World champs bounce back.
July 4, 2023 by Kingsley Flett in Analysis, Recap with comments
Compared to the thunderclouds that darkened the skies over De Moines last week It was a different kind of shadow that loomed over the Airborn Disc Golf Preserve on the outskirts of Clearwater, Minnesota, in the few days before the Preserve Championship.
After a Minnesota District Court Judge granted the motion for a temporary injunction against the DGPT and PDGA’s eligibility policy to Natalie Ryan, allowing the transgender athlete to play the tournament, emotions ran high. An unofficial press conference to speak out against the ruling was convened by a delegation of FPO and MPO players. The speakers included Catrina Allen, Sarah Hokom, Rebecca Cox, Jennifer Allen, Kat Mersch, Jessica Weese, and Kona Montgomery. They asked, some through tears, that their voices be heard, and they asked for fairness. There was also an appeal to the disc golf community’s better nature: to lead with love and not hate. Many have come down hard on either side of this issue, though: given the tone of the debate on the internet, the appeal has yet to reach those people.
The unfailingly measured and thoughtful Kristin Tattar spoke on Brodie Smith’s podcast Tour Life recently — about how heartbreaking it was for her to see the division in her disc golf family. Even watching events unfold from afar, it was clear how heavy the mood had become. But, as Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It only takes a sliver of light to brighten a dark room and it took just a few holes of play from a pair of disc golf’s great champions in round one to shine a light back on the disc golf.
Catrina Allen started the show. After a one-under-par opening eight holes, Allen reached down low and between her knees on a straddle putt, like a one-handed version of a 1950’s basketball free-throw, and launched a 50-foot uphill strike that skipped-in off the front of the cage of on basket 9. Then on hole 11, she hit another long straddle putt after her drive across Victoria’s Creek had been released late and short of the green’s retaining wall. These birdies were in the middle of a streak of six in a row, three of which were scored with outside the circle putts that propelled the two-time world champ into a 4-stroke lead over Kristin Tattar.
“I’m in shock,” said Allen after the 10-under-par first round. “The course is just giving some birdies, and I thought ‘we have a lot of heavy hitters here’ and I’d be maybe in the hunt or tied for the lead, so I’m really stoked to be where I’m at.”
The first part of Ricky Wysocki’s season has been derailed with a wrist injury that has become chronic and unpredictable. “The wrist is not 100%,” he said before the tournament. “It ebbs and flows with playing a long season. It’s definitely not great right now, but it’s never been an injury that’s been affected by overuse. So it’s just about playing through a bit of pain.”
Any doubts about the injury were dispelled when Wysocki out drove his card, including known big arms in Gannon Buhr and Calvin Heimburg, on the long fairway of the 700 foot hole 1. Wysocki drained the first of six circle’s edge putts for a birdie on this hole on his way to a 15-under-par 52 and a two-stroke lead. Wysocki’s putting looked machine-like during the round: he was 100% inside the circle and only missed one putt for the entire round, from circle 2 when scoring one of his two bogeys for the round on hole-3. We even saw the raptor legs on hole 18 as Wysocki hit his circles-edge putt for eagle.
Allen, too, had been perfect inside the circle in her round and 50% from circle two. “I’ve actually had lots of putting rounds like this, but I just haven’t been throwing the disc as well as today, so you guys probably haven’t seen them,” she said. “I finally found a way to throw well enough to that I’m giving myself the opportunity for birdie as opposed to making those putts for par.”
Of course, it’s exciting to see the flood of new names on DGPT podiums and lead cards: Parker Welck, Cole Redalen, Isaac Robinson, Niklas Anttila, Evan Scott, Kat Mertsch, Macie Velediaz, Sai Ananda, and Hanna Huynh to name a few. But too much novelty can feel destabilizing. There was something reassuring about seeing Allen and Wysocki leading the way at The Preserve. Both champions held their leads in round two, Wysocki stretching his advantage to four over James Conrad while Allen dropped one stroke to Kristen Tattar but still led by three.
Wysocki provided some theater on the 335-foot hole-11: he pulled his drive high and right, the disc sailing high into the trees lining the right side of the fairway and headed for trouble before it was deflected back into the fairway and, miraculously, onto an in-bounds area on the near side of Victoria’s Creek. With bleachers full of spectators behind the green roaring the disc home, Wysocki threw into the basket from 95 feet and, while he did his raptor leg run along the path to the green, there was a sense that the momentum, for a player who thrives on it, was building.
Allen had a slow start to her second round, shooting even par up to hole 7 while Tattar erased her lead with four birdies. Tattar and Allen then had a see-saw battle for the middle part of the round, highlighted by Tattar’s circle-two putts for birdie on holes 10 and 11 and Allen’s 50-foot par save on 14.
Tattar and Allen arrived at hole-16 with scores level, before Allen parked it and Tattar showed the underside of her disc to the right-left crosswind and sailed 50 feet wide. Then, on hole 17, Tattar’s strategy of throwing standstill from the tee backfired when the drive slipped from her grasp early and hit the fourth row of trees lining the left side of the narrow fairway. Allen’s second birdie in a row stretched the lead back to three before both players threw par on hole 18.
