Scoobies under the Shoe Tree

Extraordinary disc golf in Balboa Park

“Hyser” is a term disc players use, meaning the natural slicing curve in the flight of a disc — to the left for a normal right-hander throwing a normal backhand, to the right for a lefty. A curve to the opposite direction is called “anhyser.” The terms actually apply more to the position of the disc at release. “It’s hyser,” Pierson holds a disc in backhand throwing position, the outside, or left edge, hanging below his hand; “anhyser,” he holds the outside up above the hand. Those terms originally come from Dr. Stan Johnson, who wrote a treatise on Frisbee flight around 1976. We just adopted his terminology, and it’s become universal in disc sports. Stan’s a great guy. He’s still a buddy of mine today.”

Pierson’s drive flies with the left-turning curve he predicted but not enough. It falls right of the pin about 30 feet. My left-handed drive curves the opposite direction and lands next to his. But while his approach shot hits the basket and falls to the ground at the foot of the pin, mine sails past the pin into the thicket, and my third shot I have to throw under a tree branch and up the hill. I’m lucky to make a four. The uphill walk to the fourth tee takes us through a grove of jacaranda trees. “In May and June, they all turn purple,” Pierson says. “A lot of them were here to begin with and we planted a bunch of others. But,” he chuckles, “we have a minor problem with planting; half of the stuff we plant gets stolen.”

After his long floating drive down the descending fairway, Pierson restarts his history of disc golf. “Remember I told you Ed Headrick went to Parks and Rec conventions selling the idea of disc golf? Well, he talked to a man here in San Diego named John Walters, who is now in charge of Torrey Pines; a really nice fellow. He was in charge of things down here at the time, and he was a real gung-ho Parks and Rec guy, young and active. And this is still the days when Parks and Rec believed that their job was to maintain parks and recreate people. If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I've had to deal with them for a lot of years. Anyway, he was a great guy and he got the matching funds program from Wham-O and he got the course put in in 1977.”

“Who ran the course after it was built?” I ask after a drive that starts to the right and curves even farther to the right.

“The city was in charge of maintenance early on, but I’ve been the course pro here from almost the beginning. The first time I played here, I got a hole-in-one and shot something like one over par. I played seven rounds of golf with some unemployed lawyer friends of mine, and I never went home. I gave up my job as a manager of a water-goods store out in El Cajon 30 days later. I was doing great, making $3000 a month, but I went on unemployment to become a professional Frisbee player. I had no idea how I was going to do it, I just knew that this is what I was going to do. Well, at that time, Ed Headrick had designed the first discs that were used for disc golf; they were called Midnight Flyers. And what he would do is he’d go to a course, find the top player, and promote that person to be his ‘course pro,’ then get that person to sell his discs for him on that golf course. That’s how I got started here.”

We finish out the hole, both with threes. Pierson continues the story on the walk to the fifth tee. “Early on,” he recalls, “in about ’79 or ’80, the city abandoned this area. They stopped watering, they stopped maintaining this area, and trees were dying right and left. They were coming out and cutting them down like crazy. They called this an abandoned area of the park, and they weren’t going to do any maintenance on it. I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a disc golf course here and a lot of people playing. It’s not abandoned.’ They said, ‘We’re not going to do it; if you want to do it, you do it.’ So we started taking over maintenance. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing in the beginning. But slowly we learned how to plant, how to water, how to mow. Eventually we bought better mowers and that sort of thing. But it’s always been a seat-of-your-pants type of operation.”

Today, the city provides trash removal from the cans around the course — “and they do a good job of it” — but Pierson and a crew of eight do all the maintenance on the course. The funds to do it, including salaries, come from green fees ($1 for an all-day pass) as well as pro-shop and concession-stand rentals and sales. “It turns out,” Pierson explains, “that in an average month we’ll have between 6000 and 8000 people playing. There are nine people all together that have to be supported out here, and we’re able to get by just fine. None of us are going to be moving to La Jolla too soon, but we’re not starving either.

“We’ve always had a good number of people playing here,” he continues. “It’s always been busy. But it’s really picked up since we went pay-to-play in 1994, and we were able to clean the place up. Now, we get more families and more middle-class people. There was a period of time there, through the ’80s, when we had some despicable people that used to hang out here.” “Doing what?”

“Oh, smoking weed, drinking, selling drugs. This one girl used to turn tricks in the bathroom. We had methamphetamine addicts. I was always thinking, ‘How can I get rid of you people?’ But before 1994, even though I had a lease to run the pro shop, I had no control over who could be here and who couldn’t. It wasn’t until I went into a pay situation in 1994 that they [Parks and Recreation] made me responsible for the area. When they told me they wanted me to be responsible for the area, I told them, ‘Then I want to have control over who is here,’ and they said yes.”

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