Gap Analysis: The science and art of navigating trees in disc golf

Many playing companions over the years have heard me mutter “I see holes” out loud at some point in my pre-shot routine during a round of disc golf. It’s a ‘go-to’ phrase of mine, and has been for probably 15 years. Some ask why I say those particular words when getting ready for certain shots, and they get the answer(s) you’re about to read below.

The funny thing about this particular mantra is that I use it for two distinctly different reasons- yet the two reasons often blend together. And the place where the two meet – the axis of risk/reward assessment (a scientific approach) and more nebulous subjects like positive thinking and confidence (closer to an art than a science) – is really the essence of the mental side of golf. As always, this is best explained through the use of specific examples, which we’ll get into, but first a brief explanation of the two reasons for “I see holes!”

The history of this mantra for me was the light bulb-over-the-head realization that even on shots where the trees and other obstacles seem so numerous that throwing a disc cleanly through and past them is impossible, it’s rarely as bleak as that. In fact, when you consider the overall area covering a particular flight path you’re hoping to take, the gaps between the trees usually represent a much larger portion of the total space than the obstructions.

After this fact became apparent to me, I would chant “I see holes” as a way to remind myself to think about and visualize a clean flight rather than dreading the relatively few disc whacking trees it had to pass. In this context it’s really just positive thinking and positive imagery, and the mantra is a way to keep my thoughts focused on the good things that I plan to happen rather than the bad things that might occur. And it really works! That’s how it started out when the phrase first popped into my head. But it was only a matter of time before my analytical side dissected the magical effectiveness of ‘I see holes’.

Ironically, as explained above my little mantra started out as a vague positive-thinking mind trick. And I’m convinced it works. But sometimes I find myself with so many trees between my lie and the basket (or whatever fairway spot I’m aiming for) that even a positive thinker along the magnitude of Stuart Smalley would have a hard time ‘seeing holes’. I’m talking about situations where I know that realistically the chances of getting through clean on the ideal line are less than 50 percent. At times like that I’m forced to choose between (to use a technical term) the least suck-y option.

When it’s time to select from different options on the golf course, the scientific side of me kicks in. Thoughts of percentages and risk/reward kick in. You would think that would preclude the nebulous realm of ‘I see holes’, but the mantra actually has a place here as well. This time, though, the more applicable adjectives are ‘practical,’ ‘sensible’, and the more golf-specific ‘high-percentage’. Depending on the situation, there are a couple different applications for this approach.

Searching Far and Wide

When your direct path to the target is blocked, look for gaps to the left and right that offer the best alternatives. Sometimes, as in Example 1 (click on the image to get a better view), you can hit the gap with a shot that will curve toward the target after it passes through. Other times the layout won’t allow for anything but a straight shot. Either way, though, it’s better to get most of the way there than aim for a tiny slot and hit something right in front of you.

Sometimes the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 1: Sometimes the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. In this case the player needed to throw a shot that curved left after clearing that gap. Photo by Jack Trageser.

The ‘General Area’ Gap

This approach usually applies to instances where the obstacles in question are not right in front of you but further away, and evenly distributed, so that there is no single gap that is the clear choice.

In situations where I see what appears to be a wall of trees blocking my route that is far enough away that aiming for one particular small gap isn’t feasible I try to identify the least-dense section of that wall. Kind of like an attacking army would look for the weak spot that is most vulnerable. To be clear, I’m not talking about finding a single gap between two trees. In the situation I’m describing, the objective is to identify, aim for and hit a general area that offers the least resistance to a disc that wants to pass through relatively unmolested.

In a sense, I’m trying to find the one realistically hittable zone where there are more open spaces than trees (‘I see holes!’). A key point is that in situations like these I have shifted my goal away from selecting the shot that can get me all the way to the target – because there is either no realistic option for doing so or the chances that I’ll succeed are extremely low –  to selecting the shot that has the best chance to advance the disc as far as possible.

