The Amateur World Championships — Words From a Former Champion
The 2016 Amateur World Championships came to a close and many were not surprised that Izak McDonald came up victorious. It was quite the show, and the final 9 was incredibly entertaining to watch!
In light of all of this I would like to share with all of you my experience with worlds, and hopefully provide some insight as to what it takes to become victorious in one of the greatest events in disc golf.
In 2013, I hit the road with a great friend of mine Sean Kelly from Utah, and we both can agree it was one of the greatest disc golf experiences ever. Utah is a state that generally frowns upon disc golf, and we have over-crowded courses as a result. Driving into Emporia, Kansas the first business we saw stated “Welcome PDGA Disc Golfers!” We were so intrigued by this notion that disc golf has taken over the town. I played well all week as a 928 rated 19 year old playing in the Junior 1 division, before they changed the age limit. I only saw Steven Jacobs’ final putt since I wanted to watch a good friend Colleen Thompson take down the FA1 division, but I remember telling Sean that I wanted to go to worlds in 2014 and I wanted to play in the giant MA1 division.
Heading into my second year on the University of Oregon, I played every tournament I could in what is arguably the most difficult place to be an Amateur, Oregon. The pro division is stacked, making it very hard for <970 rated players to make any sort of cash at the heavily sought after events, so they play amateur. I stuck around my computer at registration times and made it into almost every prestigious Oregon event, except for the Rose City Open. Along with that I was playing for the UO Disc Golf Team which gave me the opportunity to go to the NCDGC, another big tournament. I did poorly in the NCDGC, and I knew I had to work hard if I wanted to have a chance at doing well at the world championships. As my game got stronger, I was slowly approaching my first MA1 win at the beginning of 2014. I learned a lot about my own mental game when I let 5 events slip through my fingers after having more than a chance to win. With 4 second place finishes and a 3rd place in which I was 1 stroke away from being in a playoff for the win. I was so upset, I couldn’t win. I was starting to think that I would never win! On July 5th I played a tournament run by a good friend Ryan Johnson down in American Fork, UT. It was here that I finally got that win I was seeking. At arguably the most technical course in Utah, I shredded a 999 and 973 to win the Advanced division by 3 strokes. My competitors knew I was gearing up for Am worlds and they were even cheering me on the entire way to that victory. The tournament was in honor of a disc golfer who’s life was taken too soon, Jordan Needham. I was up in Oregon when he got into the disc golf scene and was unable to meet him, but everyone talked nothing but good about him and I know he would have been part of my clan of disc golf buddies. When I said my speech I mentioned the fact that I didn’t know Jordan, but that I would be using his commemorative mini at worlds in hopes that he would help me sink all my putts.
Before the summertime hit, I did something really nerdy. I sat down for almost an hour and wrote out a big long spreadsheet, containing each and every disc golf shot along with distances, wind conditions, and all sorts of things like that. I even went as far as writing down stance types. This was to be my practice spreadsheet, and I wanted to tune up and practice each and every shot. Needless to say it was so in depth and extensive that by the time I was leaving for worlds I was probably 10% finished with the spreadsheet. In my mind, I was nowhere near ready, but it didn’t matter because the time had come to make the pilgrimage to St. Paul, MN from my hometown of South Jordan, UT.
A good friend Tim Stai let us crash at his place all week, and without him I wouldn’t have had so much time to practice the courses. I was able to practice 5 of the 6 courses at worlds. I kept my criticisms aside and told myself that every one of those courses was my favorite. I threw 4-5 shots on the tricky holes and made sure to even replay a few of the holes. After playing mixed doubles, I knew The Valley better than any of the other courses. All my friends denied it when I said I was going to shoot under 50 on that course.
Before the tournament, I noticed that the pools were oddly mixed up. The top 30 rated players were in the A pool, with the rest of the players being alternated. I was the 33rd player on that list, so I was stuck in the D pool, which any math major would tell you is statistically the worst pool, regardless that the B, C, and D pools would be comparable in strength. I e-mailed the TD noting that I didn’t think it was a very good setup, especially because 1 rating point was the difference between that 30th guy and me. This gave the A pool players a clear advantage considering 1-2 players on every single card would be one of the top rated players in the tournament, for 3 whole rounds before the tournament. But I set my frustrations aside and came out swinging, shooting a 54 at the Kaposia course to take a pretty good lead in the D pool. I held onto that lead even with a rough second round at CP Adams, the only course I was unable to practice. Then, it was time for Kenwood: The Chuck Kennedy course. This course was designed to test a huge variety of disc golf shots, and I completely destroyed it. I was in disbelief when I found out that I had made it onto the LEAD CARD of the ENTIRE DIVISION when they shuffled us up after round 3. I was in 4th place, a good 5 strokes behind Robert Smith. It was all broadcasted live on Smashboxx TV, and I did nothing but sink putts that round. Just when I thought I wasn’t going to shoot that 49 I had been talking myself up about, I put a 420 ft. Hyzer 10 feet away from a protected pin on 16, sank a 50 footer on 17, and finished out my round with a 40 footer on the 450+ ft. Hole 18, a hole that I dreamed of getting a 2 on. I had taken the lead! That night it was mind blowing to think that 277 people were behind me competing for the chance at a world title.
