Playing always trumps watching; Pinto Lakes manicured fairways

As a kid, I remember watching football games on TV. I’d be interested to watch my heroes perform, for sure, but when halftime came around I was much more excited about actually getting out to the street and doing it myself.

I think the same holds true for disc golf- or for that matter any sport that an average person can play well into middle age and even beyond. I love the fact that enables me to see the top pros (especially Nate Doss, for whom I have a friendship and hometown-based rooting interest) compete in the top events as they happen. But if it’s a choice between watching them or heading out to Pinto Lake to play a competitive round myself . . . it’s not a difficult decision. Doing beats watching every time.

I mention this because it’s a truism that applies directly to what I believe are well intentioned but misguided efforts to introduce disc golf to the masses that have yet to discover its charms and benefits.

Pick any sport that people watch en masse – either live or on TV – and they fall into one of two categories: Either they have spectator appeal because they are difficult and/or dangerous, like cliff diving, downhill ski racing, or (people DO watch it) figure skating; or, on the other side of the spectrum, it’s a sport we can all play, or have played at some point in our lives, like baseball, soccer, football, basketball, tennis, or . . . golf.

In the case of the second category – into which disc golf falls – there needs to be a critical mass of people that play the sport before there can be any hope of it being attractive as a spectator sport, since the only reason we’d watch such a sport is the fact that we identify with it – however remotely – as participants. Yet the overwhelming majority of disc golf promoters seem to be approaching their promotion with an exactly opposite approach. They keep trying to gain major sponsorship for our sport which is neither dangerous or difficult, in the hope that that will then generate the attention and/or funds required to get it broadcast on television, which will then make it appeal to the masses. Puzzling, no?

Speaking of Pinto Lake (I spoke about it in the 2nd paragraph of this post, if you didn’t notice), that course is now my clear and away my favorite in Santa Cruz county- despite (and in part because of) the aggravation that several of the holes routinely bring. The upper meadow holes are now being mowed regularly, thanks to a donated riding mower and an obsessive course patron saint. The fairways are carved out of natural grasses and brush, and each one is bordered with OB markers and rope on each side. They are as pleasing to the eye as they are displeasing to the score. For disc golfer on the Central Coast they offer quite a different type of challenge. Check it out:

Memorial 2012

The Memorial Championship¬†presented by Discraft began yesterday in Arizona. This event marked the beginning of the PDGA National Tour Presented by Vibram Disc Golf, as it has for years now. And because the season’s first major event always holds more promise than others in terms of significant leaps forward for the sport, I tend to watch for a few key indicators to see if this year will be ‘The Year’. Maybe I should stop doing that. But I can’t ‘un-observe’ what I witnessed yesterday via’s live coverage, so I might as well share some thoughts.

First, some perspective: As a big baseball fan I can imagine how exciting it was when in 1939 fans around the country were able to see a live game on TV for the first time. The picture was grainy, and the camera angles limited to wide-angle, overhead shots . . . but they could actually watch a game they cared about without being there AS IT HAPPENED. That’s how most of us feel about DiscGolfPlanet‘s live disc golf coverage broadcast on the internet. The video may be severely limited, the commentators understandably spotty, but we can get the gist of what’s happening. For disc golf fan(addicts), especially those who personally know the competitors, that’s enough.

But here’s the rub: For anyone not intimately familiar with disc golf, the things that make the sport great won’t come through the screen. For whatever reason – lack of funding, I’d guess, or possibly ‘first-game’ rust that will hopefully be gone by the end of this event – the network seems to have taken a step backward from last year. There were video/audio syncing issues, lots of fumbling by the various on-camera personalities, and only one camera following the action. Here again, I must throw in the caveat that the phrase ‘bleeding edge,’ which was originally coined in Silicon Valley to describe the pains and sacrifices suffered by tech pioneers, is aptly applied here as well. John Duessler and everyone else associated with DiscGolfPlanet deserve tons of credit for doing what they do. I only hope they can continue to do it with less than 1,000 worldwide viewers tuning in at a time.


Aside from the coverage, every time I think of the Memorial my thoughts return to a couple other big issues I have with the National Tour. How can we hold a marquee event on courses that aren’t even closed to other activities, like bike riding and picnicking? Imagine a surf contest where Joe Shmoe from the valley cuts off a competitor trying to catch a key wave. And after playing the event once, in 2003, I still can’t believe an NT event would have players teeing off grass or anything less than the best teeing surfaces- yet I saw just that yesterday. Some teepads at Shelly Sharpe park are actually painted lines on a walking path, and others are rubber pads so uneven that players are allowed to tee from the dirt next to them. I know the Memorial produces a great all-around experience and perennially has a top payout . . . but again, what impression can we expect outsiders to have when they see something that appears so transient?


Another issue that’s been on my mind lately – and with Dave Feldberg’s ridiculous -16 for 18 holes yesterday came to the forefront – is the fact that golf is most compelling as a spectator sport when the players are constantly challenged to make par. In ball golf, the courses on which majors are played are made extremely difficult for this very reason. Whatever it takes – more hazards and OB is my guess, since distance doesn’t seem to have much effect – our top players need to be made to struggle more. Par saves are more dramatic than birdie tries, and drama is what makes a sport compelling for spectators. By the way, did you know that the course with the shortest average hole length at the 2011 Pro Worlds, by, far, was famously technical DeLaveaga- yet it produced the highest average scores for each division? Just saying . . .


Finally, an observation on one division in the Memorial. Jon Baldwin, who leads the Master division after the first round at -8 with two other trailing him at -4, will be hard to catch. He has the most well-rounded game of anyone I know when you consider all aspects of disc golf both physical and mental, and saying he plays smart golf is an understatement. Getting out to a lead and protecting it was the formula for his surprising World Championship win last summer, so look for him to follow that model to success once again.