As the weather begins to warm up we’ll see more and more events headed to Northern California, and with a new DGPT event this year in San Francisco, it makes sense to explore the history of disc golf in this region. While many credit Southern California with the true roots of the sport, many players aren’t aware just how influential the northern part of the state was.
A large region itself, Northern California had several hotbeds of activity, with the most notable being the United Flyers Of Sonoma disc golf club. We spoke with a few members of the group who clued us into just how important the UFOS team is to the sport as a whole.
“We didn’t need rules, we played golf without rules. The original Frisbee spirit was totally cooperative: it was 70’s counterculture generation, hippie, peace, love, happy, everyone’s good, everyone helps each other,” remembers Tom McRann, one of the early members of the club. With a PDGA number of 32, McRann has seen it all, and remembers how disc golf got its roots in Northern California.
Interestingly enough, many of today’s professional players are targeting schools in an attempt to spread the word about the sport, yet that’s exactly where Frisbee sports first took off. Students at UC Berkeley were playing frisbee golf and freestyle years before the words “disc golf” were ever muttered, with the Berkeley Frisbee Group officially forming in 1968. As a teacher at Stanford, McRann was also heavily involved in Ultimate, and eventually transitioned to using discs and targets in the early 70’s.
As the tournament director for the 1976 North American series, Tom sought to find an ideal location for the event. He heard that John Bird, PDGA #387, was heavily into disc sports at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA, and together they created the UFOS simply to meet the school’s club criteria for hosting an event on their property. While others might boast that their club was formed first, many consider the UFOS to be the first disc golf club in the country due to their official charter in the early months of 1976.
Despite leaving the disc golf scene in the early 1980’s, UFOS member Jim Sutherland remembers the spirit behind the club: “The UFOS were formed more as a bunch of freestylers as opposed to golfers. Golf was something freestylers did for fun when not freestyling.”
Keeping Up With The Growth
As disc golf took hold across the nation, the nature of the UFOS started to shift away from Frisbee and into disc golf. Current club President Kevin Parkhurst noted that despite people’s love for disc sports and the fun object courses that people would make around town, there really wasn’t much disc golf in Sonoma County for a while. His connection with Jim Tobish, a disc golf instructor at Sonoma State, proved to be instrumental, as they put in a 9 hole course in 1996, which was the only course in the area at the time.
The two men, along with many other members, continued to expand the group and worked to install a massive 18 hole course in Marin County. Named Stafford Lake, its 1997 installation “scared people away.” Parkhurst continues to say, “[People] didn’t know how to react to such a huge course - no one had ever done anything like that. It was an elite thing for disc golf.”
Clubs in San Francisco, Sacramento, and all along the East Bay Area helped to push the growth of the sport in the region and provided a solid transition from Frisbee to disc golf for many established players.
The Best Education You Can Get
With such a rich history of well-established disc golf players, you’d think that Northern California would be a breeding ground of up and comers - and you’d be right. Pro players like Patrick Brown, hailing from San Francisco, and even Nate Doss who would frequently make the trek up north to compete have no doubt had their games shaped by the courses in that area.
Literally growing up in the UFOS was Latitude 64 player James Proctor, who said he joined with his dad around age 12. “When I think about the UFOS I just think about the legacy of the club and all of the stories behind it. [It’s important to] uphold those stories, and it’s been a privilege to grow up in the club,” Proctor said.
The UFOS spirit reaches far and wide, as some players who got their roots in NorCal have taken their passion to other areas of the world. Sonoma County native Tom Elder, who now lives in Oregon, owes a lot to the members of the club: “People like Roger Cansler and my mentor, Brad Armstrong, taught me how to install courses. They took me all around the area and I’ve brought that NorCal knowledge to the clubs and events in Oregon.”
While the importance of disc golf in all areas of the world is clear, players can really owe a lot to these founding fathers of the sport in NorCal. The next time you’re there, play a course or two and take a moment to reflect on the incredible history of the area.