My goal for the rest of the week was to run away with it, but I didn’t. I gave up so many strokes, even put up a 925 rated round at the CP Adams course, a score worse than my first try earlier in the week. But I was determined, and woke up on Saturday with one thought in my mind: “If you want to become a world champion, today is that day.” I had a great mindset going into the Kaposia course, with that 54 in the back of my mind as my goal. I played great, but kept putting myself just barely off the fairway. I missed 3 or 4 25-30 footers that round from awkward footing. When I realized that there were 8 people within a few strokes of each other with 5 or so holes to play, I got so nervous that I had my caddy Warren Hollinshead confiscate my phone. I said to him “I don’t want to know. If I need to start running things you tell me.” As we got closer to the end of the round my confidence grew, as Warren hadn’t said a word to me. I knew that meant I was in a fantastic position. I threw my Firebird on the par-4 hole 1 right to the perfect landing zone, and got nervous on my upshot. I left it 40 feet short! The putt had death written all over it, with a short drop off into some thick and trees behind the basket. Had I known I was already securely in the final 9, one stroke behind the 3-way tie for first between Andrew Nava, Jordan Castro, and Robert Smith, I would have laid up that putt all day. Instead I stepped up and sank it, ‘dead in the middle of the heart of the chains.’ Warren let out a huge cheer and I was astonished to find out that if I had missed that putt there wouldn’t have been a 4-way tie going into the final 9. It was insane, I had done it. But it was not over yet.
I showed up at the final 9 and I made a quick Facebook post before I went to get my free lunch. When I re-read the post, I was inspired by my own words. They were so strong and so powerful, and just the thing I needed to hear before the final 9. Here is what it said:
“Nerves, anticipation, excitement, worry, confidence, and a whole mess of emotions just cruising through me. In the end I feel fantastic. I would like to thank everyone for making my phone break a new record for facebook notifications at 42. I almost didn’t even look, it’s so overwhelming! Thank you all for supporting me and let’s all win this one together. I set an impossible goal and I made it, so no matter what happens I will be pumped and will leave this tournament a brand new golfer. There is no time for nervous shots. Every shot is going to be deliberate and thought out. If someone can beat that, they deserve to win. I won’t be on my phone much during the final 9, but you’ll see me I’m sure.”
At that point I had a game plan. I didn’t just want to win, I wanted someone to beat me. I wanted to walk off that course knowing I gave it my all and that I was defeated by someone that outplayed me. The only hole I had even seen was the first hole. It was a 450ish ft. par 4, one that is inviting a big shot. Instead I scouted out the easy hyzer line, knowing I was going to 3 the hole very easily if I just hit that gap. When my Destroyer left my hands my first thought was “yep, I’m playing my best. One of these guys better bring it.” I started the final 9 birdie-birdie-bogey. I remember giving my chair caddie Ryan Kastle the hardest high 5 after that bogey, I was so upset but I stuck to my “30 second rule.” I always used to let my emotions get to me and affect my future disc golf shots, so I made this rule up. I had 30 seconds to complain, get angry, whine, whatever. But after that 30 seconds, it’s gone, it’s behind me. It worked well because I was able to birdie the next 2 holes with ease. The shortest hole of them all was the one that almost got me. I threw my putter long of the basket under some trees. I was in my own little world under that tree. I kept falling onto my left hand during my pump fakes (I was on one knee) and I just couldn’t get my balance. When I finally did, I realized my left foot could have been a foot fault, so I had to reset AGAIN. Had all these weird things not happened, I don’t think I would have made my putt. I ended up being so amused with my neurotic thinking that I somehow reached some sort of blankness in my mind because I don’t remember sinking that putt. I just remember hearing the chains and thinking “wow, did that just go in?” The next hole was short but tricky. Everyone found trees after I put it just 15 feet right of the pin. I knew that if I made that putt, I was going to win worlds. 2 strokes with 2 holes to play is comfortable but nothing is ever said and done. But I knew it was over. I knew I had it. The rest was all history. I sank the putt, and proceeded to throw the longest drive I had ever thrown in competition, throwing a 450+ ft. bomb that almost made it through all the trees on the coolest and trickiest par-4 of the final 9. I took some boring pars but I knew that was all I needed.
At the end of the day, I remember being bummed out because I wouldn’t ever get a chance to play Am worlds again. It was time for the big leagues. If you haven’t gotten to play it, you are missing out. It is by far my favorite tournament to play in of all time, and a dream come true to take it down.