POSTED ON OCTOBER 19, 2011:
No Caddy Needed
Adventures of Oklahoma's best disc-wielding frolf wizard
He's a natural with angles and numbers. Everything Devan Owens touches is assigned a numerical value: an angle, a distance, a radius, a wind speed, a projection, a geometry. The tanned, compact 21-year-old Devan Owens is the best disc golfer in Oklahoma, ranks in the top 20 in the United States, and may very well be the best lefty frolfer in the world.
A Brief History of Frolf
Disc golf is often called frolf, a hybrid word that describes the lively, relatively new sport of Frisbee golf. Modern disc golf has evolved over time as a more and more sophisticated competition between avid Frisbee throwers, who pitch discs toward a goal the way traditional golfers hit balls toward a hole.
In the 1960s, early courses, where players threw discs at a target, were designed by Californian George Sappenfield. Later, Wham-O employee, "Steady Ed" Headrick, became fascinated by the new game people were playing with the toy company's Frisbees.
Headrick eventually left Wham-O and found the Disc Golf Association Company in the mid-1970s. He coined the term "disc golf," and invented the modern frolf target, technically called a Pole Hole -- those distinctive baskets with hanging chains that dot courses all over town.
Headrick, who was dubbed "Father of Disc Golf," even designed some of Tulsa's original courses, which were built in the early '80s according to Owens. Now 20 disc golf courses are open in and around Tulsa, including the popular Riverside, Haikey Creek, Hunter Park and Black Hawk courses.
Unlike "ball golf," disc golf is cheap. And it's addicting, said Owens.
"You can show up on almost any public course and play for free," said Owens. "And the equipment is cheap. You can go to Academy and get your first disc for $9, then go out and have a good time."
Frolf is sometimes identified as the laid-back brother of disc golf, and can be freeform and social, played without a specific par or rules. Whether you play the sport competitively or socially, frolf can be good exercise, providing some aerobic conditioning and mental agility from concentration and focus.
The Traveling Frolf-man
For his part, Owens practices almost daily. He can swing through a course in a half-hour, averaging sometimes 20 or more throws under par.
Owens hasn't dropped out of the top 20 American disc golfers since he began playing professionally in recent years.
On a recent balmy afternoon at Fuji Brookside, Owens talked disc golf (plus a little hot frolf drama!) with a fidgety energy fueled by fumes and adrenaline after a long weekend in Columbus, Ohio. He awoke before 7am the day before, finished up a national tournament, and drove 13 hours straight through the night to return to his parents' home in Owasso.
He rattled off the schedule of practices and commutes that he runs through most weekends. To maintain his national ranking, Owens travels many weekends from late February through Halloween. On an average weekend, Owens leaves town on a Wednesday or Thursday.
"This week I'll leave for Kansas City on Wednesday morning, get there Wednesday afternoon, then go to the course and brief myself on what I need to do," he said. By Sunday, the tourneys wrap up and Owens heads home again. He carpools with other Tulsa disc golfers and spends a lot of weekends in towns like Des Moines, Iowa. He's young, enjoys the travel, and said he's not ready to settle into college just yet.
Owens is a talented player -- the best in Oklahoma two years running, but like any true competitor, he wants more.
Dropped Baseball and Picked Up a Disc
He was 14 when his neighbor's dad introduced him to the sport. Owens soon dropped baseball and picked up a disc.
A few months after he learned how to play from world-ranked "father figures" and professionals in the Tulsa Disc Golf Association, Owens competed in the Junior Championships. In 2005, he won the title by seven strokes.
Since then, he's developed into a top national player, and his former mentors sit back and "just watch me play," Owens said. He's also sponsored by two of the biggest names in disc golf: Innova Champion Discs and Phoenix Disc Sports.
Owens is competitive and focused on perfecting his throws, getting the word out about disc golf, and maybe even on becoming the best. "I can throw a disc 600 feet," he said.
Too Close for Comfort
Disc golf is a relatively small sub-culture, and professional frolfers occupy an even smaller circle of people. "It's the same people every weekend," Owens said. "It's just a different part of the country and different people that we associate with."
"To be honest, it's like a big, disoriented family, 'cause we all have a lot of drama," Owens laughed.
"There's like 10 girls in the game that are good, but you've got 200 guys...fighting over those girls," he said.
