I clearly remember the very first time I heard about Ultimate Frisbee and Disc Golf. I had just finished university in Ireland and was taking a year off working in Edinburgh, Scotland and living with my older brother Liam before I was going to study for a Masters in England.
When I arrived in Edinburgh in October 1991 Liam told me that he had just started playing Ultimate Frisbee with a local team called ‘Sneeekys’. He explained that it was a bit like Gaelic Football – lots of running, jumping and catching – but with a frisbee. We had both played Gaelic football growing up in Ireland but we also occasionally threw a small Frisbee to each other in the garden and enjoyed how it could ‘fly’ and move differently than a football.
So I soon started to play Ultimate in Edinburgh and immediately fell in love with the sport. My Gaelic football experience helped me progress quickly and I became a key ‘deep’ player for the team – the guy that runs, jumps and catches the high throws in the end-zone for the scores.
First Ultimate Tournament with Sneeekys, Oxford 1992. My brother Liam on my right.
‘Samurai Ultimate Tournament’, Bristol, Summer 1992
Sitting in the pub after Ultimate training one day, an American team member asked us if we had ever played ‘Disc Golf’. These were the days before the internet and YouTube and so we really had no idea what he was talking about as he went on to explain that there was a sport, like golf, but with discs and chain ‘baskets’ as targets. It sounded like fun and so a few of us started to meet in a local park in the evenings and, using our Ultimate discs, started playing Disc Golf for the first time using trees or posts as targets. Later on I found out that the park in Edinburgh, called Bruntsfield Links, was one of the first ever ball golf courses in the world!
The Ultimate Years
But Ultimate was my true love and it wouldn’t be until several years later that I started to play some proper Disc Golf (more on this later). Between 1992 and 2000, Ultimate took over my life. In the summer of 1992 I travelled around the United States for two months and played Ultimate with local teams everywhere I went. The world community of Ultimate players was always friendly and welcoming. I had a book with the names and addresses of teams in different cities and so I would just call up in advance of arriving to that city and in almost all cases I got to play with the local team and someone would offer me a place to sleep for the few days of my visit. I even got to throw a Frisbee on the edge of the Grand Canyon and in front of the White House.
Ultimate at the Grand Canyon and at Lincoln Memorial, 1992
I moved to the south of England in 1993 and over the next six to seven years I played in Ultimate tournaments all across the UK and Europe. I joined a London club team called Shotgun (now called Clapham) and we won the UK National Club Championships four years in a row from 1994 to 1997.
World Club Championships with Shotgun, 1995
I was also lucky enough to play for Great Britain (there was no Irish Ultimate team at that time) in the European Championships in 1993 and in the World Championships in 1994 and 1996.
Great Britain Team, European Championships, 1993
World Championships 1994. Japanese Ultimate team entertaining us after our match.
World Championships, Sweden, 1996
In action at the British Open, 1996
UK National Championships, 1998
Disc Golf in the 90s
During those busy years with Ultimate I did manage to play some Disc Golf, but there was no local club or course to encourage regular play. Instead I would go to 3 or 4 tournaments each year and that would be the only time I would get to play.
The first ever time I played at an ‘official’ disc golf course was during my tour of the US in the summer of 1992. An Ultimate player from Pittsburgh took me to the Schenley Park Disc Golf Course and I got to play a course with baskets for the first time, but still playing with an Ultimate disc.
Playing a round with my friend Paul at Schenley Park, Pittsburg with Ultimate discs in 1992
Back in the UK I invested in a few proper golf discs. At that time there were no numbers on the discs to tell you about speed, stability, fade, etc. Instead we had to depend on the advice of Derek Robbins (aka Mr Disc Golf in the UK) who had just started to build his own DG course and sold discs from the boot of his car at DG tournaments. I remember that my drivers of choice were the Discraft Cyclone (stable disc _ current numbers 7.4.-1.3), Innova Stingray (understable disc _ current numbers 4.5.-3.1) and Innova Viper (very stable disc for the wind _ current numbers 126.96.36.199). I still have my first Viper in my bag! My favourite disc of all was the famous Innova XD (stable disc _ current numbers 3.4.-1.1) – the greatest golf disc ever made for Ultimate players – it was our go-to disc for approaches as it would fly very similar to an Ultimate disc. Unfortunately I don’t have any of the old molds left.
I went to my first disc golf tournament with my brother at the Fanmore Disc Golf Course on the Isle of Mull, Scotland in either 1993 or 1994 (https://www.mulldiscgolf.com/ ). The course is set on a mountain side with breath taking views across the island and out across the Atlantic. There are 15 holes up the mountain, and only three holes back down again!
15 holes to get to the top of the mountain and 3 holes to come back down
Hole 17 at Fanmore Golf Course, Isle of Mull, Scotland
In those early years the course had posts as targets rather than baskets. I think baskets were added in 1998.
