The ‘Ground-Up’ Approach to Saving Strokes- Part 2

The disc golf courses where I live have plenty of variety, but one thing they don’t have, for the most part, is the kind of thick, lush grass found in manicured city or county parks. Whenever I travel to those kinds of courses, therefore, I need to make an adjustment.

I’m used to fairways and greens that present all manner of complexities when the disc comes into contact with them, due to the surface itself as much as the mountainous slopes. The hard and sometimes barren ground results in all kinds of action after the disc makes first contact. The uneven nature of the terrain – due to rocks, ruts, and exposed roots (an especially notorious villain in Santa Cruz) – add a second layer of complexity to the already technical nature of these seemingly unpredictable shots. So when I find myself on a course in a bucolic park setting, with lush green lawn fairways that are beefed up on Scott’s TurfBuilder and mowed to a shag carpet-like regularity, it takes some time for me to adjust.

Courses in manicured, grassy parks - like this one in Hillsboro, Oregon - can be played more aggressively because the disc is less likely to skip or roll far from where it lands. Photo by Jack Trageser
Courses in manicured, grassy parks – like this one in Hillsboro, Oregon – can be played more aggressively because the disc is less likely to skip or roll far from where it lands. Photo by Jack Trageser

Certain things are just hard-coded into your game if you play a particular type of course nearly all the time, and dealing with tricky fairways and greens is part of my DNA. After watching the locals time and again attack the greens with reckless abandon, and then constantly coming up 30 feet shorter than I intended myself because my discs are plunging into the soft, thick grass like M & M’s in chocolate pudding, I’ll begin to realize some adaptation is necessary. And even then, the old cautious habit is hard to break.

I’m glad that the adjustment I have to make when in those situations is from more to less difficult, but it’s an adjustment nonetheless. It reminds me of the pool table my Grandpa built from scratch long before I was born. He wanted his sons to be good at billiards, so he built the table regulation size but with snooker-size pockets, which are much smaller than the pockets on a normal pool table. It made those who practiced on it more precise with their aim, but it also required an adjustment to the increased shot-making possibilities when playing on normal tables. In both cases, the key is to be aware of the changes in the environment – and then know how to adjust one’s game accordingly. For my dad and his brothers (especially Uncle Bob the eventual pool shark) the adjustment was much like it is for me in disc golf.

Being used to technical courses like DeLaveaga and then adapting to the grassy fairways common in, say, the Michigan Metropark system (like Hudson Mills) requires a conscious effort to be more aggressive. The disc isn’t going to go nearly as far once it hits the ground, and is much less likely to hop, skip and roll its way to an extra stroke or two.

A scenario I’ve played out numerous times is to hook up with some locals at one of these types of courses, and an hour or so into the round I feel like I’m executing my typical game plan pretty well. Staying on the fairways, not missing gimme putts, not taking unnecessary strokes . . . but then I realize I’m already either several strokes behind someone of my own skill level or at the same score as a player obviously not as experienced or polished as me. I think back, and realize the difference has been them attacking the holes compared to me playing with caution. And the funny thing is even after I realize the change required to make the most of an opportunity to go for it hole after hole, my ingrained habits of ‘playing smart’ die hard. That’s what continually practicing in one set of conditions will do.

But as hard as it is to just flip a switch and suddenly start playing more aggressive on flat holes with lush turf, it is infinitely more difficult to adjust from that type of environment to terrain that is hard, barren, rocky, craggy, or rutted. In fact, anything that is uneven means potentially unpredictable results until the disc comes to a complete stop. So how do you adjust your technique and approach when the terrain is more likely to make the disc dance like a water droplet on a hot skillet? You can start with recognizing that careful consideration of the latter will lead to a specific, measure alteration of the former.

