James Conrad was rewarded for his aggressive play at Winthrop University and takes the lead into the final round of the United States Disc Golf Championship. Photo: Eino Ansio

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Upheaval (noun).

  1. The action or an instance of upheaving, especially of part of the earth’s crust
  2. Extreme agitation or disorder: radical change
  3. Moving day at the United States Disc Golf Championship

Of all the words that could describe Friday’s third round here at Winthrop University — dramatic, heartbreaking, sweltering — it was, without a doubt, a day of upheaval on the leaderboard. There were multi-shot meltdowns, an albatross, and the fearsome hole 17 rearing its ugly head. And when all was said and done, the 2018 runner-up from this event had put himself in prime position to take home the 2019 title.

James Conrad once again tossed a 9-under par 58 at this daunting track Friday, a performance has given him a 21-under par 180 total and, more importantly, the lead at this PDGA Major with one round to play. He’s up on Colorado native Eagle McMahon, whose 6-under par 61 brought his three-day tally to a 19-under par 182, and Nathan Queen and Albert Tamm, who both sit in fourth place at 17-under.

As much as Conrad may have assumed control, this USDGC is shaping up to still be anyone’s ballgame: Chris Clemons, Nikko Locastro, and Chris Dickerson are all tied for fifth place with 16-under par 185s, while 2017 U.S. Champion Nate Sexton lurks six off the pace at 15-down.

Conrad kicked off the round with his first birdie of the tournament on the 389-foot 1st, but then struggled to a bogey on the u-shaped, par-4 2nd — a hole he specifically mentioned during a pre-round interview as one that gave him fits. He then carded consecutive birdies on holes 4 and 5 before running into trouble on the lakeside, 371-foot 6th.

“Threw a really pretty shot that skipped just long of the sand OB,” Conrad said. “That leaves me at the drop zone, which is not the most fun place to be left. But I was able to knock that one in to save the par.” The 60-foot connection was a perfect encapsulation of Conrad’s play thus far: He’s second in the field with a 78% scramble rate and 10th in circle 2 putting at 38%. 

But in keeping with the round’s theme, there were still ups and downs to come for Conrad. He snagged two more birdies before running for the eagle on the par-4, 549-foot 10th and again ended up long to card another penalty stroke. He’s gunned for the deuce on that hole all three rounds this week — a contrast from his safer play in 2018 — but he’s not sure if that strategy will play out on Saturday.

“I should have laid up all three rounds — I’m at 2-down on the hole with two pars and an eagle,” Conrad said. “Even if I eagle tomorrow it won’t be as good as my 5-down [on the hole] last year, but I’ll probably go for it. We’ll see where I’m sitting at that point in time.”

From there, though, Conrad was able to hit cruise control, notching four consecutive birdies on the open, stake-lined gauntlet from holes 10-13.

“Had a really nice stretch through the holes that can sometimes blow up…which felt really nice,” Conrad said. “Definitely some good momentum.”

He took most of that with him into the last five holes, hitting again from outside the circle for birdie on 17 before laying up a death putt on 18 for an easy par. 

That last play actually ran counter to his usual plan of attack on Winthrop.

“This isn’t really a course where being a couple ahead or a couple behind changes my game plan too much,” Conrad said. “I play this course pretty aggressive regardless.”

While Conrad was making his play from the chase, a flurry of action was unfolding on the lead card. A sampling of the chaos:

  • Clemons lost his lead within the first three holes, then regained it with a turkey from holes 5 through 7.
  • Queen hit two 50-foot putts en route to his own turkey to open the round, then lost steam with a double-bogey 5 after fluffing his second shot on the beach hole.
  • Locastro twice splashed into Winthrop Lake when trying to get onto the peninsula green on the 1,025-foot 5th to card a double-bogey 7. 

And that was just on the front nine. The real fireworks, meanwhile, were reserved for the back.

First, there was Locastro’s incredible albatross, and 400-foot flex shot that skipped off the parking lot and smashed the chains on the par-5 13th. It was a much-needed jolt of energy for the 2009 U.S. Champion after his early struggles, and he jubilantly sprinted to the green and jumped off of a tree trunk as he celebrated the feat.

“That’s why we play disc golf, is to celebrate good shots like that, and that’s what we look forward to,” Locastro said. “Every once in a while it works out.” 

The highlight put Locastro back to even par, and he followed up with consecutive birdies to move back to 2-under for the round and keep himself in contention.

“I believe that I still have a chance to win, and I’m just gonna keep that mindset going into tomorrow,” Locastro said. “…No round of disc golf is ever the same, so tomorrow I’m expecting something completely different. I know that I can do better.”

Hole 16 isn’t known as one of the more dramatic on the course, but the addition of pillars to the left side of the green turned it into one for McMahon. He missed a 25-foot attempt through the obstruction, and in a fit of frustration punched the ground. The mishap came in the midst of a six-par streak to close the round, and afterward McMahon was flexing his hand and mentioned that it was swelling. He politely declined an interview and sprinted to the parking lot once he was finished tallying his scorecard. 


Estonian Albert Tamm climbed onto the final round lead card at his second PDGA Major this season. Photo: Eino Ansio

Finally, Winthrop left its final act for its iconic island hole, but it exercised its wrath on local product Queen. He was actually poised to take the lead into the final round if he could get through the 254-foot 17th unscathed, but instead he found his hopes dashed like so many before. Queen needed three tries to get on the island, and his triple-bogey 6 led to his tumble to third place.

Still, he found the silver lining.

“It was one of the better putts I made on the day to save my triple bogey, though,” Queen said. “It felt good to hit that putt, but it’s pretty hard to get yourself back together after something like that.”

Despite the disastrous finish, Queen is still only four shots off Conrad’s pace and was looking to wipe the slate clean for Saturday’s final.

“Overall the round just went so up and down that there’s nothing I’m gonna think about from today going into tomorrow,” he said. “I’m gonna reach back to how I was feeling before, forget about today completely, and just restart tomorrow.”

The rollercoaster round left Locastro and Clemons off the lead card, which opened the door for Estonia’s Tamm. The 21-year-old is on the last event of a two-month stateside tour and has an opportunity to be the second Estonian player to snag a U.S. title this year after Kristin Tattar took down the United States Women’s Disc Golf Championship in September. What’s that say about disc golf in the Baltic nation?

“It’s getting big, and players are coming more outside Estonia in Europe and coming to U.S. more,” he said. “Everybody’s coming out of Estonia and getting into the picture.”

Other performances of note during the round came from Joel Freeman, who tossed an 11-under par 56 to move into a tie for ninth place with Alex Russell at 14-under, and Austin Hannum, who scorched Winthrop with a 13-under par 54 that moved him up 44 spots on the leaderboard and into a tie for 12th alongside Gregg Barsby. Hannum’s 1088-rated showing is the hottest of the tournament thus far.

Conrad has come close in several Majors over the last two seasons, and that experience should serve him well as he seeks to close the deal Saturday. Don’t look for him to adjust too much from a consistent approach that is clearly working.

“I think I have my best chance of scoring well on this course when I play aggressive,” Conrad reiterated. “It panned out, especially on some of the more difficult holes. If I can get my drive in bounds 550 feet or so down the fairway it makes those birdies pretty easy to pick up. When other people are taking big numbers on those holes, that’s where a lot of the separation comes from. 

“I’m gonna stick to the game plan and play pretty aggressive,” he continued. “It’s hard to say down the home stretch — it could be different — but going in that’s the idea.”

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Conrad conquers Winthrop, takes lead into USDGC final was originally published here

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