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Disc golf grows in popularity in the Tampa Bay area

BRANDON

He stepped to the tee and surveyed the fairway.

A few trees, some elevation, a par 3. Glancing through his bag, he pulled his driver and scouted his route.

And then with a step and a release, he let the disc fly.

Doren Kempher, 49, has played disc golf for several years. The Valrico resident recently started frequenting the disc golf course at Limona Park in Brandon. There's a doubles tournament each Tuesday.

The sport was formalized with the creation of the Professional Disc Golf Association in the 1970s and has a strong following in Clearwater, home of renowned player Ken Climo. But now it's enjoying a surge in Hillsborough County with the birth of the University of South Florida team and a new course at Cypress Point Park that opened in March.

"The growth of disc golf in Hillsborough is in its early stages but is picking up steam very quickly," said USF player Cameron Harbachuck, who used to play almost exclusively in Clearwater before the sport started gaining traction on this side of Tampa Bay. "There's a couple brand new courses that are going in and they're going in fairly quickly. It seems like the city really wants to expand the game and they see the benefits that the game provides."

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Wendy Whittington, 33, started playing disc golf in December after her husband's co-worker recommended the laid-back sport as a means of getting outdoors.

"My husband, he's got a desk job and he's stuck inside a lot of the time," Whittington said. "He's not a huge beach guy, so in the past few years, he really hasn't spent a lot of time outdoors before this."

Players estimate they walk anywhere from a mile or two on an 18-hole course, depending on the length of the course and how far off path their discs fly.

Though the exercise and the time outside proves beneficial, players say there's something more.

It's the heckling and fist bumps between holes. It's the weight of a disc bag slung over both shoulders and a beer in one hand. It's the sharp snap of the disc on a strong release and the satisfying clang as it sinks into the chain link basket.

"You have to want the challenge," Whittington said. "If you tend to give up easily, probably it's not the sport for you because you do have to work at it. But, honestly, it's not very physically challenging."

Low cost also helps. Most discs run between $8 to $18, said Mike Barnett, president of Sun King Disc Sports. Once that initial investment is made, the rest of the fun is free. Barnett estimates about 85 percent or more of the courses in Florida are free to play, whereas greens fees in Tampa for golfers often hover around $40 or higher, approaching $100 at some clubs.

"The cost attracts a lot of new players," Kempher said. "With the economy the way it is, it's the perfect sport in Florida."

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Players are praising the newly opened course at Cypress Point as one of the best in the state, and say it is likely to draw more players to Hillsborough.

"It's one of the best courses I've ever played," Harbachuck said. "It's difficult and it's fair. And it brings to this area something that isn't here. All the courses around here are your more traditional pitch-and-putt kind of thing where everything is a par 3. This new course, you really have to pinpoint every shot."

As players travel to Tampa to try out the new course, Harbachuck and the USF team are training for their first National Collegiate Disc Gulf tournament, which they qualified for in their first year as a club.

Harbachuck said nearly every player wants to grow the sport and bring new players into the fold.

"It's something you can pick up and become competitive in very quickly," Harbachuck, 21, said. "The fundamentals of throwing a Frisbee is something all of us learn at a pretty young age."

Though Clearwater is home to the world's largest disc golf shop, families looking to pick up a few discs on the way to a local course can buy them at the Walgreens on State Road in Valrico, which started carrying equipment about a year and a half ago.

The store is between Limona and Buckhorn Park, which has a beginner-friendly 9-hole course surrounding the playground and sports fields. These courses aren't as challenging as the new course at Cypress Point Park, but they're essential for bringing in new players, Barnett said.

"We like going to a park that's kid-friendly so the kids can play on the playground and we can throw a disc in a field," Whittington said. "It is competitive, but it's not ruthless. We're all out there to have fun."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Disc golf grows in popularity in the Tampa Bay area 04/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 5:44pm]

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