The green on Hole 1 at DeLaveaga, with hard soil and exposed roots, offers plenty of chances for the disc to catch an edge and roll away. Photo by Jack Trageser
The green on Hole 1 at DeLaveaga, with hard soil and exposed roots, offers plenty of chances for the disc to catch an edge and roll away. Photo by Jack Trageser

Approach- For those that enjoy the challenge that golf presents in terms of shooting the lowest possible score over the course of a round, nothing is more important than the concept of risk vs. reward. In short, risk/reward involves weighing the risk of bad things happening on a given contemplated shot versus the probability of reward if things go as planned. The most common example might be along these lines: “If I go for this long putt and make it, I’ll get a birdie. If I miss and the disc ends up far enough from the basket that I miss the comeback putt, I’ll get a bogey. If I play it safe and lay up, my chances for par are almost 100 percent.”

The basics of that story are familiar to all of us who play either kind of golf – stick, or disc – but the decision is in the details. How long is the putt? Is it flat, or on a slope? Is there any OB nearby? How about trees or other tall or thick foliage? And, most germane to this post, what is the ground like? Simply put, when it comes to the general risk/reward equations that thinking players apply to every shot decision – consciously or unconsciously – hard, uneven surfaces increase the risk. Always.

The first two holes at DeLaveaga set the tone for what's to follow. On this green, a side-slope is added to the technical terrain, requiring players to execute with perfection. Photo by Jack Trageser.
The first two holes at DeLaveaga set the tone for what’s to follow. On this green, a side-slope is added to the technical terrain, requiring players to execute with perfection. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Uneven means unpredictable, and unpredictable means (at least to a degree) uncontrollable. So generally speaking, the smart play on these types of surfaces is to get more conservative with your decision making. And if the terrain is sloped as well as hard and rutted, the potential for rolling away is further compounded. Adjust accordingly.

As always, there is an exception to the rule. Sometimes you find yourself in a spot where the combination of slope and terrain is so treacherous that the odds aren’t much different whether you lay up or go for it. When I identify a situation like that I’ll often go for it, because nothing feels worse than making what you think is the safe, smart play, only to take the extra stroke(s) anyway.

Technique- There are a few specific techniques to learn and practice that are essential if you want to master hard and lumpy-bumpy terrain. First of all, hard and barren means the disc will have more life after it makes first contact with the ground. Shots that come in at an angle relatively flat to the ground are likely to skip or slide. So when you plan your shot, plan ahead for that extra distance. And keep in mind that the angle at which the disc hits the ground will determine how far and in which direction if will skip or slide.

For drives and longer upshots, if it’s already curving right-to-left, it’ll keep on in that direction after hitting the ground. If the shot is pretty straight and hits the ground with little angle it will probably slide more than skip, and progress mostly straight ahead.

Shots thrown high with lots of hyzer will come down at an angle that is so perpendicular to the ground that they usually stay close to where they land. These are called ‘spike hyzers’ due to the way they fall to the earth- kinda like Lawn Darts. And here is something useful to keep in mind: If you turn the disc over a little on a pretty flat shot, the spin of the disc will act as backspin and arrest it’s progress somewhat. But if you turn it over too much and it lands on an edge on a hard surface, it’ll likely roll. And rollers when you don’t want ’em almost always spell trouble!

The Pancake Shot- For upshots that are less than 100 feet, there is a specific shot that works the best when there is either a great chance of catching an edge and rolling or a steep downhill slope with hard, barren ground. It’s called the ‘pancake’ shot, and the idea is for the disc to land flat and upside down.

Pancake shots are released with an angle and touch that result in the disc landing upside-down and sliding- rather than catching an edge and rolling. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Pancake shots (NOTE: this one is held left-handed) are released with an angle and touch that result in the disc landing upside-down and sliding- rather than catching an edge and rolling. Photo by Jack Trageser.

This shot is executed using a grip with the forefinger and middle finger on the underside of the disc, with the middle finger pressed against the rime, and the thumb holding it firm on the other side, on the top of the disc. The technique is much like an overhand drive, but the power is obviously adjusted for particular shot at hand. More importantly, the disc needs to be released at an angle that will result in it landing perfectly or almost perfectly upside down. If the shot is very short it’ll have less time to flip in the air so the release angle should be almost upside down out of the hand. If it’s longer shot the release angle can be closer to straight up-and-down. The amount of spin will affect the flip too, so experiment and see what gets the results you need.

