The hidden key to better scores.
July 20, 2021 by Steve Andrews in Opinion with 0 comments
This is the fifth part in a series on disc golf field work.
Upshots are some of the most overlooked parts of the game. When it comes to practice, most people prefer ripping drives to grinding on 130-foot touch shots. This isn’t surprising: most disc golf holes are Par 3s where a full throw is followed by a putt. For many of us who play courses without many long Par 3s or Par 4s, upshots and approaches may feel like afterthoughts. Depending on the courses you play, you may have rounds where you may not throw any upshots at all. But a solid short game–knowing you can get up and down from inside 200 feet–puts a solid floor under your scoring.
Upshots and approaches are a shortcut to lower scores and all players should think about adding upshot discs like overstable midranges and putters when building their bags. But it’s not enough to have these discs in your bag: you need to do field work to be able to dial in the shot you need when you need them. Practicing these shots is crucial because they are not full throws, so it takes practice to get just the right flight and distance. You need to control how the shot will fly and land because even small distances matter – there is a big difference between facing a 15-foot putt and a one from the edge of the circle.
Most importantly, these shots are often thrown when things are going sideways – when you hit the first tree available, get a bad kick, or miss a gap. You are already under pressure, and now you must trust a shot from an unfamiliar stance and distance while knowing that this throw will determine whether you can save par. What you want in that situation is for your next shot to be a drop-in. That is the power of upshots.
Upshots and approaches also free you to play more aggressively. Great players like Paul McBeth or Catrina Allen can throw high-risk shots with less worry because they know that, even if the shot goes wrong, they can still scramble for a birdie or par.
Many players don’t practice these throws very often because they seem easy. But we have all seen good players leave these shots short, rocket them long, or jerk them wildly off-line. Even the best players in the world, who have finely-tuned short games, can have them fail under pressure. Field work is the only way to create a short game you can count on. If you do not practice your short game, you do not have a short game. You just have hope that shorter shots will work themselves out.
Find Your Gears
One of the most important things in your short game fieldwork is finding consistent throws and releases that allow you to place your shots at exact distances. Everyone has a few tempos that are natural and easy to repeat, finding these and figuring out how to match them with your disc choices is key. For example, you probably have a full swing tempo that is repeatable: it’s your most natural rhythm. You may have a throw at around half-speed that feels natural and is easy to repeat. The tough thing is when you try to make a throw that is outside of these tempos. If you have a swing that is about 60% that feels natural but need to throw somewhere between that and your full throw, you may find your tempo and timing collapsing.
Upshots and approaches are like putts – the challenge is not that you can’t throw the disc far enough, it is about making a throw that is the right speed and angle to put it exactly where you need it. It more about consistency and confidence than raw physical ability. If you can drive a disc 270 feet, then you should be able to throw an upshot 180 feet fairly easily. But how often does that upshot land inside your 100% make zone?
In traditional golf, because putting is so much harder, getting the ball close is essential. PGA Tour pros make about 90% of their 4-foot putts, about 50% of their 9-foot putts, and only 20% of their 20-foot putts. This means that a huge part of scoring in traditional golf is being able to hit short wedges, flop shots, pitches, chips, and sand shots that get as close as possible. Putting is easier in disc golf, but for most players, it is still essential to get your approaches and upshots inside your confidence zone. To do this, I think we can use some insights from the traditional golf short game.
In his 1999 book, Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible: Master the Finesse Swing and Lower Your Score, the author described his “3 x 4 System” for hitting wedges. He suggested players swing at a consistent tempo but use the length of their swing to control distance. He recommended practicing three distinct short-game swings – one to knee height, one waist-high, and one shoulder-high. He emphasized using one swing that stopped at three easily checkable points. Swinging longer at the same tempo produced more clubhead speed and greater distance. He told players to then take their four wedges1 and hit each one with those three swings, effectively giving players 12 easily repeatable swings that produced different spin, distance, and height. Rather than seeing each short game shot as a unique challenge to be met by feel – which required a lot of experience, talent, and practice – players could get it close by knowing that a waist-high swing with a 52-degree pitching wedge would hit the ball 50 yards. The shorter length swing with the same club would hit it 20 yards. Using this system, hitting further, higher, or lower is as easy as matching one of the well-practiced swing lengths with a particular club.
We can bring a similar approach to disc golf. While we may not need 12 different variations, you want to be able to make a consistent swing but get varying flights and distances. As you are developing your short game, the first thing to decide is the shot shape that feels the most natural to use as your most dependable upshot. This is the shot shape that you want to make the centerpiece of your short game (even though you will want to add in other shots you may need). It can be a hyzer, a flat shot, or an anhyzer – any of them can work. My favorite is an anhyzer shot with an overstable disc; but, again, any of them can be effective. The goal is to have a stock shot that is comfortable and repeatable.
