Don’t let the bad breaks break you

Disc golf is a game of skill. Players with superior skills generally end up with superior scores. But no one is immune to the occasional twist of fate. Stuff happens- even to the best and most cautious players. At least once in every round you play, after the disc leaves your hand, it takes an expected and unplanned skip, roll, or bounce that gives you a different result than what you think you “deserved.”

These are The Breaks, and if you play competitively you know they’re a (sometimes big) part of the game. While you have no control over The Breaks, how you react to them is completely up to you. What’s more, your mindset and resulting play after a bad break often impact your final score more than the break itself. Read on for three and a half insights that will hopefully keep the bad breaks from breaking you.

#1. Don’t infuse them with mystical power

It doesn’t matter how you ended up behind the tree. Focus on making the putt!

Some use the term “luck” when referring to this aspect of the game, as in “bad luck” or “lucky break.” I’m not superstitious, but even if I was I think I’d still prefer the word arbitrary. It’s tough enough to overcome unexpected and undeserved difficulties; if I embrace the belief that some cosmic force is working against me I’ve just given myself an excuse to stop trying. Who am I to overcome a Cosmic Force?

I choose to believe that all breaks are arbitrary and that they even out over time. I also see disc golf in many ways as emblematic of life. And sometimes life, as we all know, isn’t fair.

#2. Acknowledge good breaks, too

It’s human nature to acknowledge bad breaks more than good breaks. We get both, but we might look past the good ones for egotistical reasons. Taking credit comes much more naturally for most of us than taking blame.

Try to fight this tendency. If you recognize the breaks that benefit your score as readily as the breaks that hurt, it’ll benefit your game in a couple ways. First of all, it’ll help you accept that both good and bad breaks happen, that they’re just a part of the game. You’ll be less likely to think the forces of the universe are aligned against you.

An awareness of good breaks can also help keep you grounded. I played the 23-hole winter layout of my home course, DeLaveaga DGC, a couple days ago and shot an 11-under par with 14 birdies. The praise from others at the course had me feeling pretty darn good, but on reflection, it could have easily been 5- or 6-under. I pulled my drive on hole 8 toward OB, and would have gone in the road if the throw sailed six inches higher. Instead, the barrier of logs funneled a bad drive toward the green, and I barely eked a 40-foot downhill putt into the cage for a chain-less birdie. Several other putts that could have gone either way went in, and a couple other less-than-stellar drives resulted not in the potential bogey trouble or routine upshots they warranted but birdie looks. On top of all that, I missed four putts inside the circle! I don’t want to let a good final result — which I believe to have been positively affected by breaks in my favor — let me overlook the many mistakes I made.

#2.5. Accept good breaks without apology

This extension of point number two is a reminder not to go overboard with humility and self-flagellation. It is healthy to acknowledge good breaks because doing so will help you accept that, just like in life, you get things both good and bad that you don’t deserve. That in turn will help you take things in stride when the bad breaks inevitably come. But don’t take it too far. Golf is a game of imperfection, and we need to hold onto all the genuine confidence we can muster.

When you get an incredibly good kick that results in a birdie, own it. You shouldn’t feel you didn’t “deserve” it, nor should you express embarrassment to others in the group. Recognize it as just one more part of the arbitrary flow of breaks, good and bad, that helps make our game the emotional roller coaster that it is.

#3. Let it go

When bad breaks happen at particularly bad times, it just might help to hear that hit song from the original Frozen movie in your head.

Let’s say you throw a perfect drive on a technical par 3 with the basket perched precariously atop a steep wooded slope. Maybe you even hear some distant cheering from players on another hole. Then, upon reaching the green, you find that you ended up OB, 90 feet from the basket. You’re on your third shot with 20 trees to negotiate.

It doesn’t matter how you got here. This is your current reality.

When bad breaks happen at particularly bad times, it just might help to hear that hit song from the original Frozen movie in your head.

Let’s say you throw a perfect drive on a technical par 3 with the basket perched precariously atop a steep wooded slope. Maybe you even hear some distant cheering from players on another hole. Then, upon reaching the green, you find that you ended up OB, 90 feet from the basket. You’re on your third shot with 20 trees to negotiate.

It doesn’t matter how you got here. This is your current reality.

Whether you hit the pole with an epic drive and tragically rolled to where you are now, or shanked your drive mightily, it just doesn’t matter. Either way, the best way to proceed is to let it go. All that matters is what you do next.

This one is really the key to dealing with bad breaks, and it’s part of Sports Psychology 101. Ignore the past, and for the moment ignore the future as well. Focusing only on the shot at hand gives you the best chance to execute.

This is something that is hard to do in the moment, so plan ahead. Before your next round, when emotions are not ruling the mental roost, take the time to fully accept and internalize the fact that the only rational, constructive reaction to a bad break is to instantly move past it. The next time disaster strikes, you may feel like expressing your anger, frustration, and disappointment, but you’ll know that putting it behind you and focusing on your next shot is the more sensible reaction.

The only rational, constructive reaction to a bad break is to instantly move past it. Let it go. Put it behind you and focus on your next shot.

Whether you hit the pole with an epic drive and tragically rolled to where you are now, or shanked your drive mightily, it just doesn’t matter. Either way, the best way to proceed is to let it go. All that matters is what you do next.

This one is really the key to dealing with bad breaks, and it’s part of Sports Psychology 101. Ignore the past, and for the moment ignore the future as well. Focusing only on the shot at hand gives you the best chance to execute.

