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Soaring in popularity

Lenny Gomez approaches the fifth hole of Limona Park's disc golf course with caution.

The three players before him have smacked their thick plastic discs into the same low-hanging tree branch, and Gomez hopes to avoid the same fate.

The USF physical therapy student from Tampa Palms aims low from the concrete tee pad, his disc skimming the ground until it skips off a slight incline. The disc caroms to the right, soaring another 30 feet or so before making an audible "chink" in the basket for a hole in one.

After a moment of disbelief, Gomez pumps his arms into the air and whoops with elation, high-fiving everyone around him.

"Those things are rare," says Dan Gaumont, one of Gomez's foursome on a buggy, muggy, overcast Saturday morning. "I can't believe I saw that."

Until recently, Gaumont, also of Tampa Palms, would have needed to travel much farther than the outskirts of Brandon to see it. Disc golf, long popular in Clearwater - where repeat world champion Ken Climo lives and plays - is just now finding its way into the Hillsborough County sports mind-set.

The county Parks and Recreation Department opened its only public course, nine holes at Limona Park, less than a year ago. The only other local options are private - one at the Lutz Executive Golf Center and a second for University of South Florida students and alumni at Riverfront Park.

"Every day there is more and more interest in it," says Beth Kaufman, owner of the Lutz course, adding that players average anywhere from 60 to 140 rounds per month there. "Now we say, 'Are you going to play ball golf or disc golf?' "

With participation growing, park officials are looking at the possibilities of creating a bigger, second public course where major events could take place. They have an eye cast toward the northeastern corner of the county, so perhaps it also would attract players from Polk County.

"At this point we have not found anyplace in the system that might be compatible with disc golf," department spokesman John Brill says. "We're still looking."

Jennifer and John E. McCray Jr. of Brandon are among those pushing for the sport's emergence here. He's ranked 11th in the world, according to the Professional Disc Golf Association and she's his manager. Together, they persuaded the parks department to open its first course, and they are behind the push for a second outlet.

To keep the impetus going, the couple run twice-weekly clubs and tournaments at Limona Park, and offer lessons to youngsters at county parks and schools, as well.

Starting in November, they'll begin clinics at Nye Park in Lutz.

"We think if we can get the kids, we can get their parents and teach them this is something they could all do together," says Jennifer McCray, who sells Gateway discs while her husband lays tile for his full-time job. "I see this growing at a nice, steady level."

Many enthusiasts like that the sport doesn't require a major cash infusion, compared to regular golf, in order to participate.

"All you have to do is invest in your discs," says James Kiefer, 31, of Valrico. "It's probably about $50 to start playing."

The pace also can be casual enough that a family can play for fun.

"It's a sport for everybody," says Gaumont, 31, an accounts executive for Channel 32. "It's difficult for all ages."

As you progress, the lure of the professional tour beckons. It's not something to make millions on - the top-tier players do well to win $40,000 a year and maybe get a sponsor to cover hotel expenses.

But playing the circuit is doable for folks such as McCray, who competes on weekends. Being self-employed, he can take off for major events like the recent world championships, where he placed seventh and earned $1,165.

Gomez, who helps train the USF women's soccer team when not studying, has the pros in mind. A novice just nine months ago, he won the intermediate division at the August Florida amateur championships in Crystal River and quickly moved up to the advanced level. That's one step beneath professional ranking.

"I like being outdoors. Everybody enjoys that," Gomez, 21, explains as he flips through his bag of a dozen discs for the right one to toss next. "It's a cheap way of getting outdoors and having a good time."

Each time Gomez plays, he listens to others with more experience, absorbing tips about how to grip the disc, how much finesse to put on a throw, and so on.

"Just the other day, John E. showed me a grip that added 70 feet to my drive," he says.

Jennifer McCray looks up from where she's registering players for a weekly Saturday morning competition. She praises Gomez as an up-and-comer.

"Lenny has a real good body motion," she says. "He understands to use his whole body. It's a lot of body mechanics."

Some players find that groove easily. Others keep trying.

Gaumont, who first played while in college in the 1990s, has yet to make his first hole in one. He has competed in two tournaments and sees the sport more as a way to keep fit while working 40 hours and spending time with his wife and infant daughter.

"It's exercise," Gaumont says. "There's a lot of skill involved, and a tournament will take a lot out of you. I was physically sore for three days after the (most recent) tournament."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5304.

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