Celebrating women in disc golf: Women’s Week at Rattling Chains

Disc golf is perfect – or as close as can be – in so many ways, and gender neutrality can be counted among it’s strong points. Yet even though it’s growing rapidly among women, the number of guys that play still far outweighs the number of gals. That’s gotta change!

The other blog where most of my posts here appear – RattlingChains.com – has for the second year in a row dedicated an entire week of coverage to women in disc golf. We think the ladies and girls who play really love the sport, and feel that others will love it too if they just give it a try. It always makes my day when I see a foursome of women on the course having a ball. My contribution to Women’s Week at Rattling Chains appeared here, in a slightly different version than at Rattling Chains, but in case anyone happens upon this site and is not a regular reader of Rattling Chains, I wanted to post links to the other stories as well.

The week started with a profile of a 23-year old Swedish professional named Ragna Bygde. She was introduced to disc golf by her father and now has pretty lofty aspirations herself.

Next was my story, about a women’s disc golf clinic that my wife and two girls attended. My older daughter was so excited afterward that we attended a major pro event a few days later as spectators, following the top women’s group.

The story that ran next profiled another dedicated female player named Kristy King. I happen know Kristy as she is also based in Santa Cruz, and the story focused on a certain disc golf tattoo she has that likely is unique to her and her alone, that symbolizes what disc golf means to her.

Story number four of Women’s Week was written by a woman – frequent RC contributor Jenny Cook – about a disc golf entrepreneur and his efforts to promote the sport among women. You can read more to see how ‘The Disc Golf Guy’ is putting more than just lip service into his efforts to get women into tournaments and league play.

The week wrapped up with a touching piece about a woman who went through a life-threatening medical issue and came through it in part thanks to disc golf and the local disc golfing community, who she considers a second family.

If you are a female and play disc golf, feel free to share your experiences with us. What do you like about disc golf, and what do you think can be improved to help the sport appeal to more women? And any ideas to give it more exposure among the gender that makes up slightly more than half the world’s population is appreciated as well. Most guys agree that the more females that play, the better!

Women’s disc golf clinics attract wide range participants, create young fans

If I had known it would be the subject of an article, I’d have approached this event much differently. We think and act much differently when we’re wearing our journalist hats (you know, the fedoras with ‘Press’ taped on the side). But I was just really excited that my wife and daughters had not only agreed to but were even looking forward to a disc golf clinic. At least – being in Dad Mode – I was quick to snap lots of pictures.

The event was a women’s disc golf clinic put on by Prodigy Disc team members Sarah Hokom and Paige Pierce in Santa Cruz, three days before the Masters Cup National Tour Event. The excitement came from the fact that I’ve waited for a long time for them to show interest in my favorite sport/activity/hobby/obsession. My wife used to play with me many years ago, before the kids came along, but it was always more about wanting to share something I loved. The kids have played a few times, but hadn’t gotten hooked into disc golf as of yet.

The clinic was scheduled for 5 PM, and as it happened it was particularly windy (and cold) for Santa Cruz in April. As a disc golf instructor, I can assure you that these are not ideal conditions for teaching or learning the basics of flying disc sports. We arrived a little before 5 PM, and aside from one lady were the first on the scene. Slipping into my journalist mode (it happens subconsciously- or maybe I’m just curious/chatty) I asked her about what brought her there. She told me she was from San Francisco (a 1-2 hour drive, depending on traffic) and had played a week earlier in the Amateur Masters Cup event. The clinic was promoted during that week and during the Daisy Chains Women’s tourney in Santa Cruz County the week between the Am and Pro Masters Cup weekends. Clearly this clinic had been well-planned.

I caught up with Sarah Hokom when she was already in Georgia for the Hall of Fame Classic on the PDGA HQ grounds, and asked her a few questions. She was understandably busy during the clinic, and as I mentioned already, I was more focused on watching my wife and kids. According to Hokom, the clinic was the fourth she and Pierce had conducted that year, with “at least a dozen” more planned to take place. She said that so far she has seen 10-15 participants at each event, and the number correlated to the level of local promotion. I didn’t count, but I thought I saw somewhere between 15 and 20.

Pierce and Hokom set up a table with some Prodigy discs and shirts, and asked each participant to fill out a short form with contact info and a short questionnaire. Hokom  – a former high school teacher – said she’s working on a survey for more formal feedback, “but so far, many of the attendees have reached out to me with positive responses.” And as to who typically shows up for the clinics:

“I get all types of players,” said Hokom. “There have been new players at each one, seasoned players and all types in between.