This is something that is hard to do in the moment, so plan ahead. Before your next round, when emotions are not ruling the mental roost, take the time to fully accept and internalize the fact that the only rational, constructive reaction to a bad break is to instantly move past it. The next time disaster strikes, you may feel like expressing your anger, frustration, and disappointment, but you’ll know that putting it behind you and focusing on your next shot is the more sensible reaction.

A big part of the mental side of disc golf is developing an ability to override feelings and emotions with knowledge and planning. The observations above will hopefully help in this particular scenario. When bad breaks come your way — and they will — treat them more like a slight detour on your road to a successful round, rather than a land mine.

As ball golf courses struggle, disc golf fills the void

Contrasting the rapidly expanding number of disc golf courses in the U.S. with the, uh, relative ‘shrinkage‘ in ball golf is one way to measure the unstoppable ascension of The New Golf.

Both Steve Dodge and I have publicly predicted that the number of disc golf courses in the U.S. will overtake traditional golf venues in the near future. Mr. Dodge wrote about it on the DGPT blog, and I addressed it a couple of times in my book. In both cases we considered the two types of courses as mutually exclusive- in other words, they are either one or the other. A growing trend, however, is changing the math in a BIG way.

If we’re comparing facilities that offer ONLY ball golf to all the parks, open spaces, AND commercial venues where permanent disc golf courses exist, our seemingly aggressive predictions of eight and five years may turn out to be conservative.

And you can guess why, can’t you?

disc golf on golf courses, disc golf lessons, disc golf teambuilding
The basket of Hole 11 of the disc golf layout on DeLaveaga Municipal Golf Golf in Santa Cruz, CA sits perilously close to a sand trap. Traps and greens are typically one-stroke hazards in disc golf.

Public ball golf courses are dropping left and right. More often than not they operate at a loss these days, and those that try to remain open are desperate to attract new patrons. Enter disc golf, a sport headed in a decidedly different direction. This story from the San Diego Union-Tribune offers a perfect example.

San Diego runs multiple public golf courses, but only the famous Torrey Pines complex with two championship 18-hole tracks turns a profit. The rest of them are subsidized by the city. Balboa and Mission Bay, which according to the article lose a combined $2 million each year, felt compelled to attract a new breed of golfer. For a relatively minimal investment they added disc golf and footgolf, and (no surprise), usage at both courses has spiked.

“The spikes in usage at Balboa and Mission Bay have been partly attributed to upgrades, including new foot and disc golf courses added to each and a greater focus on the quality of course conditions.”  -David Garrick, SD Union Tribune

A quick Google search yields plenty of other examples, like this one from Ceres, CA, and another from Tuscon, AZ where the city council recommended more desperate measures- with disc golf still the end goal.

The article from San Diego also mentioned some details on how much it costs to operate a traditional golf course. According to Garrick, energy and water costs for all San Diego public courses are expected to rise this year from $2.1 to $2.6 million, with personnel costs rising from $4.3 million to $4.6 million. Their overall budget will approach $20 million!

So is it realistic to think that within a few short years the number of disc golf-only courses in the U.S. combined with the number of ball golf/disc golf hybrid courses will be greater than the number of ball golf-only courses? Sure seems like it.

We’re trending that way already, as budget-strapped cities and municipalities are figuring out that disc golf courses require a tiny fraction of the overhead needed to keep a traditional golf course playable, in addition to requiring far less land.

What do you suppose will happen when it also becomes common knowledge that the average taxpayer these days is more likely to embrace the easier-to-learn, quicker-to-play, less expensive, and less environmentally impactful version of the game?

Get ready for The New Golf. It will eclipse the old, obsolete model, much sooner than you think.

Back to Bloggin’

As George ‘Frolf’ Costanza once famously said, “I’m back baby, I’m back!”

Tell all your content-hungry disc golf pals who (in addition to playing and watching) read about the sport whenever they can that the School of Disc Golf is back to posting a mixture of disc golf content- not just the instructional stuff tied to our core business.

You’ll once again also be seeing current disc golf news from around the world, with a focus on stories about the sport’s growth around the world. Like this story from Bay County, MI. Check out this awesome quote from director of recreation and facilities Cristen Gignac:

“One of the big parts of this grant is we do public input,” she said, adding during the month of September they had a survey that went out to the community. “There was a lot of interest in disc golf, you’ll see that as a priority in a handful of different places.”

Stories like this are popping up everywhere, and I love to share them. Add in occasional commentary provided by yours truly, Jack Tupp (aka Frisbeebrain), and you’ll see a good mix of disc golf content- much of which you won’t get anywhere else. Use the ‘Subscribe’ link at right to make sure the good stuff hits your email inbox before the metaphorical ink is dry.

A little about the history of this blog:

Back in 2008, I decided to launch one of the sport’s first blogs, DeLa Blahg then went on to write (along with PDGA’s Steve Hill) for Rattling Chains, and after that All Things Disc Golf- both also excellent pioneering Disc Golf Blogs. Since then I launched the School of Disc Golf to offer lessons and teambuilding events and published two books. Three Paths to Better Disc Golf offers multiple tips to help you shoot lower scores, while The Disc Golf Revolution aims to help you share the sport – in all its important glory – with the outside world.

DeLaShermis13
You’ll also see examples of my personal disc golf-themed smartphone captures, like this recent one from Hole 13 at my home course, DeLaveaga in Santa Cruz, CA.

Enough about me, right? Everyone is encouraged to post comments, and send me questions, ideas of topics to cover, and story links. If you want to peruse past posts for ideas, just use the search box. Let’s talk some disc golf!

Finally, a teaser for what’s up next: I’ll be sharing a completely fresh take on whether baskets should be smaller/more challenging on the pro tour. Stay tuned!

