By Jack Trageser — Rattling Chains staff
You’ll often read the term “saving strokes” in my instructional posts because I believe the best way for an average player to improve his or her score is to cut down on taking unnecessary bogeys, doubles, or worse.
Birdies are wonderful, but for those who consider breaking par consistently to be a lofty goal, the quickest way to get there is to identify the avoidable mistakes we repeatedly make — and eliminate them.
There are many ways to do this, and the good news is most don’t require increased athletic talent so much as an understanding of three things — what’s likely to happen given the situation, your current skill level, and a number of environmental factors.
This post focuses on a big part of what happens after the disc leaves your hand — specifically the moment when it obeys the law of gravity, as all discs must eventually do. What goes up must come down, and unless your disc lands in a tree or on a roof or somewhere else above the playing surface, it’ll end up hitting the ground.
The question to ask yourself is, when you’re planning the shot you want to throw, how much thought are you giving to what happens after your disc first makes contact with the ground?
If your honest answer is “none” or “not much,” you’re likely taking some unnecessary strokes during your rounds. And if you’re like me, you might have been giving the subject plenty of consideration for years and still not realizing the important points.
My goal with this lesson is to list a few factors related to the angle or texture of the terrain that may affect your decision making when determining the exact shot you plan to execute. In the first part, we’ll cover the best ways to deal with holes that slope — uphill, downhill, and side-to-side. The second part will address the texture of the terrain — thick grass, dirt and rocks, thick brush, and hard-pan. Each presents special considerations, and we’ll cover ’em all. Now, on with the book, er, blog learnin’!
Don’t be a dope — pay attention to the slope!
On courses in many parts of the country, all the holes are completely or pretty much flat. If that describes your neck o’ the woods, first of all, I feel for you. Slopes add a whole different element of fun (and sometimes frustration) to disc golf.
But assuming you occasionally get to venture to other, more mountainous (or at least hilly) courses, you’ll still want to pay attention. Sometimes the slope of the terrain on a hole goes downhill, sometimes uphill, sometimes left-to-right, and sometimes right-to-left. In each of these cases, there is a specific adjustment you can make to your throws that will give you better results than if you had throw the hole as if it was flat.
Uphill and downhill
The first thing to keep in mind when throwing to spots above or below you — especially on downhill shots — is to be sure your flight line is roughly parallel to the line between you and the target.
When the tee pad is flat but the target is far below, like the famous Top of the World No. 27 at DeLaveaga in Santa Cruz, Calif., players who don’t know better tend to throw on a line parallel to the tee pad.
The result is a shot that flies high into the air, then fades out way short and wide of the target. When throwing downhill it’s important to make the line of pull-back and release match the slope of the terrain — not the flatness of the teeing or throwing surface. Watch video examples given by Greg Barsby, Don Smith, Pat Brown and Avery Jenkins. In each of them you can easily notice the player angling their throws downward.
Uphill shots require this same principle, but because it’s pretty obvious that if you don’t adjust your angle upward you’ll throw the disc right into the ground, players make that mistake less often and less dramatically. The main thing to focus on when throwing uphill is not letting the disc hyzer too much and keeping it somewhat flat. It’s hard enough getting uphill distance, but shots that do the ‘ol float-and-fade will be even more pathetic when the slope causes the disc to drop helplessly down, occasionally right past the player, which I’ve seen happen.
The other thing to keep in mind on uphill or downhill shots — take notice whether the area where you plan to land is a continuation of the slope of the shot, or if it levels off. For uphill shots with an intended landing zone that is also uphill, don’t count on much skip or slide. Conversely, if it’s downhill, plan for extra distance after the disc first touches down — especially if the slope continues down well past the basket or landing zone.
Holes with a terrain angle that cuts across the fairway are much trickier to adjust for a couple of reasons. First, the slope may be partially sideways and partially uphill or downhill. When that’s the case, you need to consider the information coming next and do your best to combine it with the tips I just shared.
But the really tricky part of playing a hole with a side-slope is the roll-away potential. And while being the victim of unintended and undesired rolls is sometimes unavoidable, you can increase your odds significantly by understanding a pretty simple principle.
I’m a bit embarrassed to write that it took me a long time to figure this one out. But when I did, it was one of those “a-ha!” moments.
For the longest time, it seemed logical to always try to land my disc at as close to the same angle as the slope as possible. I reasoned that when I did that, it would be more likely to slide or skid to a stop rather than stand up on an edge and roll away.
I was partially right, but the key thing I ignored was the direction of the spin. I’ll give an example, but as a lefty and I am going to exercise my right to use the “left-handed backhand” example rather than the typical right-handed backhand that is usually cited. (You righties will just have to make the adjustment like we lefties normally do).
So I’m a lefty throwing backhand on a hole with a severe right-to-left slope, like hole No. 3 at Pinto Lake in Watsonville, Calif. In the past, I’d start my upshot above the hole and plan for some slide, trying to land above the hole, and hope it touched down flat and stopped before too much slide.
But this approach has two major problems. First, landing nice and flat on a slope often results in much more skip or slide than you bargained for, especially if the surface is hard and bare. But worse, left-handed backhand throws spin counter-clockwise, and when the slope is right-to-left, it becomes a very fast roller with the slightest inducement. If the disc lands anything less than perfectly flat, or experiences one bump off a root or rock, it’s off to the races!
After this happened to me a few hundred times, a realization began to illuminate my thick, dark, cavernous skull. If this approach results in disaster so frequently, maybe the opposite would be better. I think I got the idea from guy named Costanza, who I played frolf with once.
So I instead threw an exaggerated lefty-backhand hyzer that crashed into the ground at an angle practically perpendicular to the slope — the very angle you’d normally associate with rollers. But — and this is key — the counter-clockwise spin acts like backspin and stops the forward motion of the disc. Also, the momentum of the disc, while going forward, is going uphill rather than downhill.
Using this technique, the disc stops pretty close to where it lands a large majority of the time. It usually flips over upside down immediately, like a good disc. Every now and then I catch a bad break and the disc stands up on an edge and there is enough gravity to make it start rolling. But as I said, when slopes are involved nothing can prevent that from happening once in a while.
The takeaway here is pretty simple — when your shot is going to spin clockwise and the slope is right-to-left, you’ll get fewer discs rolling away by throwing sharp hyzers into the face of the slope. When your spin is counter-clockwise and the slope is right-to-left, same thing.
The second part of this series, which focuses on the texture of the terrain, is coming soon.
Jack Trageser is the founder of School of Disc Golf and the instructional writer at RattlingChains.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.