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Sarasota Sky Pilots Do It in the Air

When someone says they’re going to play golf, it conjures up images of lugging expensive clubs around, riding in a cart, and hitting a little white ball toward a hole in the ground on a neatly manicured green, doesn’t it?

But for many Sarasotans – men and women of all ages – “playing golf” means playing “disc golf”. And disc golf means showing up with little more than the shirt on your back, carrying a lightweight flying disc (e.g., a Frisbee®), walking an 18-hole “natural-landscape” course, then, using nothing more than a well-muscled arm, throwing that disc over hole lengths of up to 500+ feet and sinking it into a metal disc basket (called a “pole hole”)

Photography by Stephen Lake

Photography by Steve Lake

— [really, that’s what they call it — I couldn’t make this stuff up, it just comes to me like dirty manna from angels on high] — elevated about four feet off the ground with chains extended from the top of the pole into the basket serving as a sort of backboard.

Disc golf, says one longtime player, takes the concept of regular golf off the ground and elevates it to an entirely new level: airborne.

It’s an elegantly simple sport, deceptively so, because it takes great skill and concentration to navigate the air, accommodate for wind, judge distance, and land a disc on target into the basket. If you’ve ever thrown a Frisbee, Discraft, Innova or one of the many other brand names of flying discs on the beach, you know the relaxing and slightly dreamy feeling of just simply making and watching something fly so effortlessly.

Disc golf follows the same basic guidelines as regular “ball and club” golf, with players try to land in the pole holes with as few throws as possible. A lifetime activity for people of all fitness levels and ages, it’s also one of the rare sports where start-up costs are super low and course fees are usually nil. Shorts, tee shirt, sunscreen, maybe a cap; throw in a disc – good ones can be had for less than ten bucks – and you’re in play.

The Sarasota Sky Pilots, one of the largest disc golf clubs in the southeastern US, has about 550 members, and is an affiliated club of the international Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), which has in excess of 30,000 members worldwide. Sky Pilots describe their Sarasota club as a relaxed, friendly, group of mostly locals who love the sport, but who love the camaraderie even more. The club hosts weekly league events with handicapping for singles, and Sunday doubles, as well as numerous events throughout the year and regular gatherings for fun, food, and flying discs.

Beginning next week, the Sky Pilots are hosting two weekends of competition which are part of the Fabulous Florida Tour — a state-wide series of disc golf tournaments. May 22 and 23 will see the PDGA-sanctioned Sarasota Pro Open, with a championship purse of $2,000. One of the top-ranked professional disc golf players in the world — John E. McCray of Brandon, Florida — will be competing, as will other top players from throughout the country. May 29 and 30, the Sarasota Amateur Championships will take place; spectators are welcome at both events, and proceeds go to the All Faiths Food Bank.

Both events will utilize courses at the Bobby Jones Golf Club (a temporary disc golf course will be in place) and the North Water Tower Park – where the Sky Pilots have created a professional, permanent disc golf course with open and wooded play, cement tees, 18 holes, and a course length of 5,463 feet. The club also built a slightly shorter, 18-hole course with water hazards at Lakeview Park.

Disc golf has been played in Sarasota since at least the early 1970s when a cadre of loosely organized but passionate players would meet up wherever they could to throw – including the grounds of the Ringling Museum and Gillespie Park. Even before the Sky Pilots officially formed in 1993, Sarasota has been a breeding ground for disc golf champions and big purse winners. In the eighties, two current Sky Pilots members won the PDGA World Championships – Jeff Watson took that title in 1983 in Huntsville, Alabama; and Greg Hosfeld, one of the club’s earliest members, claimed the honor for himself in 1987 in Toronto. Ken Climo, a Sky Pilot club member from Clearwater, has won the world championship 12 times.

But whether playing disc golf on a course as a pro or an amateur, or simply throwing a disc to a friend on the beach, sending discs flying through the air is essentially about a love for being outdoors, appreciating Sarasota’s year-round great weather, and being in the company of like-minded people who enjoy the easy-going nature of the sport, and who, quite probably, secretly wish they could fly too.

To register for the pro or amateur competitions or to learn more about Sarasota Sky Pilots, visit www.sarasotaskypilots.org.

This story appears in this week’s May 19 print issue of Creative Loafing and online here.

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Posted on May 18th, 2010Comments RSS Feed
6 Responses to Sarasota Sky Pilots Do It in the Air
  1. The sport of disc golf is taking off after less than 35 years or organized competition. Thank you MC for this thoughtful review. When I first played disc golf it was in a small town in Minnesota. Then, I moved to to Sarasota and learned about the PDGA and the Sky Pilots, who truly help grow the sport through local fundraiser events and disc golf clinics. We`re lucky to have 2 disc golf courses already in the region and I hope to see both Sarasota County P&R and Manatee County P&R develop more disc golf courses.

    Disc golf is an affordable sport to play (and cheap for P&R to install), and most importantly the game is designed for all ages and is very family friendly.

    Reply
  2. Thanks, Bryan for visiting the blog, reading the story and for adding more info to the conversation. It was fun writing the story — I’ll have to come out and see the Sky Pilots in action during the tournaments. If you’re playing — good luck!

    Reply
  3. Say, anyone hear from Mary….just wanted to be certain she was ok.

    If anyone has heard from her, would you please post that she’s ok?

    Thank you much, Dan

    Reply
  4. The tournament had a great turnout-more than 140 golfers from Miami to Tallahasee- participated.Thanks for the nice article/blog on the event.

    Reply
  5. Dan, sorry to be such a slacker. I was out sniffing out life to write about it.

    Reply
  6. Siesta Surfer — my pleasure; thanks for visiting the blog!

    Reply

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