The perfect playing partner, and the almost near-perfect round

Today was a good day.

More specifically, today was a very good disc golf day in the life of a player whose days of high-level competition are mostly behind him.

At the risk of boring those who could care less about the disc golf exploits of others I will recount my round today, because it gives me the opportunity of sharing yet another lesson on one the sport’s finer points. Specifically, we’ll examine what I think is the appropriate way to act when someone in your group is having a potentially personal-best, or-for-some-other-reason historical round.

A little backdrop: I had been camping with the family and hadn’t played DeLaveaga for almost a week. In that time, the baskets had been moved (some of them at least) for the first time in a couple months. Ten of the 29 baskets were in different spots than the last 20 or so rounds I’d played there.

My friend Asaf and I met for a casual round this afternoon, and for the sake of brevity I will tell you that he shot a +10, which is a little worse than his average and significantly above his recent scores of between +2 and +6.

The round started off for innocuously enough for me with a par on hole 1  (basket in the A position). But I did feel an energy, or strength, on the drive, and it gave me confidence to play Hole 2 aggressively. Hole 2 at DeLa is uphill and also a fairly sharp left dogleg with plenty of trees. As a left-hander it requires a technically near-perfect S-turn drive with premium power. I felt as I released it that as long as it didn’t roll away it would be good, and it was. Close enough to putt with the Ape driver that did the heavy lifting. Birdie number one on the day.

Hole 3 provided the first opportunity for a big putt. I pulled the drive left, leaving a 50-foot jump/straddle blocked by low limbs. Dead center, -2 after three holes.

This 50-footer from an obstructed lie on hole 3 slammed dead-center into the chains.

After a par on hole 4 in the short position (one of the new pin positions), I birdied 5, 6, 7, and 8 (the final of these while playing through a group from the Bay Area Chain Smokers clan- one of whom helped me out big-time in a School of Disc Golf event recently. Thanks Ryon!). Holes 5 and 6 required short ‘tester’ putts, while both 7 and 8 were in the 25-30 range. At this point I was -6 after eight holes and it was hard to ignore the fact that I was off to a rather hot start. It’s worth noting two things at this point: First of all, I try very hard to NOT keep track of my total score during my round. This has been well-documented in previous posts, so feel free to do a little research to understand why I am so passionate about this philosophy. Second, my friend Asaf was also well aware of my hot start, as he later revealed- yet he took pains even at this point to NOT comment on that fact. He is quite familiar with my efforts to not dwell on cumulative score during a round.

Holes 8A through 14 (six holes total) were all pars, but even that attests to the magic of this round. 8A and 10 were both missed birdie opportunities for me, but 9, 11, 12, and 13 are all holes on which I average more than par. Hole 9 is a tough lefty hole, but I played it safe. Hole 11 in the long-left position is tough for anyone, and for me today it required a tough, technical, lefty backhand skip-upshot with a Star Tern to save par. Hole 12 had just been moved to the long ‘Wind-chimes’ position, and I didn’t have the disc I would normally drive that hole with, an OOP, pre-Barry Schultz gummy Beast. I threw the Tern instead and hit the small gap left of the canyon to net a par.

Then I came to Hole 13. I-5. DeLaveaga was installed in the early 1980’s, a time when all disc golf holes were for the sake of consistency par 3. If DeLa were installed new today, hole 13 would today definitely be rated a par 4, but it is and now always will be par 3. For this reason, it is impossible to approach this hole bogey-free and not think about the significance of getting a par 3 here. It’s easily the toughest hole on the course in terms of par, so if you make it past 14 bogey-free, in theory the toughest obstacle has been conquered. Never mind the fact that there are 15 holes yet to go.

The view of this picture of Hole 13 at DeLaveaga is from behind the basket looking back to the fairway. Obviously the epitome of a guarded green. Add 500-plus feet of distance and this is one tough par 3. Photo by John Hernlund.
The view of this picture of Hole 13 at DeLaveaga is from behind the basket looking back to the fairway. Obviously the epitome of a guarded green. Add 500-plus feet of distance and this is one tough par 3. Photo by John Hernlund.

My drive on 13 was as usual a backhand lefty roller, and it was a good one. I got all the way through the flat, wide-open first half of the fairway before my roller began to turn over toward the steep, wooded canyon on the left. That’s important, because if it makes it far enough before cutting left there is usually at least a chance to eek out a par through the trees. Such was the case today, and my pinpoint upshot with my (secret weapon) soft Vibram Ridge gave me a 23-foot par putt which I was able to hit, keeping my unblemished round intact.

If Asaf made any notable comment or compliment after I hit that putt, I don’t recall it. He likely said something like ‘nice putt’, but I just don’t remember. That’s a pretty big deal in itself, because I’ve actually had people say to me when I was bogey free after hole 13, “Did you know you don’t have any bogies yet?” Now, I’m not truly superstitious, but jinxes aside, there are things that common sense should tell you not to say in certain circumstances. The last thing I want to hear from another player in a spot like that is a verbal reminder that I’m bogey-free.  To reiterate, a bogey-free round at DeLa is a big deal. Almost as rare for a player of any level as a no-hitter in baseball- which brings up another good analogy.

Before getting hooked on disc golf in the mid 90’s, I was (like Paul McBeth) an aspiring baseball player. And as all baseball players know, there are a numerous time-honored traditions. One involves how teammates treat a pitcher who is in the process of potentially recording a no-hitter. In baseball, as the outs and innings tick by, the pitcher’s teammates work harder and harder to avoid him. By the eighth and ninth innings no one will even sit near him in the dugout- much less engage him in conversation. Asaf has never played baseball, but he has  impeccable golf etiquette, and his instincts on how to react to my hot round were spot-on.

