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.

Memorial 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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