A laid-back Texan has wooed Spain with his favourite pastime – disc golf. It’s cheap, it’s popular and now he has turned his sights on Cyprus, he tells THEO PANAYIDES

The affable man with the green eyes and salt-and-pepper beard is called Robert Abel, but he goes by ‘RW’ – which of course is extremely Texan. “Growing up, my name was ‘RW’. My family called me ‘Dubba’, my friends called me ‘R-Dub’… People are like ‘Why do you do that?’ – ‘I dunno, since I was born my mum always called me RW’. My dad’s dad’s Robert, my mum’s dad’s Wilson, and rather than saying ‘Robert Wilson’…” He shrugs genially, and offers me refreshments: water, Coke, iced tea, “little early for a beer but I’m not opposed to it, and if you’re a cigar smoker I got cigars as well”. We sit on the balcony with tumblers of iced water, looking out at the roofs of Paralimni behind scrubby fields. Take your time, says RW, settling into his chair; “I got nothin’ but time”.

That’s because he’s on holiday, of course: a month by the sea, down the road from his Cypriot in-laws. He’s not usually so idle, despite his affable nature, and has never been one to sit around – least of all when he was a kid, growing up outside Austin, Texas. “I was very active,” he recalls. “I didn’t sit well. Spent a lot of time in detention centre and isolated school study. Had some rough patches, but that’s just my adventurous side.” He wasn’t a bad kid, by any means – he was even an Eagle Scout – but he got a little lost in his mid-teens, “self-medicated with some marijuana and some other activities – and maybe got myself in some trouble, but not too much trouble”. Mostly, however, he was just a bit bored, living way outside town without any friends to play with – so, from about the age of 12, he’d accompany his social-worker mum to her office in downtown Austin. Not that a social worker’s office promised any particular excitement for a fidgety preteen – but also in that area, down the road from the office, was one of Austin’s many disc golf courses.


Disc what? Disc golf, a game with 255,048 registered players according to Wikipedia. This is the point, the point of our meeting – and, though not the sole point of his being in Cyprus (he and his wife Christina come at least once a year from their base in Madrid, to visit her parents), nonetheless a subject he’s been trying to promote for a while now. Disc golf has the structure of what RW calls “ball golf” – viz. trying to reach a target in the fewest possible moves – but rather than being played with clubs and a ball, it’s played with a frisbee. Players throw frisbees, trying to get the disc in a basket about the size of a trash can; each basket is the equivalent of a hole – and, though many courses do indeed have 18 ‘holes’, exceptions are more common than they are in golf. The vibe is more casual in general – and more working-class, without the attendant snobbery.

Disc golf has been part of RW’s life for most of his four decades. (He turned 40 a couple of months ago.) It kept him busy as a 12-year-old, honing his skills for a few hours while waiting for his mum to pick him up. A few years later, at university (Texas Tech, out in Lubbock in the middle of nowhere), he was studying Engineering and spending the vacation back home, stacking supermarket shelves as a summer job. He and his buddies would work through the night, 10pm to 10am, then “we’d leave the store with a 12-pack of beer, and we’d go to the disc golf course and play disc golf”. Later still, he and Christina moved to Madrid for her work in August 2020, right in the middle of Covid – but of course he was prepared: “I moved with my disc golf equipment”.

There’s a lot of nuance packed between the lines of those random memories. Take those teenage jaunts, for instance, heading to the course in mid-morning after a 12-hour shift. Elegant ladies in the park on their morning jog eyed them with disdain, these rowdy boys drinking beer so early in the day – but in fact, he notes, “we were makin’ the world go round”, enabling those same ladies to find food on the shelves when they went shopping after their run. In much the same way, the fact that disc golf is so casual makes it easy to underestimate: it’s actually the fourth-fastest-growing sport in the US, and even more popular in Scandinavia. The top woman player, Kristin Tattar of Estonia, signed a contract in 2021 valued at up to $500,000 for four years; her male counterpart, the American Paul McBeth, signed a 10-year deal with disc manufacturer Discraft worth $10 million. RW mentions an interview he saw in a Finnish paper recently, “where the reporter was interviewing a panel of kids in elementary school, asking ‘What’s your favourite sport?’. And the no. 1 sport was disc golf. In the past, it was soccer”.

His Madrid memories are even more nuanced – and actually quite poignant because, looking back, he and Christina found themselves “in a really heavy hotspot of global depression”. Spanish culture is so warm and tactile (everyone’s always kissing and touching), and Covid restrictions were so strict and inflexible – not to mention that Madrilenos go out famously late (“You literally can’t get a reservation before 9pm, to sit down and eat a meal”), so the 10pm curfew killed all social life. The city was unmoored and adrift, crushed under a kind of collective trauma – and there was RW, not just fresh from two years in South Carolina “where Covid was basically a myth and, y’know, propaganda” but also without a car, unable to speak any Spanish, unable to see people’s facial expressions because of their face masks, unable even to leave Madrid for the first nine months because travel was prohibited. “I mean, it was just like I was dropped off on another planet!”

