By MAREK WARSZAWSKI
Friday, February 09, 2007

Boris Vrbich can hardly contain his excitement as we approach the first tee of his favorite golf course.

“This is like going to church,” Vrbich says.

A few steps ahead, Kent Luckin is set to tee off. Except Luckin isn’t gripping a metal club, he’s holding a plastic disc. And instead of a flagstick, he’s aiming for an elevated metal basket lined with hanging chains.

With his arm stretched across his body, Luckin spins around the tee box, barely keeping his toes on the cement pad as the disc takes flight. Undeterred by a steady headwind, it sails into the distance for what seems like a very long time before settling 10 feet from the basket.

These guys are good.

Disc golf may be a niche sport, but that niche is growing. At least it is around here. When a friend told me a while back that 100 people play Fresno’s Woodward Legacy course on a typical Saturday or Sunday, I naturally scoffed.

Too soon, it turns out.

“It’s grown so much,” says Tim Guild, one of Fresno’s disc golf pioneers. “Sometimes when I go out there I’m just floored by the number of cars in the parking lot.”

Feeling a bit excluded by this latest recreation craze, I meet up with Vrbich and Luckin, two Woodward Legacy regulars, and finagle an invitation to join them for a round.

The first thing anyone should know about disc golf is these aren’t the Frisbees people toss on the beach. In fact, if you tried to catch one of these discs it would probably leave a welt. Besides having pointed or beveled edges, golf discs are smaller in diameter and made from heavier-grade plastics.

Like golf clubs, different discs have different uses.

Vrbich and Luckin both carry bags (yes, they actually make disc golf bags) filled with several models of long-range drivers, midrange drivers, approachers and putters.

“I bring 16 discs and probably throw 14 of them during a round,” Luckin says.

“But all you really need is two,” interjects Vrbich, whose bag also contains iPod speakers so he can listen to reggae while on the course. “That’s the neat thing.”

Using exclusively drivers and putters, I muddle through the first several holes making pars and bogeys. Even though they vary by difficulty and distance, all 18 holes are par 3.

Just as I’m starting to think disc golf isn’t that hard we arrive at No. 9. At 614 feet, it’s the longest hole on the course. Making matters worse, the basket is barely visible behind a stand of trees.

Trying to put some extra oomph on the throw, the disc comes out of my hand crooked and catches the wind. I watch helplessly as it fades to the left … way, way left.

“That isn’t terrible,” Luckin says.

He and Vrbich each par the hole. I mutter something about a triple bogey.

When my next drive again veers left and lands about 100 feet from the hole, frustration levels begin to rise. The only thought on the second shot is trying to get it close. So when the disc leaves my hand and glides perfectly into the basket for a birdie, the thrill is completely unexpected.

“That’s why you may play again – for that feeling, right there,” Vrbich says as we stride toward the next tee.

“For about a minute and a half, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

I’m beginning to realize why more people are playing disc golf. Besides being inexpensive, it’s also fun and oddly addicting.

According to the Professional Disc Golf Association, a group that claims more than 16,000 members, California (107) ranks second only to Texas (131) in the number of disc golf courses nationwide.

Woodward Legacy has proven so popular that Fresno’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department has discussed making it more difficult (by installing more trees) so the course can host PDGA events.

“We’re pretty enthusiastic about how it’s caught on,” parks supervisor Hilary Kimber says.

It takes about 1 1/2 hours for our threesome to complete the round. Luckin shoots par, while Vrbich struggles home at 6 over. After missing a short putt on No. 17, he dips his head.

“I’m so mad right now,” Vrbich says.

I finish at 13 over, which Luckin again assures me “isn’t terrible, considering the conditions.”

That makes me feel a little better. Vrbich, on the other hand, is still fuming.

“You have days where you feel like you can’t be beat,” he says, “and days where you feel like you could play better with your other arm.”

Luckin finishes the thought: “I love to hate this game.”