A tremendous display of skill and perseverence.
September 4, 2022 by Kingsley Flett in Analysis with comments
Whenever she was on the camera, I studied her face, searching for a change in expression. Something different from the serene stare and occasional smile she’d been showing us all week. Then, on hole 18, she punched her drive low and hard across the water, giving the light breeze no chance to lift the disc out of bounds. Safe on the green with an eight-throw lead, it seemed the moment had arrived. As she strode back down the tee pad, her eyes had the slightly opaque look of someone who is fighting to keep a lid on their emotions.
After laying up to the base of the elevated basket, one tap-in away from a first world title, she turned and wrapped caddie Keiti Tätte in a long hug. It was then that Kristin Tattar failed at something this week. She could no longer stop the tears.
Why do we cry in moments of triumph, anyway? Some might say that the joy causes us to reflect on the struggle that got us there, and Tattar has certainly had plenty of struggle. But the research disagrees. Apparently, the crying releases chemicals which deepen our feeling of the moment. We also cry to invoke empathy from others, so they can connect and share our experience.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but we have a lot of expat Estonians playing disc golf in Australia. By my calculations, the country of 1.3 million with its 2,276 current PDGA members makes that the highest number per head in the world. Many of them seem to have travelled too. In Australia, the Estonians are universally loved — as is Kristin Tattar it seems, because hers was a very popular win. I swapped messages with some friends who all admitted to having tears well up. ‘I’m not crying, you’re crying.’
“It feels amazing,” Tattar said. “It doesn’t feel real. I don’t know if someone can wake me up from this dream. It’s just crazy. I thought about it a lot during the off season. This dream kept me going when it was tough. I’ve been thinking about it almost every day and now I’m here and I achieved it so it’s definitely a dream come true.”
When she was invited to say a few words to her followers, Tattar switched to Estonian at the end of the message. “Tänan teid südamest,” she said as she put her hand to her chest. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
We can try to quantify the different tools required to ascend to the elite ranks in disc golf: arm speed, distance, lever lengths, forehand, backhand, a repertoire of shots and putting ability, to name a few. But how do we quantify a champion’s heart? That same group of friends who shared the emotion of Tattar’s win were also commenting on Paul McBeth all week: ‘McBeth is injured’, ‘McBeth looks to be struggling’, ‘McBeth looks old compared to those whippy-armed youngsters’, ‘McBeth might be past it.’ Then I’d look at UDisc and think, ‘McBeth is still here.’
Despite the well documented struggles with his putting consistency and the left calf (and shoulder) injury, McBeth found a way to stay in striking range of the leaders all week and turned for home only three throws behind leader Aaron Gossage. Their battle was to be an epic one.
On hole 6, Gossage pulled a late release backhand too wide to be in range of a birdie putt. The Coloradan slapped his thigh and said, “C’mon man!” It was a rare show of emotion. Perhaps the pressure McBeth had wanted to create was being felt. With 12 holes to play, the lead had been erased. On hole 10, McBeth appeared to have learned from seeing the young challenger thread a forehand to within a few feet of the basket the day before. McBeth switched from backhand and speared a forehand flex shot right to the bullseye. Gossage repeated his line from the day before but threw it too low and short. McBeth up by one.
On 15, one of the easiest holes on the course, McBeth’s backhand hyzer hit the guardian tree and was spat towards the ground at the perfect angle to slowly roll OB. Gossage threw his drive to the bullseye: McBeth became one of the 6% of the field to bogey that hole. Gossage by one.
“Even after bogeying that hole on fifteen, I knew still I had a chance,” said McBeth. “I told myself ‘Just convert the shots and keep moving forward’.”
Then, there could not have been scripted a better moment for the leaders to be standing on the wooden decked tee pad of hole 16, looking across the pond at the island green 320 feet away. Gossage threw his zone on a hyzer line and landed past the basket, close to circle’s edge. McBeth’s backhand hyzer landed about five feet closer. Both players were staring at water as they putted. Gossage’s putt hit the cage and dropped. McBeth summoned all the smoothness and confidence drilled into that famously graceful putting stroke and buried it into the heart of the chains. Scores level.