As I said, my par putt on 13 drew a perfectly measured response from Asaf. Hearty congrats for parring a hole that seeing may more 4’s than 3’s, but nothing to draw attention to the fact that I just cleared the biggest hurdle to carding a bogey-free round at DeLa.

Hole 14 was in the 2nd-toughest of it’s four possible pin placements, and after a drive good enough to get a pretty routine upshot for par, I kinda blew it. I hit a high limb trying for a high hyzer upshot and left myself 29 feet away. Feeling for the first time the full pressure of bogey-free potential, I hit the putt to keep hope alive. Asaf once again didn’t betray his recognition of the significance. I uncharacteristically celebrated, but I don’t recall him saying much of anything. I mentioned earlier that I’d had only four bogey-free rounds at DeLa in more than 20 years . . . well, I’ve made it past hole 13 only to get my first bogey on 14 at least 10 times. So that was a hurdle to clear as well.

Hole 15 was my first birdie in seven holes, hole 16 saw one of my longest drives there ever (400-plus feet in the air, but I missed the 40-foot putt), and hole 17 resulted in a birdie for both Asaf and me. Hole 18 and 19 were both pars for me, but Asaf birdied 18 so he took the teepad for the first time. I remember kind of liking that as it took the focus off me and my round.

On hole 20, which had just been moved to its right position, I likely came close to an ace. We couldn’t see the result from the tee, but my drive ended up just past the hole, 18 feet away. I birdied that  hole, as well as 21 and 22, a long drive across an OB road- which I based. Holes 23 and 24 were pars, which left me with what we refer to at DeLa as ‘The Hill,’ the final four holes that play up, across, and down a steep, rutted, and tree-filled slope.

Hole 26a at DeLaveaga looks simple enough from the tee, but a narrow fairway and steep drop-offs on both  the left and right mean drives need to be both very straight and fairly long. Photo by John Hernlund.
Hole 26a at DeLaveaga looks simple enough from the tee, but a narrow fairway and steep drop-offs on both the left and right mean drives need to be both very straight and fairly long. Photo by John Hernlund.

Hole 25 was recently moved short, which is a good thing, except that the short pin placement is close to an OB road to the right. For a guy throwing lefty backhand hyzer, at that position for the first time in months, it caused a good deal of consternation. My Vibram O-Lace came through, though, and the reliable grip enabled me to turn a big S-turn into a drop-in birdie. Asaf, in retrospect, was treating me more and more like radioactive material.

Hole 26 in the long is one of those holes where it’s nearly impossible to just ‘play it safe’ off the tee. I did what I normally do, got a good result, layed up as safely as possible for par (if you know this hole you know that there is no such thing as a routine par here) and thankfully kept my card clean for another hole. 27 holes down, two to go.

Hole 26a was added around 10 years ago – maybe longer – at a time when we were trying to ‘rest’ some environmentally sensitive holes like 17. The idea was to always have 27 available to play. It sits on a narrow ridge between the basket for 26 and the tee for 27, with steep DeLa-style drop-offs on both the left and right sides. 26a was one of the holes just moved- to it’s long position. I knew if would provide the final challenge to a bogey-free round, as hole 27 (normally Top of the World) to an ridiculously short position.

My drive on 26a, thrown with a Legacy Rival for stability and control, came out exactly as I wanted. However, at the end of its flight  it got caught by some Scotch Broom foliage in the fairway and left me with an obstructed 200-foot upshot. I did everything I could with my soft Ridge given the circumstances, and it came down to a 40-foot low ceiling look for par. My lean/jump-putt looked good most of the way, then hit the top nubs of the Mach X basket and fell unceremoniously to the ground. Bogey.

What happened next, though, was pretty cool. It was obvious that Asaf had been for many holes holding in the desire to show his support for my effort. We discussed what had been moments before taboo, then quickly moved to the fact that he could preserve a single-digit score by parring the final hole.

I was disappointed to lose the bogey-free round on the second-to-last hole, but also still aware that I had a pretty hot round going anyway. After my teeshot on 27 looked like another likely birdie putt and we were snaking out way down the 68 steps from tee to fairway, I mentioned that I thought I still might have a shot a double-digits under par. Asaf  replied that he thought I was easily at that mark, but I wasn’t sure. As I mentioned earlier, I try hard not to keep track of my total, and if I had to guess at that time, I would have guessed that I was either -9 or -10 at that point.

Turns out I was -12 when I missed my par putt on 26a, and then -12 after I hit my 13th and final birdie on 27. I tied my personal best (recorded in 2006), didn’t get the bogey-free round that really meant more to me, but still floated around the rest of the day basking in the glow.

The best and most lasting memory, though, will be of my conversation with Asaf afterward. He said that he was so aware of my round, from the hot start to the par on 13 and on, that he didn’t want to do anything to mess it up. He said it got to the point, on the last six or seven holes, that he didn’t even want to touch my discs. I hadn’t noticed that, but appreciated it with a chuckle after the fact. As an old baseball player – an old pitcher, in fact – I could not have not asked for anything more in a playing partner.

So the specific advice is this: when you’re playing with someone who has a hot round in the works, do like Asaf and refrain from any commentary that draws attention to the hotness of the round. If the player brings it up then you’re in the clear. But don’t be the one to raise the topic. In fact, generally speaking, you can never go wrong by limiting your narrative on other peoples’ shots (and your own for that matter). Let the game for the most part speak for itself, and use the time together to discuss other things.

