Ode to a Bad Ass Disc Golf Course

(Essay in the Oxford American's Best of the South issue, Summer 2009.)

Drive into Bowers Park just off I-20/59 in Tuscaloosa, off the McFarland exit, and you will not be impressed: long expanses of grass, kids, dogs, beer, bugs, space, girls, sin, Frisbees, heat. You’ve been to parks before, right?

But be assured: This course, this disc golf course (not to be played with Frisbees, a brand of recreational disc made by Wham-O, but with discs designed specifically for disc golf, a different game by far) is a killer, probably not a good choice if you’ve never played this entirely kick-ass game before, if you like milk in your coffee, Zimas in the evening. Bowers Park, (unfortunately not named after poet Neal Bowers) is for the serious, the Marines, actual fans of the Chicago Cubs, the British Open, an easy war in Afghanistan. So spin up the flux capacitor. Go to the dance. Don’t kiss your mother and steal her heart away. 

Something about Tuscaloosa gives rise to a shambling and essential loveliness. It is sadness. It is purgatory for real athletes. It is Richard Yates’s later years. It is where you learn to give up, or give in, and eat some ribs and become one with the earth. For disc golf, Bowers is essential. The first three holes are a first kiss. They stretch out in fields, easy, pleasing, visible, playable, among straight rows of pines, a tongue piercing, a promise.

But know this first before going: Wear long pants, no matter how hot it is. You might want a parka, poncho, a pack mule, a warrior penguin, or a Dungeon Master’s Screen to protect you. Get out of the car. Give up all hope, ye, etc. Bring some water. Maybe a couple beers. Bring a tank full of DEET. Probably a couple days of judicious napalm before playing would improve your score.

The rules for disc golf are the same as ball golf. You throw a shot however you want: forehand, backhand, thumber, hammer, reverse hammer, turbo-putt, upside down, backwards, whatever. Your shot sucks and is punished. You throw your next shot from the location of your first shot (no more than 22 centimeters from the front of where your disc resides). This shot is also punished. You hit several trees. You end up deep in rough, or in water (penalty stroke for the latter, or for out-of-bounds, or any unplayable lie). Eventually you putt into a chain-link basket rising up from the ground (or in odd cases, suspended from a tree limb). Play all holes as par threes or be mocked.

Even after they’d put in the baskets on the front nine and stakes to mark the location of the back nine holes and started to organize the chaos, the course was more theoretical than actual. Hole seven was simply a wall of trees with a basket on the other side. There was no fairway, no green, no place to throw your disc. It was like every battle scene in Lord of the Rings. It was ridiculous. Actionable. A welt on a model’s face. I purchased an axe from the slowest-shopping Super Wal-Mart I have ever seen, staffed entirely by amputees after 11 p.m, and used it to cut down no less than forty trees to make a disc-sized path through the wall. I returned the axe to Wal-Mart, my arms limp, my fingers ringing with work.

I returned to the course to get in one more round. The next day I was harassed by locals for making the hole “playable.” This is the ethos of disc golf, ball golf, and maybe all things in the non-urban South. It is a DIY experience. It’s the early days of civilization. It is free. There are no beer carts. There are no pro shops. You make do. After the first three holes, the course goes like this: beautiful, interesting, diabolical, subtle, insane. The rough is poison ivy and other malicious plants I do not care to identify. The deep rough is impenetrable trees staffed by poisonous and ornery wildlife. Past the rough are the Swamps of Sadness from which discs do not return unless you are entirely righteous, which is not likely. One hole plays two hundred fifty feet along and across a creek perforated with gnarls of thorned bushes to rival jumping cholla, the Arizona cacti that move through the air to penetrate your arm and curl their spines like fishhooks or dreams into your body, seeking blood. If you put your disc in the water, it’s a penalty stroke and you might be injured going in to get it, not to mention the water moccasins. Yet, you will go and get it. You are a disc golfer.

Needless to say, the course is totally fucking great.

I played with my friends Ehling, Eliot, and Sean, other grad students at Alabama looking to vary our weekly punishments from workshop. Because of Bowers, I think of them as brothers. Ehling didn’t make it out, unfortunately. I still think of him when I hoist my KC Pro Roc ace disc that split in half on the third hole one winter morning (if you’re wondering, the rule is that you must play your next shot from the largest remaining piece of disc). I pour a little of my Bell’s Two Hearted Ale on the first tee of every round I play to remember him and the lack of good beer in Tuscaloosa.

The description of Bowers Park in the Professional Disc Golf Association’s online course directory is “fun and challenging.”
Used condoms litter the rough, stretched out like snakeskins. Someone had some fun here before dying, or maybe they were raptured in the act. Broken glass and litter surround trash cans as if to say we understand the idea but reject it. Occasionally you’ll find teenagers having sex on blankets on the cart paths between holes, haloed by cheap beer and clouds of flies. Their bodies glisten in the little light that makes it through the trees. Do not disturb, taunt, or feed them.

Like your own teenage years, your round will be primal, confusing, a kind of ritual humiliation. It is good to know your limitations, you will find. These experiences build character, chest hair, fortitude, masculinity (even if you are not a man). You learn discretion, manners, how to retreat judiciously, how much to burn to the ground and when to burn it. Bowers will be your finishing school.

This course, this barely tamed forest, will not remember me. The nicks in the bark of the cottonwoods left by repeated application of discs at high speeds will vanish soon enough, the bark itself gnawed off by thousand-toothed night beasts, the small seeds shaken down from my discs’ impacts eaten by birds. If I died here, I would be so soon consumed that it would be as if I was never there at all, and I would haunt this place, particularly hole ten, forever, my clothes shreds, my welts bright and growing, glowing in the dark, so much do they pain me, my plaints weakening as I plod on trying to get up and down for par.

Note: It is not possible.

You would do better to forget it. There is no par. There is no course. It exists only in memory, beautiful and unattainable.