Do Live Broadcasts Grow the Sport of Disc Golf?

The Disc Golf World Tour debuted last weekend and for the most part, it delivered on Jussi Meresmaa’s promises. But whether it can deliver on his long-term vision of disc golf as a spectator sport- well, that’s another matter. As is the question of whether his and the other new tours’ efforts will ultimately help or hinder the sport’s growth.

He said his new high-profile tour series would be broadcast live with better production quality- a slicker, more polished presentation if you will – and it was. In that sense, SpinTV delivered, and then some.

Open courses can be picturesque, but do they really show off disc golf's best features?
Open courses can be picturesque, but do they really show off disc golf’s best features?

The on-screen graphics and animation during live coverage of the inaugural La Mirada Open represented a huge leap forward. Little details like on-course sponsor signage, the pads wrapped around the basket pole colored the same yellow as the Innova DisCatcher band, and even the DGWT branding on handheld microphones added to the overall effect. On Saturday, when we couldn’t see residential streets and chain link fences in the shot, La Mirada looked like Augusta National. Even the commercials looked to be more professionally done.

Announcers Jamie Thomas and Avery Jenkins (who both performed fairly well and will certainly get even better) made much ado of the next-level ‘metrics’, Greens in Regulation, Putts Inside the Circle Ratio, Putts Outside the Circle Ratio. Sports fans definitely love their stats and having these on-screen graphics available at any time is a big step in that direction.

Speaking of the announcers, did you know Avery starred in another disc golf TV show five years ago? Discmasters, a show featuring Avery, Nate Doss, Valarie Jenkins and your truly (Jack Tupp) was filmed for local TV in Santa Cruz and made the rounds on YouTube. Hopefully, he’ll get to show his lighter side on SpinTV as well.

One last big positive to point out: the player profiles mixed into the broadcast. Media experts have understood that the more insight viewers get about what makes the players tick, the stronger their connection to the action.

As an avid disc golfer, I have an appetite for live disc golf action and I can appreciate the strides that have been made by  DiscGolfPlanetTV, Smashboxx, and now SpinTV. It’s definitely getting better and better. But I have two major concerns about the direction things are headed.Logo-web

The first is the fact that with the current course and camera configurations these broadcasts don’t come close to conveying the essence of disc golf. Even with two cameras, the angles are almost always from behind the thrower and behind the basket. In both cases, the disc remains fairly static on the screen and so does the backdrop. Ball golf uses at least six cameras to properly film a hole, and that’s just not feasible for disc golf yet. Disc golfers who are viewing can convert what they are seeing into the majestic S-turn we know the shot required and appreciate the amazing skill. To a non-disc golfer, it’s just people throwing Frisbees again and again.

The other nit I’m gonna pick today is with the decision – or rather the necessity – to feature mostly wide open holes. The logic that open holes film better is sound, at least as long as the technology is limited to two camera angles at ground level. But it’s regrettable because another essential aspect of disc golf’s mystique is the wooded hole. In terms of how the games plays, two important elements of disc golf that distinguish it from ball golf in a positive way are missing in coverage of wide open courses; The holes with multiple obstacles players must navigate on a single shot, and the fact that disc golf can be played on very rugged terrain. Forest? Jungle? No problem! That needs to be part of the elevator pitch- which five minutes of live coverage seen by a non-disc golfer amounts to.

Once again, if the aim is to use the broadcasts to introduce potential new players and fans to the sport I don’t think it’ll work. In fact, seeing guys throw Frisbees in what appears to be, and usually is, a city or county park probably just confirms their misguided preconceptions.

What’s the real goal here? If it’s to entertain disc golf enthusiasts, then fine. Well done (Although your typical disc golfer likes to be outside on a Saturday afternoon, so even that market gets diluted somewhat). But if the goal is to ‘#growthesport’ of disc golf, we need players, and we need even more courses. For now, the best solution is still the one that got us where we are today. Support your local club. Volunteer, become a dues-paying member. Sponsor a hole.

Then take a break and watch some live Disc Golf World Tour coverage. If you’re already a disc golf nut, it’s a treat to stream the best players in the world onto a big screen TV.

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.

2010 USDGC Observations

This time last year I played in the USDGC for the first and only time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I played with a torn rotator cuff. I did know it hurt like heck, though. After the first practice round, in which I managed a  +1 and figured ‘this isn’t so bad as long as you play clean golf and hit all your putts, my arm was as useless as those little front appendages of a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s. But I did my best, which was equal to most everyone else’s worse. Still, it was one thing I could cross off my Bucket List. Watching this year from the comfort of my computer via the live webcast, a few observations come to mind:

