes can be knocked off in an hour.
"It's fun and definitely more relaxing than regular golf," says one ball golfer on his first day playing disc golf. And "it's cheaper." he adds.
But that's not all.
One of the best things about disc golf this time of year is that you can play beneath an umbrella of autumn foliage clinging to towering elms and oaks.
But those trees can wreak havoc on a disc golfer's nerves. The Burke Lake course runs entirely through the woods, which the competition soon transforms into a war zone of launched plastic saucers caroming off trees, ripping through bushes and skidding off rock.
One player skillfully avoiding these menaces is Bill Eskam of Fredericksburg. At hole eight, a par three, Eskam selects a small heavy disc from his rucksack. He concentrates on two trees forming a "window," or guiding point, between himself and the basket. Coiling his body, he unwinds with a velocity that sends the disc through the window to climb straightaway before curving out of sight to the left.
It travels some 150 feet, landing at the base of another tree within ten yards of the hole. On his next shot, Eskam stretches for a clear shot at the basket. To putt, he floats the disc gently above the basket where it drops clanking through a web of chain and into the basket. He's birdied the hole.
In addition to the terminology, rules and scoring, almost everything about disc golf has been derived from ball golf. And though the mechanics of throwing a disc are less complicated than learning to hit a golf ball, some take the sport as seriously as a PGA pro.
Eskam owns around 25 discs, each with a special purpose. "The trick is to learn what each disc will do," he explains. Today he's using eight, of sizes and weights designed for driving, curving, rolling and putting.
The game can indeed get sophisticated, but it doesn't have to be. A novice can get away with a standard single disc like the one Burke resident Chuck O'Donnell throws.
"I just like getting together with my buddies," he says. This is his first tournament and hitting an occasional tree doesn't seem to faze him.
"Competition isn't the prime thing," explains Barron. "Par is a very personal thing; you're always trying to beat the course and better your own score."
Perhaps the best thing about the sport is that an official course isn't even necessary to play. A light pole, garbage can, tree, stop sign -- you name it -- can all be used to make a course. "You can make the sport convenient around where you live by inventing challenges as you go along." Barron says. "Just go for it."
BLUEMONT PARK -- Four miles west of Washington at the end of Manchester Street in Arlington. Nine holes, free. Excellent beginner's course offering a variety of obstacles. To get there, take Key Bridge through Rossyln to U.S. 50 west; turn right onto Manchester Street; park is 1/4-mile on right.
BULL RUN PARK -- Bull Run Post Office Road, Centreville; 18 holes, $1.50 for a round or $2.50 for a whole day. A good beginner's course in a young stand of trees, 28 miles west of Washington. To get there, take the Centreville (Va. Rt. 28) exit off I-66 west to U.S. 29 south, then go 2 miles to Bull Run Post Office Road. Turn left and follow the brown signs to the park. Course is at pool and mini-golf course. 631-0550.
BURKE LAKE PARK -- Ox Road, Fairfax Station; 18 holes; $3.50 park entrance fee weekends for non- residents; free on weekdays and for county residents. Intermediate-level course, thickly wooded. To get there, take I-66 west to Va. Rt. 123 south (Ox Road); park entrance is eight miles on the left. 323-6600.
CALVERT ROAD PARK -- Calvert Road, College Park; 18 holes. Longest and most scenic course in area. Free. From the Beltway take the Kenilworth Avenue west exit; park entrance is on the right just before intersection of Calvert Road. 277-3717.
McLEAN COMMUNITY CENTER -- Ingleside Avenue, McLean; nine holes, two over creeks. Free. From the Beltway take Va. Rt. 123 north 3 miles to Old Dominion Drive. Make a left immediately after the light there, then a left on Oak Ridge Avenue; park entrance second left, course near tennis and basketball courts. 941-5000.
POHICK BAY PARK -- Lorton; 18 holes, $1.50 per round or $2.50 all day. 24 miles south of Washington. Take I-395 south to I-95 south; turn left off Lorton Exit and follow brown signs to the park, which is seven miles on the left. 339-6100.
GETTING TEED OFF
For information on disc golf, try the Northern Virgina Disc Union, 7710 Heritage Dr., Annandale, Va., 256-0840. There's a $3 annual membership fee, which includes a newsletter, discounts at sporting goods stores and tournament information.
Aside from the Disc Union, Dave Griffin, course pro at Calvert Road Park, can fill you in on the area tournament schedule; you can reach him at 256-5479.
Though the sport began around 1970, only recently have special discs for golf really moved onto the market. The best all-round disc a novice can begin with is a standard Wham-O Frisbee, ideally a World Class Super Pro model weighing between 119 and 165 grams, for around $6. For an investment of around $20 you can pick up a Wham-O 70- mold, excellent for driving, and an 86 Mold for putting. Other brands are available at tournaments or through mail orders. Here's a sampling of stores that carry a wide selection of golf discs.
OLYMPIC SPORTING GOODS -- 10272 Main St. Fairfax City, 273-0898.
BAXTERS SPORTS -- 5765 South Burke Center Parkway, Burke. 425-1040.
ANNANDALE SPORTS -- 7046 Columbia Pike, Annandale. 256-7255.