Soaring to New Heights

Photography by Brittany Dickerson

World-class disc golfer Chris Dickerson sets the pace as the sport skyrockets in East Tennessee

On the afternoon of October 15, 2022, as a throng of football fans descended upon Neyland Stadium for that night’s Tennessee vs. Alabama SEC showdown, two of those universities’ biggest fans were duking it out in the woods near Charlotte, North Carolina, in the high-stakes Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship presented by Barbarsol.

And while the atmosphere wasn’t quite as sizzling as it would be on Rocky Top later that evening when the Volunteers won a thriller, 52-49, the rapidly growing sport of disc golf—perhaps you’ve heard of it as frisbee golf, or “frolf, Jerry!” from George Costanza—had drawn a raucous gallery following players that included two of the world’s best around the 18-hole (well, baskets, actually, with hanging chains) course.

Arguably one of Tennessee’s best-ever pros in the sport, Chris Dickerson of Gray, a US champion and multiple tournament-winning disc golfer, was dueling with arguably Alabama’s best player, Matthew “MattyO” Orum, a seasoned veteran whose Instagram profile proclaims, “Roll Tide 4 Life” and “Nick Saban is my hero.” 

“I wore my checkerboard shirt that day just for MattyO,” Dickerson says with a laugh during a conversation with Cityview before embarking on the 2024 pro-tour season, when he and his wife, Brittany, a fellow VFL, would drive their custom RV to dozens of pro events scattered across the US (as well as Europe). “There’s always some good-natured trash talk between us when Tennessee and Bama play.”

For his part, Orum didn’t wear his familiar Crimson Tide polo or houndstooth hat that day, but he punctuated many of his best shots with a signature “Roll Tide!” that was echoed by one or two Bama faithful in the gallery. 

Both Dickerson and Orum have been in the pro ranks long enough to see their sport soar to new heights of awareness, popularity, and rising sponsorship and prize money in both the men’s and women’s pro divisions. Another accomplished pro from Tennessee is Knoxville’s own Will Schusterick, a three-time US disc golf champion.

Especially since Covid-19, during which cabin fever spurred an outflux of folks craving activities in nature, many have found their way into disc golf because it is accessible (most courses are in public parks), affordable (discs cost about $10-20 each), time-efficient (a round is faster to play than “ball golf”), family-friendly (all ages can play together), and community-building (men’s, women’s, and teen/college groups find fellowship on the course).

Post-Pandemic Popularity Boom

The growth has been monumental, according to industry leader UDisc, whose app allows players to track and score their rounds at most courses. Consider that in 2023:

•   3.4 courses were built per day, adding to the total of 15,205 courses worldwide.

•   1.4 million disc golfers logged 21.9 million rounds on the UDisc app and spent 42.4 million hours playing. (That’s like watching Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour 15 million times; only Travis Kelce comes anywhere near that level of fandom.)

•   The US has more disc golf courses (10,063) than Dunkin Donuts (9,574).

•   89% of disc golf courses are free to play.

•   Public parks are the most common locale, followed by colleges, camps, traditional golf courses, ski areas, churches, and hotels.

•   The sport is also growing fast in places like Scandinavia, Asia, the Philippines, Mexico, and Africa, thanks in large part to organizations such as the Paul McBeth Foundation, a nonprofit launched by perhaps the best-ever disc golfer. The foundation funds new courses in underserved areas across the globe.

The most significant stat from 2023 might be that 87% of players introduced someone new to disc golf, fueling the sport’s exploding popularity.

Not surprisingly, the Knoxville area is on the leading edge of the growth curve. Factor in the ongoing migration of Americans to the South and to our corner of it, along with a robust amount of parks and open spaces, and you’re increasingly likely to see flying saucers in the sky around town. More people of all ages are taking to our local courses. 

They include Kyle Brashear, a lifelong Knoxvillian who was invited to play a round at The Claytons course a few years ago. He was immediately smitten. “I have a great group of friends and we use it as our hang time and healthy competition,” he says. “It’s definitely felt like disc golf has become more popular in Knoxville. I remember hearing about people playing in college and high school, but not nearly as many as now.” Brashear’s favorite course is “the Claytons or The Fort over in Kingston. Both have good variety in pins, and I feel like I can test my drives without hitting trees too often.”

Fellow Knoxville native and Lenoir City resident Warren Sharp can relate. Having started playing with his kids in the 1990s, he has helped to foster disc golf’s growth partly by serving as president of a local club and facilitating events such as the Old City Open at Morningside and the Volunteer Classic played on several courses.  

“We’ve seen steady growth in sign-ups” to such events, Sharp says, with registrations at least doubling since the pandemic. “I’m still amazed at the influx of people coming to play.” On a personal note, he adds, “When I’m out on a course, I’ll come across some kids watching us, especially on a little course like at Lenoir City Park. I always carry extra discs and will see if they want to try. I say, ‘Play these nine holes, and if you don’t like it, give the disc to one of your friends.’” Almost invariably, the newbies fall in love with the sport and stick with it.

From Farm Hand to Top Athlete

Chris Dickerson was one such kid, albeit a few hours to the northeast. “I grew up on a farm,” he says, “and one day my dad mentioned that there was a disc golf course on the other side of a fence where we were working. I had never heard of it, so I was like, ‘Cool, whatever.’” Later, as a junior at Daniel Boone High, “two friends asked me to go play after soccer practice. We had a starter set of three discs, one apiece. Then we realized they were made to go different distances [drives, approach shots, putts], so we alternated. I was throwing overhand like a baseball. It was so much fun. We ended up losing two of the three discs within 15 holes.”

Naturally competitive—he was also a high-school kicker who came close to playing college football—Dickerson took to disc golf like a mallard to Cherokee Reservoir. “I realized there was a mental side to the game. You have to adapt. Once you’ve hit a tree in the fairway, how can you save par? It doesn’t matter your skill level or your background—it’s the thinking aspect and the competitive drive. That’s what hooked me.”

After turning pro in 2013, Dickerson steadily rose through the ranks. His biggest victories include the 2022 USDGC championship and two pro-tour championships (2018 and 2019). He is a perennial contender at every tournament he enters. In 2022, he signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Team Discraft valued at upwards of $1 million.

Dickerson is the only top pro whose “brand” features a camo and hunting vibe—even though he concedes he was “bored and couldn’t sit still long enough” to favor hunting growing up like many of his family members. But the camo is “a nod to my heritage” as a proud East Tennessean with tight-knit, rural roots. “I’m very happy to be able to represent Tennessee and my community,” he says.

On the pro tour, “for the most part the galleries are bigger than they used to be,” he says, “and they’re not just following the lead or chase card [the top eight players]. You’ll see smaller groups who want to follow their favorite player.”

Pro events are broadcast live by the Disc Golf Network on its subscription app and/or on YouTube, with highlight videos shown later, also a fan favorite. In the fall of 2023, CBS Sports featured a disc golf event on its network as well, another sign of its emergence.

As for that 2022 championship event in Charlotte against Bama fanatic MattyO, Dickerson and Orum wound up knotted for fifth place—perhaps a fitting result for two of the world’s best disc golfers representing the South, the SEC, and their respective states. Roll Tie? 

Looking to try disc golf for yourself? Check out some local courses here.

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