  • Will Schusterick and Nikko Locastro are way clear of the field, battling for first. This continues and perhaps accelerates the youth trend in professional disc golf started when Nate Doss captured first at the Worlds in 2006 at age 19 then proved it wasn’t a fluke with another Worlds title and a USDGC title a couple years after that. Some may conclude that players in their teens or early 20’s have the advantage of fresher arms and quicker recovery from fatigue, and that’s part of it, I’m sure. But I know first-hand that Nate also benefited immensely from growing up with the sport, surrounded by numerous talented players in Santa Cruz. As the number of courses and events grow, players that start in childhood are seasoned by the time they are in high school. The trend mirrors that in nearly all other sports. The one possible exception, ironically, is ball golf, although younger players are breaking through there more than in the past as well.
  • If you watched the live webcast on discgolfplanet.tv, you surely noticed the counter that showed how many viewers were watching at any given time. It seemed to range from a low of 800 or so to a high of 1500. Right now, as I write, Nikko and Will are locked in a close battle for first in the final round, and the counter is at 1,187. To me this clearly illustrates that disc golf is still far, far away from attracting the major sponsors that the sport’s top promoters hope will result in much bigger prize money and live TV coverage. As I pointed out last year, those who think we’re close to this kind of breakthrough are ignorant to the development of just about all other sports. Think of it this way: How many people that watch golf on TV have never swung a club? Not many. Golf only became worthy of broadcasting on TV when golf industry advertisers knew that the millions of players and devotees to the sport (who buy golf stuff) would be watching. 1,187 people are still exponentially less than what is required, so the focus should be on introducing more people to the sport.
  • Last year, to watch the live webcast, a fan had to pay a fee. This year, it’s free (although donations are encouraged). I’m sure the logic was that increasing the viewership is the most important goal, and they wanted remove the cost barrier. Did it work? Doesn’t look like it.
  • After having played the course a handful of times last year, I’m really enjoying the webcast this year because I recognize every scene captured on the screen. If you ever get the chance to play the course in the ‘Winthrop Gold’ setup, do it. The video coverage will mean so much more if you’re able to put it in the context of having played it.

If you’re interested in reading my posts from the event last year, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Thanks!

Triumph of a ‘Younger’ Gun

Another new wave of young talent has made its mark on the disc golf scene, with the legitimacy of a major championship to make it official. Nikko Locastro, at age 19 (or maybe 20- I’m too lazy to look it up), charged from four strokes back of former champ Dave Feldberg and three behind reigning champ Nate Doss to win the 2009 USDGC.

Nate was the first to cut into Dave’s lead early, cutting the three-stroke lead to one before succumbing to Winthrop Gold’s OB rope again and again. Then, after a slow start, Nikko began racking up birdies on hole 4 and never seemed to take his foot off the pedal. On hole 10, a par 4 bunkr hole that makes players choose between trying to carry 430-plus feet to the green with a chance for eagle or laying up short left in the narrow fairway, he missed his first attempt to drive the green, but succeeded the second time, then made the putt for a birdie. Under bunkr rules, he didn’t get charged a penalty stroke for the miss, and his resolve and confidence on the tee paid off. Nate, in contrast, missed in his attempt to drive the green, then opted to play safe with the short layup. And it seemed to continue like that the rest of the round. Other tidbits:

  • Josh Anton came from the third card to take third place by shooting a course record 53 (15 under par). He was 15 under par after hole 16, but only managed par on 17 (the potentially round-killing island hole) and 18.
  • I heard tales about the way Harold Duvall tweaks the course each year, and I can’t help but wonder what will be in store next year after the top players really carved up Winthrop Gold. There were quite a few rounds where players were double-digits under par and bogey-free or had only one or two flaws
  • I can’t help but think of Nikko as the Shaun White of disc golf. His big white man ‘fro and goofy attire (unmatched knee-high socks) could end up being a draw as sponsors aim for the 15-25 market.

