A time to drill it

I used to over-simplify my approach to putting tempo, using the logic that the disc should have just enough on it to run out of gas and fall into the chains with just enough power left to slip into the cage. But on further examination, it’s clear that different situations require different tempos. Here’s a quick breakdown of when it makes sense to try to keep the disc on a straight line and hit the chains firmly, and when it doesn’t:

Drill that putt!

  • First of all, I don’t mean to suggest ever cranking a rocket into the chains that make them explode apart like billiard balls at the break or bowling pins on their way to a strike. Anyone who putts that hard inevitably gets more than their share of spit-outs. The kind of firm putt I’m talking about is thrown just hard enough to fly on a straight line rather than curling and/or falling into the basket (see ‘True Golf Putt ‘ below).
  • The premise is simply that if you thrust a putter at the target on a straight line from that distance and release directly toward the pole (do an exaggerated follow through to be sure), it doesn’t have time to veer away and will almost always go in. In this case, the firmer putt works in your favor because it minimizes the effects of wind and elevation changes. In addition, if your approach on short putts is to always be firm and follow through, you’ll come close to eliminating those times when you sleepwalk from 13 feet and come up short. Did that today, in fact. D’oh!
  • Speaking of elevation changes, downhill putts deserve special attention here. Once you’ve decided to go for a downhill putt (as opposed to laying up), you should drill it if it’s within 10 meters (or a little more, if you usually shoot under par). The main reason for this is a disc’s tendency to turn into a roller when it falls off to the weak side. It almost always lands on it’s edge with spin left. Depending on the severity of the slope and hazards that await below the target the better option may be simply to lay up. But if you go for a downhill putt, drill it.
  • Low ceiling putts (those with low-hanging foliage between you and the target) usually also require a putt that flies on a straight line. In this case, however, the reason you’re putting harder is to keep the disc low while still maintaining its height all the way to the basket. The lower you need to keep the disc, the harder it must be thrown to counter the effects of gravity.

The ‘True Golf’ Putt

  • If you watch much ball golf on TV, you know what a lag putt is. As putts get further and further away, golfers are more concerned with leaving it close enough to the cup than making the putt. That’s because it makes sense to hedge your bets for the next shot as the odds get lower and lower for this one.
  • In disc golf, we have it bother better and worse than ball golfers when it comes to putting. On the one hand, it’s much easier to nail a 15-foot put in disc golf than in ball golf. But we’re aiming at an elevated target, not a hole in the ground so we can’t really lag putt the way they do. But we can come close.
  • Regular putting practice is bound to improve your accuracy and consistency in terms of percentage of putts that end up in the cage. But if you pay attention to the ones you miss and where they end up, it’ll help you get better at putting in such a way that your ‘comeback’ putts after missing are usually 15 or less.
  • You want a disc that is close to perpendicular to the chains when it arrives at the target, losing elevation and moving at an angle roughly 45 degrees off the line between you and the pole. It should be losing speed when it arrives, not accelerating.
  • The great thing about working on this kind of touch is that it has two benefits. You’ll generally see more borderline go in that on line-drive putts, and those come-backers will be shorter on the occasions when they miss the target altogether.

Don’t count chickens (before they hatch)!

Played Black Mouse yesterday, and I got off to a nice start. Birdied 1, 2, 3, and 4. To my credit, I didn’t once entertain the possibility of shooting -18. But I did think that double digits was a given, and it got me out of a disc-ipline that I’ve worked for years to establish. I actually kept track of my score the whole time after that, and when on the teepad calculated how many holes out how many remaining I’d have to birdie to shoot -10. (For the record, I shot a bogie-free -7, but that’s not the point).

This approach is quite the opposite of my overall disc golf philosophy, ‘disc golf in a vacuum‘. Click the preceding link if you’re interested in the minute details, but it basically means that I believe we can have the most fun – and perform best – when we allow ourselves to be completely immersed in our next shot. The key is to embrace the challenge of the shot purely for the challenge of executing it perfectly. Don’t get hung up with assigning values to the shot, like, for instance “if I can this putt for birdie I’m at -8 with three holes to go!” Instead, focus on the things that will actually help you do what you’re intending to do. Or nothing at all. But anything is better than letting external noise distract you from the task at hand.

I’ve been practicing this for more than five years now, and I’m proud to say I’ve gotten to the point where most rounds I don’t know my exact score until I add it up at the end. Aside from better scores through improved focus on what I’m actually doing, here are some other benefits:

  • I rarely ever have a bad round in terms of just having a crappy time out there (score-wise, yes). I’m able to appreciate even bad throws in a learning experience kind of way, and bad breaks rarely get under my skin.
  • When the round is over, it’s time to add up the score. It’s kinda fun to piece it all together ‘for the first time,’ in a sense. It also helps to recount each shot and allow the good and the bad to sink in.
  • If you’re in any kind of competition, and your rival keeps mentioning the score, it’s fun to watch his/her reaction when you admit you have no clue what your score is, then smile the same smile whether you’re + or -8.