On 17, McBeth’s drive hit overhead branches and dropped well short of the landing zone. Gossage’s drive was low and fast and about as good a shot as anyone could throw off the tee on the hole. “McBeth might be so far back that’s it’s going to take a miracle shot,” said Disc Golf Network commentator Ian Anderson. Commentators should know better than to invoke fate like that.
510 feet from the green, McBeth wove a low, snaking flex shot through the trees and around the OB that traveled 450 feet to land within nine feet of circle two. Gossage was 300 feet from the basket and thew one of his unique, high forehand hyzers that most people say only he and a pre-injury Eagle McMahon are capable of. It sailed 60 feet beyond the basket. Putting from his regular stance, 69 feet out and pushing off from that sore left leg, McBeth’s disc hit chains low left and stuck. He skipped and jogged to the basket, high on the best pain killer in the world – adrenaline. What sore leg?
“I just told myself ‘You’ve got to will this one in there’,” he said after the round. “Whatever you have, just will it in there. Give everything you have.”
Gossage’s putt floated high and left with the slight headwind and never had a chance. McBeth by one.
On hole 18, after both players drove across the water to the fat part of the fairway, Gossage threw another high arcing forehand hyzer out over the heads of the gallery on the left side and brought-up a puff of grass just outside the bullseye. McBeth either doesn’t have that shot or didn’t want to throw it. He chose a straight backhand through the trees that finished 45 feet short. His putt hit the top of the cage. The 40th PDGA Disc Golf World Championships would be headed to a playoff.
Back on hole 16, Gossage’s forehand hyzer slipped high, stalled slightly, and fell short; he was on the island but out of bounds. McBeth then just did what he needed to do. Not needing a birdie, he punched his backhand hyzer low and hard at the island and let the back wall do its work. Gossage missed his par bid from the drop zone. McBeth laid up then dropped in for his 6th world championship.
The kid from Huntington Beach, California — in his 15th year on the tour — didn’t even try to hold back the tears. Speaking with Terry Miller, his voice trembling, he said, “It means a lot. I was in Aaron’s shoes last year and oh, man I feel for him because it’s tough, but I know he’ll bounce back. I struggled though, I still struggled from the putting green, but I found a way to push through and to somehow get them to go in and put myself in this position. I’m pretty emotional right now. I know my family back home in California are watching and I gave them a heart attack.”
Aaron Gossage was smiling through some damp eyes in his post-round press conference too. “I’m just thankful to be in this position,” he said. “It was a huge battle all day long. It was definitely nervy. I threw some good shots and some bad shots, but I tried to stay consistent. I think my only bogey at Country Club for the whole weekend was there in the playoff. I haven’t really processed it otherwise; this is just a surreal weekend. I know that having those nerves at the top level is a thing and that I need to get better at playing with that. Hopefully this is the first of many lead card performances here.”
Kristin Tattar didn’t give her family, friends or fans watching from Estonia a heart attack. She gave them a nine-hole victory parade. Henna Blomroos took a throw back on the first hole and then gave it back on hole three, then surrendered another on hole five. Coming into hole nine, with 10 to play and 6 throws down, the Finn was running out of holes already. The entire tournament was beginning to ride on each of Blomroos’ putts. Then an eerily familiar scenario played out. Tattar overpowered her approach, and the disc was caught at the edge of the rough. Blomroos slid her anhyzer backhand to the bullseye. Tattar hit her eighth straight birdie putt and then Blomroos, inexplicably and awkwardly, jerked a six-foot putt that barely touched the right-side chains as it sailed past. Then she missed the short comebacker. There was a similar two-throw swing on the next hole as Blomroos missed another virtual tap-in. But that didn’t matter. It was all over with nine holes to play.
Both of our newly crowded world champions overcame adversity and injury to be standing on the podium. Both were outdriven by more powerful players on largely open courses all week, and both fought through bad patches of form to triumph.
“I wasn’t going to let anything stop me besides myself,” said McBeth.
“Last night was awful,” said Tattar. “I had so many nerves. I kept telling myself to just ‘focus on the shot that is in front of you and don’t think about anything else’ and I was so proud that I was able to do that because it’s not every tournament that I’m able to do that. I laid all my cards on this tournament.”
It seems to me that the PDGA has settled on to the right formula for the World Championships. Its five rounds are a test of endurance, patience, and persistence as well as skill and power. The event gives us epic stories every year that we use to build the mythology of our sport. It gives us champions with heart.