Triumph of a ‘Younger’ Gun

Another new wave of young talent has made its mark on the disc golf scene, with the legitimacy of a major championship to make it official. Nikko Locastro, at age 19 (or maybe 20- I’m too lazy to look it up), charged from four strokes back of former champ Dave Feldberg and three behind reigning champ Nate Doss to win the 2009 USDGC.

Nate was the first to cut into Dave’s lead early, cutting the three-stroke lead to one before succumbing to Winthrop Gold’s OB rope again and again. Then, after a slow start, Nikko began racking up birdies on hole 4 and never seemed to take his foot off the pedal. On hole 10, a par 4 bunkr hole that makes players choose between trying to carry 430-plus feet to the green with a chance for eagle or laying up short left in the narrow fairway, he missed his first attempt to drive the green, but succeeded the second time, then made the putt for a birdie. Under bunkr rules, he didn’t get charged a penalty stroke for the miss, and his resolve and confidence on the tee paid off. Nate, in contrast, missed in his attempt to drive the green, then opted to play safe with the short layup. And it seemed to continue like that the rest of the round. Other tidbits:

  • Josh Anton came from the third card to take third place by shooting a course record 53 (15 under par). He was 15 under par after hole 16, but only managed par on 17 (the potentially round-killing island hole) and 18.
  • I heard tales about the way Harold Duvall tweaks the course each year, and I can’t help but wonder what will be in store next year after the top players really carved up Winthrop Gold. There were quite a few rounds where players were double-digits under par and bogey-free or had only one or two flaws
  • I can’t help but think of Nikko as the Shaun White of disc golf. His big white man ‘fro and goofy attire (unmatched knee-high socks) could end up being a draw as sponsors aim for the 15-25 market.

Quick hits on Day Three

  • Nate closed the gap to one between him and Feldberg, then lost two strokes on 17 and 18 (one each hole, by going par-bogey (OB). So he’s trailing by three going into the last day, tied for second with Nikko Locastro. I’ll be following them the whole round , happy to be nothing but a spectator tomorrow.
  • After my round today, I went back to my room to change and watched some of the live coverage on my computer. The simulation of a professional ball golf event that the USDGC strives for was eerily apparent in the coverage. You see the manicured grass fairways, the numerous tournament volunteers spotting, with the rd and green flags, and galleries just big enough to call them galleries. My only mixed mixed feeling about this is the fact that I’m proud of the fact that most good disc golf course, in my opinion, don’t resemble ball golf courses at all. They wind they their way through woods and over mountainous terrain, not through genteel grassy parks. But still, the coverage was pretty cool, albeit noticeably a nit amateurish. But the people involved did their best, and I was impressed.
  • I almost thought I was watching a telethon, they pitched the viewers for donations so often. I think it almost became a crutch when they couldn’t think of anything original to say.
  • On 13, the famous ‘888’ par 5, I can proudly say that I parred it yesterday and might have today, if the clouds hadn’t opened up and started pouring on us before I could putt out. When I began to address my 23-foot par putt there wasn’t a drop, and by the time I had a chance to putt, it was pouring. Still, my total of bogey, par, bogey on that hole, without ever throwing outside of the ridiculously narrow fairway and island green, was one of the few things I can look to with a modicum of pride.
  • One of the others is the 30-foot, steep uphill par putt on 18 to end my tournament. End on a good note.
  • I got to play with two Finnish players, Kai and Janne, and guys from NC, WV, Georgia (Pete May, a very cool 68-year old with a $600 Stetson hat made from 2o percent beaver, and no one I knew before we started.
  • The two things that make the USDGC special, in my opinion, are the course design that makes great use of OB/Bunkr rope, and the abundance and coordination of volunteers.
  • Although it strikes a blow to my ego, I’m happy to see our sport having grown to the point that probably 50 players have the skills to compete at the top level. The blow to my ego part is the fact that I’m no longer in the same area code as these guys. But I’ll get over it. The cool part, though, is that at its core this is still golf, and having the raw skills to win an event like the USDGC and actually doing it are two very different things. I watched plenty of guys throw as far as Nate, and routinely can 35-footers like they were 20-footers. But to win the USDGC, they need to pull off these feats with a level of consistency that just amazes me.
  • I don’t think I’ve seen one tye-die shirt all week
  • Watch the live webcast tomorrow if you can. It should be epic.

