Getting Disc Golf Out Of The Lymelight

UDisc Staff avatar
Nov 11, 2019 • 8 min read

This article was primarily written by Steve Vrooman with some additions by Alex Williamson.

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It was late June 2016 and professional disc golfer Cale Leiviska had just finished the penultimate round of the Vibram Open at Maple Hill Disc Golf Course in a great position to contend for the win. The last thing on his mind was what he believed to be a spider bite that he’d gotten a few days before.

But the next morning—the morning of the final round—it hit him.

“I awoke feeling a bit nauseous and would get dizzy any time I turned my head at all,” Leiviska recalled. “An overall weakness of my muscles as well.”

For those who live in certain areas of the U.S., these symptoms are a dead giveaway for what really bit Leiviska: a tick. The tick carried Lyme disease, a sickness that’s pervasive in disc golf and just this year caused Ricky Wysocki to end his season early.

And though Leiviska played through that final round, he did so fighting a throbbing head and moments where he thought he was going to pass out. In the end, he finished one stroke behind the two players who went on to compete in a playoff for first place honors.

Leiviska actually got the disease again this summer, forcing him to miss Worlds. Luckily in both instances the disease was detected and treated quickly enough to prevent him from suffering some of the debilitating long-term health problems untreated Lyme cases cause. Those problems can include severe joint pain and neurological effects.

Another well known professional disc golfer, JohnE McCray, didn’t have that kind of luck.

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Cale Leiviska (left) and JohnE McCray (right) are pro dic golfers who have caught Lyme disease. Credit: PDGA (Leiviska) and Alyssa Van Lanen (McCray)

“In 2007 I was hospitalized for two weeks and had to have surgery to save my life,” McCray said.

And he didn’t know it was Lyme until after he was released from the hospital.

“The CDC [Center for Disease Control] called me and informed me that I had Lyme disease,” McCray continued. “I had a PICC line for 30 days, three IVs per day of heavy antibiotics.”

McCray continues to suffer from serious flare-ups from time to time.

Stories like these from high-profile disc golfers highlight a risk that many players take any time they step on a course. Below we explore two key topics relating to disc golf and Lyme disease: 1) why disc golfers are so prone to getting it and 2) prevention. 

On the prevention side, we don’t just look at what individuals can do, but also consider measures course designers, maintenance teams, and tournament staff could take to reduce the risk of players contracting Lyme disease.

"The Habitat Where They Thrive"

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High grasses on the edge of fairways, like at this course in Minnesota, are perfect tick habitat. Minnesota is also a state with a high incidence of Lyme according to the CDC.

The key reason why Lyme disease is such a threat to disc golfers is that the places our sport is played are often little slices of tick paradise. High grass, leaf litter, and the transitional areas between mowed spaces and the woods tend to be where ticks will be, and that's exactly the environment we prize for disc golf courses. 

Nikki Savory, who started the group LymeWarriorDG with her husband Derek and whose harrowing story of battling Lyme can be heard on a recent episode of Disc Golf Answer Man, noted how certain areas of disc golf courses put us in the crosshairs of hungry ticks.

“It’s definitely more likely that you’re gonna pick up a tick in the taller grass," said Nikki Savory. “That is called questing. They like to stand on a tall piece of grass and stick their weird little legs out and wait for a warm body to walk by. It’s kind of a struggle that the OB areas are high grass areas.”

Derek Savory pointed out that his fear of getting Lyme in such areas is so great that he will often make sacrifices rather than enter them.

"That is the habitat where they thrive,” Derek said. “Just from my own experience, if I’m out on a course that I know has ticks or that I’ve seen a tick in the past and my disc goes in the tall grass, I just leave it. I don’t even go after it anymore.”

How Could Courses Be Safer?

Clearly, most people aren't going to be like Derek Savory and leave their discs behind any time they land in a likely tick habitat. But there are some things that could be done to help reduce tick populations on disc golf courses.

One of them is more intensive course maintenance. A wooded course is a bit of a haven for ticks, regardless, but reducing leaf litter, and pruning bushy plants to create open space between leaves and ground are all cornerstones of tick management. These could be applied to disc golf courses without sacrificing much in the way of aesthetics or difficulty.