The new DGA Mach X basket: How they differ from the Mach III, and what to do about it

The DGA Steady Ed Memorial Masters Cup starts tomorrow in Santa Cruz, CA, with the Amateur event this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the National Tour pro version in a couple weeks. This short post is for the benefit of all the participants of these events and any others on courses that have recently had DGA’s new Mach X (pronounced Mach ‘ten’) baskets installed.

Product photo of the Mach X from discgolf.com, DGA's website.
Product photo of the Mach X from discgolf.com, DGA’s website.

The baskets at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course, site of the Masters Cup, just got ‘upgraded’ from Mach III’s, and if you’re heading to DeLa to play in the Masters Cup you should know that the Mach X catches very differently than the Mach III. Disc Golf Association refers to it’s new product as a ‘game changer’, and after playing more than 150 holes with Mach X’s I have to agree. But my assessment is that the new innovations they’ve employed with the Mach X provide don’t result in a ‘game improver’, which would have been better.

One look at the Mach X will tell you all you need to know about what is better about the Mach X as compared to the Mach III. The ‘X-pattern’ inner row of added chains should eliminate putts that cut through the middle of the chains and spit out the back. And I’d think that all that added chain (40 strands in total now) will be much better at catching and holding hard putts and long distance shots (i.e. Ace Runs). Also, the deeper cage will certainly make it less likely that a disc bounces off the bottom of the cage once inside and slips out.

One of the newly-installed  DGA Mach X baskets at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course in Santa Cruz, CA.
One of the newly-installed DGA Mach X baskets at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course in Santa Cruz, CA.

No doubt those are all good things. But the design modifications have resulted in a few changes that are not entirely positive, and one that I think makes it less likely to catch soft putts.

As you can see in the photos, the outer chains hang noticeably further out than the chains of a Mach III. In fact, at the point where the chains are closest to the upper rim of the cage, there is a difference of several inches. I have observed this to effect incoming putts of several types.

First and foremost, putts that are dead center but low and soft often hit that outer chain which is now so close to the edge of the cage and push the disc back out. What is better for players with a line-drive putting technique is certainly worse for those who like to use more finesse. And those outer chains have another likely unintended effect as well.

When we’re talking about aiming at a basket, we will often use the term ‘strong side’ to describe the right side for a right-handed putter, with the left side being the weak side. This is because a right-hander’s putt will usually be hyzering at least a little to the left, toward the center of the basket in the case of a putt aimed at the ‘strong side’ and away from the basket on a putt headed for the ‘weak side’ of the chains. All other baskets are better at catching the disc that is headed toward the center pole than one headed away from it, but the Mach X is rather opposite. It catches weak side putts better than strong side putts. To me it appears that for a right-hander those outer chains push away discs trying to come in from the right, but provide an extended line of snaring chain for discs veering left.

So as you’re practicing your putting before your round tomorrow, watch closely and see if I’m not mistaken. The Mach X on the whole isn’t better or worse. But it is a game-changer.

Finally, on an aesthetic note, the Mach X is sadly lacking the ‘chain music’ that is so distinctive to a Mach III. I think it might be due to the fact that the Mach III has two rings at the bottom holding two different chains assemblies, while the Mach X only has one. But whatever the reason, a perfect putt no longer has that melodic sound. And also, I personally prefer the symmetric appearance of a Mach III over the tangled look of a Mach X, but that is a trifling compared to how it actually works.

I plan to ask as many Masters Cup competitors as possible for their opinions and write a follow up post, but if you’ve putt on the new Mach X, please post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Disc golf course landmarks and nicknames

Players and observers have long believed that golf courses manifest unique characteristics – personalities, really – that set them apart from one another. Unlike, say, football, basketball, or tennis, which have playing fields that adhere to strict and uniformly measured specifications, golf courses come in varying shapes, sizes, and topography. But ‘ball’ golf itself has limitations (primarily the need for a playing surface and contour that permits the ball to be struck with control and aim) which keep course design within certain constraints.

The filed of play for disc golf, on the other hand, has far fewer limitations. Players merely need grounds that can be traversed (which is of course subjective based on the fitness and preference of each player) and just open enough so discs can be thrown, fly free, and then be located (also subjective). This high level of flexibility and adaptability has resulted in courses installed in a very wide range of locales, which in turn provides the opportunity for more ‘personality’ associated with its playing fields than any other sport.

Still following me? Simply put, disc golf courses have been placed in all kinds of crazy places, like thick woods, steep mountainsides, deserts . . . even in underground caves and on the side of a volcano. Which is awesome! It’s one of the reasons most disc golfers love the sport- the essence of golf combined with all the varietal landscapes nature has to offer.

With all that variety, and personality, it’s only natural that disc golf courses would be a breeding ground for unique nicknames and colloquialisms. Whether it be a tree, a patch of nasty rough to be avoided, or an entire hole, disc golf courses invite metaphoric description.

In a recent post I shared some unique disc golf terms my friends I and I created over the years, and asked readers to reply with some of theirs. We received a great response, and I’m hoping this post will do the same thing. I’ll share some local as well as well-known examples, and readers are encouraged to respond in kind.

As regular followers of this blog know, DeLaveaga DGC in Santa Cruz, CA is my home course. After more than 30 years and thousands upon thousands of rounds played by its devotees, ‘DeLa’ (there’s a nickname right there!) has more than it’s share of local labels for holes and landmarks. The most famous of these is it’s final hole, #27, known as ‘Top of the World’. At not even 1,000 feet above sea level it obviously isn’t Mt. Everest, but it is the highest point within the Santa Cruz city limits, and it earned it’s name for its backdrop view of the Pacific Ocean.