The grip on the pancake grip is pretty much the same as that used for a typical forehand throw. Photo by Jack Trageser.
The grip for the pancake shot is pretty much the same as that used for a typical forehand throw. This is the author’s lefty pancake grip. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Finally, when using this shot on a steep, hard downhill lie, keep in mind that a disc will slide much more when upside down without the rim to cause friction with the ground. Often times I’ll throw the disc only 10 feet on a shot I need to go 50 or 60 feet, counting on the slide to do most of the work.

Adapting your game to the current environment is an important part of disc golf- especially because you know the course won’t adapt to your game! Have fun out there, and remember to stay grounded!

The ‘Ground-Up’ Approach to Saving Strokes- Part 1

You’ll read the term ‘saving strokes’ all the time in my instructional posts, because I believe the best way for an average player to improve her score is to cut down on taking unnecessary bogeys, doubles, and – shudder – worse. Birdies are wonderful, but for those who consider breaking par consistently to be a lofty goal the quickest way to get there is to identify the avoidable mistakes we repeatedly make- and eliminate them.

There are many ways to do this, and the good news is most don’t require increased athletic talent so much as an understanding of three things: what’s likely to happen given the situation; your current skill level; and a number of environmental factors. This post will focus on a big part of what happens after the disc leaves your hand- specifically the moment when it obeys the law of gravity, as all discs must eventually do. What goes up must come down, and unless your disc lands in a tree or on a roof or somewhere else above the playing surface, it’ll end up hitting the ground.

The question to ask yourself is, when you’re planning the shot you want to throw, how much thought are you giving to what happens after your disc first makes contact with the ground? If your honest answer is ‘none’ or ‘not much’, you’re likely taking some unnecessary strokes during your rounds. And if you’re like me, you might have been giving the subject plenty of consideration for years and still not realizing the important points.

My goal with this lesson is to list a few factors related to the angle or texture of the terrain that may affect your decision making when determining the exact shot you plan to execute. In Part 1 we’ll cover the best ways to deal with holes that slope- uphill, downhill, and side-to-side. Part 2 will address the texture of the terrain – thick grass, dirt and rocks, thick brush, hard-pan. Each presents special considerations, and we’ll cover ’em all. Now, on with the book, er, blog learnin’!

Don’t be a dope- pay attention to the slope!

On courses in many parts of the country, all the holes are completely or pretty much flat. If that describes your neck o’ the woods . . . first of all, I feel for you. Slopes add a whole different element of fun (and sometimes frustration) to disc golf. But assuming you occasionally get to venture to other, more mountainous (or at least hilly) courses, you’ll still want to pay attention. Sometimes the slope of the terrain on a hole goes downhill, sometimes uphill, sometimes left-to-right, and sometimes right-to-left. In each of these cases there is a specific adjustment you can make to your throws that will give you better results than if you had throw the hole as if it was flat.

Uphill & Downhill- The first thing to keep in mind when throwing to spots above or below you – especially on downhill shots – is to be sure your flight line is roughly parallel to the line between you and the target. When the teepad is flat but the target is far below, like the famous Top of the World #27 at DeLaveaga in Santa Cruz, CA, players that don’t know better tend to throw on a line parallel to the teepad. The result is a shot that flies high into the air, then fades out way short and wide of the target. When throwing downhill it’s important to make that line of pull-back and release match the slope of the terrain- not the flatness of the teeing or throwing surface. Watch the video examples given by Greg Barsby, Don Smith, Pat Brown and Avery Jenkins in the DeLa link above. In each of them you can easily notice the player angling their throws downward.

On hole 27 at DeLaveaga, throws that are not aimed downward toward the hole look for a second or two like they’re headed to the Pacific Ocean. Then they fade quickly and severely and get nowhere close to the hole. Photo by John Hernlund.

