Gap Analysis: the art and science of navigating trees

By Jack Trageser — Rattling Chains staff

Many playing companions over the years have heard me mutter “I see holes” at some point during my pre-shot routine while playing a round of disc golf. It’s a go-to phrase of mine, and has been for probably 15 years. Some ask why I say those words when getting ready for certain shots, and they get the answers as you’ll see below.

The funny thing about this particular mantra is I use it for two distinctly different reasons, yet the two reasons often blend together. The place where the two meet — the axis of risk or reward assessment (a scientific approach) and more nebulous subjects like positive thinking and confidence (closer to an art than a science) — is really the essence of the mental side of golf.

school of disc golfAs always, this is best explained through the use of specific examples, which we’ll get into, but first a brief explanation of the two reasons for “I see holes!”

The history of this mantra, for me, was the light bulb-over-the-head realization that even on shots where the trees and other obstacles seem so numerous and throwing a disc cleanly through and past them is impossible, it’s rarely as bleak as thought. In fact, when you consider the overall area covering a particular flight path you’re hoping to take, the gaps between the trees usually represent a much larger portion of the total space than the obstructions.

After this became apparent to me, I would chant “I see holes” as a way to remind myself to think about and visualize a clean flight rather than dreading the relatively few disc-whacking trees it had to pass. In this context it’s really just positive thinking and positive imagery, and the mantra is a way to keep my thoughts focused on the good things that I plan to happen rather than the bad things that might occur.

And it really works!

That’s how the phrase first popped into my head. But it was only a matter of time before my analytical side dissected the magical effectiveness of “I see holes.”

Though my little mantra started out as a vague positive-thinking mind trick, and I’m convinced it works, sometimes I find myself with so many trees between my lie and the basket (or whatever fairway spot I’m aiming for) that even a positive thinker along the magnitude of Stuart Smalley would have a hard time seeing holes. I’m talking about situations where I know realistically the chances of getting through clean on the ideal line are less than 50 percent. At times like that I’m forced to choose between the least “sucky” option.

When it’s time to select from different options on the golf course, the scientific side of me kicks in. Thoughts of percentages and risk or reward kick in. You would think that would preclude the nebulous realm of “I see holes,” but the mantra actually has a place here as well. This time, though, the more applicable adjectives are practical, sensible, and the more golf-specific high-percentage. Depending on the situation, there are a couple of different applications for this approach.

Searching Far and Wide

When your direct path to the target is blocked, look for gaps to the left and right that offer the best alternatives.

Sometimes, the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots, the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. In this example, the player needed to throw a shot curved to the left after clearing the gap. (photo by Jack Trageser)

Sometimes, the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots, the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. In this example, the player needed to throw a shot curved to the left after clearing the gap. (photo by Jack Trageser)

Sometimes, as in the first example photo (click to get a larger view), you can hit the gap with a shot curves toward the target after it passes through. Other times the layout won’t allow for anything but a straight shot.

Either way, though, it’s better to get most of the way there than to aim for a tiny slot and hit something directly in front of you.

The “General Area” Gap

This approach usually applies to instances where the obstacles in question are not right in front of you, but farther away, and evenly distributed, so there is no single gap that is the clear choice.

In situations where I see what appears to be a wall of trees blocking my route that is far enough away that aiming for one particular small gap isn’t feasible, I try to identify the least-dense section of that wall. It’s kind of like an attacking army would look for the weakest and most vulnerable spot.

To be clear, I’m not talking about finding a single gap between two trees. In the situation I’m describing, the objective is to identify, aim for and hit a general area that offers the least resistance to a disc that wants to pass through relatively untouched.

In this example, the photo of the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right -- despite several small tree trunks crisscross the opening -- is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. (photo by Jack Trageser)

In this example, the photo of the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right — despite several small tree trunks crisscross the opening — is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. (photo by Jack Trageser)

In a sense, I’m trying to find the one realistically hittable zone where there are more open spaces than trees (“I see holes!”). A key point is in situations like these, I have shifted my goal away from selecting the shot that can get me all the way to the target — because there is either no realistic option for doing so or the chances that I’ll succeed are extremely low —  to selecting the shot that has the best chance to advance the disc as far as possible.