View from the teepad of 'Top of the World', hole 27 at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course. Photo by John Hernlund.
View from the teepad of ‘Top of the World’, hole 27 at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course. Photo by John Hernlund.

A couple more course nicknames can be found on the long, tough hole 13. DeLa was designed and installed at a time when all holes in disc golf, without exception, were par 3’s. This hole plays much more like a par 4. Locals refer to #13 as ‘I-5’, and most people assume it’s due to the flat, open first 325 feet (as in Interstate 5). In actuality it got it’s name due to the following all-too-common exchange:

“Dude, what’d you get on that hole?”

“I fived.”

Hole 13 is also home to ‘Lake Maple’, a giant pothole in the middle of the otherwise flat part of the fairway that fills with water after rainy days. It doesn’t count as a water hazard, but is deep enough and wide enough that retrieving your disc can be a major pain. This lesser-known landmark was named for a talented older player from the 80’s and early 90’s, when far fewer people played the course and most everyone knew eachother. George Maple like to throw rollers off the tee on 13, and whenever his disc would plunge into that gigantic puddle he would absolutely lose it. So naturally we named it after him. Lake Maple.

Super-short hole 17 has forever been known as ‘The Gravity Hole’, as the fairway funnels down both from tee to basket and from left to right. More often that not, if your disc catches an edge and starts to roll it won’t stop until it wedges into a seasonal creek-bed where the two slopes meet a third coming from the opposite direction. Before teeing off, you can also rub ‘The Lady’ for good luck, a very special tree next to the pad.

Hole 17, 'The Gravity Hole', at DeLaveaga. Note how the hole plays downhill as well as sloping right-to-left (looking back toward the tee). Photo by John Hernlund.
Hole 17, ‘The Gravity Hole’, at DeLaveaga. Note how the hole plays downhill as well as sloping right-to-left (looking back toward the tee). Photo by John Hernlund.

Old-timers will remember ‘Chickenfoot’, a dwarfed, gnarly tree that stuck up just high enough on the fairway of hole 19 to snag an otherwise perfect throw.

Finally, there is ‘The Catcher’s Mitt’ on hole 4. Most discs that come into contact with this obstacle either skip/slide into it or strike low on one of it’s several trunks/branches. Either way, The Mitt nearly always catches the disc and keeps it within the ‘pocket’ of it’s tightly-spaced limbs.

'The Catcher's Mitt' on hole 4 at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course snags all discs that venture within its grasp. Photo by Jack Trageser.
‘The Catcher’s Mitt’ on hole 4 at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course snags all discs that venture within its grasp. Photo by Jack Trageser.

It doesn’t really look like a catcher’s mitt, but earned it’s name more for how it grabs every disc in the vicinity. I suppose ‘First Baseman’s Mitt’ would be more accurate, but it’s not as catchy (no pun intended) as The Catcher’s Mitt.

For examples of course nicknames outside of DeLaveaga, we need only look to the Winthrop Gold course on the campus of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC- home of the United States Disc Golf Championships. Organizers each year assign a state to be associated with each hole (this year California had hole 11, a long par 4 that killed me in 2009), but that doesn’t really count. Those names didn’t arise organically due to how the holes play or a physical characteristic of part of – or the whole – hole. But Winthrop Gold definitely has a few of those.

Hole 7, a.k.a. the 'Bamboo Hole' at Winthrop Gold during a warmup round for the 2009 USDGC. Photo by Jack Trageser
Hole 7, a.k.a. the ‘Bamboo Hole’ at Winthrop Gold during a warmup round for the 2009 USDGC. Photo by Jack Trageser

Two of the most famous are hole 7, the Bamboo Hole, where players must navigate a bamboo fence in front of the basket; and the par 5 hole 13, known simply as ‘888’ due to its length of 888 feet. As anyone who has played this hole can attest, there is much more to this beast than its length (which, considering it is a par 5, is actually pretty short). Just ask 3-time USDGC champ Barry Schultz, who was in the lead in 2013 until carding an 11.

Now it’s your turn. Post a comment to share a nickname or two from your favorite courses. Be sure to explain why and/or how the nicknames came to be. Also, if you have really good pictures that clearly illustrate the nickname, send them (along with your story) to jack@schoolofdiscgolf.com. I’ll write a follow-up post that shows the best ones so readers can enjoy examples from our entire ever-expanding disc golf universe.

Part 2: Two univeral truths and 7.5 tips to help you improve your putting game

If you haven’t already read the first 3.5 tips (and two universal truths) presented in this two-part post on improving disc golf putting from the neck up, click here now and read Part One before you read this one. Then click the link at the bottom of that post to come back here!

4. Follow Through. Really, really follow through! Think about all the pictures you’ve seen of pro players having just released a putt. I guarantee that most of them will show a player with his or her arm extended almost perfect straight, and with all fingers and even thumb rigid and reaching out toward the target.

Team DGA captain Jon Baldwin demonstrates perfect follow-through. Note how his arm and even fingers all point straight toward the target. Photo by Mark Stiles.

Follow-through is an important aspect of mechanics is many different sports, especially those that include throwing a disc or ball. The benefit is two-fold: the best way to ensure consistent aim is to extend toward your target in an exaggerated fashion, and doing so will add a smoothness and extra bit of momentum that increases power and speed just enough to make a difference. I’ve had too many putts to count barely go in where I noticed as I brought the disc forward that my grip was a little off or I wasn’t providing enough speed, and compensated by following through as strongly as I could.

This might be tough to do right away as it requires developing muscles in a different way. But this short video tutorial demonstrates an exercise that will help you understand the concept as well as develop the form.

