Snapper Pierson prepares to putt. “I didn’t want to do the pay-for-play thing. I fought it for a long time, mainly because it was being forced on me by a guy that I really couldn’t stand."
It’s one of those days that KUSI news weatherman John Coleman would call a “sorta Santa Ana.” It’s mid-December but it’s 73 degrees at 9:30 a.m. and a warm offshore breeze has blown clear the sky over the Morley Field Disc Golf Course. I’m here to play a round of disc golf with Snapper Pierson, the course pro.
“That’s our famous shoe tree."
After parking my car in the gravel lot just off Pershing Drive, I meet Pierson at the pro shop that occupies the west side of a concrete block building it shares with the bathrooms. “Let’s play a round,” he says after introducing himself. He grabs a black duffel bag full of discs and a straw broom from a corner of the shop and leads me around the building to the first tee, located between the bathrooms and the parking lot Dressed in tan shorts, long-sleeved blue T-shirt, and a floppy sun visor, Pierson is a medium-sized man who exudes a kind of physical enthusiasm. He walks with a quick, bounding step, covering more ground per step than would a man with longer legs. When we reach the concrete tee box, he sets his bag on the nearby bench and sweeps dirt off the concrete.
“Ed Headrick,” he continues as we huff uphill toward the second tee on the east edge of the course, “who was a vice president at Wham-O, invented the basket here called a ‘disc pole hole.’"
“On this hole, with this pin placement,” he says as he leans the broom against the bench and removes a white disc from his bag, “I like to throw a roller. I’m going to throw what’s called a ‘scoobie’ roller. Now, a rolling disc will curve toward its top side, so this should curve to the right.”
With that, Pierson takes a two-step run up and, with his right hand, flips the disc onto its edge. The disc rolls in an easy right turn through the short grass under a tree and flops down three feet from the pin, 180 feet away. It’s such an amazing sight that I can only scratch my head and laugh. Pierson, amused at my amazement, says, “There’s more to disc golf than just throwing the disc. Sometimes a roller works just as well or better.”
I throw my disc, smaller in diameter than a normal Frisbee and with a wedge-shaped edge, hoping that my left-handed drive will bend around the tree, sheltering the pin from a direct shot. I fail. The disc carries itself straight ahead leaving me 70 feet past the pin. As we stride down the fairway to my disc, Pierson points up and straight ahead, “See our shoe tree?”
I’ve played here twice before but I’ve never noticed the dead tree, about 50 feet tall, with somewhere near a hundred pairs of old shoes tied together by their laces hanging from all the branches. “That’s our famous shoe tree,” Snapper says.
I find my disc and throw an approach to the pin close enough to make the ensuing “putt.” Disc golf borrows much of the terminology from club and ball golf— drive, approach shot, fairway, par, birdie—even terms that don’t apply literally, like hole and tee. Obviously, you never use a tee, though the concrete pad you throw the first shot on every hole from is called the “tee box.” And the “hole” is actually a five-foot pole with a metal basket, two feet in diameter, halfway up the pole. From a ring attached to the top of the pole like a halo, metal chains hang down to the basket two feet below. When putting, the golfer tries to throw the disc into the chains, which absorb the impact with a CHING sound, dropping the disc into the basket Only when the disc is in the basket has the golfer completed that hole. Merely hitting the pole, chain, or baskets does not constitute a made putt. "And neither does this,” Pierson says as he picks up his disc three feet from the base of the pole and tosses it so that it lands on the metal halo on the top. “This will happen a lot, and it’s not a made putt.
“Ed Headrick,” he continues as we huff uphill toward the second tee on the east edge of the course, “who was a vice president at Wham-O, invented the basket here called a ‘disc pole hole.’ After that, the first disc golf course was built in 1975.”
That first course was in Oak Grove Park in La Canada near Pasadena. I went to high school a few hundred yards from that park but never played there and never suspected it was historically significant. “Ed had invented the modern Frisbee,” Pierson explains while sweeping the second tee box. “Next to the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee was the biggest thing that Wham-O had going. But because he was employed by Wham-O, he couldn’t get paid for his invention, which in turn made Wham-O millions of dollars. Well, after he invented the disc pole hole, he convinced the powers that be at Wham-O that if they developed these targets and put in these Frisbee golf courses, they would sell even more Frisbees. So, they started a matching-funds project. What they would do is, they allowed Ed to have his invention of the basket, which he patented. Then he went to various Parks and Recreation conventions, and he told cities around the country that if they had an area of their park they were having a problem with — if they had gang activity or just people going in there causing problems — that what they needed to solve their problems was circulation flow. And he had a game that would create a circulation flow and drive that bad element out. And if the Parks and Rec departments could come up with $2500, Wham-O would match it with $2500. Then Ed would come down and design the course and have the Parks and Rec do the installation of the disc golf course. That’s how the first 50 or 60 went in.”