In our second example photo, it shows two gaps — one on the left, and one on the right. The gap on the right is the more direct route to the basket (hidden behind the trees on the right), and it is also a “true” gap in the sense that a perfectly accurate throw will definitely get through. However, I chose to aim for the general area circled on the left for the following reasons:

  1. Even though a couple of skinny tree trunks cut through the area, the overall area is much larger than the single gap on the right, and my odds of getting through are better;
  2. The gap on the left provides a better worst-case scenario as there are no early trees to hit on the way to the gap (notice the early trees on the right side on the route to the gap on the right);
  3. As a left-hander throwing a backhand shot, if I get through the gap on the left with the throw I want, it will skip-hyzer right, in the direction of the basket. The right gap would require me to throw a shot that stays perfectly straight for 200-plus feet, a difficult feat to say the least.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, hopefully filling a few “gaps” in your strategic and mental game. Here is a quick list of the important points:

  • Most of the time, even when it seems like there are a lot of obstacles in the way, it’s mostly open space (holes, you see). Focusing on the space rather than the other stuff will enable you to hit those gaps more often. In other words, visualize success!
  • When you find yourself hemmed into a particularly tight spot, take a wide view of all your possibly escape routes. If all the more direct paths to your target require hitting tiny openings with an unlikely perfect throw, settle for a higher-percentage throw that at least allows you to make some progress.
  • When your obstacles are further away and no single gap stands out as the obvious route to take, look for a general zone that is the most open. Then target that large zone and revert to the first bullet point — think positive!

You Make the Call

In this final example, you make the call. Would you go for the gap on the left, the gap in the middle (please note the basket is in the middle of this gap) or the gap on the right? Most importantly, why? Let us know in the comments below. (photo by Jack Trageser)

In this final example, you make the call. Would you go for the gap on the left, the gap in the middle (please note the basket is in the middle of this gap) or the gap on the right? Most importantly, why? Let us know in the comments below. (photo by Jack Trageser)

In our final photo, there are three routes circled.

You can see the basket is shown in the middle of the center gap. The question is, which gap would you choose (this is the right rough on hole No. 10 at DeLaveaga, by the way) and why?

Give us your answer in the comments below and in a few days, we’ll share the way the author took and why.

Jack Trageser is the founder of School of Disc Golf and the instructional writer at You can reach him at

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0 thoughts on “Gap Analysis: the art and science of navigating trees

  1. I’d go low & middle…with a bit of an anhyzer or a sidearm shot—whatever it’d take to get a slight left-to-right movement. Perhaps the disc could land just to the right of that last tree (near the basket). The tree on the left seems too close to navigate comfortably around—at least, for my tastes.


  2. I often say something similar when gauging the options presented by my home courses. However, I usually begin with “I see holes” and end with “but can I hit them?” The answer when there is any doubt in my mind is usually a resounding “No!”.
    The problem that I think a lot of use face is the fact that if we play similar courses frequently we will put up blinders for a specific shot shape. When you play a familiar course, more often than not you are going to be presented with very similar lines. The problem is that unlike the course, your game is developing. You most likely have skills and distance that you did not have before, but because the route you have always taken is still available you opt for that line.
    For that reason, I like to play an alternate line round or 2. Meaning, if there is another line, however tight and misguided it may seem, on a hole I will play that line exclusively. I am sure that one day I will be forced to throw down a line similar to the alternate and be happy I have seen it before.
    Word to the wise: The alternate line round is not a DX plastic round. Break out the Z/ Champion!


    • Addendum: I would go for a backdoor layup with an anhyzer (RHBH) because of the distance to the pin. Barring the fact that I am not sure if there is a wall of trees protecting the basket on the left.


  3. I think I’d run it up the middle too. The left is narrow and close, and the right seems pretty narrow with bigger trees to miss. Low and straight, and it can skip or slide the rest of the way there…


  4. I would throw a rhbh anhyser around left tree with an overstable driver… This will be the safest shot that I see as the shot should end up on the uphill side of the pin I


  5. I am going to throw a big anhyzer up shot to the left with my putter. The low hanging branches on both the middle and right would be extremely tough to get through for me. The one in the middle particularly, I would be afraid of ending up left, behind the tree just to the left of the basket. With the up shot I can navigate around the trees and get it close for a short putt or tap in.


  6. The author, a lefty, would clearly take the hyzer route on the left again, 🙂 While a straight low shot seems to have a good chance for a right, I’d still probably play the safer anny route on the left.


  7. throwing right-handed, my approach in this situation would be to run a high back hand anhyzer through the left hole. Once through the gap it looks to open up and would leave me with a clean look at the basket,hopefully within my putting range. The middle gap looks to present too much of a chance of hitting a tree which could get you into deeper trouble. The gap on the right is not an option for me.


  8. Ahhh, but there is a wall of trees on the left between that gap and the basket, though since you can’t see it, that doesn’t invalidate any of the answers.
    As someone who found himself in that rough on Monday, depending on the exact lie, I’d either throw a flat hammer (sort of a scoober variant) up the middle, or a FH roller with my softest putter around the right side of everything (call it the fourth gap?).


