On a cool, fresh evening in Druid Hill Park, plastic disks fly toward their targets as fast and straight as inspired thoughts. On the ground below, spread neatly across the park's nine-acre course, groups of disk golfers form a pleasant tableau of summer.
In the foreground, Steve Alpern and his wife, Carolyn Williams, instruct their sons Jenner, almost 5, and Wils, almost 2, in the basic throws of the game. Several hundred yards away, two tall, rangy fellows with free-form hair and wire-rimmed glasses tee off. In the distance, Norm Eckstein, course pro, strides across the grass, pulling a disk golf cart. En route to reclaim a disk, he pauses to chat with players and to extol the virtues of tossing plastic disks.
"When a ball dreams, it dreams it's a FRISBEE," he says, quoting disk guru Stancil E. D. Johnson, author of "Frisbee: A Practitioner's Manual and Definitive Treatise."
As in "ball" golf, the object of disk golf is to get the lowest score in a round of 18 holes. Disk golfers start from a tee and hurl their disk toward a "pole hole" -- a metal basket on a pole. The game takes about an hour if you play by yourself and about 2 1/2 hours with a group, Mr. Eckstein says.
Founded in California about 20 years ago, disk golf now boasts its own pro tour. There are about 500 courses throughout the United States, most in states like California and Florida. The course in Druid Hill, located just off Greenspring Avenue near the old Reptile House, is the only one in Baltimore. The two other disk golf courses in the state are at College Park and at Pine Grove Middle School in Baltimore County.
Disk golf is a sport that is easy, cheap, accessible . . . and really popular in Japan. It's also a sport where players can plant their own obstacles: Druid Hill's course is distinguished by many young trees, which are beginning to make the game more complex.
"It's an ecologically sound sport," says Mr. Alpern. He is a spokesman for the Free State Flyers, the local disk golf club which helped sponsor and now helps maintain the Druid Hill course.
Before the Flyers persuaded the city's Bureau of Recreation and Parks to build the course in 1986, this section of the park was an illegal dumping ground. The course has introduced hundreds of new people to the sport and to the park's seldom-seen populations of foxes, raccoons and deer, says Mr. Eckstein. It is open free to the public from dawn to dusk daily.
The 18-hole course is designed so that the pro can periodically change the holes and the difficulty of the game. Some holes are located uphill or downhill, some flight paths curve around trees, across roadways and past such landmarks as the park's cemetery. At each tee, a sign notes the par and recommends a flight path.
Much of the beauty of this game lies in its simplicity.
"The first FRISBEE game was 'Catch,' " says Mr. Eckstein. "The second was 'I can throw mine farther than you can throw yours.' And
the third was 'I bet I can hit that tree in fewer throws than you can.' And that game became disk golf."
Disk games remain attached to the roots of play. Ultimate Frisbee, which has gained cult status since it began in 1968, is a sport that combines elements of soccer, football and basketball as teams try to advance the FRISBEE the length of a football field. Players call their own fouls.
"All you need for Ultimate is a bunch of guys and a FRISBEE," Mr. Eckstein says.
He describes Double Disk Court, which is played by two two-person teams with two disks on two courts, as "space age tennis." The object of another variation, Discathon, is to race to advance your disk through certain "gates" formed by trees or special markers over a kilometer course.
The field also offers such competitive events as MTA, or Maximum Time Aloft: The world record is an astonishing 16.4 seconds.
"Most of the disk games are very non-combative," Mr. Eckstein says. "It's using the plastic and the wind to play. I think that's what draws most people. Also, it's not hard. If you and your buddy got disks when the bank around the corner opened, you'll both be able to use them to play disk golf."
"What I love about it," he says, again quoting Mr. Johnson, "is that it combines man's best tool, which is the hand with the opposing thumb, and his best dream, which is to fly. It's using this tool with the piece of plastic and making it fly."
A retail salesman for L. Hess and Co. furniture and appliance store, Mr. Eckstein fell in love with throwing disks back in 1959 when the college kid who lived next door brought a FRISBEE home on spring break. Now he plays disk golf three times a week at Druid Hill, sometimes by himself, sometimes with a pick-up group, always with the ingenious disk golf cart he built after he noticed how much energy disc golfers with caddies saved.
As Druid Hill Park's disc golf pro, he helps beginners and advises more advanced players on style and strategy. He also sells disks to benefit the Free State Flyers.
Because he works on weekends, Mr. Eckstein is able to compete in only a half dozen tournaments each year. He will travel to Michigan this month to compete in the Grand Master senior division of the world championships. In this sport, players become seniors at age 35; Mr. Eckstein just turned 45.
VTC (Druid Hill Park holds professional tournaments each spring and fall. The Crabtown Classic is scheduled Sept. 13.)
Serious disk golfers possess a daunting number of disks -- most smaller than FRISBEES -- which they often carry in shoulder bags. There are special disks for putting. There are mid-range disks and drivers. There are also those, as Steve Alpern demonstrates, which do a masterful job at flying and rolling toward their target.
In fact, much of the anxiety in this sport is linked to the fear of losing a good disk.
"Some disks get better, some get worse with age," says Ms. Williams. "When they get beat up, they may lose some of their qualities, but pick up others."
"You want to keep some disks as fresh as possible because how they fly when they're new is exactly what you want," says Mr. Eckstein. "The question of how long you can use them often depends on how many trees you hit."
"The course tests you in a lot of different ways," says Mr. Alpern.
The adults applaud Jenner and Wils as the youngsters toss -- and tussle -- with their disks. At this point in the game, the park has been transformed by homemade disk bags and disk carts, by the newly mowed smell of places where some trees are "friendly" and others are "mean." It has flung you back to the longer moments of childhood.
"The biggest peril in disk golf," Ms. Williams points out, "is poison ivy."