He described how overlapping relationships can cause tension on the course. At one of his recent tournaments, a friend of his was stuck on a cart with his ex-girlfriend, plus one former hookup and another rejected suitor. "They all had to play together, and you can only imagine the tension between them. They're not angry but you know it's definitely there. Too close for comfort," he said.
But, he said, "We're all good friends and we all want the sport to grow."
The pros want the sport to grow to help support an ever-expanding playing field of improving disc golfers. "I see people who are getting better and are now ranked right behind me, but we're still fighting over the same amount of money," Owens said.
It pays like a part-time job but requires (oftentimes) a full-time effort. For his part, Owens is less interested in improving his already-tremendous game and more interested in figuring out how to make bigger returns on his investment of time and travel.
Some Like It Hot
"Can I have the fresh wasabi please?" he asked politely, as neat columns of sushi rolls were placed before him. He insisted that the little wad of doled-out wasabi wouldn't do. Owens waits tables part-time at Fuji on 71st Street, where his co-workers support his disc golfing achievements. His moniker, printed on the tabs for his tables, reads, "Disc Golfer."
Soon, Fuji general manager Mordecai Fischer, who also follows and plays frolf, chatted up Owens about his most recent tournament.
Later on the same toasty afternoon, Owens headed toward the front nine baskets of the Riverside course.
He switched into his sponsor's T-shirt and pulled his worn, black bag -- like a sporty, lightweight filing cabinet lined with discs in bright colors -- out of the trunk of his black, heavily-tinted Honda.
Before he stepped off the sidewalk, two other frolfers -- Adam Gibbs and Laramie Wilkinson -- recognized him and called from the parking lot, curious about where Owens would play. They followed him to the nearest tee pad.
"Someday I'll be as good as you," Gibbs said, as the three frolfers lined up on the concrete rectangle where players tee-off.
Owens rapidly emptied his pack, throwing a torrent of discs up to 300 feet away, where they landed within a dozen feet of the basket.
Rules, Regulations and Risks
The rules of the sport boil down to those of traditional golf, with tweaks and allowances for a flying disc instead of a ball. Players tee-off by flinging discs from a tee pad (most often concrete, but can also be dirt, mulch or rubber mat) toward a basket, or target. The aim is to complete the course in as few throws as possible.
When it comes down to throwing sharp-edged discs at high rates of speed around public park areas, safety becomes all-important. "When I was younger, I've hit people on accident," Owens said. "I hit a couple of kids, and felt terrible."
Owens has been on the receiving end of some flyaway discs, too. "I've been hit in the back of the head a couple of times," he laughed.
But seriously, he noted, "[Discs] could possibly kill you if it hit you the right way, with the force and torque coming off them."
He's seen a few fellow players carted into hospital emergency rooms for split lips and broken noses after ill-fated throws. Be cautious when on or near a course. And aim well.
Once the disc lands inside a painted circle with a 33-feet radius around the basket, players begin their putts.
For advanced frolfers, putting discs are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and weights.
Owens has about 20 discs in his bag, but keeps a collection of many more. "I probably have a disc collection worth about $10,000," he said.
When asked what advice he offered casual frolfers, Owens strongly recommended watching disc golf techniques in action. "Look it up online, YouTube it, see what other players are doing," he said. "And just like everything else, you have to practice."
Owens spends many days practicing his more intricate putts, perfecting the way he manipulates angles and the speed of the disc.
"I'm an entrepreneur," Owens said. When he's not playing tournaments in far-flung cities, Owens waits tables, flips cars and has also begun selling his own namesake line of discs.
"Every little bit helps." He's living with his parents until he saves up enough money to buy a house in Owasso.
"Between working and disc golf, I'll be able to buy a house by the time I'm 25," he said.
Owens is good with projections -- an uncanny ability to gauge the future based on the torque of his ambition, the oomph of each effort, uncertain odds and windy probability -- on and off the course.
The same way he skimmed the leaves off trees with high-speed throws, Owens mentally projects the cost-benefit curve of his goals.
"Once I start winning more, I'll start making more, and that's my goal," he said. If he weren't a disc golfer, he might think about being a mechanic.
But, Owens added, "Hopefully disc golf works."
"It's ridiculous what I can do with a disc, it really is."
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