Union man takes Frisbee on a different course

Photo by Chuck O’Donnell
Chris Costleigh is about to unleash a drive with the disc throwing action of Ultimate Frisbee; disc golf combines the precision and scoring system of golf and the physical demands of hiking.

UNION, NJ — Chris Costleigh reached back, uncoiled his body and launched his disc toward the basket at No. 11. The disc, however, had other ideas. Instead of bending around some trees, it veered off and left him with no choice but to blurt out disc golf’s dirty four-letter word.
“Fore!” he yelled as his disc headed toward a path where people and their dogs often walk inside Greystone Park in Morris Plains.

The Union resident spends most of his weekends here, trying to master a sport that combines the disc-throwing action of Ultimate Frisbee, the precision and rules of golf and the physical demands of hiking.

Other weekends, Costleigh participates in one of many local tournaments. On Sunday, Aug. 5, he was gearing up to compete in the Jersey Jam, a major tournament held on Rutgers’ Douglas Campus on Sunday, Aug. 12.

Since taking up disc golf about five years ago, Costleigh, 34, has come a long way, graduating from recreational player to intermediate. He used to be a guy too shy to try the sport, riding around for years with an unwrapped three-pack of discs sitting in the back of his car, and is now a seasoned player who ventures onto the course with 17 discs of every color and function — some tail right, others left, some are better for distance — in his bag.

He said the sport presents challenges — some would say taunts — to try to make the perfect throw every time.
“There is something addictive about disc golf, no doubt,” Costleigh said. “You will go back and replay a throw over and you will go, ‘Oh, I wish I used a different disc on that throw.’ Or, you will think to yourself, ‘Why didn’t I throw that one better?’”

Disc golf shares several characteristics with regular golf, including the typical scoring system. Each of the 18 holes is assigned a difficulty level based on distance, pin placement and severity of the hazards.

So, if I player completes a par-4 hole with three throws from tee to basket, the score is 1-under par. The player with the lowest number for the course’s 18 holes wins.

On Sunday, Aug. 5, Costleigh and about 20 or so people met up at Greystone to play a round. Under a canopy of maple and red oak trees, Costleigh and the three other players in his group started out at No. 6. As a nearby brook babbled and some cicadas rattled, the players began to tee off.

As the group traversed over rocky paths and up steep inclines, Costleigh had a good round. He made a nice recovery at No. 13, and avoided the stream behind the basket at No. 14. His wayward throw at No. 11 was a distant memory by time the group reached No. 16, where there was an open field, but a long hole. He reached back, mustered everything he had and unleashed a majestic throw that cut through the humid air and came to rest in the grass about 20 feet from the basket. The others in his group, including his girlfriend, Arlene Gurka, applauded.

Gurka said Costleigh has made great strides with his putts and his drives, and the key might be his Zen-like approach.
“He’s the kind of person who says, ‘It’s one hole at a time, one throw at a time,’” Gurka said. “That way, if you have a bad hole, that’s it. You leave it in the past and then you move onto the next one. It’s a mental thing.”

Although a co-worker once tried to coax Costleigh to take up the sport, Gurka was the one who finally got him out on the course.
Gurka goes by the nickname “Kondor” for her long wingspan. Costleigh speaks each person’s score into his phone and an app converts it into a scorecard. There’s Kondor, Terry “Two-Tone” Harrison and “Tattoo” Dave Greenberg.

Nicknames, even if Costleigh doesn’t have one, are a fun part of the subculture of disc golf. So is the feeling of community between the players. For instance, Costleigh, a welder, used his expertise and tools to create and install a lost-disc box on the course.

“As you could see, people lose their discs all the time,” Costleigh said. “It’s easy to lose your disc. People put their name and number on the back of their disc. If you find a disc and you don’t want the hassle of trying to contact the person, you can put it in here and our club will take care of it. We call the person and return it. We mail it to them or we meet up somewhere.”

It’s unclear, however, if that will change as the sport continues to grow in terms of popularity and number of players.
According to the Pro Disc Golf Association, the sport’s governing body, disc golf is played in 40 countries. In July, the PDGA Amateur World Championship tournament in Charlotte, N.C., attracted more than 700 entrants from across the country. There’s even a Golf Disc Hall of Fame induction ceremony each year in Appling, Ga.

Closer to home, Costleigh estimates five new courses have opened across state during the past five years, although there is not one in Union County. He said the only place to play in Union County is a four-hole practice area in Roosevelt Park in Cranford. A group of players made a push about five years ago to install a course in Oak Ridge Park in Clark, but it never materialized.

The sport’s popularity, or lack thereof, is a double-edged sword. Costleigh likes the camaraderie created by the fact that relatively few people play. For now, it’s their little secret.

But, he also was excited when a recent episode of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” featured a 30-second video of world champion Paul McBeth’s 18-under par second round from the Great Lakes Open.

For now, Costleigh is focused on his game. He finished the day with a 2-over 60. Next weekend, he will likely be back, trying again to make the perfect throw.

“It is absolutely sometimes a heartbreaking game,” he said. “You know you can throw it correctly each time, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way.”