Tens of thousands of miles. Four professional disc golfers. One van.
No, this isn’t the premise to the newest goofy Adam Sandler film. Actually, it’s the framework for the Non-Stop Disc Golf Tour, and it is serious business.
OK, so it isn’t all serious business, but there is plenty of work involved, nonetheless.
The brainchild of 2008 world champion David Feldberg and 2010 United States Disc Golf Championship winner Will Schusterick, the foundation of the tour is simple: The two pros – along with fellow hotshots Nikko Locastro and Cale Leiviska – cross the country in an RV, holding school clinics during the week and closing out their visits with weekend tournaments. From pounding the pavement for sponsorships to cleaning up the remnants of their events, these four and their crew arrange these outings with the common purpose of growing the game of disc golf.
Passing the Torch
The genesis of the tour, according to Feldberg, came from the close relationships the players already had with one another.
“The idea of a tour this year…I think that was a combination of all of us thinking together, because we’ve been traveling together a lot,” Feldberg said. “I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’ve been building my career around the idea of being able to go to schools and teach clinics, so it works out well.”
Besides teaching new players about the game, Feldberg is also using the tour as a chance to educate the younger professionals and usher in the next era of the game.
“I just figured that it’s almost a passing of the torch,” he said. “I figured I’d take out some young guys and make sure they’re the next best.”
That torch isn’t being passed just from Feldberg to the youngsters, though.
“I think we all have something to learn from each other, even though I haven’t been around as long as everybody else has,” Schusterick said. “I’m definitely picking up a couple of their tricks and a couple of things to add and always build my game.”
Feldberg agreed that even he, as the seasoned veteran of the group, can pick up some tips from the young guys. He also sees this as a necessity to keep up with the rapid acceleration in the quality of professional disc golf currently being played.
“I’m just trying to evolve and keep my game at that level,” he said. “I feel like sports take leaps and turns in skill level at different times, and I feel like this is one right now in disc golf, where there’s a leap of skill level taking place with the top few players. That’s usually the point where, if you look at the history of sports, if there’s going to be a break, that would be the chance.
“So I’m just basically trying to keep up with all that young talent that’s making that leap.”
Life on the Road
Combining the normal grind of a touring professional with the duties of teacher and tournament director make the tour live up to its non-stop mantra.
While recounting the miles covered thus far in the journey, Feldberg crisscrossed the country in his head, trailing off in thought as he tried to add up all of the cities featured and events organized. Through the spring so far, the group has organized Non Stop Disc Golf events in Taos, New Mexico; Austin Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and St. Louis, Missouri. Add to those destinations any miles covered while getting to tournaments in Arizona, Kentucky, and even Denmark, and the tour isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“It’s always going to have its ups and downs, like everything else,” Schusterick said. “There’s always stuff that we’ve got to take care of on the business side, and at the same time there are always the times we get to be laid back and actually enjoy being friends and playing disc golf. Almost the good old days. It’s definitely got all types of emotions.”
Feldberg also lamented the fact that this year’s National Tour dates have been spaced further apart than in years past. This has forced some of the crew to split up at times to pursue events where they can be competitive while not taking winnings from each other.
“This spring is just a tough schedule,” he said. “Just trying to get to tournaments where the four of us can do well and make money and not travel for 3,000 miles a week, it’s just been really difficult.”
It’s not all just work on the tour, though. At the end of the day, it’s still four friends playing disc golf and seeing the country.
And, like any road trip, there are battles over who controls the tunes.
“They’re always fighting for it, because it’s just a plug into their phone,” Feldberg said. “There’s this plug floating around, and whoever can get it plugged in first is in charge of the music.”
Schusterick is usually the quickest on the draw, playing newer artists like Skrillex and B.O.B in between older hip hop like The Roots. Luckily, most of the guys on the tour enjoy the same music.
“I feel like I’m the D.J.,” Schusterick said.
Besides the struggle for musical supremacy, there is also the little issue in the van of three Innova-sponsored players – Feldberg, Locastro, and Schusterick – teaming with Leiviska, who is sponsored by Discraft.
According to Feldberg, though, that is exactly what it is: just a little issue.
“There’s nothing between Cale and us, because it’s just Cale,” Feldberg said. “The rivalry with Discraft and Innova used to be a lot bigger. I don’t think there’s any weirdness there.”
If anything, the only result is a little bit of good-natured ribbing.
“He (Leiviska) doesn’t down Innova in any way,” Feldberg said. “The only thing that happens is we tease him about his Discraft.”
With four sanctioned events in the can, plus another four to six planned for the fall, the Non-Stop Disc Golf Tour is certainly making an imprint on the current disc golf landscape. With the pros taking care of the sponsorships, the clinics, the tournaments and the clean-up, the typical disc golf model is being turned on its head.
“No one’s making anything,” Feldberg said of the financial means of the tour. “I’ve got sponsors for all the events. I just raise sponsorship locally, I go door-to-door. We don’t actually take anything for the clinics, and actually we put a lot of money into the tournaments.”
This approach may be unconventional, and it is not yet known if it is sustainable for the long-term. But PDGA executive director Brian Graham had nothing but praise for the initiative these players have taken.
“Any promotion of the game is good at the point in our evolution where we are,” Graham said. “I applaud the guys for going out and giving back to the disc golf community, and also for making things happen for themselves.
“Often times, the top-level pros sit back and want everything done for them, and these guys are actually going out and making things happen for themselves,” he continued. “There are probably more opportunities available to those guys today than there has ever been in the history of our sport.”
