Michael Nolte walked up to a strip of cement in the park on Saturday afternoon with a plastic disc in his hand. He took a couple steps, rotating his arm in a practice swing. Then, he backed up to his starting point and positioned himself for the real thing. He repeated the process, much faster this time, letting go of the disc and sending it far down the field of snow-covered grass.

It was 34 degrees with sunny skies, as good a January day as one could ask for a round of disc golf in Minnesota. Nolte was just one of a handful of disc golfers working his way through the course at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park near the Federal Medical Center in east Rochester.

The groups were part of the MLK Professional Disc Golf Association winter league. The league is one of several giving players a platform on which to compete and meet other players. According to Nolte, who has organized the leagues through his company X-14 Disc Golf, it filled a void in the Rochester area since there really weren't any league options.

Gannon Olson, another disc golfer out on Saturday, echoed that as well:

"It was pretty close-knit. It was not advertised," Olson said about the previous disc golf scene in Rochester. "They weren't super welcoming to the players, which is completely the opposite of what disc golfers tend to be."

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Michael Nolte takes a practice swing during a round of disc golf on Saturday, Jan. 2 at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)
Michael Nolte takes a practice swing during a round of disc golf on Saturday, Jan. 2 at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)

As the name implies, disc golf is essentially a version of golf that's played with plastic discs. Instead of aiming for a hole in the ground, players try to sink their discs in a metal basket that stands on a pole.

Olson was a part of a group of five making its way through the course. A speaker in one of their backpacks was resonating songs like the "Sound of Silence" cover by Disturbed, and "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi as the friends swapped jokes and jabs.

The formation of the new leagues was not the only thing that got disc golfers out of the house for a Saturday afternoon in the park. As an outdoor activity that allows people to keep distant from each other, disc golf has gained popularity in the pandemic era.

"The pro disc golfing association -- the PDGA -- they've exploded, especially during the COVID crisis," Nolte said. "It was one of the only things you could do outside with people. I've played a lot more this year than I've ever played."

Olson said companies that sell disc golf equipment have struggled to keep inventory on the shelves.

How popular? Just this past November, it was featured on ESPN2.

Eathan Humble, Nathan Edholm and Alex Lawrence, Stewartville High School grads, were walking through the park, donned with beanie caps and COVID-era masks. The group isn't new to disc golf, but they are relatively new to playing in the cold.

Ethan Humble throws a disc Saturday, Jan. 2, at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Rochester as part of the disc golf winter league, hosted by X-14 Disc Golf. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)
Ethan Humble throws a disc Saturday, Jan. 2, at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Rochester as part of the disc golf winter league, hosted by X-14 Disc Golf. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)

"I would say just this year we started playing more in the winter just because of COVID," Lawrence said. "Putting gets harder 'cause your hands get cold. I have noticed discs fly a little bit different."

Edholm and Humble chipped in, adding a couple other differences from their summer games: sometimes the disc slips mid-throw if it's wet from the snow; sometimes a foot slips on the tee pad from the ice.

Brothers Chad and Brandon Refsland brought a couple of towels in their backpacks, wiping their discs off after picking them up out of the snow.

Some players taped a single thread of ribbon to their disks, making them easier to find in the snow. Most players carried large backpacks, stuffed with anywhere from 20 to 30 discs that work differently for different kinds of throws. Some of the players even have more than one of the same disc, knowing each one begins to fly differently as it gets broken in.

Saturday's golfers couldn't name the coldest temperature in which they'd be willing to play. Rather than the cold, however, Lawrence said the wind could be a larger factor determining whether he plays a round or two any given day.

"I would say it's most dependent upon wind," Lawrence said. "I don't really like playing on really windy days in the summer either."

Joe Krieger takes a shot during a round of disc golf on Saturday, Jan. 2, at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Rochester as part of the winter league, hosted by X-14 Disc Golf. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)
Joe Krieger takes a shot during a round of disc golf on Saturday, Jan. 2, at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Rochester as part of the winter league, hosted by X-14 Disc Golf. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)