Paul Fein carefully placed an ancient beer cooler wrapped in duct tape on the ground and rummaged through his bag for an appropriate driver. Hole No. 4 was hidden 288 feet away, a straight shot down a steep hill (and up another), through a narrow corridor between the trees. He wanted a light driver.
"Very light," Fein said. "I'm hoping it will go straight."
He carefully sighted down the fairway, wound up and threw the disc, which sailed nicely through the air but not quite straight, landing in the woods on the far side of a ditch. Luckily, this was a game of doubles; only the best shot counted. His partner's second throw dropped in for a birdie, and they continued on the round of 18 holes at the Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course in East Fairmount Park.
Disc golf is almost identical to regular golf, known in this crowd as "ball" golf. Golf discs - refined versions of the original Frisbees - take the place of clubs as well as balls; a dozen are carried easily. Pole holes consist of steel chains hung around a pole to "catch" and drop a disc into the basket below.
There are drivers (light, thin discs that fly farther), putters (thicker and more likely to grab the chains), and approach discs (more dome-shaped). Courses are scenic, with holes placed among trees or on grass, near valleys and ponds.
Distances are in feet rather than yards, as in ball golf. Another difference is price.
"This is a cheaper game," said Chris "Topher" Oxnam, a lapsed ball golfer who favors the latter part of his full first name. "Discs range $8 to $12 apiece, and there are no greens fees."
There are at least 10 courses in parks in Philadelphia and surrounding counties. All are free, although a few parks charge seasonal entry fees.
One of the best courses is at Tyler State Park, whose 27 holes tee off from a variety of directions and elevations. Another good one is at Tinicum Park. Both are affiliated with the active Bucks County Disc Alliance.
Also popular are Brandywine Creek State Park and French Creek State Park (two courses).
Just two courses serve South Jersey.
Sedgley Woods was established in 1977 (ribbons on trees marked the holes), and a year later became the first pole-hole course in the East. It lent baskets to help others start.
Fein, who is 70, recalled playing in Frisbee tournaments in the 1970s around the country with Ed Headrick, who patented the pole holes that allowed disc golf to flourish.
Headrick designed the course at Sedgley Woods. Wham-O Inc. donated the baskets. Fairmount Park gave use of the land. Disc golfers provided the labor.
Because the course was designed for Frisbees, which didn't fly as far as modern discs, most holes are short by today's standards, even with the more-distant yellow and red tees that have been added to the originals (now labeled blue for beginners) over the years.
Most of the players, known as the Friends of Sedgley Woods, come in from the suburbs to lovingly preserve their green corner of North Philadelphia. Singles and doubles are played every Thursday and Saturday.
The doubles play, combined with the shorter holes, makes Sedgley an excellent course for novices: Players put $2 in the pot for prize money, then are divided into two pools based on experience. They are paired up at random.
Fifteen teams competed on a recent Thursday afternoon. The semi-retired Fein, who sells long-term-care insurance from his home in East Coventry, was paired with John Murphy, 25, a plumber from Levittown.
At the last hole, Fein - a "sucky-poo" player by his own account - threw his first shot, hitting a tree with a loud thwack. Murphy made the putt, and they headed toward the parking lot for a beer.
As the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out, Fein showed off a new hat for next year's disc golf world championship - to be held around Allentown, with an expected $100,000 purse.
Meanwhile, club treasurer Dave Prue stood on a concrete block to announce that Team 9 had won the round of doubles and would split the $22 first prize. Then he joined a game of "Dollar and a Disc Putt-Off" - an attempt at a 63-foot hole in one - that went late into the night.
Asked what draws him to disc golf, the financial-services worker from Lindenwold singled out the "relaxed, competitive atmosphere" of the game.
Contact staff writer Don Sapatkin at email@example.com.
Getting Into Disc Golf
Disc golf can be played singles, doubles, solo or in a group. Rules are similar to regular golf and are often posted.
What you need
- Discs made for the game: Drivers, putters and approach discs cost $7 to $15 online and at a few sporting goods and discount stores. They also are sold at some courses.
- Find a course near you: with detailed descriptions, message boards, directions, contacts and clubs.
Sedgley Woods (East Fairmount Park)
- Shorter-than-average holes and twice-a-week doubles, pairing less-skilled and more-skilled players in a random draw, make Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course a good place to learn.
- Directions to 33d and Oxford Streets: From I-76 (Exit 342, Girard Avenue): If coming off I-76 East, turn left onto Girard. (From I-76 West, turn right onto Girard.) Go over the bridge and turn left onto 33d Street. Continue a half-mile to Oxford, and turn left into the park. The Sedgley Woods parking lot is 600 feet up, on the left. From Kelly Drive: Turn at the Lincoln Statue onto Sedgley Drive. Stay right onto Poplar Drive, across Girard and onto 33d Street. Turn left at Oxford.