The Fan Experience

So far, my USDGC experience has been from the player experience, although I’m stretching that definition a little bit. With rounds of 85 and 86, I’ve felt much more like the guy that got to play by helping run the Masters Cup than the guy who missed qualifying by a stroke three years in a row.

But after finishing my 8:00 AM round by Noon, then grabbing some good Carolina BBQ (actually, it’s OK but nothing special, in my opinion), I headed back to to the course to follow Nate around during his round.

I sheepishly admit to feeling a little bit of shame, thinking that everyone knew I was either a spectator and nothing else, or a player that sucked enough (relatively speaking, of course- this is the USDGC) to have a tee-time early enough to be done already. But I really enjoyed the spectator experience at this event, and the difference between the USDGC and any other event I’ve ever experienced is quite noticeable. Volunteers are everywhere, including a very impressive number of grey-haired, non-playing disc golf aficionados. It got me wondering- what is it about other part of the country I’ve been in where older generations seem to get it about the benefits of disc golf, even though they don’t play themselves? Are they simply more supportive of their younger relatives? Do they possess wisdom that their counterparts in California do not? Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask a few questions and get to the bottom of it.

Since I happened to be in South Carolina during the USDGC, with time on my hands, I decided to follow Nate’s group and support ol’ Bobby Hill (along with his Mom and Stepdad Mark K.) in his effort to defend his USDGC title. And being the narcissist that I am, my thoughts of these top-ranked players kept coming back to what a gap now exists between me and they world’s best. At first the thought is kind of a bummer, but then it sort of justifies spending three hours walking the same course I just played to watch someone else play. I mean, why would someone do that if not to see things done I can’t do myself?

Nate is in third place right now, 15 under par and five behind the lead. Some of the shots I saw him execute (and the others in the group) were simply amazing to me. The arm speed they generate makes it clear they are dealing with a whole different deck of cards. And that makes it quite fulfilling to be nothing more than a fan- for a while,anyway.

I was tied for the lead, and then the tournament started

The warm fuzzy feeling I got from being part of this event – the USDGC – was actually potent enough that it still hasn’t completely worn off, even after a first round where I nearly averaged a bogey per hole. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t really keeping track, and was shocked when I added it all up. It didn’t seem that bad! Feldberg and Schwebbee both shot -9 fifty-nines to grab the first round lead, but players are lined up behind them, including Nate at -5.

I got to play with a good mix of guys today- Kai from Finland, US Am champ this year Blayne, and Al ‘Sugar’ Shack, an acquaintance from my days hanging with Michigan dg-ers a decade ago. Everyone was upbeat and mellow, which made things more enjoyable for certain.

I wish I could blame my hideous +17 on the fact that the course is designed in such a way that it’s more difficult for people that can’t throw 400-plus feet. While this is true (as it is for any course with reasonably long holes), Winthrop Gold provides ample opportunity for a player to shoot par, as long as he/she can throw 300 feet. The design is great in that regard, and even somewhat friendlier to left-handers. So no excuse there.

I also wish that I could say that my injured shoulder is the cause of my high score, but that really isn’t true either. Only on the par 5 hole five, where I made the ill-fated decision to try unsuccessfully three times to throw over a large expanse of water in a way that my arm can’t handle right now, was it much of an issue. Every other time my feeble arm came into play, I had another option that I opted not to opt for. So no excuse there, either.

But tomorrow at 8 AM presents another opportunity, so we’ll see. But I’m running out of excuses.

The day before

As I type, it’s Tuesday night in Rock Hill and I just returned from the players’ welcome banquet. If I didn’t already have the sense that this is a special event, I do now. It feels pretty cool to be a part of it, and I’m surprised how many people I’ve met over the years that still remember me, despite the fact that my touring days days are mostly in the past.

