Taking Frisbee on to the first tee

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The Independent Online
You are unlikely to see Britain's best golfer playing Wentworth, St Andrews or Gleneagles. In fact, he would probably be chucked off before he even hefted his driver. His favourite clothes - trainers, shorts and a T-shirt advertising someone called Stan - are generally considered improper dress on the fairways of our snootier clubs.

And so, although he has recorded scores as low as 46 for an 18-hole course and rarely misses a putt under 10 metres, Derek Robins remains an unknown star. To play the game as he wants to, Robins has had to buy his own course. It has no pro shop, no 19th hole to celebrate a particularly good round, and the greenkeepers are sheep. When you are a disc golfer, life's little luxuries often pass you by.

Most people haven't even heard of the game. It is sometimes called Frisbee golf, but Frisbee is simply the name of one manufacturer. Anyway, no right- minded disc golfer would use a Frisbee to drive off a tee, never mind as a putter. "You just wouldn't get any sort of distance. The discs are just too light and just flip over in the wind," explains Robins.

But Robins has Frisbee to thank for his present involvement and his standing as the British Disc Golf Association's national director. In 1978 he won the UK Frisbee Championships, his first of four victories. The prize was a trip to the United States, where he took part in disc golf for the first time. "I did pretty appallingly: I was about 106th out of 120. But in 1981 I was 28th and I was really hooked."

However, he rapidly found that being the country's best disc golfer opened few doors when it came to finding a job, so he went to university. It was more than coincidence that he chose Warwick, which had its own disc golf course and a strong squad of Ultimate players. This game, for those who haven't seen it, is like seven-a-side football with a disc. It is fast, frantic and only for the very fit.

When Robins left university with a management science degree, he continued to play Ultimate and disc golf, but confided to friends that his dream was his own course. "Everybody was winding me up, saying: `You'll never do it'." But unknown to them, Robins (clearly influenced by his job as a systems accountant) was saving hard. By 1994, he was looking for a suitable piece of land. Later that year, he bought a 15-acre site near Leamington for pounds 26,000.

It had few features: the River Avon runs alongside it and a stream bisects the land, but otherwise it was depressingly bare. Robins was not daunted. He spent months planning out each hole, marking everywhere with hazard warning tape like a mad motorway planner. He planted 1,400 trees, mostly oak and ash. To keep costs down (work on the land has already cost him another pounds 10,000), he lets the land for grazing, so sheep are one of the course's hazards.

"At the moment it's a bit of a pitch-and-putt course, but as the trees grow it will become more of a challenge. The longest hole is 120 metres and they average 100 metres, so it's a par-three course. But the most satisfying thing is that it's all my own work."

The game is played just like golf. Players carry a selection of discs: long and mid-range drivers, approach and putters. They are slightly smaller and heavier than the discs people annoy you with on the beach. Experts can make them fly straight for tremendous distances. The world record is now just over 200 metres.

Robins, who lives at Kenilworth, usually takes eight discs which he carries in a special golf bag. "There is a lot of technique to this game. People think a disc always turns right but you have to learn the floating characteristics of discs in different wind conditions. You have to manufacture different shots. Disc golf is a real test of skill."

But the key (as with the more staid game) is putting. "Top players never miss from 12 metres and rarely from 15 metres," says Robins. "I'm a couple of yards down on that." The "hole" looks like a bird feeder for pterodactyls. Chains hang down from a metal post to a rim below. Throw the disc accurately, and it will hit the chains and drop into the rim. But it's not as easy as it sounds.

In the UK, the game only has a small following, though there are now several courses, including one on the isle of Mull, and even an official British tour (which Robins won). The Swedes, who are always game for something a bit nutty, are the best in Europe and Stockholm alone has eight courses. But the US even has a professional circuit. It boasts about 500 courses and one in California recorded 50,000 rounds played last year.

Though Robins often plays three or four times a week (he is joint record holder at his own course, Quarry Park, with a round of 46), he has no illusions about beating the US professionals, having played in the world championships and been roundly thrashed. "They don't go round trees: they're so good they can drive right over the top."

Still, the game could end up providing him with a living. He has set up his own business importing golf discs, and hopes that one day he will be the Jack Nicklaus of the sport, spending his time designing new courses. Sheep, he says, will be an optional extra.

More information about the British Disc Golf Association from Derek Robins on 01926 864136.

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