Disc golf tournament in Lakewood attracts world’s top players

Say “Big Pierce County golf tournament” and most people are likely to think of the U.S. Open coming to Chambers Bay next summer.

But in the world of disc golf, formerly known as Frisbee golf, the big tournament is happening this weekend.

More than 130 professional disc golfers, including five of the 10 top-ranked players in the world, are here for the Fort Steilacoom Open, held at two adjoining 18-hole disc golf courses in Lakewood near Western State Hospital. Tournament entries include players from throughout the United States as well as Japan, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand.

“This is our equivalent of the U.S. Open,” said Jason Coke, the tournament director. “It’s a big deal for the area, the biggest disc golf tournament ever held in the state of Washington, by far.”

A tournament for disc golf amateurs is running simultaneously at the Fort Steilacoom courses.

The Fort Steilacoom Open is one of eight national tournaments in the United States this year, and it attracted an unusually large and talented field, Coke said, because it will be so closely followed by the Professional Disc Golf World Championship on Aug. 9-16 in Portland.

For the uninitiated, disc golf is played like regular golf — except instead of hitting balls with clubs, players throw plastic discs the size of dinner plates. Instead of holes, the targets in disc golf are metal baskets mounted on poles.

Calling the discs Frisbees is tolerated, but it’s not accurate, said Mark Kilmer who’s on the board of the Pierce County Disc Golf Players Association and manages the Fort Steilacoom courses.

Frisbee is a registered trademark of the Wham-O toy company. And while Wham-O still makes millions of Frisbees every year, Kilmer said the discs used by serious disc golfers are far more specialized and technically sophisticated than the backyard toy.

The pros and serious amateurs playing at the Fort Steilacoom tournament typically carry 20 discs or more on the course (and yes, many players have caddies).

Jonathan Baldwin, the 2011 Pro Masters World Champion who’s at Fort Steilacoom this weekend from his home near Santa Cruz, California, said he usually carries 19 discs. There are discs that are specialized for distance (which top players can throw 200-300 yards); discs that turn right or left; and soft, wide discs for “putters,” used near the basket.

“The thing I like about disc golf is that it’s more creative than ball golf,” Baldwin said. “We can make them skip; we can make them turn. There’s much more creative freedom.”

Just as in top ball golf tournaments, highly ranked disc golfers at this weekend’s tournament are followed by a hushed gallery of fans, shadowing the golfers in respectful silence. On Saturday, there was even a film crew documenting the event.

Spectators are more than welcome, Kilmer said. “Half the goal of this tournament is to get more people out here to play.”

For spectators, the top attraction will be Sunday afternoon’s final nine holes, played by the four players who lead the tournament at that point. That round starts at 4 p.m. Admission is free.