As Ron Rice was out and about on Wednesday he saw a class of Hays middle school students throwing discs around the nine-hole Rolling Hills Park Disc Golf Course at 41st Street and Autumn Lane.
“It’s nice to see,” Rice said. “The P.E. teacher is teaching them disc golf.”
Rice has been playing the sport — what old-timers refer to as Frisbee golf — since he was in college at Fort Hays State University in the late 1970s. A lot has changed since those early days.
He is one of 132 disc golf players registered so far for the 34th Annual Frontier Open at the Flying Bison Disc Golf Course in Frontier Park. And hopefully it won't just be golfers on the course.
"They really like it when people come out to watch," Rice said.
The three-day tournament is set for Sept. 7, 8 and 9, at a course that is considerably more challenging than Rolling Hills. The Flying Bison course has 21 permanent holes sprinkled throughout the 75-acre city park.
Attendance at the tourney this year is likely to break the 2016 record of 136 golfers, said Brett Straight, Hays, tournament director for a number of years.
“It looks like we’ll be setting another record,” said Straight. “We have room for 180 and I’m really hoping we’ll get 150 or 160.”
Online registration closes Sept. 6. The tournament is the longest running professional disc golf tournament in Kansas, said Straight, noting that its nearest competitor is one in Kansas City where the course spans both Kansas and Missouri.
Sanctioned by the Professional Disc Golf Association, the Flying Bison course is one of the oldest in the nation and has a national reputation. Rice, along with a few other early Hays players, designed the course as an alternative to just throwing their discs on campus at impromptu targets such as sculptures and trees.
“It’s definitely rated as a champion caliber course,” Straight said. “It’s withstood the test of time since it was designed in 1983. Ron Rice was ahead of his time, in terms of the technicality and skills necessary to shoot par.”
The course takes a variety of throws, Rice said, from backhands and upside down, to side arms, left and right curves, and rollers — where you throw the disc and it lands on its side and rolls.
"Anyway you can get it there is fine," Rice said.
Eight players competed in the first tournament in 1984. This year the Frontier Open is drawing players not only from Kansas, but from Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri, Straight said.
A lot of that is due to Straight, Rice said, managing everything from sponsorships, to making sure it runs smoothly and supplying officials on the course. "He puts on a good tournament, and the word gets out," said Rice.
The city of Hays Parks Department and Rotary Club earlier this year installed 42 new baskets on the course. Tee pads and players co-exist with park goers and annual events like Oktoberfest.
City preparations for the tournament are minimal, said Jeff Boyle, parks department director. Mowing and keeping the trees trimmed are ongoing maintenance practices anyway. Other than that, park workers do move some of the non-permanent holes every month to change-up the course and add interest and excitement for players, he said.
While other courses around Kansas and the nation are flatter, and the throws easier, Boyle notes that golfers in Frontier Park are crossing Big Creek, putting on difficult and changing elevations, and shooting through narrow openings between the big cottonwood trees that populate the park. He personally has never played the course. He’d like to, but has reservations.
“I’m afraid all my Frisbees would end up in the river,” he said.
The hazards Boyle mentions, however, aren’t even the worst of it.
“The biggest challenge out here in western Kansas is the wind,” Straight said. “It changes the physics of flight.”
Rice on Wednesday also mentioned that. When throwing into the wind, the disc doesn’t go as far and doesn’t behave the way a golfer wants, he said. Throwing with the wind, a golfer can overshoot the target.
This time of year, Rice expects at least a 25 mile an hour wind, if not more.
“For that, golfers bring their heavier weight discs,” he said. “Probably 175 grams or 180 grams, instead of the light ones, like 150 grams if there’s no wind. Since they’re heavier, they don’t get pushed around as much.”
Rice played the first 20 years of the Frontier Open, then sat out for a few years. He started back up three years ago. Now he enjoys watching the young players, who can hurl a disc as much as 400 or 500 feet. In recent tournaments, he’s come in close to the bottom, he said. He laughs gently at the idea he has an advantage with his first-hand knowledge of the course and how to maneuver it.
“Anybody who plays it a lot knows how hard to throw on certain holes and what openings to take,” Rice said. “I’m still practicing. And I’m just there for the fun.”
The Flying Bison Disc Golf Club in Hays does it’s best to take good care of the players, Straight said, giving the first 90 registrants a package of custom-made goodies that include a custom-made disc and custom-made pouch. The real treat, however, is playing the course.
“It really is a treasure that many in the community are not aware of,” Straight said.