After waiting for 10 minutes past the listed start time to allow for those operating on ‘Santa Cruz Time’ to show up, they began by having the participants pair up to play catch and warm up. Good idea- especially on a chilly day. My younger daughter paired up with Pierce and took the assignment very seriously. After they warmed up, they broke into two groups, with Pierce teaching the basics of backhand throws and Hokom sharing the secrets of her deadly sidearm technique.

Sarah Hokom demonstrating proper sidearm technique. Photo by Jack Trageser
Sarah Hokom demonstrating proper sidearm technique. Photo by Jack Trageser

As a fellow disc golf instructor I was impressed with the lesson in a couple of different ways. First of all, it was clear to me pretty quickly that some women are for whatever reason more receptive to instruction by other women. My wife and girls, for instance. They made some advances that afternoon that were really encouraging. And I don’t attribute it to just the ‘female connection’ thing- although that is significant. Hokom and Pierce made some great points that stuck with my older girl in particular, like Paige telling her to snap her backhand at the point of release. It’s not something I teach, but really helped my daughter throw with more armspeed.

Paige Pierce of Prodigy Disc explains the basics of proper technique for backhand throws in disc golf. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Paige Pierce of Prodigy Disc explains the basics of proper technique for backhand throws in disc golf. Photo by Jack Trageser.

We had to leave early as the girls got cold, and it was a school night. But the lesson had inspired my oldest, and she insisted we go out on the weekend to watch the women’s lead card of Pierce, Hokom, Innova Disc Golf team member Valarie Jenkins and eventual winner Catrina Ulibarri. I had figured on watching about an hour or so of the action. But my daughter – who at first rooted for Pierce after the lesson but then switched allegiance to Jenkins once she realized that Val and I were in Discmasters together, insisted on sticking there for the full 4.5 hour round. She was wearing a thin cotton tank-top and obviously cold (blame that one on Dad), but she was hooked on the action. And she got the full experience. All the women in the group signed a disc for her, she got to hold the leaderboard for short intervals, and Val in particular was gracious enough to acknowledge her repeated compliments and commiserations.

A young fan holds the leaderboard and watches Masters Cup winner and Prodigy Disc team member drive on hole 7 at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course. Photo by Jack Trageser.

The clinic encouraged my wife and both my daughters because they all experienced noticeable progress in throwing straighter and farther than in the past. My older daughter had stars in her eyes after getting to see Pierce, Hokom, Ulibarri and Jenkins in action up close. I’m not sure which (participating in clinics or seeing top pros competing at National Tour event) has more potential to increase female participation in disc golf, but both seemed to be well-received by the women and girls that showed up. The trick is getting them there. Will disc golf ever be as popular among women as it is among men?

“The nature of sports and the nature of women conflict more often than for men, so no” said Hokom. “Its not that women don’t enjoy it, its just that less women enjoy it than men.”

Valarie Jenkins poses for a picture with a young fan at the end of her round on the 2nd day of Masters Cup action at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course in Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by Jack Trageser.
Valarie Jenkins poses for a picture with a young fan at the end of her round on the 2nd day of Masters Cup action at DeLaveaga Disc Golf Course in Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by Jack Trageser.

Hokom said she is promoting the formation of ladies leagues because “I think they are helping the growth of women in the sport and provide a supportive and fun environment for more women to play.” Based on what I witnessed in April, and what the local female disc golfing population tell me, I’d say she’s right. Hopefully the trend toward women’s clinics, leagues and tournaments continues. I know at least one young girl who plans to show up.

Nine secrets of the women of disc golf

The ladies who played in the advanced division at the Masters Cup this past weekend. Pictured are: Front — Anna Caudle. Second row, from left, Victoria McCoy, Michelle Chambless, Lacey Kimbell, Cyndi Baker; and third row, from left, Christine Hernlund, Jenny Umstead, and Crissy White. (Photo by Alex Hegyi).

OK, maybe the title is a little misleading. Calling them “secrets” is overdoing it a bit, and this is about much more than that.

I spent some time last weekend talking to female competitors at the Amateur Masters Cup presented by DGA in Santa Cruz, Calif., and some of their answers might be new and useful information to the guys who play disc golf.

But are they secrets?

What’s definitely not a secret is the fact that disc golf is, and always has been, a sport played predominately by males. The breakdown of competitors in this A-Tier PDGA sanctioned event illustrates this point perfectly, as only 11 of the 158 registered participants were in female divisions. That’s less than 10 percent.

The eyeball test anytime you’re playing a recreational round on your local course will tell you that that ratio holds true in non-tournament settings as well.

So what’s the deal?

