The eighth hole at Goucher College is 305 feet long with a slight ridge and several trees bunched in the middle of the fairway. A cautious player might lay up and try to go around the mini-forest. But Paul DesMarais reached for his 175-gram driver and aimed right through the thicket.
"I think I can make it," he said as he flung a brightly colored plastic saucer toward the trees, leaning anxiously to one side as it floated over the "golf" course designed for Frisbees and other flying discs.
Goucher's nine-hole course for the discs is the latest spot for a sport that is growing in popularity in Maryland and elsewhere. There are now 15 courses in the state, triple the number there were a decade ago, said Craig Gangloff, a Damascus contractor and former president of the Mid-Atlantic Disc Club.
The course is also a reflection of Goucher, an offbeat liberal arts college where the administration hands out nearly $25,000 a year in "innovation" grants. Winning projects have included proposals to design recycling bins and send the school's historic dance group to Europe.
"We like to think that Goucher's a place where people can come up with quirky ideas and get them implemented," said Sanford J. Ungar, the school's president.
The course is nestled on a sloping lawn next to Goucher's tennis courts. "The only things that used it were the deer," said DesMarais, an English major who will be a sophomore in the fall and plans to be a high school teacher.
Matthew Grosso, a former assistant women's lacrosse coach, came up with the idea for the course nearly 18 months ago. "There's a lot of students who aren't athletes that love to be outdoors, and I thought it would be great for them," said Grosso, now the head coach at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.
Grosso received an $8,000 innovation grant to build the course, which he designed. He then asked DesMarais, captain of the school's Ultimate Frisbee team, and several other students and volunteers to help him clear brush on the lawn before contractors installed the course.
Flying disc golf shares the same rules as its better-known counterpart. Players throw their discs from launching pads toward elevated wire baskets and keep score by the number of shots each player takes. Most players have a wide array of discs, which vary in weight and stiffness. In general, the heavier and stiffer the disc, the farther it will go.
The sport has grown in popularity over the past 15 years. There is a Professional Disc Golf Association, with nearly 20,000 members worldwide. It sponsors more than 200 tournaments a year and ranks players based on their scores. Top pros make about $40,000 annually.
The number of recreational players is also growing. In the past decade, courses have sprung up in places such as Gaithersburg and Druid Hill Park, home to a popular Thursday night game.
"It's fun and it's cheap," said Gangloff, who is Maryland's second-ranked player, behind Jim "No Spin" Myers. The discs cost $8 to $15, and most courses are free.
Area players have found Goucher's course, which is open to the public. The course is easy by professional standards.
The longest hole is 392 feet - on some courses, the distance can be twice as long - and there are few hazards except for some trees, shrubs and a campus road. "We count that as out of bounds," DesMarais said of the road.
DesMarais is working on campus this summer and goes to the course to play during his lunch breaks, toting a red bag with a water bottle and 10 discs of varying weights and stiffness. DesMarais has been playing disc golf for about four months and has gradually pared his average score to 27, par for the course.
He has plenty of room for improvement. When the disc hits the basket, it rattles chains that hang from the center. "I've never heard that sound for a hole in one," DesMarais said. "That would be awesome."
As his tie-dye driver cleared the trees on the eighth hole, DesMarais watched anxiously as it headed straight for the hole. But the disc veered to the right and skidded to a stop about 20 feet from the basket.
DesMarais sighed, brushed his bushy brown hair out of his eyes and hitched up his brown corduroy cutoffs before retrieving his driver and taking out his putter. After a quick flick of the wrist, the chains rattled and DesMarais picked his disc out of the basket.
"I'll get better," he said. "Now that there's a course right outside my dorm, it should be easier."