Putting at a Post target at Fanmore Golf Course, 1997
In the 90s, as disc golf started to grow in the UK, it was primarily driven by Ultimate players who were starting to get older and wanted to enjoy a disc sport that was a bit easier on the body! There were only a handful of official courses, almost all of them on private land owned by disc golf enthusiasts.
My favourite course by far was ‘Whitcombe Farm’ in Dorset ( https://udisc.com/courses/whitcombe-farm-WhAu) owned by Toby Green. Toby was a passionate Ultimate player whose family owned a 200 acre farm in south west England. Over a number of years he developed two first class 18 hole courses on his family’s land and held tournaments there twice a year. In 1998, the British Open was held at Whitcombe Farm and I ended up reaching the final but lost out by 1 shot on the last hole to a player from Denmark called Soren Larsen. I just looked him up on the PDGA site and he has obviously not lost his love for the game having played in 98 official events with 24 career wins!
Probably my favourite disc golf hole in the world. Straight downhill to a basket sitting in top of an old car at the bottom of the valley with OB behind. Straight at it with a putter or a driver way out to the right and wait for the massive fade left at the end?!
In 1996 I went to the World Ultimate Championships in Jönköping, Sweden. While there, a few of us went to play a course in a local park. It is strange but nice to see how Disc Golf was accepted as a normal sport in Sweden and lots of people and families were out playing disc golf.
I got married in 1997 and my wife and I decided to take a 4 month honeymoon back-packing across the world. Of course I had to pack a few discs! In Denver I got to play a couple of rounds at the Johnny Roberts Memorial Park course with my good friend and Ultimate teammate, Coupar Lester, who had moved there. Even back then it seemed that every City in the US had at least one proper DG course.
Disc Golf in Denver with my good friend Coupar, 1997
During our trip I also got to play a course in Vancouver and the now famous De La Vega Course in Santa Cruz. At the time I didn’t really appreciate that this was a very special course – I just remember that it was very difficult!
Playing the famous De La Vega course in 1997 with Ingo, an Ultimate teammate from London
Managed to play in five tournaments in 1998 – but that was about to change…
Disc Sport in Spain
By the end of the 1990’s my disc-life had to become less of a priority. With three young kids and a growing business, time playing Ultimate or disc golf was limited to a few times a year when I could get away for a weekend. In the summer of 2008 we left the UK for Spain and I spent the next 9 years travelling almost every other week, with my official work office still in London and most of my clients in the Middle East. So the Ultimate and golf discs sat in my garage for many years until in 2015 I found out about the Bilbao Ultimate team, Diskolaris. I definitely felt too old to be playing Ultimate again but my eldest son Nolan, who had just turned 15, wanted to try the sport. So we both joined up and for the next few years I was back playing Ultimate and soon my daughter Lara and youngest son Aidan were also hooked on Ultimate. I have to say, it was great to be playing my favourite sport together with all 3 kids!
Back in the saddle again, Bilbao 2015
The next generation: Nolan, Aidan and Lara _ Diskolaris, 2017
It wasn’t until 2018 that I got to play disc golf again and by then I had finally left my job in London and started to spend more time in Spain. Some of my old Ultimate friends from the UK had a Spanish friend, Paco Palau, who had just installed a small 9 hole course at his home near Girona (https://earlymandiscgolf.com/es ). I was invited to join them all for the inaugural Early Man Disc Golf tournament, which was organised to celebrate the life of their friend Slick Botha who had tragically passed away at too young an age. I had a fabulous weekend catching up with everyone and playing some DG for the first time in 10 years.
Early Man Disc Golf Course inaugural tournament _ Girona, 2018
We all met again at Early Man in 2019 and I then started to find out more about the DG scene in Spain. There was no course in Bilbao but I did find out about a 18 hole course at Irisarri Land and two courses in Oviedo which I played with the kids in early 2020. Finally, towards the end of 2020 I made contact with the Bilbao Disc Golf Club and it has been brilliant to be back playing on a regular basis with a great group of people. The recent highlight has been winning the Navarra Open doubles tournament with my son Aidan, who got his first tournament Ace during the round!
Navarra Open, 2021 Mimizan Plage, Ace on Hole 8, 2020
Bilbao Disc Golf Club, Campeonato de Disc Golf de Euskal Herria, 2021
Looking back to the early 1990s, it’s incredible to see how the sport has changed. I can now watch international disc golf tournaments and video tutorials on YouTube. There are literally hundreds of reviews of discs and courses on-line and the sport is growing so fast. Very soon we will have a permanent course in Bilbao and I am sure the sport will continue to grow and there will be more and more courses to play in Spain. I am already looking forward to semi-retirement and plans to take a camper van around Europe, surfing and playing disc golf everywhere we go! Now, I just need to convince my wife …