So don’t count those chickens, or those strokes. The game will only get better.

Ryan Ranch: Yet another disc golf success story

I’m sure there must be similar phenomena out there, but I can’t think of any. How many other sports, activities or hobbies besides disc golf have grown the way disc golf has grown, in terms of the way courses get conceived, petitioned and ultimately installed?

In other states, especially places in the Midwest I’ve visited, it’s a little more conventional and less amazing. Park commissions not only agree to install courses in their groomed, grassy parks, but they often pay for the entire course and maintain it to boot! In California it rarely happens that way. (I think that’s why our courses are on the whole much more interesting and challenging, by the way. They’re usually carved into or out of some form of untamed natural area. They haven’t been sterilized for the safety of the meekest visitor. In NorCal, I’m amazed whenever a new course pops up, given the scarcity and value of available land.

Here, the story goes like this: A person or group of people go searching for open space or neglected parks that no one else wants. They find place with potential, chucks some discs while imagining the already completed course, then research who to talk to to make it happen. What starts out overgrown, blighted, and often full of trash is transformed through countless hours of volunteer effort and thousands of dollars of donated and fund-raised cash into something much . . . more.

A non-disc golfer will notice the improved natural beauty (or maybe not if their only idea of improvement is laying sod and concrete walking paths), but to a disc golfer a new course in her/his area is almost like a miracle. Case in point: Ryan Ranch in Monterey.

Anthony DeMers, Mover-and-Shaker at Ryan RanchThe course sits close to a small airport, and in the three-plus hours we were there I estimate we saw 10 planes flying close overhead.

This picturesque hole (I think it’s #3 or 4) is easily reachable, but forces you to go straight at it or very wide to the left or right.
This shot ended up almost 100 feet past and 30 feet below the hole, where a longer pin position is located.

I didn’t see what the Ryan Ranch land looked like before the first baskets were installed, but pretty close. I think it had 18 baskets when I first played it a couple years ago, and maybe one or two Fly Pads. After playing it for the second time ever last week, the changes are obvious. Gone is the typical debris you see in an ‘open lot’, and a learned eye will recognize fairways of a sort between the hearty vegetation ubiquitous to the area. Here are some other highlights on the Ryan Ranch success story:

  • As is often the case with disc golf courses installed in an area where people had previously been doing something illegal, Ryan Ranch not only serves appreciative disc golfers. It also helps to discourage an element that had been demanding law enforcement resources due to its illegal activity. In this case it was 4-wheel drivers, and bit-by-bit they are relinquishing their grasp on the territory. I believe some refer to that as addition by subtraction.
  • Anthony DeMers was our guide last week, and he took us through a layout where we played 18-holes on one side of the parking lot first, then nine holes on the other side. The first 18 includes a great mix of holes that are less than 300 feet, 300-400, and a couple longer than that. I think it’s important to focus on serving the growing ranks of recreational players, and the first 18 do a great job at that. And because the land is full of sloping hills, and equal parts open space and clusters of oak trees, it’s very interesting more accomplished players as well.
  • The remaining nine holes, called ‘The Gauntlet,’ are nearly all long and open. But unlike a growing number of boring courses around the country that fit that description (people think if a course is long enough, it’s automatically good), The Gauntlet’s elevation changes make the challenge multi-dimensional. And the trees are used strategically to ensure players need to do more than huck a disc with no fear of trouble.
  • This course will NOT be the weak link at the 2011 Pro Worlds. And with the other courses being DeLaveaga, Pinto Lake, and CSUMB Oaks, I don’t think there will be a weak link. As you may or may not know, it will be the first Worlds with all 27-hole courses.
  • I wore a GPS watch during our round, and we actually walked 5.05 miles! Remember that the measurement is not like the the course distance you see listed sometimes, which is merely the total distance of all the holes added together. This is a measurement of how much you can expect to walk in a typical round. It includes walking from hole-to-hole, and the walking that is done while searching for errant discs. By comparison, a round at DeLa averages 3.25 miles, depending on how big the group is, Pinto Lake is around 3.5 miles, and Aptos and Black Mouse are right around two miles.

Pinto Lake and The Other Side of Disc Selection

Usually when you hear disc selection, you think in terms of which disc in your bag is best suited to execute your next shot. Today I’m talking about something else, a concept that could maybe be called ‘disc selection for disc preservation’. It results from one of the major distinctions between disc golf and ball golf- the fact that our discs are the equivalent to their clubs and balls combined.

If you’re a ball golf enthusiast heading off to play a challenging course you’ve never played before, you might put another sleeve or two of balls in your bag in anticipation of hitting some shots into unfamiliar OB. It makes sense, especially if it is any kind of official competition. Remember the movie Tin Cup? In it the point was raised that if a player runs out of balls he or she is disqualified. So extra balls in the bag is a pretty simple insurance policy. For us disc golfers, not so simple.

