"Urban golf is totally inclusive, which is weird, because this is still golf we're talking about."
It's an overcast Saturday afternoon in Portland. A man in his late 20s with or without a beard rides his fixed-gear bike down the street, a pant leg rolled up so as not to get caught in the spokes—and then OUCH. A tennis ball hits him right in the spine. He looks back, and there's a group of people dressed in some over-the-top argyle outfits cheering and holding their golf clubs in the air.
It's just another Saturday in Portland—and someone saved a stroke by nailing the biker.
The Portland Urban Golf Club was formed by Scott Mazariegos back in 2005. An interaction designer with Adidas by day, Mazariegos was bored with his standard rec-league kickball team when he came up with the idea of mapping out a golf course in the streets of an industrial district in Portland. (Urban golf traces its roots back to early-90’s Germany. Mazariegos stressed that he didn’t invent the sport.) Lampposts, couches, and anything else they can find are used as holes, and tennis balls replace golf balls because, again, this is a golf course, literally, in the middle of a major American city.
The group started back in 2005 with around 20 or so members, and now a regular round—18 holes, usually starting around 3 p.m. on a Saturday; they used to start at noon, but, as Mazariegos said, “It turned out to be a very long day of drinking”—brings out anywhere from 40 to 150 members depending on the occasion.
Cops showed up that first day because, you know, there were people playing golf in the streets of downtown Portland, but after seeing that the golfers were playing with tennis balls, the officers let them be. A few of them even wanted to join in, according to Mazariegos.
“There are holes that are your standard, down-the-road, dog leg to the left, dog leg to the right,” Mazariegos said, as if anything at all about this is standard. “A hole can be anywhere from a block to five blocks, depending on what and where we’re playing.” Some holes are trickier, involving overpasses and barbed-wire fences. Currently, the Portland Urban Golf Club has 22 designed, mapped-out courses, with four more in the works.
There is no par, and most people don’t keep score. When the group first started, the vast majority of the golfers had never played golf—or any other sport—before, so they gave out trophies to whoever had the highest score. “There’d be these people who’d never even gotten off the couch,” Mazariegos said, “and they’d get a trophy at the end of the day.”
The group stops at a bar every three holes and then moves on to the next trio of alleyways and chain-link fences. Some take it seriously—bets get placed, beers get bought—and others don't really care about anything other than just being there and being a part of it all. You get to deduct a stroke for every public transportation vehicle hit, every bike rider clocked, and every time your ball gets run over by a car. Seriously.