Pierson throws his drive on the second hole, a dogleg right about 200 feet long. The throw banks right and lands about 15 feet from the pin. My drive takes off at too high an angle and falls 80 feet short. I end up with a five on the hole, Pierson with his second straight birdie two. The third hole’s tee pad sits right next to Pershing Drive. Pierson, after his traditional sweep, sets up to drive downhill to the northwest The pin sits on the edge of a gully overgrown with California and Brazilian pepper trees. “This is a real easy hole for righties because you’re coming in on ‘hyser,’ and the hole is so short And even if you go over the edge there, you’re not in very bad shape. You can throw it back up there.”
“Hyser” is a term disc players use, meaning the natural slicing curve in the flight of a disc — to the left for a normal right-hander throwing a normal backhand, to the right for a lefty. A curve to the opposite direction is called “anhyser.” The terms actually apply more to the position of the disc at release. “It’s hyser,” Pierson holds a disc in backhand throwing position, the outside, or left edge, hanging below his hand; “anhyser,” he holds the outside up above the hand. Those terms originally come from Dr. Stan Johnson, who wrote a treatise on Frisbee flight around 1976. We just adopted his terminology, and it’s become universal in disc sports. Stan’s a great guy. He’s still a buddy of mine today.”
Pierson’s drive flies with the left-turning curve he predicted but not enough. It falls right of the pin about 30 feet. My left-handed drive curves the opposite direction and lands next to his. But while his approach shot hits the basket and falls to the ground at the foot of the pin, mine sails past the pin into the thicket, and my third shot I have to throw under a tree branch and up the hill. I’m lucky to make a four. The uphill walk to the fourth tee takes us through a grove of jacaranda trees. “In May and June, they all turn purple,” Pierson says. “A lot of them were here to begin with and we planted a bunch of others. But,” he chuckles, “we have a minor problem with planting; half of the stuff we plant gets stolen.”
After his long floating drive down the descending fairway, Pierson restarts his history of disc golf. “Remember I told you Ed Headrick went to Parks and Rec conventions selling the idea of disc golf? Well, he talked to a man here in San Diego named John Walters, who is now in charge of Torrey Pines; a really nice fellow. He was in charge of things down here at the time, and he was a real gung-ho Parks and Rec guy, young and active. And this is still the days when Parks and Rec believed that their job was to maintain parks and recreate people. If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I've had to deal with them for a lot of years. Anyway, he was a great guy and he got the matching funds program from Wham-O and he got the course put in in 1977.”
“Who ran the course after it was built?” I ask after a drive that starts to the right and curves even farther to the right.
“The city was in charge of maintenance early on, but I’ve been the course pro here from almost the beginning. The first time I played here, I got a hole-in-one and shot something like one over par. I played seven rounds of golf with some unemployed lawyer friends of mine, and I never went home. I gave up my job as a manager of a water-goods store out in El Cajon 30 days later. I was doing great, making $3000 a month, but I went on unemployment to become a professional Frisbee player. I had no idea how I was going to do it, I just knew that this is what I was going to do. Well, at that time, Ed Headrick had designed the first discs that were used for disc golf; they were called Midnight Flyers. And what he would do is he’d go to a course, find the top player, and promote that person to be his ‘course pro,’ then get that person to sell his discs for him on that golf course. That’s how I got started here.”
We finish out the hole, both with threes. Pierson continues the story on the walk to the fifth tee. “Early on,” he recalls, “in about ’79 or ’80, the city abandoned this area. They stopped watering, they stopped maintaining this area, and trees were dying right and left. They were coming out and cutting them down like crazy. They called this an abandoned area of the park, and they weren’t going to do any maintenance on it. I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a disc golf course here and a lot of people playing. It’s not abandoned.’ They said, ‘We’re not going to do it; if you want to do it, you do it.’ So we started taking over maintenance. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing in the beginning. But slowly we learned how to plant, how to water, how to mow. Eventually we bought better mowers and that sort of thing. But it’s always been a seat-of-your-pants type of operation.”
Today, the city provides trash removal from the cans around the course — “and they do a good job of it” — but Pierson and a crew of eight do all the maintenance on the course. The funds to do it, including salaries, come from green fees ($1 for an all-day pass) as well as pro-shop and concession-stand rentals and sales. “It turns out,” Pierson explains, “that in an average month we’ll have between 6000 and 8000 people playing. There are nine people all together that have to be supported out here, and we’re able to get by just fine. None of us are going to be moving to La Jolla too soon, but we’re not starving either.
“We’ve always had a good number of people playing here,” he continues. “It’s always been busy. But it’s really picked up since we went pay-to-play in 1994, and we were able to clean the place up. Now, we get more families and more middle-class people. There was a period of time there, through the ’80s, when we had some despicable people that used to hang out here.” “Doing what?”
