Disc golf is like any other sport.
Once you get hooked, you're hooked for life.
And to be great, you have to practice. And practice. And practice some more.
But unlike most other sports, you can spend $25 and have all the equipment you'll ever need. And once you've spent that $25, you can play for free. Forever.
"I've been playing for over 10 years, and the fact that it's free is still the No. 1 reason I love it," said Judd Burman of Billings. "I love ball golf, too. But I don't have the $20 or $30 it takes to play every time."
"There are so many reasons to love this sport," added Rob Donoho of Billings. "The scenery of the courses, the relaxed nature of the game. It's addicting, no doubt about it."
Burman, Donoho and more than 100 other addicts are in Billings this weekend for the Region 7 Disc Golf Championships.
Burman said the event, which is being held at Pioneer Park and the Diamond-X course west of Billings, is "by far" the largest disc golf tournament ever held in Montana.
The tournament began Saturday and concludes today. The professional division will wrap up today with the "Final Nine," a 9-hole showdown at the Diamond-X course with more than $11,000 in prize money at stake. The Final Nine is expected to start around 2 p.m.
"For us to have this tournament here is huge," said Burman, a four-time Big Sky State Games disc golf champion. "Disc golf has really exploded in Billings over the last five years. … The last estimate I heard for Pioneer Park is an average of 250 players a day.
"Getting this tournament here will expose more Billings people to the sport, and it will also expose all these players in the tournament to the X."
"The X" is the Diamond-X, a spectacular yet brutally rugged 27-hole course built on the Rims west of Billings in Phipps Park.
Donoho describes playing the Diamond-X as "a two-hour hike on the Rims. If somebody asked me to go for a two-mile hike on the Rims, I'd tell them no way. But put one of these (discs) in my hand, and I'll do it in a heartbeat."
"It has to be one of the most difficult disc golf courses anywhere," added Christian Dietrich, a disc golf pro and University of Missoula law student. "One of the 18th holes (the course features two back nines) is a 720-foot hole with a 285-foot change in elevation from the tee box to the basket. You're not going to find that in many other places."
The Region 7 tournament is a Professional Disc Golf Association-sanctioned event, which means the pros will accumulate points toward the PDGA season standings.
Burman, Donoho and Dietrich are among the 20-plus PDGA pros competing this weekend. Among the top players in the tournament are Darrell Nodland of Dickinson, N.D., who finished second in the 2004 U.S. Disc Golf Championships; and Timmy Gill of Minneapolis, who recently appeared on ESPN's "Cold Pizza" and is helping to produce a "Disc Golf TV" series for ESPN.
Dietrich, a Missoula native, has been playing competitively for three years. This is his first year of playing exclusively in the pro division, and he's been to tournaments in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Idaho and North Dakota in the last two months.
"Basically, you just start out in one of the amateur divisions, and you move up as you get better," said Dietrich. "Once you accept prize money, you're a pro.
"Most of us have regular jobs and pay our own way to tournaments, but the top pros like Nodland, Gill and Doug Allen (of Fort Collins, Colo.) are sponsored. … Their discs, their clothing, entry fees and travel costs are all paid for by sponsors. It's not a sport where anybody is going to get super wealthy, but the top guys can make about $40,000 a year or so."
Like any sport, becoming a top pro is dependent on the time and dedication a person is able to devote to the game.
And, of course, making clutch shots. Dietrich demonstrated a couple of 350-foot drives during Friday's tournament registration at Pioneer Park, but winning comes down to hitting the basket from a much shorter distance.
"It's just like ball golf. … You drive for show and putt for dough," Burman said. "And that's the truth. We've all been in contention on the last hole of a tournament (pointing to Donoho and Dietrich) and it comes down to making that 20- or 30-foot putt to win it."
"Sometimes you make it, and sometimes you don't. … The challenge is what keeps you coming back."