On a nippy, overcast afternoon, professional disc golfer James Cole and four of his buddies meet at Sinks Disc Golf Course in Hixson to play a few rounds.
"This time of year it's always rainy and windy — and that makes putting very hard," Cole says.
From his bag of discs, he selects a fairway driver and flicks it toward the basket, located about 20 feet away. The sharp-edged disc slices through the breeze before a sudden headwind slows its speed. But the disc doesn't drop. Instead, it rides the gust like a wave.
The sport of disc golf,Cole says, embodies that go-with-the-flow spirit.
At age 27, Cole, or "Snappy" as he is known around town, has been playing disc golf for half his life. He grew up in Ooltewah, playing backyard Frisbee with his father. When Cole was 13, he remembers, the family dog chewed up one of the discs, so he and his father went to the sporting goods store to buy another.
There, they discovered a whole wall of disc golf discs, which are smaller and heavier than a backyard disc. Cole was intrigued.
The game of disc golf is a combination of Frisbee and traditional ball golf, with the disc functioning as both the club and the ball. Depending on the distance and difficulty of the shot, a player chooses among four main types of discs: distance drivers; fairway drivers; midrange discs; and putters.
The object of the game is to get the disc to a target, most commonly a metal basket, using the least amount of throws. Like golf, the lowest score wins.
Today, there are eight disc golf courses in and around Chattanooga. But back in 2003, when Cole first discovered the sport, there was only one, located atop Lookout Mountain at Cloudland Canyon State Park.
That first game, Cole remembers, "I felt like I should be using a regular Frisbee. I couldn't throw [the disc] very far at all; only like 20, 30 feet," he says.
Still, the father-son duo was hooked. They returned to the course every Sunday to play a few rounds. When that still wasn't enough, his father built two 18-hole courses in the woods behind their home.
"He put tape on the trees and you had to hit that instead of a basket. That made us a lot better. Plus, it's super-tight in the woods. That made us better, too," Cole says.
In fact, both Cole and his father Mark Cole went on to become professional disc golfers.
His father, nicknamed "Sideshow" because his curly hair reminded a local player of Sideshow Bob from the "The Simpsons," turned pro in 2006. Cole turned pro in 2009. He was nicknamed "Snappy" because of his ability to throw farther than most of his contenders — up to 600 feet.
But all players have different strengths and weaknesses, Cole says, adding that disc golf is a game of calculated risk, especially as a professional. Before he commits to a tour, he researches the course and studies the list of his competitors.
"I think, 'OK, I'm going to do this tournament. I'm going to have to stay in a hotel, and I'm going to have to make enough money to pay for that," he says. "But if it's a course that I know and guys that I've played with, I feel good about it."
Disc golf, he says, is about strategy, not force.
"You can't push yourself if you're behind. You just have to play the shots you know you can play. Sometimes the putts go in; sometimes they don't.
You have to just let it happen," says Cole, who — like the game of disc golf — embodies that go-with-the-flow spirit.
"I like being outside; I like being in nature just watching these Frisbees fly," Cole says. "If that's what you're into, then you're probably going to be an easy-going dude."