Uphill shots require this same principle, but because it’s pretty obvious that if you don’t adjust your angle upward you’ll throw the disc right into the ground, players make that mistake less often and less dramatically. The main thing to focus on when throwing uphill is not letting the disc hyzer too much and keeping it somewhat flat. It’s hard enough getting uphill distance; shots that do the ‘ol float-and-fade will be even more pathetic when the slope causes the disc to drop helplessly down, occasionally right past the player (I’ve seen it happen).

The other thing to keep in mind on uphill or downhill shots: take notice whether the area where you plan to land is a continuation of the slope of the shot, or if it levels off. For uphill shots with an intended landing zone that is also uphill, don’t count on much skip or slide. Conversely, if it’s downhill plan for extra distance after the disc first touches down- especially if the slope continues down well past the basket/landing zone.

Sideways Slope- Holes with a terrain angle that cuts across the fairway are much trickier to adjust for a couple reasons. First of all, the slope may be partially sideways and partially uphill or downhill. When that is the case you need to consider the information coming next and do your best to combine it with the tips I just shared. But the really tricky part of playing a hole with side-slope is the roll-away potential. And while being the victim of unintended and undesired rolls is sometimes unavoidable, you can increase your odds significantly by understanding a pretty simple principle.

I’m a bit embarrassed to write that it took me a long time to figure this one out. But when I did, it was one of those ‘A-ha!’ moments.

For the longest time, it just seemed logical to always try to land my disc at as close to the same angle as the slope as possible, reasoning that when I did that it would be more likely to slide or skid to a stop rather than stand up on an edge and roll away. And I was partially right, but the key thing I was ignoring was the direction of the spin. I’ll give an example, but as a lefthander and I am going to exercise my right to use the ‘left-hand-backhand’ example rather than the typical R-H-B-H that is usually cited. (You righties will just have to make the adjustment like we lefties normally do  : )

Hole 4 at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, CA is sloped so severely from right-to-left that most players feel compelled to throw forehand upshots so the disc will be cutting into the slope when it hits the ground rather than sliding down the slope. Photo by Jack Trageser.

So I’m a lefty throwing backhand on a hole with severe right-to-left slope, like Hole #3 at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, CA.  In the past I’d start my upshot above the hole and planning for some slide try to land above the hole, and hope it touched down flat and stopped before too much slide. But this approach has two major problems: First of all landing nice and flat on a slope often results in much more skip and/or slide than you bargain for- especially if the surface is hard and bare (more on that in Part 2). But worse, left-handed backhand throws spin counter-clockwise, and when the slope is right to left that becomes a very fast roller with the slightest inducement. If the disc lands anything less than perfectly flat, or experiences one bump off a root or rock, it’s ‘off to the races!’

After this happened to me a few hundred times, a realization began to illuminate my thick, dark, cavernous skull. If this approach results in disaster so frequently, maybe the opposite would be better. I think I got the idea from guy named Costanza who I played frolf with once.

So I instead threw an exaggerated lefty backhand hyzer that crashed into the ground at an angle practically perpendicular to the slope- the very angle you’d normally associate with rollers. But – and this is the key – the counter-clockwise spin acts like backspin and stops the forward motion of the disc. Also, the momentum of the disc, while going forward, is also going uphill rather than downhill.

Using this technique the disc stops pretty close to where it lands a large majority of the time. It usually flips over upside down immediately like a good disc. Every now and then I catch a bad break and the disc stands up on an edge and there is just enough gravity to start it rolling. But as I said, when slopes are involved nothing can prevent that from happening once in a while.

The takeaway here is pretty simple: When your shot is going to spin clockwise and the slope is right-to-left, you’ll get less roll-aways by throwing sharp hyzers into the face of the slope. When your spin is counter-clockwise and the slope is right-to-left, same thing.

Part 2, which focuses on the texture of the terrain, is coming soon!

inbounds Disc Golf inFlight Guide review

My input in reviewing the inFlight Guide is intended to provide the perspective of a veteran and well-informed disc golfer- as opposed to PJ, who is a squeaky-clean newbie by comparison. However, it occurs to me that for that very reason I’m likely not a poster child for someone who would use the tool on the company’s website much less purchase the printed guide. So I’ve also solicited the input of someone who serves as a human ‘disc performance guide’ on a daily basis, the guy who runs the very busy pro shop at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course here in Santa Cruz, CA. His name is Mark Karleskind, and as a side-note he’s also the step-dad of 3-time world champ Nate Doss.

