From Ultimate to Disc Golf: Making The Leap [Pt. 1]

The author putting on an elevated basket. Photo: Dan Ney

Today marks the official start of the 2020 professional disc golf tour at The Memorial in Arizona. So we are taking the occasion to launch a new series on learning to play disc golf as an ultimate player. Not everyone is Brodie Smith with Paul McBeth alongside to teach them to play, so this series is for you. It is presented by Innova Discs, the Choice of Champions! 

In 2015, I finally lost my love for ultimate. After 15 years of playing nearly every season, I finished a disappointing Regionals with Dark or Light and suddenly knew that I was done. I was tired of the training, of the mid-Saturday practices, of the entire weekends dedicated to tournaments. I don’t like observers or the “contact” rule. I don’t like dinky little off-hand backhands or Dylan Freechild give-and-go offenses.

I had blinked and turned into a grumpy old man who didn’t like what the kids were doing to the sport. If you love something, let it go. So I did.

After that Regionals, my buddy Brent and I were looking to keep from falling off a fitness cliff, but he and his wife had just had a baby, so our familiar gym routine was no longer an option. Instead, we pushed the jogging stroller to a nearby lacrosse field for active warm ups and light sprints. One day, he brought a stack of golf discs, some given to him by his brother and some given to him by our old coach, Tiina.

We made a workout of chucking the discs at the net at the opposite end of the field and alternatively jogging, sprinting, and shuffling to pick them up. Then we’d regroup and chuck them back the other way. The more accurate the throws, the less you had to run. It was simple and fun, but frustrating.

“Sean says you have to throw ‘em flat,” Brent said.

“I think I am,” I said, as another one bladed sharply to the left and skipped aggressively towards the sideline.

The author and Brent.

We spent the next few weeks out there, and gradually our (or maybe just my) attention shifted from the sprinting to the throwing. We separated the discs into his pile and mine in order to get to know them better. We started consistently putting them past half field; we made a beer bet on who would put one in the lacrosse net first. My curses dwindled from every throw to every third throw as I gradually learned how to predict what disc would do what. It never occurred to me how silly it was that we were still wearing cleats.

In retrospect, I think those few weeks saved me upwards of six months of actual disc golf, which brings me to my first recommendation: if you are coming over to disc golf from ultimate, spend some time in the middle ground: throwing golf discs on an ultimate field. Get some plastic from that guy you know who tried it once and didn’t like it, or buy a few from a local shop. Don’t even worry about what they are; the explanations won’t make sense to you anyway. Just get some. For your purposes, the 8-dollar discs are just as good as the 17-dollar ones.

Then, just go throw the crap out of ‘em! Throw them as many times as you can, in an open field, with a vague point in the distance that you are aiming at. Don’t even worry about form. It will take time to undo your ultimate muscle memory, and there’s no need to rush it. What you’re trying to do is learn the discs. When you bring trees and strokes and baskets into it, you will be distracted from the thing that matters most, which is how the discs fly.

Everything else will sort out later (and I’ll do my best to help you through the phases that I went through myself), but the cardinal rule will always be: To Throw is to Know. There are no shortcuts through experience.

  1. James Bress
    James Bress

    James is a contributor at Ultiworld Disc Golf. He played Ultimate from 2000-2015 for the Amherst HS Hurricanes, UMass ZooDisc, New Noise, Capitol Punishment, and Dark or Light. Now he plays disc golf for Team Wick (4x NETC champs) out of Wickham Park in Manchester, CT. One time he hit a tournament ace on camera. Despite that, he has not quit his day job as a high school teacher. Send questions and comments to [email protected]. See what tournaments he's playing at his PDGA player page #84048.


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