5. The formula for balancing commitment and confidence with intelligent game management. A big part of good putting is making a decision, then committing fully to that decision. But that doesn’t have to be a black-or-white, all or nothing equation. Think of it more like a sliding scale- or rather two sliding scales. On the first one you’ve got the difficulty of the putt itself: how long is it? What’s the wind doing? What obstacles do you have to navigate past? The second one measures the possible negative outcomes that may result if you miss the putt. Roll-aways are one of the most common of these, along with OB near the basket, and obstacles that might impede your comeback putt.

Players who simply decide to go for it or not lose strokes by not adjusting their approach in a more granular fashion. If you assess your odds of making an 80-foot putt at only 40 percent, but it’s a pretty flat, grassy field, you should be able to make some kind of run at the basket provided you throw the disc on an arc so it’s falling downward and sideways as it approaches the target. On the other hand, if you think you think your odds of hitting a 35-footer with a lake five feet from the basket are 60 percent, you’re taking a pretty big risk going for it rather than laying up.

I’m not a math person (far, far from it) but I’m certain that there are some advanced calculations going on behind the curtain in my head as I assess shots. I imagine they’d look something like this written out:

Where X is the probability of making and putt, and Y represents the odds of a miss resulting in taking an extra stroke or more, then X + Y = a ratio that tells me how much weight will be given to trying to make the putt versus making sure I can hit the comeback putt. For purposes of illustration, this ratio will be a scale between 0-100, with 100 being the most aggressive, go for it putt and zero being a complete layup.

If I have a downhill 40 foot putt on a windy day with hole 7 at DeLa in the long position, my equation would be something like .50X + .60Y = a go for it/play safe ratio of zero on the 1-100 scale. In other words, in that case I deemed the odds of something bad happening to high to go for a putt that I only had a 50/50 chance of making.

(remember I said I’m not a math guy, so don’t go telling me that .50 + .60 = 1.1. This isn’t real math.)

Another example: I’m at hole 6 at DeLa, 25 feet from the basket, which is in the long pin position right next to an OB road. I estimate my X value to be .85, and the Y value is .70 since missed putts here seem to end up in the road more often than not. What this results in is a putt where I go for it (since I’m very confident that I can make it), but with lots of touch and loft so if I don’t get it in it’ll have a good chance of staying safe. A go-for-it/play safe ratio of 76.

6. Use – but don’t abuse – those chains. Assuming you’re playing on a course with baskets, there is a specific firmness of a throw or putt that will give your disc the best chance of ending up in the basket. And just like the Three Bears’ beds to Goldilocks, it’s not too hard, or too soft, but just right.

Steady Ed Headrick designed the original Pole Hole to absorb the momentum of a flying disc. However, throws that are too weak or too hard have less chance of letting the chains do their job.

Steady Ed designed the chains in his Pole Hole to ‘catch’ the disc- in essence to arrest the momentum of the disc then drop it into the cage. There is a specific optimal firmness or speed of a putt where the chains perform this function the best. It’s hard to describe this exact optimal firmness, but when thinking about it now I think one of the best ways is through the sound the chains make when a perfect putt hits them and falls in. It’s full and musical, with a slightly delayed a smaller sound as the disc drops down into the cage. Putts that are too hard sound more violent, like loud cymbals, and putts that are too soft remind me of a bowling ball hitting only three pins.

The other reason to develop a putt with ‘just right’ firmness lends itself to a more visual description. The chain assembly of a basket is designed for the thrower to aim at the pole in the middle. If you’re thinking more about ‘tossing the disc into the basket cage you’re ignoring this design intention and also likely throwing a disc that approaches the basket falling away at a bad angle. Putts like this – even decently aimed ones – can tend to glance off outer chains and slide out to the weak side.

Conversely, putts that are too hard can penalize the thrower in a couple different ways. As the chains are only designed to reliably catch discs thrown up to a certain speed, harder putts tend to ricochet more violently and have a great chance to either bounce right out or blast right through before they can be ensnared. This can even happen to hard putts that are perfectly aimed. And of course a hard, line drive putt that completely misses the basket with end up further away.

7. Learn your range. This tip is more of a game management tip for those playing in a format where score is important. Also, it could be considered 5.5 as it really is a building block for employing Tip 5.

You are hopefully getting a little better the more you play and practice, but at any given moment in time you have a very specific range- or as described in Tip 5 the probability of making a putt. The key here is to be in tune with your range and base shot decisions on that range rather than your desire, or what you wish your range was. It’s situations just like this for which the term ‘wishful thinking’ was coined.

Humans, being emotional creatures, can easily let emotions and ego factor into decisions that really should be made in a completely Dr. Spock-like, logic-based manner. Knowing your range is all about boiling down putting decisions to nothing but a cold, detached assessment of your own capabilities. Not as easy done as said, I know.

And to make it even harder, our range is subject to wide variances from round-to-round or even hole-to-hole. Sometimes I’ll realize a few holes into a round that for whatever reason my putting game is just not there yet. Or maybe I realize that my back is a little stiff and it’s affecting my form. So on a putt I may usually go for aggressively, I’ll take also take these temporary factors into consideration and just lay it up.

Knowing your range means being realistic about where your general putting game is and making decisions accordingly, but it’s also about being in tune with the minor variables that pop up in the moment and adjusting to those accordingly as well.

2013 Masters Cup: Plenty of Santa Cruz locals to watch

Every year in April, Santa Cruz, CA is not only the ‘Epicenter of Disc Golf’ – the label we gave ourselves in 1989 after the nearby Loma Prieta earthquake – but the center of the professional disc golf tour as well. DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course has hosted a National Tour event every year since the tour was established, and the Masters Cup has drawn the sport’s best talent for about 20 years before that.