After watching the sport grow and develop over the past 25 years, I’ve got my own theories. For instance, in the early days of DeLaveaga — back in the late 1980s and early 1990s — seeing a woman on the course was rare enough to stop a guy mid-throw to ask a playing partner if he saw her, too. They had to make sure she wasn’t a mirage (or an hallucination, depending on the player). I later learned from the first female DeLa pioneers that a main deterrent was the lack of a restroom on site at the time — not even a porta-potty. Not a big deal for the average guy, but enough to keep many women away.

While not all courses are as remote and facility-less as DeLa, back then plenty of them were similarly in open spaces. And besides the lack of basic facilities, there was also an non-policed “Wild West” feel to many courses. I have a notion that many women felt these courses were just unsafe enough — or at least could be — to discourage them from giving disc golf a try.

 

Finally, according to golfsolutions.com (part of the Golf Channel empire), only 22 percent of ball golfers worldwide are female. So disc golf seems to be repeating the pattern of its older and more venerable ancestor.

These points add up to the fact that although disc golf may be different now than it was two decades ago, when a lopsided male/female ratio was firmly established, it self-perpetuates (the heavy guy-majority keep bringing mostly their guy friends out to play) over time.

In short, changing an established trend is hard to do, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Just look at ball golf.

Kari Rose tees off on the 10th hole at Pinto Lake, where the Daisy Chains Women’s Global Event will be held. Rose is in the pre-registered field. (Photo by John Hernlund)

As stated earlier, disc golfers have ambitious goals for growing a sport that is better in every other way possible, so the question for today is how do we get more women playing disc golf?

In searching for solutions, I sought out women who are already hooked — the female competitors of this year’s Amateur Master’s Cup.

Suzie Weigand, a local who won the Women’s Masters division by six strokes, has played disc golf for five years. She said she primarily goes out with her husband but is playing more now because of the organized “ladies days” in Santa Cruz.

Weigand said gaining momentum is important for getting more women in the game.

“When more women start playing, it’ll mushroom because it’s such an accessible activity,” she said.

As for accelerating momentum, Weigand offered the common sense strategy of “starting when they’re younger, with youth programs and high school and college leagues.”

Chrissy White, originally from Nebraska and now living in Kingsville, Calif., is a relatively new player and has put that approach into action. Her seven-year-old daughter Haley tagged along during the first round of the Masters Cup. Haley said she, too, plays disc golf.

“A lot of women that have children don’t have a sitter to watch them while they play with their husbands or boyfriends,” White said. “Bring the kids along and not only do you get to play, but the kids are going to pick it up too.”

As Victoria McCoy, of Concord, Calif., walked to the first tee, she said a key is also organizing more events that focus on women and support women. Her husband was with her for this event, carrying her bag.

This idea seems like a good one as it’s one thing to tell women they are welcome to join the sport that has, historically, only considered the needs and interests of male participants. It’s a different approach to take the sport we lover and tweak things to produce and experience that appeals particularly to women.

That’s why this Saturday’s PDGA Women’s Global Event is so special. It could mark a seminal moment in women’s disc golf.

The Daisy Chains tournament, which is one of 41 scheduled as part of the Women’s Global Event, will be run in Santa Cruz and is headed by Christine Hernlund. She reiterated the approach and stressed the intention to give the event a decidedly female feel.

“We are trying to build a tournament experience that not only avoids the common flaws of other tournaments but also has so many extras and attention to detail that the women will expect more from tournaments in the future,” Hernlund said. “The artistic and creative energy our local women have poured into this event will showcase what is possible when we women unite our strengths in a collaborative effort.”

This is all great and it’s nice to know about getting more women in disc golf, but what about those nine secrets of the women of disc golf?

Also know that these tie in directly with the main theme — increasing the numbers. You see, the last question posed to each woman was “what is the thing male disc golfers do or don’t do — on purpose or, more likely, out of ignorance — that ticks you off the most?”

Maybe if guys know what these items are, we can stop doing them and hopefully increase the odds of more women getting hooked on the game.

The nine items are:

  • They give us, especially beginners, heavy discs.
  • They get intimidated when we out-drive them, even if it’s once every 100 throws, and will often say something stupid.
  • Some of them use really foul language and can’t keep their temper in check.
  • They say “nice shot” when I know it was a really crappy shot.
  • I hate bad attitudes. Have fun with the game.
  • Stop coaching us all the time — we know what we’re doing.
  • Give credit for the good shorter shots and congratulate women when we’re doing our best.
  • Appreciate the women that come out and enjoy the sport with the men.
  • Stop looking at our butts!

That last reply was followed by much laughter as the group headed to their drives after teeing off hole one.

It would seem women do have more fun with disc golf.

 

This post was written for and originally appeared at rattlingchains.com.