Most notable from the meeting were a couple slight rule changes just for this tournament. For one, there is a bolder statement about displaying balance after a putt from 10 meters and in. At the USDGC this year, you need to demonstrate balance on BOTH FEET before advancing. Also, there are no warnings for falling putts. Instead, on the first instance the player has to re-throw, and take the worst of the two throws. After that, he/she incurs a stroke penalty, must re-throw, and then take the result of the re-throw.

I also liked Harold Duvall’s phrasing when he addressed the issue of calling penalties: “If you’re sure, always call it, and if you’re not sure, never call it.” I agree 100 percent.

On a (to me) comical note, I met a guy with the last name ‘Bachman,’ and it instantly occurred to me that his name lends itself to the best disc golf name-pun ever. It can take several forms, but if I was in his group and he turned over his drive, I’d say ‘Bachman turned over his drive,’ or call him the ‘Bachman drive turner-over.’ He got the joke right away, but said he’d never heard it before. I guess that, where he’s from – Utah – they’re not big BTO fans.

Monday Qualifying

The United States Disc Golf Championship is molded after ball golf’s US Open in several ways, but today’s news relates to a difference rather than a similarity. Ironically, neither event is ‘open’ to anyone who wants to participate. You have to either qualify or get in on some type of exemption, of which there is an extremely limited supply. For example, former champions get in for life, and in the USDGC if you finished in the top 20 the year before, you’re in.

To determine the rest of the field, both events have a series of qualifier tournaments around the country. But the USDGC reserves five slots for anyone willing to show up at the course and pay $20 per attempt to post one of the five lowest scores. Right now, according to usdgc.com, the five best scores today among hopeful qualifiers range from 63 (5 under) to 67. That is proof that there are plenty of capable golfers that would like to play this event every year but do not get in.

Here is the part I find really interesting. You can try as many times as you like on Monday to qualify, as long as you have the cash. And if you encounter disaster on the first hole, or anywhere else, you can abandon that round and get back in line to plunk down another $20 and start again. I asked the starter why they allow that kind of disruption to the other players in the group (kinda annoying when the other members of your foursome suddenly call it quits mid-round). His polite reply (because everyone is so very polite in the South): “Monday qualifi-uhs generate a lot of money for the purse.” That makes sense, I guess.

If you are interested in seeing some pictures of the course in sequential order (for the most part), click here. I accidentally had a weird effect set on my camera, but you can still get a sense of each hole.

To see pictures of the wet and rainy Monday qualifying action, click here.

Winthrop is Golden

This morning I finally got to see the course for myself, and this afternoon I finally got to play it. And it wasn’t until playing it myself that I was able to fully appreciate it. This course really is the result of some great course design.

Winthrop Gold is known to be long and exacting, with its “10,000 feet of OB.” But after playing all 18 holes, I’m happy to say that a player who can barely throw 350 feet could break par here. Can break par here.

I’m not saying it’s easy, no, no-o-o-o-o-o. Even though the terrain is mostly manicured grassy, many of the holes have just enough slope to complicate shot choices. OB lines don’t just run more or less parallel to the left and right of the hole. Often, they are used to define a hole, transforming a wide-open area into a vicious, narrow, 90 degree dogleg right (hole 10). And don’t even get me started on the the bunkr! However, this course is quite fair.

Using myself as a good yardmark to prove (or disprove) the bold assertion above (about weenie-arms being able to break par at Winthrop Gold) I’d have to say that only holes 5 ( a 1000-foot par 5 with a large stretch of water to cross at the end of the hole) and 13 (the famous ‘888‘ hole) are tough to par mostly because of length. On the rest of the holes, if you can throw a 250-foot upshot close enough to get up-and-down – and if you have the discipline to throw to spots rather than follow the instinct to huck it as hard as possible on a 900-foot hole – you can break par. I’m telling you, you can.

Now, all that being said, practice is different than tournament play and it’s always easier said than done when it comes to doing the logical thing in golf. But still, it’s a great course and great tournament that requires precision shots, consistent putting AND 500-foot drive potential to win, yet requires only the first two to break par and finish in the cash.