In this context, disc golf wasn’t just a hobby but a godsend – not just for him, but for other beleaguered locals who couldn’t travel or meet up with friends, and just wanted to blow off some steam. It is, after all, a non-contact, Covid-friendly sport where players don’t even share the same equipment; you can even play solo – as in golf, “the challenge is the course” – though it always tends to turn into a social activity. (“For some reason,” he quips, “at least 80 per cent of people who enjoy throwing a frisbee outside are pretty fun people to hang with and talk to.”) There wasn’t a course in Madrid at the time – but he joined a club and started bringing baskets out every weekend, setting up in a park called the Casa de Campo.

By the time restrictions eased, membership had tripled – which in turn emboldened him to do more. RW approached the authorities at Casa de Campo and “pitched several course layouts”, but the bureaucratic red tape defeated him. Then he happened to find a plot of land that belonged to Complutense University. The land was neglected, practically a homeless camp; the city was threatening to reclaim it. The university was keen, especially when RW pointed out that a disc golf course would help attract students from the US and northern Europe; then a grant from the Paul McBeth Foundation became available, “helping introduce disc golf to underserved communities”. RW ended up as the project co-ordinator for the first disc golf course in Madrid (the 17th in Spain overall), and now makes his living from the sport – though Christina, an academic specialising in business strategy and two-sided marketplaces, is the main breadwinner. “I do disc golf retail sales, course design, course installation, and then [also] event management. Currently I run the Madrid Open, I run the Malaga Open in the south of Spain – and I want to bring the Cyprus Open to Cyprus.”

02It’s a noble cause – and, why not, an economically viable one. Without getting too technical, the arguments in favour of the sport are simple enough: it’s cheap, it’s popular, it’s fast-growing, there’s an obvious niche (especially in winter, when the Scandinavian pro players need somewhere to train), and a disc golf course – unlike a ball golf course – doesn’t require pristine land, or too much manicuring. “I mean, you need to keep the grass short so you don’t trip on a rock – but all the bushes and trees and everything can stay in its natural state.” It doesn’t even clash with Cypriots’ well-known mania for building hotels and villas – because uneven land, the kind where it’s difficult to build, is actually perfect for disc golf courses. In the States, they even build them on ski slopes.

Alas, though RW’s made some progress, our authorities (especially the Department of Forests, which manages most of the available land) are proving hard to convince. “There seems to be a communication gap,” he observes, then shrugs wryly: “I get it. It’s new”. Then again, he had trouble winning over the authorities in Spain too – maybe because he’s too affable, or too American, or just not as slick as a well-connected businessman promising millions from golf courses. “I’ve never had an office job,” he admits. “I’ve never had a cubicle, I’ve never had a desk.” RW’s good with his hands (his grandpa was a carpenter “so I grew up, my whole childhood, building stuff”), but struggled in school with a reading comprehension disability. “I read, and I just don’t remember what I read… I’m very handy, I do hands-on stuff – but, in the literary world, I don’t function.”

He does indeed ‘build stuff’. He built the disc golf course in Madrid, just him and a handful of helpers – carrying bags of cement on his bicycle, “shuttling water out there and mixing it by hand. It was a labour of love”. He also brews beer – purely as a hobby, but he’s competed in craft-beer contests and won awards. It’s not just manual skills, however; he’s a good talker, possibly inherited from his preacher dad (Dad was actually a Methodist minister and music director, churchgoing in the States being a hybrid of religion and entertainment) – and indeed he has people skills too, having switched his degree to Restaurant, Hotel and Institutional Management and enjoyed a brief but successful career in retail. RW was an area director for Texas grocery giants HEB in 2015-16, leading nearly 300 employees – at least till he went on a dating app and found himself beguiled by a photo of “this gal in a red dress, standing in Pano Lefkara in front of the church”. And the rest is history.

Then again, ‘the rest’ isn’t over yet – and the couple’s move to Madrid (via South Carolina) also had the unintended effect of turning RW’s hobby into his job, making for some happy ironies. The sport that’s woven through the jumble of his 40 years like a colourful thread is now his work, bringing an echo of his old life in the US to his new life in Europe. He doesn’t really feel like he belongs yet, but that’s okay – and a bit of American vigour may in fact be a shot in the arm for the old continent:

“I guess some people refer to Americans as noisy, and you hear about the Karens [who] fight for what they want. Part of that’s true, but – y’know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” says RW. “And I feel like, in more socialist-based countries, the social system works great because the government actually does do things pretty well – so people, I think, are a little more complacent, and they don’t push and request and ask. Right?”

He himself will keep pushing – albeit in an affable way. It’s a strange thing, muses RW Abel: he’s always looked older than he is (that’s why turning 40 didn’t really faze him) and he’s always tended to be friends with older people too, starting back in childhood when he hung out with adults simply because there were no kids to hang out with. “I guess I’m – y’know, an old soul.” It’s not immediately apparent, but it’s true – there is something ‘old’ in his easy-going vibe, his steadiness, his lack of pretension, his carpenter’s patience. Not just a noisy Texan, then, I joke, and RW smiles: “Yeah… I’m a European metrosexual cowboy, I guess”. Pretty handy with a frisbee too, I’ll wager.