Example 2 (again, click on the image to get the necessary larger view) shows two gaps- one on the left of the photo, and one on the right. The gap on the right is the more direct route to the basket (hidden behind the trees on the right), and it is also a ‘true’ gap in the sense that a perfectly accurate throw will definitely get through. However, I chose to aim for the general area circled on the left for the following reasons: 1- even though a couple skinny tree trunks cut through the area, the overall area is much larger than the single gap on the right, and my odds of getting through are better; 2- the gap on the left provides a better worst-case scenario as there are no early trees to hit on the way to the gap (notice the early trees on the right side on the route to the gap on the right); and 3- as a left-hander throwing a backhand shot, if I get through the gap on the left with the throw I want, it will skip-hyzer right, in the direction of the basket. The right gap would require me to throw a shot that stays perfectly straight for 200-plus feet- a difficult feat to say the least.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, hopefully filling a few ‘gaps’ (couldn’t resist) in your strategic and mental game. Here is a quick list of the important take-aways:

  • Most of the time, even when it seems like there are lots of obstacles in the way, it’s mostly open space (holes, you see). Focusing on the space rather than the other stuff will enable you to hit those gaps more often. In other words . . . visualize success!
  • When you find yourself hemmed into a particularly tight spot, take a wide view of all your possibly escape routes. If all the more direct paths to your target require hitting tiny openings with an unlikely perfect throw, settle for a higher-percentage throw that at least allows you to make some progress.
  • When your obstacles are further away and no single gap stands out as the obvious route to take, look for a general zone that is the most open. Then target that large zone and revert to the first bullet point: think positive!

You Make the Call

In the last photo – Example 3 – there are three routes circled. If you open the full image you can see that the basket is shown in the middle of the center gap. The question I have for you, the reader, is ‘Which gap would you choose (the right rough on hole 10 at DeLaveaga, by the way), and why’? Please use the Comments link at the end of this post to provide your answer. I’ll wait a few days for the answers to come in, then I’ll post a comment with the route that I took, and why.

In this photo the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right- despite the fact that several small tree trunks criss-cross the opening - is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 2- In this photo the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right- despite the fact that several small tree trunks criss-cross the opening – is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. Photo by Jack Trageser.
On this one you get to make the call. Would you go for: A-the gap on the left; B- the gap in the middle; or C- the gap on the right? And most importantly, why? Vote in the comments section below. Photo by Jack Trageser.
EXAMPLE 3- On this one you get to make the call. Would you go for: A-the gap on the left; B- the gap in the middle (note, the basket is in the middle of this gap); or C- the gap on the right? And most importantly, why? Vote in the comments section below. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Casual golf’s competitive summit: the epic, friendly grudge match

I rarely dedicate an entire post to a first-person account of a disc golf round, because I know from reading others’ how quickly that can get old. But on rare occasions I feel it’ll make for good enough reading that I break my own rule- and today is just such an instance. If you aren’t familiar with DeLaveaga in Santa Cruz, CA, follow the provided links to hole descriptions to better visualize the situations described.

First a tiny bit of background. My friend Alan and I have played together since the late 90’s. Back then we used to gamble small wagers, and in the early days he was an established pro (he in fact won the Faultline Classic/California State Championship at DeLaveaga in 1994) and I was playing Am1 and just learning the craft. He hustled me more often than not, but I payed attention, and eventually my improving game and injuries on his part swung the balance in my favor. I’d say that I’ve had the advantage for the past eight years or so. But in the past few months Alan has really cranked up his game, and we’re pretty even right now. I’m sure the readers will agree that it’s much more fun if you’re evenly matched with your playing partner. Which brings us to today.

We try hard to play when the courses are not too crowded, but this weekend a Saturday 2 PM round at DeLa was the only time that would work for both of us. We’re just not used to being on the course at such a peak time. It was like a party spread over 80 acres! That, for us, is not a good thing on a golf course. Discs flying every which way, voices continually cascading up and down the ravines .  .  . it was wild, man. Crazy wild. And the wind was frenetic too. It was pretty gusty, but the really challenging aspect was the fact that it kept changing direction. You’d factor the headwind into a certain shot and just like that, tailwind.

Hole 1 was not indicative of how the rest of the round would go. Alan essentially missed the very generous double-mando and took a bogey, something he would not do much the rest of the round. After that, we both kind of dug in our heels for the next six holes with matching pars. Granted we missed opportunities on some birdie holes like 3 and 5, but considering the rowdy groups we had to play through at least we played relatively mistake-free. I had to save par after my drive on #6 crossed an OB line by one foot just right of the basket, but otherwise not much drama. Even though I’ve been landing across that OB line often lately, Alan correctly pointed out that “it makes sense to go for it when the putt to save par is less than 20 feet.”