There are also chemical options: acaricides, or tick insecticides. Although golfers reluctant to use DEET might be even more alarmed at some of these spray options, development of a spray option using nootkatone, a compound found naturally in Alaska yellow cedar and grapefruit skin, seems imminent

These solutions come with obvious caveats. Increased course maintenance means more work, and that could put a strain on both private course owners and volunteers maintaining public courses. Chemicals can be costly and sometimes hard to justify for a sport that likes to see itself as a more environmentally friendly alternative to ball golf. Still, people like McCray who have been affected by the disease would say such measures are needed.

“Something definitely needs to be done on the courses," McCray said. "People are contracting this disease and it's debilitating, can be life threatening, and medical expenses are extremely high. Lyme disease is no joke; there are times I get a flare up and can barely move.”

One example of a course that has taken precautions against ticks is Disc Side of Heaven, host of the Jonesboro Open in Arkansas. And while Arkansas is not a place with a high incidence of Lyme disease according to the CDC, Disc Side provides an example of the time and effort that can go into anti-tick campaigns on a disc golf course.

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A view of Disc Side of Heaven in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Hole #1. Courtesy of Brad Pietz.

"The course has been open eight years now, and the first year of the Jonesboro Open was the absolute worst for ticks I've ever seen," said Disc Side owner Brad Pietz. "When we saw they were so bad, we went to the store and bought a case of spray to keep at hole one for players."

But the next years, volunteers took it on themselves to do even more to protect players.

"My guys now go out and buy 50-pound bags of tick repellant granules and spread them where we think people will get off the fairway," Pietz said. "My course sits on 50 acres, and there's no way you're gonna kill every tick on 50 acres in rural Arkansas. But we look at each hole, we know where a bad shot will go, and we hit those areas as much as we can."

Pietz says this process takes a team of three people two to three days to complete and ticks have not been as much of an issue in recent tournaments.

Protecting Yourself

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Though high-profile cases of Lyme in disc golf may encourage more courses to take preventative measures in the future, it's still mostly going to be up to individuals to protect themselves. Here are three tips for how to do just that:

1. Location matters, but don't let your guard down: According to the CDC, there is “high incidence” of Lyme only from Maine to Virginia and in states adjacent to the Great Lakes. But there are increasing concerns and increasing numbers of cases in most states, including three of the most populous: CaliforniaFlorida, and Texas. It's a good idea to stay cautious no matter your location.

2. Check often and everywhere: Look for ticks after every round, something Derek Savory suggested most of us don’t do but should (see CDC recommendations for how to complete tick checks here). Removing a tick within 36 hours is the CDC’s timeline for avoiding Lyme in “most cases.” And don't forget to look over your bag for unwanted passengers. It sits longer in the grass or in the leaf litter than you do. McCray told us that his disc golf bag never even touches the ground.

3. Use repellant: Many different repellants seem to work, according to the CDC (also see here), the NIH, and the EPA. Old-school DEET might be off the menu for some, given reports of adverse reactions like seizures with what the CDC calls “excessive use.” Thankfully, there are various more natural or natural-seeming repellants, from Picardin (derived from pepper), to oil of lemon-eucalyptus, to cedar-derived compounds, to the wild tomato compound 2-undeanone, to rosemary oil. There is some lack of clarity on relative efficacy and how long your protection will last, but it seems as if a good spraying will get you through an hour or two.

Just like it's impossible to kill every tick on 50 acres in rural Arkansas, taking these precautions can't guarantee that you'll never get bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick while playing disc golf or during any other outdoor activity. But what it can do is highly reduce that likelihood. So, whether you're a pro or am, it's worth taking the time to be cautious. For more motivation on this front, look no further than the regret Leiviska's first bout of Lyme has left him with.

“I remember dropping to my knees in utter exhaustion and disappointment thinking about what could have been,” Leviska said, referring to the end of the 2016 Vibram Open. “It is still one of the most difficult moments I've had on the course, knowing that it was my tournament to win and it was taken from me by a deer tick.”

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