Finesse the Footwork
Once you have decided on a shape, there are several ways to change your set-up to get varying distances; I concentrate on my footwork. I have found that I can make essentially the same swing with my upper body and get greater distance by changing my footwork. I use four footwork patterns that feel intuitive and repeatable:
- One Step
- Shuffle Cross
- Full X-Step
The Standstill is thrown with almost no forward step, just a slight shift of weight. The One-Step is basically the final action of your regular cross-step, reaching forward to the plant foot and a weight shift. The Shuffle Cross is just a very slow and small version of my X-step: it gets more of my body involved in the shot while still taking up very little ground – about as much as the last step of a regular full throw. The last pattern is a full X-Step, while keeping the same smooth rhythm as the other upshots. This is, for me, an approach shot – thrown with same technique as my normal full shot but at a different tempo. Using these four different options gives me very different results with the same disc. I can also add variety by keeping the mechanics the same and simply changing discs. These are also not only for backhands, all the same shots and footwork patterns work for people who prefer to throw upshots and approaches with forehands.
As you are refining your short game footwork patterns in your field work, be aware of your starting position. If you start facing the basket (as many of us do to begin our usual throw with an X-step), you may have to rush your tempo to get your body turned enough to make the throw in a shorter space. This is going to produce inconsistency, the thing you most want to avoid when throwing upshots. For standstills and short step shots, you may need to line up sideways to the basket as if you were already coming out of your X-step. Experiment with stances that are more open or closed to see what setup gives you the flights you want. The goal is to make these changes in the setup rather than having to manipulate the disc mid-throw while under pressure.
For many players who have not practiced these shots, stripping down the mechanics may feel uncomfortable and stressful. Many of us don’t think much about mechanics and use our athletic ability to make all the calculations as we throw. Limiting our run-up can make us feel wooden, rhythmless, and stiff. But stick with it: the goal is to still make a rhythmic throw that uses your athletic intuition but doing so with a setup that creates a more compact and repeatable throw.
There’s room for individual variance in stances, but you need to have a standstill shot. It is one that many players don’t like since it is so different from how we usually throw. But there are just too many times – in woods, when you are backed against obstacles, or where you need to throw with very limited power – when a standstill is the best or only option. Often, players think “legs frozen in concrete” when they think standstill and get wildly inconsistent trying to generate power with their upper bodies. Remember, there is still a weight shift and footwork in a standstill, it is just more subtle. You are still swinging from the ground up, so trust you can generate distance and resist the temptation to lurch at the shot with your upper body.
An Example of a Personal Short Game System
As I have written previously, I have made a RHBH anhyzer throw with an overstable disc the centerpiece of my short game. I have built my stock upshot around my Harp and Suspect, but it could easily work with a disc like a Zone, Tactic, or Pig. I like this shot because it self-corrects. If I throw it perfectly, it is under the basket. If I throw it with too much anhyzer or too far to the right of my target, it hyzers back to about 20 feet right of the basket; if I throw it too straight or too easy, it hyzers away but lands about 20 feet to the left. The overstability and lack of glide in these discs means that they rarely go too far. I can concentrate on throwing it firm and to the right of the basket and trust that the disc will take care of the rest. From 90 feet, it is a simple standstill that almost always settles below the basket. It is not a shot that looks impressive, but it has saved me more strokes than any other shot in my bag.
As I move out to 120 feet, I throw the Harp with a One Step. At 150 feet, I throw a Standstill with a Suspect, a slightly faster hybrid putter/mid. I could get a Harp to 150 feet with a slight change of footwork, and might go to the Harp if it was windy or there was trouble right behind the basket, but by just switching discs, I can throw the same easy shot and add distance. At 180 feet, I can go to a Shuffle Cross with a Harp or a One Step with a Suspect.
Once I start moving out to 180 feet or so I start to move away from the anhyzer throw. I could use the same anhyzer throw with a midrange like a Pine or a Roc, but I like to throw putters, so I throw my Harps and Suspects with a small hyzer. If you prefer throwing mids, then it’s great to see how they fly from Standstills and One Steps. As you experiment in the field, ignore the numbers printed on the flight plate and don’t get trapped into thinking certain discs are only useable from certain distances. You may find that the best disc in your bag from 200 feet is a standstill Teebird3. If so, then use it!
Expanding the Arsenal
Your stock upshot will become a trusted friend, but sometimes you need to throw a different shot. The limitation of going with an anhyzer with an overstable disc as my stock upshot is that it is just not the shot when the right side of the basket is blocked by trees or if I need to throw down a narrow tunnel. You can use your stock shot in most situations, but it is better to throw something else rather than trying to force a shot through a tiny gap.
