Sailing to New Height


The size of Santa Fe's disc golf scene low-key exploded this last year. Local disc golf teacher and museum archivist with Institute of American Indian Arts, Ryan Flahive, estimates that at least 40% of people playing disc golf right now, picked it up in 2020. "It is the most COVID-safe sport you can imagine," Flahive tells SFR.

When Flahive plays at the local course along the Arroyo Chamisos, located behind Genoveva Chavez Community Center, he explains, "I usually know everybody, and I don't know anybody anymore." Having taught disc golf for a decade, the surge in the sport's popularity thrills Flahive.

For Brian Phlipot and Jazmin Pedroza, ultimate frisbee players from Albuquerque who are part of this new generation of players, disc golf provided a safe alternative for recreation when the pandemic hit. Pedroza tells SFR she prefers the more relaxed option of the two disc sports, "You don't have to compete quite as much with the younger kids, just out-running us or being a bit more reckless," she says.

Pedroza, Phlipot and 73 other players from around the country trickled onto the green of the Towa Golf Course on the Pueblo of Pojoaque on Friday for a Professional Disc Golf Association sanctioned event. A second tournament on Saturday will continue the festivities.

The tournament director, Brandon Merzlock, a store owner with the sponsor and disc golf retailer Infinite Discs, tells SFR he has seen sales increased threefold in the past year given the demand—and thus scarcity—of the specifically designed discs. "There's been such an increase in players where tournaments are filling as soon as they go available online, they're filling in minutes."

Merzlock celebrates the growing interest of new players, but the professional disc golfers have seen the biggest gains he says. "The people who are the professionals, who have been struggling for many years to try to make a living and play this full time, now are signing $10 million contracts."

Merzlock refers to the sport's richest player, 30-year-old Paul McBeth, who signed the record deal with Discraft earlier this year.

The presence of the "ragtag" golfers on the manicured lawns reflects a growing trend on golf courses. Merzlock contrasts the stagnation of interest in traditional golf with the surge of new disc golfers, though friction between the two groups remains.

"The only problem that we see when we get to golf courses is the elitist attitude that golf players have," says Merzlock. "It's kinda like when snowboarding came out and the ski resorts were like, 'We want ski-only resorts.'"

When Towa Golf Course invited these new players to throw discs on the same greens as the ball golfers, Linda Howell, the director of golf at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, approved of the decision. Despite the rift between ball and disc golfers, Howell welcomes the extra business.

"Ball golf, unfortunately, is greater revenue," Howell admits to SFR. "But the commitment of the disc golfers in any kind of weather, it just makes it so important for us to keep going. I can't believe some of the weather they play in."

Outside the Towa Golf Course clubhouse, golfers—both ball and disc—stop to chat with Howell. She works to foster an environment that welcomes all types of enthusiasts, "The first thing that I did when I got to this golf course was stop the stupid dress code. We were making disc golfers wear collars."

After hosting several disc golf tournaments beginning in 2018, the pueblo decided to invest in 27 permanent baskets—the equivalent of "holes" where players land their discs. Howell says the relatively low barrier to entry in disc golf, positions the sport well for adoption by other resort courses. A good option for resorts to attract new players and more business.

In a second day of competition, 72 players will face off in a National Amateur Disc Golf Tour event at Towa Golf Course. The event organizer, Flahive spent the day on Friday making the rounds with players making sure things were in order for the second tournament.

Despite the golf course not allowing spectators at the event, Flahive was pleased with the size of the crowd, "That's a lot of players for Easter weekend…I've had a waitlist for months."

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