Catrina Allen led wire-to-wire while Calvin Heimburg relied on aggressive play to push him past Kevin Jones and Ezra Aderhold
March 1, 2023 by Kingsley Flett in Recap with comments
“Things happen to you they happen. They don’t ask first. They don’t require your permission.”
― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
If the Las Vegas Challenge was a novel, it would have been written by Cormac McCarthy. When I think of the romance of a sporting season opener, I think of baseball, where it seems like whole volumes of prose have been written about spring and the smell of freshly cut grass.
There was none of that at the Wildhorse Golf Club in Henderson, about ten miles south of Las Vegas in Nevada, last week. The opening tournament of the Disc Golf Pro Tour was set in a stark landscape with cruel luck playing its hand, in 50-degree temperatures and with 35 mile per hour winds whipping in off the Mojave Desert.1 Players in layers, taking off gloves to throw, and faces pinched against the cold wind doesn’t quite match the exuberance we might expect of a tour opener. But the South Western swing of the disc golf pro tour is a perfect start in its own way.
A New Catrina Allen
As my Ultiworld colleague Matt Thompson foreshadowed, a few pundits might be sleeping on Catrina Allen’s potential as a rival to Kristin Tattar and Paige Pierce this year. It’s been 13 years since the first of Allen’s 180 career wins, so some might be banking on a decline in her performance. Her consistent presence on the tour might have bred some familiarity among disc golf followers who, understandably, with the yearly influx of new talent into the FPO field, tend to be focused on the next big thing.
It seems to me that in the past, Allen’s strengths have been off the tee and in the fairway and that these powers diminished the closer she got to the basket. Some inexplicable putting failures when the stakes were high, like the last hole of the penultimate round of the 2019 worlds, tend to stick in the memory and fuel this impression.
The 2023 Catrina Allen seems different though. She’s less restless. The Disc Golf Network coverage is following other pro sports in showing us the human side of the drama (putting cameras in the face of players in between shots in other words), but Allen is either more comfortable with this intrusion or has developed her ability to find a calm center between shots. Either way, she now exudes a stillness that wasn’t there a couple of years back.
This calmness was tested on hole 10 of the final round, a round Allen started with an eight-throw lead over Ella Hansen and that was expected to be a victory lap. Her comfortable cushion grew less comfortable as she couldn’t find a birdie in the first nine holes and threw out of bounds three times, saving par once but carding bogeys on holes three and six. On hole-10, just as she had on the two bogey holes, Allen pulled her drive right. The disc sailed over the out of bounds area, but found an edge on the cart path and looked to be skipping towards the green with some velocity, until it collided with a cart and stayed OB. It was a three throw swing to Missy Gannon, who eagled the hole to shave the lead to two throws.
Allen’s response to this mishap was to birdie three out of the next four holes and shut the gate on her pursuers.
“It was just the fire and wake up call I needed,” Allen said after the round. “As annoying as it was it was like, ‘lets just get it together’ and then finally I threw my first good tee shot of the round on eleven.”
The alleged weakness in Allens’s game wasn’t there in Las Vegas either. She was 88 percent for circle one putting for the round on the back of an average of 76 percent for the tournament. It was a dominant, coast-to-coast victory for back-to-back titles.
“With a big lead there’s almost more pressure because – how embarrassing if you lose that lead right?” Allen said. “I think I like it when it’s closer.” When asked if she negatively compared her lower rated final round with the 1000+ rated rounds that preceded it, she said, “The conditions were completely different. I was cold, it was windier, and it was a different, more inconsistent wind. I go back to when I hit that cart and how I reacted. I was upset, but there was nothing I could do about it except to keep playing my round. Being able to battle back when things get tough and not letting it spiral is something I’ll take away. After 13 years it’s nice to know I still care, and I still get nervous. “
Heimburg Plays the Right Cards
While Catrina Allen’s win probability, according to UDisc, was the strongest of the FPO field for the whole tournament and didn’t drop below 80 percent after round two, the MPO field threw up a few different contenders. After round one, when Anthony Barela shared the lead with James Proctor and Scott Withers, we wondered if this might be the breakthrough tournament that we’ve been expecting for the former junior world champion. When Barela finished round two with a three-throw solo lead, in his first tournament under new sponsor Discraft’s banner, the talk intensified. Barela lost five throws to Kevin Jones in round three however, while Eagle McMahon, Calvin Heimburg, Paul McBeth, Garrett Gurthie, Emerson Keith, Drew Gibson, Ezra Aderhold all came into contention. In fact, fourteen players were within eight throws of the lead at the final turn.
