Disc golf isn’t quite real golf, but it does deliver some of the same challenges and satisfaction

Ah, the joy of a well-flung tee shot.

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Never thought I’d be a disc-golf guy, and to be honest, I still may not qualify as one. But a funny thing has happened in these unsettling days of social distancing: I’ve played roughly the same number of rounds of golf with a plastic saucer that I have with 14 clubs.

On Wednesday evenings — not every Wednesday, but when enough of my gaggle of fortysomething neighborhood pals are free — anywhere from four to eight of us, clad in t-shirts and running shoes and with squishy portable coolers slung over our shoulders, convene at the campus of a vocational high school in our central New Jersey town. It’s a sprawling lot — really it resembles more a small college campus — with a smattering of buildings and pathways, a grassy quad and dozens of garbage cans. (More on those later.)

The 20-hole loop at Vo-Tech National.

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It’s important to note that the game we play is only a loose interpretation of actual disc golf, which is played by serious-minded hurlers wielding discs of varying weights and sizes that are designed for specific shots and trajectories. Actual disc golfers complete a hole when they have tossed their disc into a raised metal basket.

They’re bound by all kinds of other rules, too: When retrieving a throw, they must mark their saucer with a smaller disc to ensure their subsequent throw is from behind that line. There are prescribed throwing orders, out-of-bounds markers and even a rule that stipulates that “any shot within 10 meters of the target requires that the player maintain balance and not move past the lie until the disc comes to rest.”

It’s serious stuff.

Our version of the game is decidedly not.

My mates and I each bring only one disc, in my case whatever I can find in a heap of lawn toys in our garage. We don’t keep score. We guzzle beer between flings. We do have a designated course. Call it Vo-Tech National: 20 holes that wind their way around trees, flagpoles and sharp corners, over bushes and fences, through a tunnel and, on the 5th hole, into a creepy loading dock behind one of the school buildings. Hazards are plentiful: brick walls, poison-ivy-ridden shrubs, locals walking their dogs. Our targets range from a boulder to street signs to one of the many garbage cans that populate the campus.

The suffocating tee shot at the 6th.

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The bold line at 17 is left — through the narrow tunnel.

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Completing a hole, at least one of the longer holes, in two throws is cause for celebration, but, really, no one’s paying much attention whether you make a two or a 12. The other evening, one of our crew tossed his tee shot on the tricky, uphill 8th hole 30 feet up a tree, where it nestled among a dense cluster of branches.

We were ready to leave it for dead when Gregg, a firefighter with an arm like Brett Favre’s, picked up a rock the size of a softball and dislodged the disc with three stunningly accurate throws. It was easily the highlight of the evening and arguably the season. (Gregg’s been a lifesaver, or at least a Frisbeesaver — on another occasion, after an errant throw landed on a rooftop, he retrieved his ladder and rescued the disc like a cat from a burning building.)

Among Vo-Tech National’s many hazards are its…

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…disc-swallowing trees.

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I’m not here to make any proclamations about how disc golf has helped my actual golf game. But I will say that it legitimately delivers some of the same satisfaction and demands as actual golf: the joy of unleashing a long, accurate drive; the challenge, when obstacles present themselves, of working a disc in one direction or another; the endlessly frustrating pursuit of unattainable perfection; the (socially-distant!) camaraderie and dumb jokes — all washed down with a few cold beers.

Fear not, golf golf. Disc golf will never get my blood pumping quite like a perfectly thumped bunker shot, holing a 40-footer for birdie or drilling a driver on the screws.

But your quirky cousin sure is a good time.

Alan Bastable

Golf.com

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.