Sunday, August 08, 2010

An ode to disc golf in Singapore

Not a lot going on in Leaner land, but I thought I'd direct your attention to something I wrote about Singapore's tiny disc golf scene, such as it is.

This column originally appeared in last Sunday's Straits Times, and can be accessed here, provided you have a subscription. In case you don't, I've also reproduced it below. Lemme know what you think.

Round of disc golf, anyone?

Standing on the 18th green, putter in hand, I test the direction of the wind with a pinch of grass before I line up my shot. A moment of breathlessness as the putt heads towards its target... and drops! Birdie. It’s my best golf score yet.

But this is no ordinary game of golf. This is disc golf.

Its rules are identical to those of the traditional game. But instead of balls and clubs, this game uses discs – not Frisbees – of various moulds to reach the target, which can be a tree, a pole or, on a proper course, inside a metal basket.

Disc golf has been a hobby of mine for nearly half my life. I’ve won money in tournaments and have played courses on four continents: North America, Europe, Australia and Asia (I have not yet made it to the course that exists in Antarctica).

Singapore does not have a formal disc golf course. But that does not mean the game is not played here.

A couple of times a month, a group of us meet for a round. The size of the group varies, and it consists mostly of expatriates. Sadly, locals rarely venture beyond the invite list.

Disc golf can be played anywhere where there is a handful of open acres, preferably with a few trees for obstacles.

Such places are surprisingly numerous in Singapore, and we take our show all over the island, setting up nine portable “baskets” made of canvas and netting to create impromptu courses.

We’ve been known to take over the open spaces near MRT stations like Kallang, Bedok and, most recently, Outram Park, throwing discs and trying to make par.

Passers-by observe us with a mix of awe and bemusement. Many stop to watch the strange sight of ang mohs chucking things in a field.

Rarely does a round pass by without one of us explaining to an inquisitive onlooker what it is we’re doing (“It’s just like golf...”). Once that’s understood, it’s all chuckles and suspicious smiles as they wait for us to demonstrate.

A hefty drive – up to 150m with a good pull – never fails to elicit oohs and aahs and, of course, an enthusiastic “golf clap”.

At first, these occasional weekend rounds were enough to satisfy my disc golf habit.
But after a few months here, I was getting urges to play on weekdays, in the mornings, in the evenings – whenever I could. But Singapore doesn’t have anything resembling a permanent course.

So I decided to build one.

One day about a year ago, I was in a taxi in Upper Serangoon and happened to pass by the old Bidadari Cemetery. My eyes got wide. Such a boundless expanse of unused public land is a rare sight in Singapore. In short, it was the perfect place for disc golf.

I did my research and learnt that Bidadari had been a mostly Muslim and Christian cemetery until it was closed in the 1970s and exhumed beginning in 2001.

It has apparently been slated for development for the last several years, but the only perceivable sign of civilisation is the North-East Line’s phantom MRT station, Woodleigh.

In the meantime, I’ve designated some tees, collected some fallen branches and stuck them in the ground for targets and – voila! – it’s an 18-hole disc golf course. I hope the ghosts don’t mind.

Yes, disc golf is fun to play. But for me, it has also been a vehicle to explore and interact with new and local landscapes.

I’ve played courses in vastly different settings, from the ancient redwood forests in California to the crags of the Rocky Mountains. Each individual spot reveals its own unique flora, fauna and history. Bidadari is no different.

Photographers armed with telephoto lenses stand quietly near Hole 8 trying to catch a glimpse of the rare and brilliant birds flying from branch to branch of the sprawling banyan trees.

At Hole 2, the seeds of saga trees, hard and red as rubies, fall to the ground. An old man gathers them to line the bottom of his wife’s fish bowl.

Relics of Bidadari’s past litter the grounds. From the conical tops of Muslim grave markers to what appear to be directional signs scrawled in Arabic, mementoes of this land’s history are everywhere.

Disc golf in Singapore pre-dates me. The evidence sits along the Nicoll Highway, across from Suntec City behind the Raffles Education Corp College, in the form of a proper, metal disc golf basket.

I have been unable to ascertain why or how it exists. Hopefully the spirit that brought it here and keeps me playing will carry on long after I’m gone.

Sunday Times
August 8, 2010
Page 33