With days that can see the players getting into town at 4 a.m., then turning around and holding elementary school demonstrations at 9 a.m. – in addition to high school tutorials later in the day – there is no shortage of stops for the tour. But the players don’t seem to be looking for the opportunities for themselves. Instead, they want them for disc golf as a whole.
“We’re just trying to go around and promote the sport and make it known,” Feldberg said. “Just try and get it out there and figure maybe someone will notice.”
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t mind some help down the road, though.
“Maybe if we do all this, maybe there will be a big sponsor that says, ‘Hey, we want to sponsor the tour,’” Feldberg said. “And next year we can go do it without being stressed out.”
Graham said he sees sponsorship as a viable prospect, but with the tour being in its first year, many companies may not be willing to take the financial leap quite yet.
“I think a lot of people are taking a wait-and-see approach and seeing what these guys do and how it works out,” he said. “Even the guys are going to learn a lot this year on what works and what doesn’t work, so it’s kind of almost a pilot project.”
Schusterick understands this reality, but did not hesitate to say he would take up the tour again next year.
“A lot of people this year seemed very accepting of what we were doing, and usually in the first year of doing things it is in its smallest form,” he said. “If we do it next year, a lot of people will know and the word will get out a lot faster.”
This word-of-mouth, independent ideal is at the heart of the Non-Stop Disc Golf Tour. By putting the game in more people’s hands, the expectation is that the game will continue to grow.
But where the players have seen the most growth – and where the most fun has been had – is with children.
When organizing the clinics that the professionals give during the week, their target audience is often the younger set. Many of the children they have encountered, to Feldberg’s surprise, have already heard of, or maybe even played, disc golf.
But having heard of it and actually participating are two different animals.
“The kids find it really exciting to throw a Frisbee,” Feldberg said. “You know, it’s not just a disc golf thing. It’s always been a thing for the history of the world, since it’s been invented – kids love throwing Frisbees.”
Bringing this energy to the golf course and targeting it in a fashion other than playing catch is what Feldberg said he notices a lot of students really enjoying.
“You can see that they like this idea, that they can throw a disc at something other than their friends,” he said.
PDGA’s Graham said he also sees the potential for disc golf with youth.
“Grassroots growth is very important,” he said. “The (PDGA) board and I are both convinced that’s the way to go, and a lot of our programming over the last year, and this year, is geared toward that.”
Graham mentioned that league participation among schools is a key factor in making the sport more successful, but Feldberg highlighted contrasts between youth disc golf in the United States and Europe as a major sticking point in the game’s growth stateside.
“The true difference is that there’s no stigma about it being like a hippie, old seventies kind of thing (in Europe),” Feldberg said. “They didn’t have that in their history, so when disc golf was introduced, it was introduced as a sport and people there see it as a sport.
“A disc golf park in Europe is a place where you drop your kid off,” he continued. “Then you pick him up at the end of the day and he’s 12 years old and you know he just played disc golf and had a good time.”
Schusterick sees the Non-Stop Disc Golf Tour as a chance to bring disc golf up to the level of other mainstream sports in the U.S., and he relishes his role as a professional in making this a reality.
“You watch commercials of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, they go around to kids’ centers of America and teach them how to play basketball and show them what they do,” he said. “Hopefully one day, we can do the same thing to kids that play disc golf. One day, a world champion comes out of it. Or somebody from a school grows up and decides to do some college project on it and it really explodes the sport.”
Without a current explosion of the game, though, Feldberg and Schusterick are experiencing their own fireworks on tour each day. And it’s not the fireworks of competition and drive that one would expect there to be on a professional tour (although they are piling up the victories, with more than 10 this season in the van so far).
Instead, they are feeling the rush of bringing the sport to kids and the impact it has on their own day-to-day existence.
“It’s just showing somebody who has no negative energy toward life this new thing,” Feldberg said. “And the excitement, the pure energy they have for this new thing, and this fun they’re having at this exact moment, is why I play today. It’s the same feeling I had.”
Schusterick also mentioned the effects the daily clinics have on relieving the players from the mental rigor of the touring lifestyle.
“You know, you can have one of the worst days of all time,” he said. “You could wake up and all your stuff could be stolen, but if you go teach a group of kids, it changes everything about your day. You just have a new – it revitalizes you.”
Being the youngest member of the tour group, at just 20 years old, Schusterick has also noticed that the pace of the tour has not hurt his game. If anything, it has helped it.
“I was on tour last year for almost the entire year. I put almost 40,000 miles on my car that I bought,” he said. “It’s a good mix (this year) because you get to do something besides stress about going to practice the courses all the time…It’s just going out there and having fun and teaching something that you love to teach. You’re not going out there and stressing on yourself to work on your putt or to work on your sidearm, or you have to birdie a certain hole.
“It’s almost relaxation for part of the tour,” he continued. “It’s definitely helping my game.”
Even when there is a victory on the bus, it is always short-lived. The impact the players are having on the kids, Feldberg said, makes any tournament victory pale in comparison.
“Lately, when I hoist the trophy and they stand there and they do their clapping, I’m happy for a few minutes,” Feldberg said. “Then it goes away, back to normal.
“But when I teach some kids that have never played and they get super excited, and they’re jumping around, they start making putts and everybody’s jumping around me…” he continued. “I leave there and it changes my whole day.
“I feel like I’ve given back.”
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Steve Hill covers all angles of the game for Rattling Chains, even if he can’t hit those angles himself. Contact him at steve [at] rattlingchains.com and follow him on Twitter @OneMileMore.