Both Allen and Wysocki had shaky starts to their final rounds. In MPO, the whole lead card struggled to score in the early holes as news filtered through from the 5th card of Cole Redalen shooting a hot round. The lead card of Wysocki, Heimburg, James Conrad, and Nicholas Gill had shot collectively 3-under-par on the first three holes compared to 8-under par the day prior. Conrad’s struggles were chiefly tee to green: the 2021 World Champion hit just 68% of fairways. Heimburg’s struggles were on the green, where he putted just 50% inside the circle, most going low into the cage. “I felt like I had a weight attached to my arm today,” he said after the round.
After shooting 27-under-par for the first two rounds, Wysocki struggled to find the same flow in the first half of Sunday. “It happens when there’s pressure and nerves on the final day and lead card,” Wysocki said after the round. “There’s like two separate tournaments going on; there’s the lead card and then everybody else. When you are on third or fourth card, it’s almost like a walk in the park. There’s not as much pressure and expectation, and players are able to throw more freely.”
Wysocki got it going on hole 6. After pulling his drive to the right of the dogleg on the 695-foot par-4, he threw a high stalling backhand directly to the basket over the trees found the disc had filtered down into a spot that gave him a channel to hit the birdie putt from just on the edge of the circle. “C’mon Rick!” he shouted as he gained a stroke on the card and became the only player in the top 20 to birdie the hole apart from Anthony Barela.
“That was a huge momentum starter for my round,” he said. “I felt like I got those momentum strokes when I needed to get them to keep Calvin and everyone behind me. I do really well when I have a lead and I was happy to be able to control the tournament today. I feel like that’s when I play my best.”
There was a stutter on hole 8, where he threw out of bounds and failed to save par from the drop zone. The two-throw swing allowed Calvin within 3 strokes and Redalen, who was up on hole 13, to within two. But then a 50-foot putt for birdie on hole 12 gained one throw and a cruel roll-away after yet another circle-1 putting miss by Heimburg on hole 13 opened the gap back up to five strokes with five to play.
Wysocki put a full stop on the win with a 38-foot birdie putt on hole 16 and then an exclamation mark with another eagle on hole 18. The only disappointment for the fans who’d gathered to yell “yeah Rick!” as the winning putt dropped was the lack of raptor leg running room Wysocki had left by parking his second shot within five feet of the basket.
Heimburg finished with three birdies to climb back into a share of second place with Redalen, another of the teenagers who are destined to shape the course of the MPO game in the coming years. Redalen spoke with a wisdom that belied his age after the round.
“Any golfer will tell you it’s an up or down, whether you are playing good one week or bad the next week,” he said. “For anyone who’s playing bad right now, one week and you can play so much better. I’m just so thankful to be able to come back strong after a couple of rough weeks and feel my game again, just like anybody else. It’s the continuous work and trust that you are going to come back stronger the next week.”
Prior to his 15-under par 52 from the 5th card, Redalen had caddied for teammate Catrina Allen in the morning. Allen credited Redalen’s level headedness for helping her navigate a moment of crisis on the front nine. Starting championship Sunday with a three-stroke lead on Tattar, Allen stretched that to 5-strokes after a 2-stroke swing on hole 3. Then. Despite birdieing the difficult dogleg hole 6, where the FPO field used the same tee as MPO, Allen gave one stroke back when Tattar became one of 15 players of either field to score a 3 on the hole on the day. Allen’s 4-stroke lead was to evaporate in the next two holes however: beginning with a 4-putt double bogey on hole 7 to Tattar’s birdie, then a par on hole 8, which Tattar birdied after hitting a 50-foot putt.
“I knew what had happened in the last two holes,” said Allen after the round. “But Cole and I are doing such a great job of staying in the moment. When he’s there and we are just talking about my game in the moment I’m not getting in panic mode. We talked about how my putting routine was a little slow on one putt and a little fast on the next and how we are just going to adjust on the next tee instead of thinking about how I just lost three strokes.”
The leading pair swapped birdies on the next two holes before Allen steadily pulled away, gaining strokes on the next four holes as Tattar lost her rhythm: throwing short of the retaining wall on hole 11 and landing in Victoria’s creek, throwing into a tree 40 feet away on the fairway of hole 12, missing right on the must-birdie tunnel shot on hole 13, and then leaked a 20 foot comeback putt for par left on hole 14. After matching Tattar’s score over the next three holes, Allen was able to lay up for bogey on hole 18 to secure a comfortable 3-stroke win.
In her post round interview, Allen revealed that, like MPO winner Ricky Wysocki, she too had come into the tournament facing some adversity. “Last week I lost my best friend from college, then I had emergency surgery on my mouth on Monday,” she said before returning to the issue of the pre-tournament week. “Not to bring up a sore subject but the whole fighting for fairness in our division. It felt like after the press conference, that after two years of fighting for fairness in our division I felt like I was finally able to speak my truth, and this was the calmest I’ve felt on the course since 2021.”
The finish of the Preserve Championship marks a juncture in the tour. Most of the touring pros head across for the European swing before coming back to the USA for Worlds, followed by the closing events, the USDGC, and the Tour Championship. It’s fitting, then, that this tournament was played out on the banks of the mighty Mississippi that divides the eastern part of the continent.
A few reputations have been made in this first part of the DGPT, but as we get to the business end, it’s time for legacies to be left. Something tells me that performance in this first part of the tour is going to count for very little in the final chapter.