But before I go to Mark’s assessment, let me explain why I don’t really pay attention to any disc rating systems. I appreciate inbounds’ efforts to come up with a universal rating system that solves the issue of disparity between those provided by disc manufacturers like Innova, Discraft and Vibram, but that’s only one of the issues that I see limiting the usefulness of any type of system.

First of all – addressed in sections in the inFlight Guide titled ‘Assumptions’ and ‘Factors Affecting Disc Flight’ – there are many external factors to consider that will force a user to make mental adjustments to what is on the page (or screen). The endless combinations of those factors make any predictions of performance based on a system that takes only qualities of the disc into account iffy at best.

Next is the reality of any player plugged into her or his disc golf community typically makes disc purchasing decisions. Sure, we might read about a new disc in the magazine or see an ad online, but we’re much more likely to see it in action on the course. Either we see the guy we usually out-drive sail one past our disc off the tee and ask ‘what the (heck)?’, or the guy who likes to show off his latest and greatest will point it out before he even throws it. In either case, we’ll get the opportunity to ask detailed questions and probably even test it out for ourselves. No guide can compare that kind of customized, tactile information gathering experience.

My final reason is admittedly very subjective, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. At this advanced point in my disc golf journey, I’m more set in my ways than newer players. Through much trial-and-error I’ve built a disc lineup that I know and trust, and additions to the ‘team’ are now somewhat rare. I added the ESP Nuke after hearing enough about it’s distance that I had to give it a try, and my intrigue with the idea of rubber discs led to the addition of several Vibram models in my bag. But in each of those cases a guide wouldn’t have affected my decision one way or the other. I wanted to see how those discs worked for me.

But enough about me. Keep in mind that my input is subjective and based on my perspective as a crotchety old guy that uses the same Aviar DX model he’s used for 15 years and still carries a roller he bought from Steady Ed in the mid-90’s. Yeah, that Steady Ed. Now let’s hear from Mark at the pro shop, a guy who is older and even more crotchety than me but is still more qualified to give an expert opinion on the inFlight Guide because he answers the same questions on disc performance again and again, sometimes dozens of times a day.

I visited Mark at his disc warehouse, and thought it was rather fitting that as he thumbed through the pages the setting behind him was a mural made of shelves of neatly stacked discs.

The first thing he noticed was that the entire guide was in alphabetical order, with all discs lumped into one group. “I’d list it by disc type, so people looking for a midrange could go to a section with only those discs” he said, after noticing that the Latitude 64 was surrounded by distance drivers. When I pointed out that the online tool lets users compare any three discs side-by-side, he said that was ideal.

Karleskind also noted that in today’s era of specialized discs, categories should go beyond just putt-and-approach, midrange, fairway driver and distance driver. He suggested adding a category for ‘super-long’ drivers as well. He then gave me his assessment of the overall usefulness of the inFlight Guide:

“I think it’s a good guide,” he said. “Whether players will spend money on it is another question, but I can see the online version getting lots of use. It’s free, and the ability to compare any three discs is something that has never been available. Plus, they can keep updating it with all the new discs that keep coming out.”

I asked him if he thought the printed guide would be a useful tool to have onsite at brick-and-mortar stores like his that sell disc golf discs. Oh yeah,” he replied. I’d use it myself just to illustrate the answers I give to people’s questions on which discs to buy. And when I’m real busy, customers can use it themselves.” A little later he came back to the subject again to add that the guide will be a great help to stores that have employees selling discs who aren’t experts on the game- like general sporting goods stores and corner markets. “They can easily look up a disc to help answer a question, and the book will help educate them over time.”

So there you have it. My resident disc-seller expert gives the combination of the printed and online inFlight Guides two ‘thumbers’ up.