First published in The Record, June 15, 2017

Frisbee Golf and the American right to get cranky

 Jeff Mahler throws a Frisbee at a disc golf course. Photo: Marko Georgiev/

Jeff Mahler throws a Frisbee at a disc golf course. Photo: Marko Georgiev/

To Dina Napolitano, it’s an Innova Valkyrie Ultra Long Range Driver.

Most Americans would call it a yellow Frisbee.

Napolitano’s method of throwing the disc is just as complex as its name. First she hops up on her right foot, lifts her left leg into the air and sweeps the disc across her torso until she is stretched flat out, like a “T.” Then she drops her left foot back to the ground and performs the same routine a second time, then a third.

Finally, she throws. During a recent game at the Greystone Frisbee golf course in Parsippany, the disc struck a tree, bounced right, and landed 20 feet from the fairway.

“Shoot,” said Napolitano, 29, of Scotch Plains. “I should have hyzered it.”

A glossary of Frisbee golf terminology defines a hyzer as “an angle of release where the outside edge or left edge of the disc is tilted downward for a RHBH thrower,” with RHBH defined as “right-hand backhand.”

To most Americans, this means throwing the Frisbee to the left.

“Disc golf has gotten pretty serious,” said Adam Harris of Camden County, who designed both the Greystone course and a similar one planned for Rifle Camp Park in Woodland Park.

Opposition to the new course has gotten pretty serious, too. About a thousand people have signed an online petition against the idea. Opponents argue that golfers will trample Passaic County’s last preserve of rare plants and habitat for migratory birds. They fear Frisbees speeding through the air and striking, maiming ― possibly even killing ― birds, deer and humans.

“We’re just dead-set against it,” said Jeanette Luty, a Paterson resident. “God forbid, they could hit a bird.”

The American right to get cranky

In the middle stands Matthew Jordan, Passaic County’s deputy administrator. He supports the project, and has secured a $20,000 grant from the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance company’s foundation to pay for it.

He also weathered public Freeholder Board meetings, where dozens of opponents accused him of subterfuge and skulduggery.

“Why would you hide this from the public?” Joan Murko of Woodland Park said in an interview. “They are not being transparent. They did all of this behind a screen.”

Jordan said the proposed changes to Rifle Camp are included in the park’s master plan, which was created through a years-long process of public meetings and is available on the county’s website. In his view, both sides are taking this a tad too seriously.

“These people act like it’s going to be pandemonium World War III,” he said.

“You have terror attacks in London. You have Jim Comey testifying to Congress. Of all the things in the world to get excited about, these people are getting excited about this disc golf course.”

Yet at its heart, the Rifle Camp kerfuffle connects directly to the looming crisis in Washington. As Americans, we are inalienably endowed with the right to get cranky. We are free to pour our passions into any cause we choose, whether it’s rooting out Russian meddling in our elections or throwing discs of plastic through a suburban park.

We may sign petitions. We may attend meetings. We may verbally abuse government officials, from Matthew Jordan to Donald J. Trump, for they work as our employees and at our pleasure.

“I think sometimes pubic officials get into office and forget who they work for,” Murko said. “If I were a freeholder, I think I would sit up and pay attention.”

In this light, the Rifle Camp partisans are simply upholding the American tradition of turning anthills into mountains.

“It’s a little goofy,” Jordan said.

A relaxed pastime, seriously pursued

Frisbee golf is a relaxed pastime. It is native to college campuses, where participants often improvise the course and attempt, with varying success, to conceal cans of beer and recreational quantities of marijuana.

“Definitely, the sport has its roots in college campuses,” said Jeff Mahler, one of New Jersey’s top Frisbee golfers, “and everything that goes along with that.”

The course at Rifle Camp will offer no such improvisation. To design it, Harris spent 130 hours walking the land. He envisions 18 holes, each with three tees of varying distance and a chain-link basket hung from a steel pole.

 Dina Napolitano putts to the basket.  Photo: Marko Georgiev/

Dina Napolitano putts to the basket. Photo: Marko Georgiev/

Harris is particularly excited about one hole, as yet unnumbered, where golfers teeing off from a miniature notch canyon will summit a rocky plateau with views of Manhattan’s skyline.

“For a par three that’s a pretty awesome hole,” said Harris, who bases his work on close readings of Jack Nicklaus’ two books on golf course design. “The major tenet of Jack Nicklaus’ design philosophy is to create a risk-rewards system with different obstacles to challenge golfers of different skill.”

A 'very small park,' vigorously defended

The park’s defenders have other ways of imbuing their endeavors with outsize significance. To them Rifle Camp Park is an idyll ― southern Passaic County’s last toehold for pink lady slipper orchids, bracken ferns and migratory birds, including wood thrushes and brown thrashers.

“It will change the nature of the park,” said Fred Pfeiffer, a Woodland Park resident. “Instead of walking through a forest, you’re going to be walking through a Frisbee golf course.”

Not that much remains of the forest. Walking at a leisurely pace, a person can traverse the entire park, north to south, in 16 minutes. In between lie parking lots, asphalt walking paths, a nature center and an amphitheater.

No orchids remain. Gone, too, are the ferns and bushes. The entire understory is missing, in fact, nibbled to nonexistence by packs of ravenous deer.

“The deer are eating everything,” Pfeiffer said.

As Americans, however, both sides retain the democratic right to make simple things complicated. Frisbee opponents want the freeholders to conduct a needs assessment to determine the golf course’s potential popularity, plus a feasibility study to determine whether Americans with and without Frisbees can peacefully coexist.

Frisbee enthusiasts say it shouldn’t be a problem.

Only “a relatively small area” will be dedicated to disc golf, Harris said, “and the design I’ve laid out is going to be far away from any other uses.”

Opponents are skeptical.

“I don’t believe it’s a compatible use to have hikers and Frisbee golf in such close proximity,” said Vera Lazar, who opposes the golf course. “It’s a very small park.”

 First published in  The Record , June 15, 2017

First published in The Record, June 15, 2017