“Oh, smoking weed, drinking, selling drugs. This one girl used to turn tricks in the bathroom. We had methamphetamine addicts. I was always thinking, ‘How can I get rid of you people?’ But before 1994, even though I had a lease to run the pro shop, I had no control over who could be here and who couldn’t. It wasn’t until I went into a pay situation in 1994 that they [Parks and Recreation] made me responsible for the area. When they told me they wanted me to be responsible for the area, I told them, ‘Then I want to have control over who is here,’ and they said yes.”
The front nine ends with Pierson four under par and me somewhere around eight over. The tenth hole is a brutal dogleg right through a eucalyptus grove on the western edge of the course. Pierson throws his drive right and up at a 45-degree angle. It curves back to the left, around the trees guarding the pin, and slams into the dirt like a mortar shell, raising a cloud of dust. He'll have about a seven-foot putt My plan is to throw my drive, with medium hyser , angle, straight south through an opening in the trees, and let it curve to the right toward the pin. Good plan, bad execution. My drive hits the first possible tree and falls to the ground 30 feet off the tee. Pierson accompanies me on the short walk to my disc, advising me on how to get through the trees to the pin. I finish with a five, he tosses in his putt for a two, and we head off south through the eucalyptus trees to the next tee. “I didn’t want to do the pay-for-play thing,” Pierson confesses as we tread through the woods.” I fought it for a long time, mainly because it was being forced on me by a guy that I really couldn’t stand. He used to be in charge of the central division of Parks and Recreation. He was an old Marine guy named Jack Krasovich. He retired a long time ago, but when he was around, he was mean to us. He was a micromanaging son of a gun. But it was his suggestion to go pay-for-play, and because it was his, I was against it. But eventually it dawned on me, ‘Hey, if we charge, we can fix the place up and we can take control over it. This is a good thing.’ It was a big experiment because disc golf had been free all around the U.S. since its inception. There weren’t any pay courses. Then we were the big experiment.”
The 10th through 14th holes make up the most challenging portion of the Morley Field course. The holes are long, and drives are thrown in and out of the eucalyptus grove along the west fence of the course, making accuracy more important than it was on the first nine holes of the course. It’s in the first four holes of this five-hole stretch that my performance goes from bad to worse. My drives never seem to go where I think they’re going to go. Usually, they take off higher and to the right of where I intend to hurl them. So on the 15th tee, on the other side of the pro shop from the first tee, I decide to ask Pierson, a five-time world champion, for help. “Well, you’ve got good power. That’s not the problem. Try getting your arm up when you bring it back to throw, and get the back edge of the disc up. That’ll make the flight a little more level. Also, you’re swinging your arm around in an arc when you throw. What you want to do instead is pull through.”
He demonstrates, turning his shoulders so that they’re facing to the left side, reaching straight back with his right hand, holding it about shoulder height, and finally pulling past his torso and into release position. “Of course, you’re a lefty, so you would reverse that.”
I apply the lesson. It feels funny, like I’m not putting enough effort into it, but the results are good. My disc soars in level flight and floats four feet above the ground for what seems like an unnaturally long time. It’s that Boating quality that I’ve admired in Pierson’s shots all day but haven’t been able to emulate until now. Unfortunately, I aimed the shot too far left. On the 16th hole, I overcorrect and throw my drive too far right, but it still has the nice floating quality, so I’m happy. On top of that, I make the 40-foot putt for birdie. “Great putt!” Pierson yells over the CHING of the disc hitting the chains. “That makes it all worth it”
The course finishes with the heavily wooded 17th hole, which Pierson has named “Mirkwood,” after the enchanted forest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Then the downhill 18th and the “unofficial” 19th, which is essentially the 18th hole in reverse with the tee pad sitting square in the middle of the X, formed by the crisscrossing 15th and 16th fairways. “It was never supposed to go in,” Pierson says as he sweeps the tee pad. “In 1985, I went to the ‘Worlds’ over in Sweden, and the last thing I told the crew before I left was, ‘Don’t put a tee pad in down there on 19 while I’m gone,’ because at the time we were pouring new tee pads around the course. So what do they do? They put in a tee pad But I never wanted one here because we’re right in the middle of all these holes. People teeing off for the first time on 15 land right here all the time. That’s why there’s no bench here and why I will never put a bench here.”
My last drive is good enough to finish with a par three. Pierson closes out his round with a sailing drive, which follows the gentle left curve of the fairway and settles in the grass a foot from the pin, 250 feet away. As we trudge up the hill after it, he finishes the story of Morley Field Disc Golf Course.
“I told you before that we were the big experiment in pay-for-play disc golf courses. Well, the experiment was successful. Now there are tons of pay courses, and the sport has gone nuts the last couple of years. Three years ago, there were 400 or 500 courses around the world. Now there are over 1000. As soon as we started charging, we got a lot more people, because we started putting the money back into the place, and it became a nice place to be. Disc golf became a great recreational option.”
— Ernie Grimm