Leader after round three, Kevin Jones, was feeling confident after his nine-under-par 51.
“I’m just playing so solid,” he said. “It’s nice when it’s easy. Just playing basic hyzer and leaning on my putter upshots. I feel like I have my putt simplified. The Innova course sets up nicely for me.”
Barela had shown plenty of resilience to stay in the fight though. After bogeys on holes five and ten and struggling to score on the front nine, he battled back with five birdies in the last eight holes of round three to stay in the hunt.
“On back nine I was just focusing on angles,” he said. “I’m still getting used to these discs in the wind. My angle control on the front nine was awful.”
Speaking of angle control, I was determined to tell the story of a Las Vegas tournament without resorting to comparisons with gambling or luck and recycling clichés like “rolling the dice.” But by the time the top cards had reached the final few holes it was impossible to avoid. It started with Anthony Barela’s tee shot on hole-10, which was fading to the left and clear of the golf bunker hazard, about to skip into a fat part of the fairway and leave him with a layup for birdie that might have won him a share of the lead with Jones and Aderhold (whose round of 50 had sprung him from the third card and into contention). Instead, the disc collided with a volunteer who, in their attempt to get out of the way, knocked themselves and Barela’s drive into the bunker. Cue the chorus that started last year for better training of volunteers on the course. The chorus is right. Barela appeared to lose momentum after that setback and shot three bogeys with no birdies in the final nine holes to finish tied for eighth spot.
Then on the next hole, Jones threw his drive his forehand drive a touch hard. The disc came into the green hot, skipped past the basket, was caught perfectly on its departure line by the OB stringline, which twanged the disc back in bounds like the D string on a bass guitar. If you can calculate the odds of that happening, then you’ve probably got the sort of mathematical ability that gets you banned from casinos. Jones graciously accepted this gift and canned his birdie to hold the lead.
Then on hole 13, Jones, who by this stage was holding a two-throw lead over Heimburg and Aderhold, threw his lay up for par to the green a little soft. His disc hit the sand of the hazard bunker but managed to scuttle up onto the green like a crab escaping a cooking pot. Eagle McMahon threw the very next shot from a similar spot, slightly better than Jones. But, as if fate was mocking him, his disc caught what looked like a single blade of grass and was pushed back into the sand trap.
Heimburg shaved the lead to one throw with a birdie on 15. Then, on 16, Jones opted to lay up short of the dangerous green with water to one side, while Heimburg, in slightly better position, rolled the dice with a spearing line drive that flirted with reeds on the right side all the way to hitting the bank just short of the basket and stopping within sixteen feet and a share of the lead with two holes to play.
“That’s a pretty scary green to approach,” said Heimburg. “But one back at that point it was a kind of make-or-break moment for me. I felt like 17 was a tough birdie to get so I know that might be the last place for me to make up that one stroke.”
On hole 18, both Heimburg and Jones fell for the same trap that had ended the challenge of Drew Gibson and Paul McBeth on the chase card – a wind shear that pulled discs down towards the water and the steeply sloped bank leading to it. Heimburg’s shot cleared the water and hit the grass just beyond the bordering cart path and stuck. Jones’s shot got squashed by the downdraft and went into the water.
“I really wasn’t trying to go that aggressive,” said Heimburg after the round. “I pulled it and it just happened to clear. Which was very fortunate for me.”
After that drama, Heimburg was able to lay up for par and his second Las Vegas win. Jones, trying for a fairway ace that would have forced the playoff, skipped off the top band of the basket. Going out of bounds dropped him to a share of second place with Ezra Aderhold, whose name had been bouncing around the leaderboard from the clubhouse for most of the last hour.
“It feels great. It’s always great to start the season off with a win,” said Heimburg. “You feel like you can relax a little afterwards. I took that double bogey on seven, which is a really short par four. I knew I’d have to play really good golf after that. I had some mistakes, but the back nine, if you are aggressive and execute well you can definitely make up strokes. I was able to execute in the wind. I knew I’d have to play aggressive. Being the first person on the box I wanted to push the issue. I saw [Jones’] round two out here and he definitely played the back nine a little more conservative. He played it that way today as well. He executed that game plan. I was just able to get some birdies when he didn’t.”
So the 2023 Disc Golf pro tour, and disc golf year proper, is underway. Some are heading to Fountain Hills in Arizona, some are going straight to Waco, and some are coming in to Waco to start their season. The story of 2023 continues.