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Toss a round of disc golf

No doubt about it: The sport of golf is soaring.

Disc golf, that is.

Okay, so there aren't hordes of fans following players around a course, and ESPN television crews aren't filming tournaments.

But its time will come, says C.R. Willey of Madeira Beach, a two-time world champion disc golf player. "The sport is definitely taking off," he said.

Drive by Cliff Stephens Park on a Wednesday evening and you'll see dozens of people throwing small, colorful discs through the air.

It's just one example of how the sport is growing, said Bob Barry, the city of Clearwater's supervisor of golf activities. The city and Tampa Bay Disc Sports Club sponsor leagues and tournaments. The club boasts 70 members, many of whom practice Wednesday evenings at the park.

Though the game's popularity is strongest in the United States, its appeal is spreading in Asia and Europe. "It's very big in Japan and also in Sweden," said Willey, acting president of the club. "Everyone loves to watch something fly."

Willey, 34, has been watching discs fly since 1982, the year he took up the sport. Since then, he has traveled throughout the country, winning tournaments and earning money.

This weekend, he'll participate with about 90 amateur and professional disc golfers in the eighth annual Fun 'N Sun Disc Golf Tournament. The two-day event will be at two parks: Cliff Stephens and NE Coachman.

Disc golf is played like traditional golf. But "instead of using a stick and ball, you're using a Frisbee," explained Willey.

Players use an assortment of plastic discs, trying to land them in a series of baskets. An 18-target course is par 54, with an average of three throws per hole. The lengths between baskets are from 200 to 650 feet. The world record for the longest stroke, or throw, is 690 feet.

Willey's record is just over 500 feet. "To be able to throw with that control and consistency keeps you coming back," Willey said.

In Ken Climo's case, his commitment to the sport earned him an induction into the Professional Disc Golf Association of America's hall of fame in Atlanta. Last year, the Clearwater resident earned his eighth consecutive world champion title.

The discs, which are smaller, leaner and denser than typical Frisbees, cost $6 to $10. They are available through sports equipment stores and tournament vendors.

Yet any kind of flying disc will do, Willey said. "It can be your catch Frisbee from the closet," he said.

Disc golf took flight in Southern California in 1974. That's when the first metal baskets were made for the sport, which was introduced to the Tampa Bay area about 1980. The first nine-hole course was built at Cliff Stephens in 1985, and another nine holes were added in 1988. In 1995, another course was built at NE Coachman.

Disc golf attracts people of all ages, though most players are men ages 18 to 45. More youths and retirees are picking up the sport, Willey said.

It provides plenty of exercise, Willey said. "The stretching and bending makes it appealing to people of all ages," he said.

And it's free. Unlike "ball golf," what disc golf players call the traditional game, local parks charge nothing to play.