No matter what shot you are most comfortable with, there will be times when you can’t use it. Use your short game field work to add in the other angles – for me it is making sure that I can bring a shot in from the left side with a turnover or a forehand and have a disc that I can trust to throw dead straight. The discs I throw on backhand flex shots — like a Harp, Zone, or Pig — are great for forehands, but I also need discs that will easily hold turnovers and straight lines. For me, I use a Deputy for turnovers and a Proxy for my dead straight throws.2
Through this process, you will discover a relatively tight set of upshot and approach discs that can make almost all your shots within 200 feet or so (obviously, if you have off-the-charts power, you may be throwing these kinds of shots inside 300 feet or more.) For me, it is Harp, Suspect, Deputy, Proxy, with an Anvil as a faster more overstable midrange option. Most of my upshot field work is done within 210 feet of the target using just these discs. If you have your upshots dialed inside this range, then you can drastically reduce bogeys and nearly eliminate senseless double bogeys from your game.
Taking it to the Field
These shots are all about hitting targets and landing the disc inside your putting confidence zone. The first several sessions working on your short game, you should be narrowing down the discs that you will use in your short game arsenal and seeing the different distances and flights you can get from various footwork patterns (or however you are going to set up your system.) The most important thing is building a repeatable short game swing and then observing how far your shots go with that swing from different stances and footwork.
If you haven’t done this before, then just observe. Which discs are the most consistent? Which ones are the most comfortable? If you want to make your stock shot a small hyzer, it may be that you need to go with a much less stable disc. Since you are throwing a slight hyzer with less footwork and pace, that understable putter or mid might fly much straighter and fade more than when you throw it with your full swing. It may be that your best choice is a Judge rather than a Harp or a Mako3 rather than a Roc3. Unless you are much more consistent throwing harder, you don’t want to take a disc that you are going to have to power up to get the flight you want.
Remember also that consistency is infinitely more important than distance – you always have the option to switch to a faster, glidier disc, so focus on which discs are going the same shape and distance throw after throw. Always look for a disc that is more resistant to weird releases or slight fluctuations in pace.
What should emerge from this process is a set of discs, setups, and footwork that give you reliable shots. Again, I suggest using a field journal to note which setups and discs are best for different distances. You may discover that 90 feet is a JK Aviar Standstill on a slight hyzer, 120 feet is a JK Aviar with a One Step or a Mako3 Standstill, and so on. There may be overlap, in that you can get the same distance with different combinations. That’s great. You can keep both in your practice rotation or choose the one that seems more comfortable.
Then go to the field and set up a target – a basket, a cone, your bag – and start from outside of the distance where your putting or jump putting becomes unreliable. For me, this is about 90 feet. I move out from there at 30-foot intervals to match the width of the putting circle, but you can use whatever set of distances works best for you. I also use minis to set up an “alternate green” around the target based on my circle of confidence, where I know my putting percentage is high. This is usually about 20 feet from the target, but I sometimes move it in to 15 feet to make it more challenging. You want every shot to land inside this circle.
Now play a game from these distances – you get a point for every disc that lands inside your confidence zone, get no points for anything that lands outside of your confidence zone to the edge of the circle, and subtract a point for any shot that lands outside the circle. How many shots you take in each “set” depends on your access to discs. I go with ten because it makes calculating percentages easy, but you can use fewer. Track how well you throw it from different distances with combinations of discs and footwork. You should begin to see patterns and gain confidence with those shots. An alternative scoring system is to throw these shots and then actually putt them out, getting one point for every time you make the putt from your upshot and no points when you fail to convert. I also putt out all the missed putts and deduct 5 points (or more) for any 3-putt.
So, my usual scorecard is made up of 10 shots from 90, 120, 150, 180, and 210 feet. If I get them all in my circle, it is 50 points. You could easily do a set backhand, a set moving it in from the opposite side, and a set thrown straight. If you keep your score and track where you are making and missing, you will be able to see where you are a lock and where you are missing too often. If you find out that you are just not very good from 180 feet, then you might need to find a more effective combination of disc and footwork from that range. Keeping track of your score and what is working is the key to owning your short game.
Also, don’t feel you need to throw all these shots every time you practice your short game. It would be fine to just throw a few different shots from each spot and focus on hitting your target. Or you could decide to really focus on one shot – forehands, hyzers, anhyzers, or straight – and throw only that shape from different distances for a whole field work session.
Returning to these familiar spots is a great way to build your confidence in your short game. How often can you hit the target from these distances with hyzers, turnovers, forehands, and straight shots? Do you like to throw a few discs with a lot of different grips, stances, or footwork — or just a couple of footwork patterns with a wide variety of discs? The only rule is that your short game is comfortable and consistent. And you must practice it until you know exactly how you are going to throw the shot you need and have confidence it is going to give you a putt you know you will make.
the most-lofted clubs used for hitting shorter shots onto the green ↩
To be honest, because I prefer my forehand, I don’t dedicate a lot of field work time to turnovers, but I make sure that I practice them enough to trust them when I need them. ↩