Disc Golf Tramp

Tyler “Treetop” Turnmeyer steps out of his dusty van and sets up his portable disc golf basket. He stretches his hands to the sky and falls into a yoga squat, rotating his torso up and down and warming up his shoulders. He’s 28, a transplant from South Carolina who decided to stay in Nevada County five years ago after spending a day at the Yuba. His arms are sinewy from years of disc golfing and rock climbing. He’s calm and reflective and looks you in the eyes when he talks. His shirt is emblazoned with a custom graphic: two overlapping “T’s” that form the shape of a disc golf basket. 

He tells me to get a picture of his shirt before I leave. “You have to do everything to get your name out there if you want to go pro,” he says.

As he warms up, number one world-ranked player Ricky Wysocki is on his mind. 

“I watch him play and all I think is: ‘How am I going to beat him? How am I going to do what he does, but better?’”

Daniel (last name withheld), a friend of Turnmeyer’s and a local cannabis grower, parks next to the van and they immediately start to chat. He’s wearing cargo shorts, a psychedelic pink ball cap, and Teva sandals; a standard outfit among the arriving competitors. They take turns practicing their short game on the basket. Daniel’s young son runs between them, pitching in perfect shots from ten to twenty feet. He smiles sheepishly as Treetop congratulates him on his recent tournament victory. 

Turnmeyer points to a middle-aged man in sagging basketball shorts across the parking lot, warming up on his own basket

“That’s Chappy,” says Turnmeyer. “If I had to pick a favorite to win it’d be him. He’s played this course more than anyone here.”

His tone is resigned, and a little reverent. You’ve gotta respect your elders, and there are many out today.

Turnmeyer and his crew are just a handful of the serious disc golfers who regularly compete at Condon Park. The Grass Valley course has long been considered one of the best in the state for its open fairways and technical angles through pine forests. Recently, it was expanded from 18 to 27 holes. The Hanging Oak Tournament, held May 15th-16th, was the first time the new course was used in competition, attracting 127 of the region’s most serious players.

 For the layperson, disc golf is “frisbee golf,” viewed chiefly as an excuse to drink beer in a public park. But for the crowd at Condon, an event like the Hanging Oak represents so much more. Some, like Turnmeyer, view it as a stepping stone to sponsorship and a shot at the big time. Other players just want to become local legends. A morning spent with the competitors on day one of the tournament reveals just how intense they can get.

Sticky Fingers

John is nervous. It’s his first tournament. Frank from Oroville, wearing a polo shirt, is worried that his fingers are going to stick to his disc after having smoked a blunt in his car. Turnmeyer is furiously networking, shouting greetings to other players walking by the registration tent. 

“Yo, Bro, where are you?” Turnmeyer shouts, “Last call for tee time!” The fourth player in their assigned group has not shown up. After a few more minutes they take off for their first hole, Treetop and John both carry large specialized backpacks containing over a dozen different discs. Frank bounces behind them with his rolling caddy bag that retails for over 200 dollars.

They rotate who’s keeping score on the card, and Treetop volunteers to keep tallies through the first nine. Like ball golf, it’s almost impossible to get a hole in one, so the goal is to get as many birdies as you can; a hole that only takes two throws

The first hole runs downhill behind the bathrooms, the basket tucked into a grove of large pine trees. 

Turnmeyer lands his driver disc less than ten feet from the basket.

“Fucking shaved that tree!” he shouts. 

Half a minute later, Turnmeyer marks down two birdies and a par (three throws, in this case.) And they’re off to hole number two.

City of Champions

The West Coast has always been a major hub of disc golf. The first permanent disc golf course was built in the mid 70’s at San Diego’s Morley Field, having evolved from ultimate frisbee teams at UC Berkeley. The sport quickly expanded beyond California, with the 1976 formation of the Professional Disc Golfers Association (PDGA), the sport’s primary organizational body.

While outside observers may see the sport as fringe, Nevada County has cultivated a number of world renowned disc golfers. Grass Valley native Gregg Barsby won first place and $10,000 in the 2018 World Championship in Jeffersonville, Vermont. Jessica Weese, another Grass Valley native, is currently ranked in the global top 10 for women disc golfers. Both of them grew up playing in Condon Park and at Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley.

“The city has been incredibly supportive of the disc golf community here,” says Gold Country Disc Golf Association Treasurer Mike “Woody” Woodman, one of the organizers of the Hanging Oak Classic. The GCDGA recently got the city to donate $10,000 for the expansion of the Condon Course, and Grass Valley’s Hansen Brothers Concrete donated $5,000 worth of concrete for the baskets and tees to sit on.

“These courses add defensible fire space to the park. And the players alert local law enforcement of any squatting or camping,” says Woodman.

The disc golf community is growing. A total of 127 players registered for this year’s Hanging Oak, nearly tripling the number from 2019. Competitors come from all over California, looking to build experience and compete for a cash prize of up to $250.

Turnmeyer recently moved into his van which he plans to drive up and down the west coast, competing in tournaments every other weekend. He won’t need much – friends may feed him, and the registration at tournaments is never more than $100. In order to make money doing this, you’ve got to find a sponsor, such as a disc company or bag manufacturer. And in order to find a sponsor, players have to compete in bigger, pro-level tournaments. Hanging Oak is an amateur tournament, but there’s still an opportunity to increase one’s player rating and get noticed.

“You have to be constantly playing,” says Turnmeyer. “I play a full 18 holes at least six days a week all over the state. All different types of courses.” 

As the group moves through the game, they discuss the expanded course.

“The new holes are fairly technical,” says Turnmeyer. “Hole fifteen, especially. You have to be very precise off the tee or else you can get lost in the undergrowth and have a real shitty time digging yourself out.”

When they get there, they can’t even see the basket. Turnmeyer throws a “sidearm” (like a curveball in baseball), through a stand of trees to reach it. He finishes the challenging hole with a birdie.

Then it all goes downhill.

Turnmeyer in a happy moment.

After a confident showing on the first twenty holes — including a near hole in one — Turnmeyer’s game starts to slide. Later, he confesses he doesn’t know what happened. And yet, he still shoots pretty well compared to the other players. He winds up fifth place in his division, barely making up his registration fee in prize money, leaving a net surplus of two dollars. 

After the tournament, he shakes out his man bun, folds up his disc golf basket, and climbs back in his van. 

“It’s not the result I was hoping for,” he admits later. “But on to the next one.” 

He’ll be hitting tournaments in Oroville, Brownsville, Tahoe, and then eventually Oregon, crashing with a “homie” there. In October, he’ll be traveling to Austin, Texas for the Amateur Nationals Championship. Thank goodness for that two dollar win – he’ll need all the gas money he can get.

You can follow Turnmeyer on Instagram @thegrovetrotter_dg

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