  9. They all have the same relative distance on the initial gap but it really comes down to what obstacles are still present on the later routes to the basket and if the player was like the other 93% of players being right handed (sorry I had to do it for you Lefty)!!

    It comes down to the highest percentage gap available and the percentage (confidence) of hitting that shot with a backhand hyzer, a backhand straight shot or a forehand hyzer to the basket.

    What are you as a player capable of and what obstacles are present later in the route to still give you a putt if you were to unfortunate enough to hit a tree.

    But if you lefty (somehow), I’d take the left gap over the teepad through the walking path to park the hole or at least get a manageable 20-25 footer if you happen to catch a tree on the way.



  10. Doesn’t matter what gap I’m taking, I’m hitting trees. Guaranteed. So if it’s me, I’m looking ahead to the next shot to see where I’d get in less trouble. Knowing the way my discs fly and how my throws always seem to go, I’m doing one of two things here — attempting the right game in hopes of letting the disc fly around and get closer to the basket; or I’m going with a low overhand through the middle in hopes of it landing on its backside and sliding as close to the basket as possible. That’s become an important shot for me and works most of the time, so I’d probably do that. Well, try anyway!


  11. It looks to me that after the initial row of trees the most open space is to the right of the basket. With my average(or less)skills but a dependable RHBH hyzer shot I’m going through the right gap and have it fade towards the basket.


  12. I would throw right and try to stay low. I would throw an overstable disc to turn left after passing through the opening. Even though the middle path is more direct, the diagonal tree overhanging the gap would intimidate me; it would be less forgiving if I happen not to throw as low as I intend to, as opposed to taking the right side. As a RHBH thrower, the left side is not apealing at all; it seems that I would land a lot farther from the basket.


  13. I am a little conflicted. I like the anhyzer route to the left. However, that skinny tree on the left could interfere and it is a little close. I also like the route up the middle with a Vibram Trak nice and straight and the trees are a little further back. If I lived in the area and played the course often I would definetly try both routes. I like the one on the left aiming at that big tree way in the distance with some right turn as you approach it. Barry


  14. Many, many great responses. Even (ok, maybe especially) yours Avery. I guess you don’t win a World Championship without knowing how to choose the right gap!

    I’ll start off by saying that I could have done a better job describing the layout of the spot I was in, as the picture doesn’t make the distance totally clear. The lie was about 60 feet or so from the basket, Besides the wall of trees you can see (where the gaps are circled) there are those two other trees in line with the center gap evenly spaced between lie and basket.

    For that reason, the center gap is ruled out. If possible you want to be able to hit one gap and know that a good throw won’t have anything else to stop the disc.

    Now it’s down to the left gap and the right gap. And while it’s true that a lefty has an advantage throwing a backhand natural hyzer through the gap on the left, I’d choose that one even if I was a righty. Many comments (including Barry, Michael, Paul, Nick, Trevor and World Champ Avery) agreed. Here are the basic reasons why:

    If you look close, you’ll see that the row of trees slants away from the lie, from left to right. Therefore the gap on the left is way closer than the gap on the right. That means it is easier to hit. (just think how much easier it is to throw a disc throw a doorway when you are five feet away vs. 30 feet away.

    Second, the gap on the left is also bigger. No explanation needed.

    Finally, when you combine these two facts, it boils down to one thing: The left gap gives you the best chance to end up with at least a chance to get a make-able putt for par. When you get in a tough spot like that, be realistic. Go for your best chance at a make-able putt . . . not a slim chance for a gimme. After all, in the end it usually comes down to making putts anyway!

    Thanks everyone for your comments.


  15. 175 gram Destroyer,RHBH throw, 10-15 degree hyzer through the gap beyond the circled right gap. My aim point would be just left of where the trunk that arcs right in the foreground and the distant “y” shaped tree meet. Resultant skip would either lay me up next to the hole or in it.


  16. Responding to an old article, but I figure I’d add my two cents (I’m aware my opinions aren’t worth a dime).

    I would try the same throw as Critter. I do not have a strong anhyzer shot in my arsenal of throws and I also have a problem keeping a disc flying straight through the woods (it’s a mental block). I’m a rhbh thrower for the most part on technical holes, but I would consider a strongly angled forehand shot through the left gap. The only problem there is branches or a hidden tree (behind the big tree on the left) might easily get me. I have become pretty good at skipping Star Destroyers, Roadrunners, and Flicks though on several different angles and in this case, I think I would be more comfortable trying to get a skip to go through the gap and skip towards the basket. We have wooded holes at a lot of the courses here in Florida, but no course that I played at yet has that many options (or gaps) to attack a hole. There’s usually just one way through and you’re happy if you do and dang-it-I-want-a-Mulligan if you don’t.


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