For many competitors, it’s the roar of the crowd that gives them the juice or feeds their competitive spirit.
But for Ryan Bahde and many others in Houston, the most satisfying sound in the world is a disc flying into the metal baskets at T.C. Jester Park’s disc golf course. And it has taken on an entirely different meaning in the new world of COVID-19.
“I love just watching a great shot fly through the air and the sound of chains,” Bahde said. “It’s the best.”
Bahde, a Heights resident and director of a league that meets at 5 p.m. every Wednesday at T.C. Jester Park, 4201 T.C. Jester Blvd., picked up the sport more than 20 years ago. But he said the pandemic – which has mostly prevented large gatherings for many competitive sports – has given way to an increasing number of newly-minted disc golfers and interest in the sport around the area.
“We’re seeing a lot of newer players come out and discover the league,” Bahde said. “Even with COVID coming out, it’s brought a few more people to the course and exposed a lot more people to the sport. We’re always looking to grow the sport, and it’s a welcoming group. It’s a way to meet new friends and have fun at the same time.”
Weekly participation in the T.C. Jester League has grown by at least 30 percent since the pandemic took hold, according to Bahde. Prior to COVID-19, he said about 30-35 players showed up each week. Now, that number is closer to 45-50, and the camaraderie is growing along with it.
One of multiple leagues around Houston in conjunction with the Houston Flying Disc Society (HFDS), its competitive play is for all walks of life, said league member and Timbergrove Manor resident Paul Williams. Players as young as 10 years old to those over 60 have participated in various weeks.
“I think a lot of people have been looking for outdoor recreational activities, and they’ve picked up disc golf in the COVID era,” said Williams, who has been part of the league for more than a decade. “You definitely see a lot of people wanting to learn, and there’s a lot of ways for people to jump into it and start learning.”
Williams said the inability to participate in many traditional sports during the pandemic has contributed to increased interest as casual players and newcomers search for ways to stay active while social distancing.
“Being able to pick up disc golf is a lot easier than trying to pick up regular golf or many other sports,” B said.
One Houstonian taking advantage of the opportunity is Spring Branch resident Chase Meyer, who used to live in the Heights and said he picked up the sport while living in California nearly 10 years ago. Along with buddy Brad Tipton and friends from his job at Karbach Brewing just down the road, he was playing a few holes on Sunday morning. Meyer said the group has made near-weekly trips to T.C. Jester Park’s 21-hole course, which is one of 14 Houston-area HFDS courses.
“Since the pandemic started, we’ve been out here just about every week; sometimes even twice a week. Before that it was once every few weeks,” he said. “It’s one of the few places you can go outside your home – you can social distance, hang out with friends, and not have to worry about getting too close to people.”
Williams echoed the sentiment.
“It gives a sense of normalcy for sure, so we don’t have our lives completely turned upside down with everything,” he said.
That privilege, however, is one that was nearly taken away when the pandemic first began. Back in March, Bahde said the Houston Parks and Recreation Department’s citywide takedown of playing amenities included the chain-link baskets at T.C. Jester Park.
Following a brief hiatus and meeting with parks officials, however, the baskets were later reinstalled under an agreement with the city for the league to maintain social distancing and safety protocols such as utilizing electronic scorecards and touching only their own discs.
And along with the reinstalled baskets came a sigh of relief.
“Whenever the baskets disappeared, we all felt it. To have the opportunity to meet with friends and be able to resume an outdoor routine meant a lot to us,” Bahde said. “We’re grateful, we cherish it, and we’re glad the city returned the baskets. We’re doing our best to do our part to be careful and safe so we don’t risk losing them again.”
For better or worse – for birdie or bogey – disc golf has become a new pastime, a normal routine in a world almost devoid of them.
“Honestly, it really means everything,” Meyer said.