When we lose a disc, in essence, we lose the equivalent of a club. And when you lose a key disc in your bag, you usually don’t have one exactly like it waiting in the wings. Most key discs have been broken in to a point that they can’t be replaced right away with another one off the shelf, even if you happen to be carrying it with you. And if you’re like me, there is always the chance you’ll lose that one, too!

Such was the case recently when I played Pinto Lake in Watsonville for only the second time since the long upper holes were added. Most of the holes on the top area are wide open, with fairways mowed out of waist-high wild grass and weeds. Standing on the tee of the 1,280 foot par 5 hole eleven (I think), I pulled out a valued Star Destroyer. Even though I had brought along several ‘red-shirt‘ (expendable) discs, I reasoned that there wasn’t much risk in not placing my disc in the very wide, completely open fairway. Bad reasoning. As players will do sometimes when confronted with a hole several times longer than they can possible throw, I tried to be the first person ever to throw 1,000 feet and promptly chucked it into hopelessly high rough. That was disc selection (for preservation) error number one. I took a 7 on the hole, and it started a slide that had me completely off my game by the time we descended from the upper holes. Disc selection (for preservation) error number two came on hole #15, where I decided to throw my other Star Destroyer. In that case I got stubbornly defiant about disc selection, turned it over, and destroyed my inventory of Destroyers.

In the first case, my mistake was deciding to use a valuable disc based on the likelihood that I’d hit the fairway, instead of the likelihood that I’d lose the disc if I didn’t. Kind of a Murphy’s Law thing. In the second case I allowed my focus to slip enough that I made a decision I wouldn’t make otherwise. I equate lazy-mindedness and stubborn defiance with lack of focus.

Here are a few guidelines to consider when it comes to this type of disc selection:

  • Have one set of discs for the course you regularly play and know the best. You likely know exactly where to look for errant shots on each hole, and even if you happen to lose one chances are decent that you’ll get it back eventually through the lost and found or from a fellow player who knows you (assuming you didn’t recently beat him on the last hole and do a 30-second victory dance around the basket). This would be your ‘main’ bag, but you may still want to carry an expendable disc for a particularly risky hole. A hole with a water hazard, for instance. A specific example is hole 12 at DeLa when you have to throw across the overgrown ravine (Fridge-Land). One early deflection and your odds are 50-50 of finding the disc.
  • Have another set of discs for each of the other area courses you play. If a course has plenty of trees, bushes, high grass, steep slopes, and/or water, plan accordingly. If you have a favorite disc and you don’t trust yourself not to throw it at the wrong time, don’t bring it.
  • I like this next point as a general rule, but especially at courses that have the aforementioned features, or courses I’m not familiar with: Throw neon-bright discs of one single color. Don’t throw tie-dye (high cost plus quickly lost), and avoid anything dark green or black. My favorite color since childhood is also my favorite disc color: orange!
  • When you go on a road trip, stock your bag with plenty of your 2nd and 3rd-tier plastic. You’re likely playing courses for the first time, and if you lose one your chances of ever seeing it again are close to zero. This practice actually has a great side benefit as well. I like to think of my discs as a baseball organization, with my main bag being the major leagues. When I go out of town and throw 2nd and 3rd tier discs almost exclusively, it’s like giving the minor league players a shot to show what they can do. I get familiar with discs I don’t normally throw, and sometimes they ‘crack the lineup’ on the Big Team and earn their way into the main bag.

Hopefully reading this will save you some discs, if not some strokes. And if you happen to come across my Star Destroyers at Pinto, call me!

Pinto Lake: 18 holes of (choose your own hyperbolic statement)

Played Pinto yesterday for the first time since the “upper” nine holes were added, to make 18 holes and 8000-plus feet, not including a couple short walks between holes and one longer one (to get to the upper holes). Here are a few first impressions:

  • The new holes are not the front or back nine, but instead inserted between hole 4 and what used to be hole 5, but is now 14.
  • The new holes are the antithesis of the previously extant nine holes, which are filled with trees, severely-sloped, extremely narrow fairways, water hazards, poison oak, OB, or all of the above. The new holes are meant to appease the ‘big arms’ at the championship level, and somewhat placate out-of-towners who frankly are much more familiar with wide open, flatter disc golf holes.
  • I like them because it’s something we don’t have at any other course in the area: wide open and brutishly long with enough rough off the wide fairways to keep it interesting.
  • Speaking of that ‘rough,’ on the upper holes it consists mostly of the wild grass that grows waist-high where it isn’t mowed.
  • Where it is mowed, lovely wild California Poppies are already poppy-ing up in the fairways.
  • The upper holes have some poison oak too, but only in the wooded areas. The open areas seem to have none.
  • I was even par after 10 holes, and feeling pretty good about myself. The I lost my disc and took a 7 on the par 5, 1300-foot hole.
  • When we got back to the familiar part of the course, I felt like we had been playing for almost three hours . . . and we had! The round ended up taking four hours, and much of that was spent looking for discs.
  • When you go, I suggest you bring extra water, long pants and long-sleeve shirt, and some expendable yet dependable plastic you don’t mind losing.
  • My final tally: Six over par, and two lost Star Destroyers.