The longest four minutes of the United States Disc Golf Championship come with two holes left to play.
You take your putter out of the basket on hole 16 at Winthrop Gold – hopefully after a birdie – then head south on University Lake Road, where one of the most infamous holes in disc golf awaits. It may only be two-tenths of a mile, but the walk can feel like an eternity, or just awash in a sea of people if you’re on the lead card. It lends plenty of time to think about the joy (see: Paul Ulibarri, Ricky Wysocki) or heartbreak (see: JohnE McCray, Wysocki) that can unfold.
But according to new course designer Andrew Duvall, the sojourn was a happy accident: Another hole used to play through the wetlands that now inhabit the area, meaning that walk used to be another hole in Winthrop’s arsenal. Instead, it’s a path that now leads to drama.
“As you begin to take that walk from what you feel like you should have gotten a birdie on 16, the pressure begins to mount, build,” Duvall said. “And the longer it goes, the more in your head it gets. As a designer that’s the no-no: Don’t have long transitions. But every once in awhile, if you have an exciting hole, that can be the exception that proves the rule.”
The par-3, faux island that now makes up 17 has long since established its might, many times cementing its status in USDGC lore. But is it really as daunting as it’s been built up to be?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
“It’s not like it’s really that scary of a hole…If it was a true island hole, kind of like that one at the Emporia Country Club, it’d be a lot more nerve-wracking because you might not get your disc ever again,” defending U.S. Champion Paul McBeth said. “This one, it’s kind of fake. It’s manmade, so it’s not too intimidating in that aspect.”
“I try to tell myself that, OK, 17 is the easiest hole on the course,” said 2018 sixth-place finisher Eagle McMahon. “All it is is throwing a little chip sidearm onto an island, and it’s way easier than any other island we play this year as a sidearm player. That’s how I try to think of it.”
While those two might talk – and throw – a good game, 2017 U.S. Champion Nate Sexton approached the hole with a little more nuance.
“If you wanna birdie it, yeah [it’s scary],” Sexton said. “If you’re playing it for a 3 that’s a different situation. Certainly, it’s still scary, but if you’re in a position that you need to make a birdie that’s very scary if you’re in the front.”
Still, that’s exactly where you want to be when Saturday rolls around and someone can change their disc golf destiny with one successful play on 17. So maybe some competitors will need those four minutes to distract themselves from the task at hand, or some will just be able to see it as a regular day at the office — even if anyone who is honest with themselves knows it’s anything but.
“In theory, it is not dangerous,” Duvall said. “I think the players think that. I think I that when I play it the rest of the year and not in October. But that’s like every hole out at Winthrop…These guys and girls are shooting 10, 11-down here on practice days and shooting plus-1 minus-1, minus-2 come actual days of play.
“Theoretically, easy birdie,” he concluded. “Once you step up there and the wind’s howling a little bit…it’s a little different.”
Of course it’s different. It’s go-time at the United States Disc Golf Championship, after all. Better hope you have some insurance strokes, just in case you need them.
What Else We’re Watching This Week
The Kristin and Paige Show: The Sequel
Two weeks ago at the United States Women’s Disc Golf Championship in Spotsylvania, Virginia, Kristin Tattar and Paige Pierce dominated the spotlight with timely putts. They’ve both punched their tickets to Winthrop this week – Pierce via her win at Worlds and Tattar from the USWDGC – and will give a different outlook on how players attack the stake-lined track.
“I think that I’m looking forward to just showing the boys that sometimes that the way we break down a hole is better than they do,” Pierce said.
The five-time PDGA World Champion specifically pointed to her putter-only approach on the hazard-heavy, 734-foot, par-4 11th as distinctly different from how most of the men in the field would tackle the hole.
“I think a lot of times they take for granted their power,” Pierce said. “A woman’s game out at Winthrop, [a] roped course, can absolutely be beneficial, and I’m excited for them to see Kristin and I both competing out there.”
She even tossed out a scenario where both she and Tattar would, undoubtedly, be the talk of the town: if they both played their way to the lead card.
“I know that seems like a dream,” Pierce admitted. “But there’s a chance.”
Major Sweep: The Sequel
It was a story at U.S. Women’s that’s carried over to this week, albeit with a different player: Much like Pierce had a shot at a Major sweep, so too does McBeth. For the five-time World Champion, it would be the second time in his career he’s done so if he can come away with the win, after his “McSlam” in 2015 when he hoisted five PDGA Major trophies.
He only needs to win a third tournament this year to repeat the feat, but that doesn’t make the task any less daunting. No one has won the USDGC in back-to-back years since Ken Climo did it in 1999 and 2000, and the California native was embracing the goal.
“It’s exciting,” McBeth said. “It does help reading those storylines or the pressure or the impact that something can have of doing this. This is only three Majors if I win compared to the five last time, but it’s still such a big deal, I feel like, to win all the Majors. I like doing it, I like making history in some ways – hopefully more so positive than negative.”
McMahon was in need of a refresher after a long season, so instead of playing the MVP Open and Green Mountain Championship – the latter venue hasn’t been historically kind to him – the 21-year-old took his dad to Norway and played there.
“I think it’s good for me just because I get to switch it up see a new culture, and it’s very rewarding both on the mental side and on the business side, as well,” McMahon said. “I missed GMC and I’ve been to Vermont the past three years and I had kind of a struggle there, so I thought, I want at least one year off from it.”
McMahon has finished in sixth, 20th, fourth, and 24th in four career USDGC appearances, with his closest shot at the title last coming in 2016, when he was charging on the lead card before a bad run-in with hole 13. But with the time off from the tour, he had high hopes coming into the week.
“I feel like [Winthrop] sets up well for my game, and all around I’m feeling good,” McMahon said. “I’m excited…It’s been more good than bad, I’d say. I play this course fairly well. The times I’ve played bad here it’s due to poor judgment, but anytime I’m throwing well I feel like I’m rewarded.”
As the second-highest rated player in the tournament, McMahon has to register as one of the most likely candidates to be able to derail McBeth’s Major momentum. But, to his credit, he wasn’t playing trying to play the role of David to McBeth’s Goliath – at least not yet.
“Paul definitely is the big dog right now, and it is very easy to get lost in that notion,” McMahon admitted. But it being USDGC – I feel like it’s one of the events that anyone’s reputation, it doesn’t matter as much. It’s you versus the course. You’ve gotta be strategic and just fight the battle as well as you can. Maybe in the final round, coming down the stretch – Paul McBeth is gonna be right there and you start thinking about it. But I think, until then, it’s everyone fighting their own game.”
Wysocki Out for the Year
We mentioned that McMahon is the second-highest rated player in the tournament. That’s because Wysocki – who would be number two at 1050 – is sitting out the USDGC – and the rest of the season – as he battles the effects of Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is no joke, people. We wish Wysocki a speedy recovery and encourage everyone else to be vigilant for ticks.
It wouldn’t be the USDGC if there weren’t some changes to Winthrop Gold, and this year’s moves are fairly significant: Holes 1 and 2 have been removed to make way for a dedicated fan zone with vendors, food, and TV screens showing the live broadcast, which means the course now starts on the downhill, 389-foot former hole 3. Two new holes will be played out on the Winthrop golf course, and there are a handful of other ancillary changes to learn about here.
How to Watch it All
The final Major of the year brings a bevy of media coverage, including instant scoring, next-day video, recap videos, and a live broadcast. Find out all of the details in our How to Follow the USDGC primer.