On hole 8 things started to get interesting. We played through a group of four that was courteous enough to let us through, but out of ignorance (not malice) moved and talked during our drives. I went first, still holding the tee after hole 1, and my drive ticked something on the left side of the fairway then shot across it into the rough on the right, well short. Alan laced his Z-Glide on a nice hyzer line that would result in a birdie that got him back to par and tied the score. My compliment for how well he dealt with all the commotion in getting the good drive off could have been taken as being of the backhanded variety, due to his well-known preference for absolute silence and stillness. But he took the high road and thanked me without a hint of sarcasm. My difficult second shot saved par and prevented the dreaded two-stroke swing.

Alan picked up a second birdie in a row on the short but technical hole 8A, grabbing the lead by one. He just hasn’t been missing any make-able putts lately, and his 25-footers on both 8 and 8A were dead-center perfect. We enjoy playing subtle mind games, but I refrained making this comment out loud just yet. At this point it was still me and him against the crowds.

We both collected pars on 9, which was quite good considering the slurring slackers among the group we played through. One guy in yellow-framed pimp shades mumbled a prediction that we’d hit the trees guarding the narrow gap like his pals all did- even though he didn’t wish that fate upon us. Something along those lines, anyway. But we didn’t, and he and his friend were left in our wake (for the time being).

Hole 10 at DeLaveaga from the tee. The author's lefty drive was a technical; S turn that passed all the tree in the fairway to the left before cutting back right to the hole. Photo by John Hernlund.
Hole 10 at DeLaveaga from the tee. The author’s lefty drive was a technical; S turn that passed all the tree in the fairway to the left before cutting back right to the hole. Photo by John Hernlund.

On hole 10 I impressed the next group we passed with a high flex hyzer with a Blizzard Ape that, as planned, soared left of the trees before fading back to the right (I’m a lefty, remember) to within 28 feet. My putt found the chains for a birdie and the tie. After 11 holes we were both at -1, Alan with two birdies and one bogey, and me with that one birdie and the rest pars. Nice, clean golf.

On hole 11 with the basket in the long-left position even good drives require accurate upshots to earn par. Mine was too aggressive on the left side, and after another ricochet I ended up barely inbounds on the right with probably 50 large trees between me and the cage. I scratched out a bogey- the best I could do – and Alan turned a great second shot into a par, putting him back in the lead by one. He increased it to two with a nice drive for easy birdie on #12 in the ‘island green’ position.

After we both carded a pretty standard four on the 580-foot wooded #13, a.k.a. I-5, Alan hit a 40-foot par putt on 14 that had me wondering if he was ever going to miss a putt again. This time I couldn’t help stating as much out loud, and I sincerely meant it as a compliment rather than a sinister bit of psychological warfare.

After routine pars on 15, Alan picked up another stroke when I bogeyed 16 with a drive so horribly right that I had no option but to pitch out sideways to the fairway. “The wind!” I cried. Then his birdie on 18 (where we once again encountered the rambling, drooling fools from back on hole 9) gave him his largest lead at 4 strokes, -2 to +2.

On the next hole, 19, I received a faint glimmer of hope when we both threw near perfect drives straight up the middle. Each of us skipped into the fallen log that crosses the fairway about 20 feet in front of the short pin, but his must have rolled backward a bit because he ended up with a 35-footer. He wisely chose to lay up rather than risk the steep ravine just behind the basket, and my knee-knocker with the same backdrop went in for a birdie and the tee for the first time since hole 10. I admitted to him afterward that I’ve never been so happy to see him lay up, being certain that he’d make any putt he attempted.

On hole 20 (in the right position) I threw a tall, climbing shot with my Ape that started with a steep anhyzer angle to the left, over high tree tops, fading for the second half of the flight to the right and landing within 15 feet. Another birdie, and the lead was down to two strokes. Alan joked that it was getting warm “right around here” (pointing behind his head) and guys on the next tee overheard and yelled “He’s breathing down your neck, eh?!” Everyone had a good laugh. (It’s worth mentioning here that Alan and I haven’t always been able to jointly enjoy the moment of close competition like this. We’ve come a long way. In fact, we stopped wagering even small amounts years ago because things were just too intense. Click here to get a flavor for our competitiveness)

After pars on the next couple holes, we came to #23, a prime birdie opportunity that we both got to within 30 feet of with our drives. I went first, and nailed my tricky downhill low-ceiling putt. Alan came as close as a person can possibly come to a perfect putt himself, but missed by a fraction of an inch (Alan called it a ‘micrometer’) to the right and spit out. He also had to putt a bit firmer than normal due to the wind, or it likely would have stayed in anyway.

