Weekend away: Vibram Open
There’s something to be said about watching professionals perform their craft.
It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be tiddlywinks. Or basket weaving. Baseball. Football. Photography. Anything.
If one is a professional at something, it shows they are above a normal Joe at that specific thing.
Take, for example, baseball. I’m a Phillies fan. Therefore, I can get as frustrated as other fans when I see Ryan Howard strike out by chasing a ball in the dirt time after time.
But when he connects, there might not be anything prettier in the game.
And, as much as I am not a fan of the NBA and never was a true fan of Michael Jordan, watching him play back in the day was a bit of poetry.
The same can be said of disc golf.
Though not a fully mainstreamed sport, disc golf is really picking up steam. There are things that I believe would need to be fixed for it to become a true mainstream sport, but that’s for another day. For now, let’s look at what it is.
First, it’s not Frisbee. Or Frisbee golf. Or frolf. It’s disc golf. And some of these professionals make $20,000 -$30,000 or more in a year playing it. Seriously. For his win this past weekend at the Vibram Open, Nate Doss won $3,000. Yes, $3,000 for a weekend of disc golf. Now, your normal Joe can’t pull that off. I realize that. But like any other professional sport, it has to start somewhere.
I spoke with Chris Sprague following the event. Sprague is a professional and finished in a tie for 21st at the Vibram (and still took home $575!) Anyway, he mentioned some things that he thinks need to improve to push the spot along, but for now, he likens it to the PGA in the 1950s. Back when players crashed at people’s homes and the tour was in its infant stages. It’s grassroots.
That’s disc golf right now.
The PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) is the “head” organization for the sport and holds the major tournaments as well as the National Tour. The Vibram Open this past weekend at Maple Hill Disc Golf Course in Massachusetts was the final event on the tour and decided its champions.
There were a couple of thousand people who came out over the course of the weekend to watch this event. The final day featured anywhere from 100-200 people following the final card, depending on the spot on the course where the foursome was at that point. Another 100 or 200 were waiting foursomes as they came up the 18th fairway. It was quite a scene.
I went with Darren this weekend to the Vibram Open to volunteer. I helped with the media things, writing a few press releases and doing something for the PDGA’s magazine following the tournament. But what this gave me the chance to do was to see, interact and deal with several of the top disc golfing stars.
What I found is that many of them are extremely down to Earth.
Several of them, after I interviewed them, asked where things were going to be published. It’s not such a huge sport where these players don’t worry about what’s being written. It’s still at the point where I think many like to see their names in publications. Or photos. It’s not like an MLB or NFL player who probably couldn’t keep up with how much is written about them.
The weekend didn’t go without speed bumps, however. And that happens. In a sport like this, people aren’t really “trained” to speak with the media. Some might not want to. Some might be too emotional to deal with it. It happens. That will change as the sport grows, hopefully.
That being said, most of the top pros are approachable and speak well. They signed autographs without issue. They chatted with fans, fellow lower-level pros and anyone else.
Then they played.
Oh did they play.
To watch someone throw a disc some 500 feet or more is a amazing. Then to watch them throw one 200 feet through a six-foot-wide opening in the woods is even more incredible.
It really made me want to get better. Not that I’ll be at this level, but it was still something that made me say that I wanted to improve.
They putted from 30 feet like it was nothing. I saw people nail 75-80-foot putts like it was normal.
The men. The women. They all were incredible.
Still, the sport needs to grow. There are some things that can be fixed. Namely, the ability to watch or get coverage. The reality is that many disc golf courses are built in the woods. It’s the nature of the game. But for people to watch, they need to keep behind the players. TV and media people are often ahead, but that’s a small crop.
When one goes to a PGA event, they can line the fairway and circle a green. With disc golf, because the throws are often eye level, one needs to try and stay out of the vision plane of the person throwing.
Darren and I were speaking to Avery Jenkins, a former World Champion, following the tournament. He made a few good points, such as Tiger Woods doesn’t have to worry about all the trees when he drives the ball. He noted that just because a disc golf course hole might be open doesn’t always make it easy.
It’s food for thought, that’s for sure.
The sport needs to grow and there will eventually have to find a way to make it a little more exciting for fans to come watch. If you are close, it’s wild. But when you are in the back of the crowd and can’t see a lot, it’s not as much fun. What these guys can do with discs is pretty wild — from making them go left or right, straight and long, rolling on the ground and other things, it’s cool stuff.
They get emotional, just like anyone else, when things go wrong.
They smile, wave or pump a fist when they make a good shot and a crowd cheers them on.
This sport has a chance to make it big. It just needs to grow into it.
Players, for the most part, seemed to embrace the fans, media and anyone else. Most seem to realize that to get to the next level (which, of course, would mean bigger purses, bigger sponsorships and more), they need to take any coverage they can get. It’s true. This sport has a chance. It just needs to really push forward.
Someone like Steve Dodge — the tournament director at the Vibram Open and a very big part of the disc golf scene — really gets it. He has some excellent visions and I hope he gets the chance to see them to fruition. It’s people like this that disc golf needs.
But beyond this, the grassroots campaign has to continue.
Pros need to embrace the lower-level amateurs. Work with them. Realize these are the fans. When Nate Doss or Avery Jenkins is out having a hot dog or a chat with the normal Joes that came to watch them, that goes a long way. Taking photos with fans or shaking hands and slapping five during the tournament doesn’t hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they should concentrate more on that than their play during a tournament, but a quick slap of a couple fans’ hands can’t hurt if the pro just made a sick putt.
The key word I would give the pros is to embrace it. And let the fans do the rest.
There are some easily marketable men and women in this sport. From Nate Doss, Nikko Locastro, Dave Feldberg and Avery Jenkins to Paige Pierce, Val Jenkins and Sarah Hokom or Sarah Stanhope. There are great young players like Ricky Wysocki and Paul Ulibarri. The names are there. The ability is there. Disc golf just has to push forward. It has to market itself first. And, to quote the movie Field of Dreams, “if you built it, they will come.”
It won’t be an easy trip, though.
When I tell friends about disc golf, I still get the people wondering why I want to play a sport that seems based in “hippies, smoking illegal things or getting drunk and throwing a frisbee.” Though I realize these things happen — and I’ve seen it — I play the sport for the fun. I’m learning. And I see many people who don’t fit this stereotype. The game needs to shake that image first, then keep pushing.
And these pros I saw at the Vibram Open are a good bunch to start that with.
Play the game and play it right. Don’t mess with the public persona. Don’t let the public keep that image of the sport. It’s there for the taking. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s possible. And places like the Vibram Open are great tools to use to show that disc golf can be a big-time sport.
Now, back to me. I learned a lot this weekend. And for that, I’ll be grateful. Some of the things I’ve learned:
- I need to, and want to, get better
- Putting is huge in this game (I knew this already, it was solidly re-enforced)
- Big-time pros can make the same mistakes I make
- The pro women are as much fun to watch as the men
- Avery Jenkins can throw the disc… a long way.
The experience started out rough when I first got there, I won’t lie. But as the weekend went on, I had the chance to meet people, talk with more and learn a lot. I hope I have the chance again at some point.
The tournament was also carried on Disc Golf Planet. I see they have been replaying it, so it might be worth a check if you are interested.
I took a lot of photos this weekend, too. If interested, you can check them out in their Flickr set.
Note: I received some cool things this weekend from a vendor at the tournament and I will be holding a couple of contests soon for those items!
Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail P.J. at hoohaablog [at] gmail.com. Also, please “Like” HooHaa Blog on Facebook by clicking the button on the right side of the page!