If you follow the tour, you’re familiar with many of this weekend’s competitors. Young Guns Ricky Wysocki, Paul McBeth, Will Schusterick and Nikko Locastro will all be there, as will veteran champs Ken Climo, Dave Feldberg, Nate Doss and Avery Jenkins. And there are plenty of other names you’ll recognize as well, like Philo Braithwaite, Paul Ulibarri, and Josh Anthon.

You know all about these guys already, and they’ve proven that any one of them can step up and win on any given week. I’m not about to pretend that I can predict who will win, although Josh Anthon is a Norcal player who knows DeLa well and has come close, Nate Doss grew up and honed his craft here, and Wysocki and Shusterick are good bets too. But this post isn’t about picking a winner.

On Saturday, after the first round is in the books, and even Sunday when it’s down to the last 24 holes, there are bound to be some names you don’t recognize on the tops cards. Or rather, you would not have recognized if you hadn’t read this. You’re welcome.

And let me state for the record that I’m not ignoring the women’s divisions. It’s just that there is a big separation between the top women and the locals, and there is no chance of a surprise. Kristy King, a DeLa local and DGA-sponsored player, has a chance of finishing in the top third of the field and cashing, but the win will likely go to Sarah Hokom, Valarie Jenkins or Paige Pierce.

Local pro and longtime course maintenance leader Jim Hagen works on his backhand form while starting up his mower four days before the start of the 2013 Masters Cup.
Local pro and longtime course maintenance leader Jim Hagen works on his backhand form while starting up his mower four days before the start of the 2013 Masters Cup. Photo by Jack Trageser

In the men’s divisions, on the other hand, the combination of a deep pool of local talent and the idiosyncrasies of DeLaveaga as a course that plays very different than most courses on the pro circuit makes for some intriguing possibilities. I’m not saying that any of these guys will win, mind you, just that they can. Look for one or more of the following names on the lead and/or chase cards Sunday, and remember I told you so.

Matt Bell- Disc golf is a sport where the best players improve on a super-steep curve, and can go from beginner to world-beater in a hurry. Matt Bell played half of his 15 PDGA events last year in the Advanced division, but this year has been turning heads locally. He won this year’s Enduro (Ice) Bowl at DeLa this year, topping a number of known players, and has the power, savvy, and local knowledge to make a run. Look for him to be in the running at least until the magnitude of the situation hits him- and maybe longer.

Shasta Criss- He enjoys a rep as a solid player and great guy on the tour, especially on the West Coast, but Shasta flies below the radar to most pro disc golf followers. He’s DGA’s top sponsored Open Division player and has all the tools necessary to make a run, including a penchant for hitting 50-foot putts. Plus, that name is just meant for disc golf, and it’s impossible not to like him. If you see his name in the mix, feel good about rooting for him.

Chris Edwards- Big, easy power and a recent ascent into 1000-rated territory mark Edward’s game, along with a sincere desire to promote disc golf locally and beyond. He’s the coach of the UCSC disc golf team, and if his mental game catches up fully to his physical talents he’ll be in contention. Edwards is a birdie machine when he’s on and simply needs to eliminate or minimize the mistakes.

Myles Harding- Like Nate Doss, Myles literally grew up playing DeLaveaga. Longtime NorCal tour players remember that he and Greg Barsby went head-to-head in Juniors, then Advanced, then Open, both winning lots of hardware- but as kids and teens Myles actually won a bit more. Harding, like his dad Rob, has all the shots in his bag, super-smooth form, and the ability to turn in some low rounds. Whether he can string together three of them in a row is the question, but he’s done it plenty of times before.

Don Smith- I know firsthand of Don’s tenacity as he beat me once on the 11th extra hole of an epic sudden-death playoff at a local monthly with an 80-foot uphill birdie putt. Since then I’ve gotten older and he’s gotten better, making disc golf his full-time occupation. He’s been on tour nonstop for a couple years now, and that and the the fact that he’s likely played 1000 (or more) rounds at DeLa are the reasons I would not be surprised to see Smith in contention on Sunday. He’s got the game necessary to shoot double-digits under each round, and that’s what it will take to win.

Tony Tran- I gotta mention Tony because he can show up at DeLa for the first time in nine months and throw out an 11-under. He used to play more than he does now, and he never plays anything but local events anymore (I’m not sure if he ever did) but he’s got game. He’s another guy to pull for if you’re a fan of feel-good stories. If he wanted to put the time in, he could be as good as most of the guys who try to play for a living.

Jon Baldwin- This guy won the world championship playing here in 2011, so no one should be surprised if he wins the Masters Cup. Baldwin, DGA’s most marketed sponsored player, is a golfer in the best sense of the word, winning with focus and guile as much as with his sufficient power, steady putting and all-around game. Look for him to be right there all three days in the Masters Division. He’s played three major events this year and taken 2nd place at all three (to Phil Arthur, Ken Climo and Jason Tyra), so he’s certainly hungry for a win on his home turf.

The players listed above are all Santa Cruz locals. They call DeLa home. But other participants in the Masters Cup have lots of experience here as well. The aforementioned Josh Anthon and Ray Johnson are NorCal stalwarts, Steve Rico and Philo Braithwaite show up often from SoCal, and we still claim Nate Doss as our own.

The cream does in the end rise to the top, and it’s likely the trophy will be lifted by someone you knew before reading this preview. But Santa Cruz has tons of local talent, and more so than at any other NT stop you can expect to see some unknown players in the mix.

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