Down to a one-stroke lead, -2 to -1. The drama has been on a slow simmer until now, and the heat was about to get cranked up quickly for the last four holes.

Hole 25 is uphill with another slope running left-to-right, and an OB road all along the right side. The basket sits behind a wide oak tree. I stepped up and threw a perfect drive, starting it left and letting it fade right just enough to land it underneath the basket without skipping toward the road. Alan needed to match my birdie to hold his one-stroke lead, and to do that he had to start his drive over the road on the right, trusting it stay right long enough to clear the oak then hyzer back in bounds at the end. Mission accomplished. Both birdie putts were complete gimmies, making the score -3 to -2 with three to play. Before marching up the hill to the next tee, we shared a square-on high five (you know how sometimes they awkwardly miss) and a couple warm smiles. I think we both had an inkling how the round might end.

Hole 26 is also uphill – even more so – with a dramatic, steep, left-to-right slope as well. I collected a par, but Alan’s upshot just caught a lip to the right of the basket and rolled away, resulting in a bogey. Tied with two to play. He had given away so little during the round, and now an ill-timed bad break brought us even. Alan lamented how close the disc came to doing exactly what he planned, but kept his emotions in check admirably well.

Hole 26a at DeLaveaga, photo by John Hernlund
Hole 26a at DeLaveaga, photo by John Hernlund

26A at DeLa is flat, on a mountaintop of sorts, with sharp drop-offs left and right. Drives need to clear a ceiling early and they must start straight to avoid early trees and finish straight to keep from dropping off either side. Alan’s drive was perfect, giving him a routine par. Mine, on the other hand, ground into the fairway early and left me an almost impossible upshot into the teeth of the wind. I thought I had pulled it off, but the wind carried it right over the basket and just over the edge of the slope on the right. Bogey. Arggh! All that work coming back from 4 strokes back, only to bogey the second to last hole! I don’t remember how well I controlled my frustration at that point, but it was definitely fighting to get out.

Stepping up to the finishing hole at DeLa at that point, on this clear, windy day, it was obvious why it’s called Top of the World. We could see everything from several holes spread out in front of us to the glimmering Pacific Ocean, and a forest of trees in between.

Alan threw first, and his drive seemed absolutely perfect out of his hand. But near the end of the flight when it should have begun fading back to the left and the basket, the wind kept it right and straight where it finally came to rest about 80 feet right and 30 or so short.

As I stepped onto the teepad, knowing his par was assured and a birdie would be necessary to tie, a couple mountain bikers approached us from being just as a couple other golfer hiked up to us from below (playing the holes out-of-order, which in disc golf is of course no big deal). Alan and I looked at eachother and both laughed because Alan had remarked earlier that people kept approaching when it was his turn to throw. Now it was my turn.

Hole 27 at DeLa, with the city of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean in the background. Photo by John Hernlund.
Hole 27 at DeLa, with the city of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean in the background. Photo by John Hernlund.

After spouting some kind of bravado like “I feed off this” (the extra viewers) I launched my Obex hard and well left of the basket, counting on the overstable disc to hyzer back at just the right time. For those that don’t know, the long downhill hole requires throws with a downward trajectory to get all the way there, and as the disc headed for the tops of a grove of large oaks I yelled “Get up!” four or five times in rapid succession. It just cleared the trees as it began to fade right, then disappeared for a second behind those same trees. When we all saw it again, it was sweeping toward the basket, then landing 18 feet away. The guys watching were duly impressed, and after a little cheer myself I realized that if I didn’t hit the putt it meant nothing.

Due to the wind Alan chose to lay up and settle for no worse than a tie. I hit the putt, and that’s how we finished: knotted up at -2. I was glad that no one had to lose such an epic back-and-forth struggle. Alan might have felt differently, but he didn’t show it. I’ll try to get him to post something in the comments section. We’ll see if his version of any of this differs from mine.

We recorded the scores on this card after the fact, and had to use an old card from a past Masters Cup where holes 23 and 24 were not played.
We recorded the scores on this card after the fact, and had to use an old card from a past Masters Cup where holes 23 and 24 were not played.

Afterward we stuck around a bit and sung a few songs in the middle of the parking lot while he played his Ukelele. We’d never done that before  (at least not there) and I think we just wanted to bask a little longer in the glow of camaraderie of casual golf’s competitive summit: the epic, friendly grudge match.

The author and his playing partner relax after a tense match.
The author and his playing partner (with ukelele) relax after a tense match. Photo by Jack Trageser