Playing through shoulder injuries, Pierce, Keith claim OTB titles
May 18, 2023 by Kingsley Flett in Analysis, Recap with comments
It occurred to me, now that we are over of a third of the way through the season, that the 2023 Disc Golf Pro Tour has become a grand tour of America. Granted, other pro sports might have their tours, but tennis players and golfers seem to just randomly hop between venues via private jet, without any continuity or narrative, while the mostly road-bound Disc Golf Pro Tour rolls from tee to shining basket across the American landscape, visiting places in the heartland along the way and telling the story of our game and its tribe.
We’ve wound our way from the Sierra Nevada across the Great Basin to the Rio Grande, then across the Great Plains and the Gulf Coastal Plains to the Mississippi River and almost to the Appalachians. Then back west we go across the Central Plains to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada again, and to Stockton, at the head of the lush Central Valley of California. The tour has described a lazy loop through the bottom third of the continent before it heads east again via a more northern arc.
Woody Guthrie would have approved of this hobo lifestyle and might have also liked how the ethos of his most popular song was reflected in the statement Paige Pierce made after round two. A visibly emotional Pierce mentioned how the sport lost one of its most loved veterans to suicide this week and in light of how public debate about Natalie Ryan had taken a nasty turn, she reminded everyone to remember that “everyone’s a friggin human being and to be kind.” This land was made for you and me, indeed.
It was hard to ignore the long shadow that Ryan’s court case cast over the event. If people were hoping the issue would somehow fade away once play began, then Natalie had other ideas. Her 6-under-par 61 had her one throw out of the top card and atop the leaderboard for much of the early part of the round. Then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in to settle the issue for now.
Emerging from this shadow was the story of Paige Pierce herself. A shoulder injury had hindered her play in the last month and threatened to derail her season. But with some strict rest that included not even carrying her bag in the right hand and throwing left-handed rollers to her dogs in the backyard, coupled with some intense physical therapy, she came into the tournament ready to compete at 100%.
“It’s almost too good to be true, based on how I did feel just a few weeks back,” Pierce said. “But, taking some time off and doing what I needed to do with Seth Munsey’s guidance and the physical therapist’s guidance, I feel like I made all the right decisions.”
Sharing the lead with Ohn Scoggins, Emily Beach, and Ella Hansen after round one, Pierce made the decisive break in round two with a streak of 10 birdies between holes 4 and 13 on her way to a 12-under-par 55. Pierce made the turn into championship Sunday with a four stroke lead over Hansen.
“There was a lot of emotion on the course today,” Pierce said after the round. “I was really amped. Tournament power was real. I was sailing past some baskets. So changing game plan and clubbing down and being able to hit it harder and take some the aggression off into the disc instead of outward, it was just fuelled by motivation.”
Pierce didn’t take the foot off the gas in the final round. Birdieing 7 out of the first 11 holes before scoring her first bogey in 37 holes on hole 12. Hansen buried her chances late in the round with a triple bogey seven on hole 17. This hole, with its enticing peninsular green that drew many an upshot into the water, including four of Catrina Allen’s, was to play a pivotal role in the tournament all weekend. Emily Beach fell off the pace earlier in the round with back-to-back double-bogey and bogey on holes 9 and 10. While she finished strong, it wasn’t enough to hold off a hard charging Ohn Scoggins coming through to take second. Although the comfortable 6 throw buffer Pierce had built mid-round did shrink in the final holes, she was still able to cruise to her third straight OTB Open win.
“I’m relieved,” said Pierce after receiving her trophy. “Today wasn’t really a great day out for me on the course. My putting was great the last two days but today could have used some improvement, so I’m just relieved I can spend a couple of weeks and fine tune it before the next one.”
Despite some calls that Pierce’s dominance might be waning in this era of Kristin Tattar, the fact that she has won two Elite Series tournaments out of four entered already this year shows that she will be a factor as we head towards the World Championships and the tour finale.
After two rounds, the MPO battle seemed to be setting up in a similar fashion to many of the Elite Series events this year – a tight pack of players at the top with 11 within six strokes of the leader. The scenario also took on an eerie familiarity for leader Aaron Gossage, who, in the post round interview, was quite kindly reminded of how this predicament compared to before the final round of last year’s World Championships.
“I’m not going to think about that too much,” Gossage said after round two. “I’m going to zone worlds out. For the most part, I’ve been in this position before, so I know what it’s like, I know what the nerves are and hopefully I learned something there and I’ll be able to perform well tomorrow.”
By midway through the final round, Gossage had stretched his one-throw lead by another stroke over Emerson Keith, then, on hole 11, when Keith’s drive didn’t turn into the headwind like he expected and splashed into the lake, the lead over Keith was three. Meanwhile, Gannon Buhr had streaked into second place from the fifth card on the back of 9 birdies in the first 14 holes. Keith parked his forehand on the 328-foot hole 12 to bring the gap back to two. Gossage’s putting had started to weaken, though. He putted low and into the cage on hole 11 to miss the opportunity for a birdie and the chance to open a pressure inducing gap on his chasers, then on hole 12 he again putted low from inside the circle to allow Keith to narrow the gap.
If the momentum was swinging, then Keith gave that swing a mighty push with a 438-foot park job on the next hole, threading a flex shot through the early trees to finish 5-feet from the basket. When Gossage hit an early tree off the same tee, there was the sense that swing was getting wider. Then, after leaving his approach shot short, Gossage flew the basket and then left his 20-foot comebacker short to double bogey the hole and see his lead disappear. Complicating this picture a few holes ahead was Gannon Buhr, who by then had taken his birdie streak to nine in a row to be 12-under for the round and hold a share of the lead.
Gossage missed another inside circle putt for birdie and the chance to claw a stroke back from Kwith. Then on hole 15, Keith went ahead by another stroke after Gossage’s drive rolled out of bounds onto the golf green. Ahead on hole 18, Buhr sailed his high spike-hyzer approach up into the wind and saw it float out of bounds on the keyhole shaped green. Buhr then missed the par-save putt and, as events were to unfold, the chance to win the tournament from the fifth card. On hole 16, Gossage again failed to take a stroke back off Keith after getting on the green after two throws by putting low into the cage from inside the circle.
So much of the drama of the tournament his weekend was played out on hole 17. The tricky corridor shot flowed by a scary risk-reward proposition of throwing over the water to a peninsular green has generated some big numbers, including, as Disc Golf Network commentator Terry Miller said, “the first snowmen in Stockton since 1976.” Gossage clipped a tree off the tee, leaving him short, while Keith’s drive was clean. Gossage had no choice but to try a virtually impossible 300-foot shot into a headwind across the lake and saw his hopes and his disc sink into the water to the right of the green.
Keith’s main opponent for the final hole was now the already finished Gannon Buhr, two throws behind. Keith was steady on the final hole, though, throwing a clean drive and a solid patent pending upshot to chip up and drop in his par and claim his first Elite Series or major victory, over seven years from the first time he cashed.
“So you see people win and they say ‘I don’t even know what to feel right now,’ and you don’t know what they are talking about until you are standing here,” Keith said after claiming his trophy. “With the fans and the energy, it’s insane. It’s an unmatched feeling. It’s Mother’s Day and I’ve got a wife at home and two babies, so I guess I had a little extra to play for. “
Like the FPO winner Paige Pierce, Keith has dealt with his own shoulder issues this season and attributes his up-and-down form so far this year to the rotator cuff injury that he has had to manage. He has also paid back the faith that his sponsor, Lone Star Discs, showed by signing him this year.
So now the caravan rolls north up to Oregon and along the Cascades.