Quick hits on Day Three

  • Nate closed the gap to one between him and Feldberg, then lost two strokes on 17 and 18 (one each hole, by going par-bogey (OB). So he’s trailing by three going into the last day, tied for second with Nikko Locastro. I’ll be following them the whole round , happy to be nothing but a spectator tomorrow.
  • After my round today, I went back to my room to change and watched some of the live coverage on my computer. The simulation of a professional ball golf event that the USDGC strives for was eerily apparent in the coverage. You see the manicured grass fairways, the numerous tournament volunteers spotting, with the rd and green flags, and galleries just big enough to call them galleries. My only mixed mixed feeling about this is the fact that I’m proud of the fact that most good disc golf course, in my opinion, don’t resemble ball golf courses at all. They wind they their way through woods and over mountainous terrain, not through genteel grassy parks. But still, the coverage was pretty cool, albeit noticeably a nit amateurish. But the people involved did their best, and I was impressed.
  • I almost thought I was watching a telethon, they pitched the viewers for donations so often. I think it almost became a crutch when they couldn’t think of anything original to say.
  • On 13, the famous ‘888’ par 5, I can proudly say that I parred it yesterday and might have today, if the clouds hadn’t opened up and started pouring on us before I could putt out. When I began to address my 23-foot par putt there wasn’t a drop, and by the time I had a chance to putt, it was pouring. Still, my total of bogey, par, bogey on that hole, without ever throwing outside of the ridiculously narrow fairway and island green, was one of the few things I can look to with a modicum of pride.
  • One of the others is the 30-foot, steep uphill par putt on 18 to end my tournament. End on a good note.
  • I got to play with two Finnish players, Kai and Janne, and guys from NC, WV, Georgia (Pete May, a very cool 68-year old with a $600 Stetson hat made from 2o percent beaver, and no one I knew before we started.
  • The two things that make the USDGC special, in my opinion, are the course design that makes great use of OB/Bunkr rope, and the abundance and coordination of volunteers.
  • Although it strikes a blow to my ego, I’m happy to see our sport having grown to the point that probably 50 players have the skills to compete at the top level. The blow to my ego part is the fact that I’m no longer in the same area code as these guys. But I’ll get over it. The cool part, though, is that at its core this is still golf, and having the raw skills to win an event like the USDGC and actually doing it are two very different things. I watched plenty of guys throw as far as Nate, and routinely can 35-footers like they were 20-footers. But to win the USDGC, they need to pull off these feats with a level of consistency that just amazes me.
  • I don’t think I’ve seen one tye-die shirt all week
  • Watch the live webcast tomorrow if you can. It should be epic.

The Fan Experience

So far, my USDGC experience has been from the player experience, although I’m stretching that definition a little bit. With rounds of 85 and 86, I’ve felt much more like the guy that got to play by helping run the Masters Cup than the guy who missed qualifying by a stroke three years in a row.

But after finishing my 8:00 AM round by Noon, then grabbing some good Carolina BBQ (actually, it’s OK but nothing special, in my opinion), I headed back to to the course to follow Nate around during his round.

I sheepishly admit to feeling a little bit of shame, thinking that everyone knew I was either a spectator and nothing else, or a player that sucked enough (relatively speaking, of course- this is the USDGC) to have a tee-time early enough to be done already. But I really enjoyed the spectator experience at this event, and the difference between the USDGC and any other event I’ve ever experienced is quite noticeable. Volunteers are everywhere, including a very impressive number of grey-haired, non-playing disc golf aficionados. It got me wondering- what is it about other part of the country I’ve been in where older generations seem to get it about the benefits of disc golf, even though they don’t play themselves? Are they simply more supportive of their younger relatives? Do they possess wisdom that their counterparts in California do not? Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask a few questions and get to the bottom of it.

Since I happened to be in South Carolina during the USDGC, with time on my hands, I decided to follow Nate’s group and support ol’ Bobby Hill (along with his Mom and Stepdad Mark K.) in his effort to defend his USDGC title. And being the narcissist that I am, my thoughts of these top-ranked players kept coming back to what a gap now exists between me and they world’s best. At first the thought is kind of a bummer, but then it sort of justifies spending three hours walking the same course I just played to watch someone else play. I mean, why would someone do that if not to see things done I can’t do myself?

Nate is in third place right now, 15 under par and five behind the lead. Some of the shots I saw him execute (and the others in the group) were simply amazing to me. The arm speed they generate makes it clear they are dealing with a whole different deck of cards. And that makes it quite fulfilling to be nothing more than a fan- for a while,anyway.

I was tied for the lead, and then the tournament started

The warm fuzzy feeling I got from being part of this event – the USDGC – was actually potent enough that it still hasn’t completely worn off, even after a first round where I nearly averaged a bogey per hole. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t really keeping track, and was shocked when I added it all up. It didn’t seem that bad! Feldberg and Schwebbee both shot -9 fifty-nines to grab the first round lead, but players are lined up behind them, including Nate at -5.

I got to play with a good mix of guys today- Kai from Finland, US Am champ this year Blayne, and Al ‘Sugar’ Shack, an acquaintance from my days hanging with Michigan dg-ers a decade ago. Everyone was upbeat and mellow, which made things more enjoyable for certain.

I wish I could blame my hideous +17 on the fact that the course is designed in such a way that it’s more difficult for people that can’t throw 400-plus feet. While this is true (as it is for any course with reasonably long holes), Winthrop Gold provides ample opportunity for a player to shoot par, as long as he/she can throw 300 feet. The design is great in that regard, and even somewhat friendlier to left-handers. So no excuse there.

I also wish that I could say that my injured shoulder is the cause of my high score, but that really isn’t true either. Only on the par 5 hole five, where I made the ill-fated decision to try unsuccessfully three times to throw over a large expanse of water in a way that my arm can’t handle right now, was it much of an issue. Every other time my feeble arm came into play, I had another option that I opted not to opt for. So no excuse there, either.

But tomorrow at 8 AM presents another opportunity, so we’ll see. But I’m running out of excuses.