Tuesday Tips: How to Play Great Disc Golf Doubles

Take advantage of the team dynamic.

matt bell lisa fajkus
Matt Bell and Lisa Fajkus after winning the Mixed Doubles event at 2018 Pro Worlds. Photo: PDGA

Doubles is my favorite format in disc golf. I always liked team sports, and it is great to bring some of that energy into disc golf. Doubles adds a whole new level of strategy and can give you a lot of insights into your game’s strengths. Thinking about how you and your partner match up can strengthen your doubles team and help you score your best.

Doubles can also help you become a better player. Getting away from the demands of stroke play can allow you to work on different approaches to the game, being more aggressive than you would ever dare in a regular round when your partner has thrown safely or forcing yourself to play smart shots to keep your team alive when your partner goes OB. It’s also incredibly fun!

Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to succeed in the disc golf doubles format.

Winning It (or Losing It) At the Draft

Unlike fantasy football, you can win doubles at the draft. This is because doubles teams are often split into teams by random methods such as flipping discs or pulling cards. This can result in massively unbalanced teams – superteams of very good players paired against teams of new players who have almost no chance to win.

Often, this problem is addressed by dividing the group into A and B pools, making sure that each team has one player from each pool. This is better, but it can still result in tremendous imbalance. In most groups of players, many will cluster around the middle, meaning that people on either side of the A/B line are of about equal strength. A top A player paired with a top B player may essentially be a team of two As; while a player from the bottom of the A pool with a player from the bottom of the B pool will start at a huge disadvantage.

This may or may not be a problem, depending on how much the players care about competitive balance. Even when there is money involved, some people are happy to show up and take their chances. But others feel cheated or demoralized from the start; there is hardly a random doubles event where someone doesn’t mutter, “wait, THEY are paired together?”

There are a few basic ideas to help your team play their best when teams are set by random draw. If the matches are two-person scrambles (the most common form of doubles play), then each team should only be as bad as the best player and can be much better than that depending on what the other player brings to the table. Even a novice player can add a lot of value, as they will generally reduce the effect of random spit-out putts or OB bounces.

The A player must take responsibility for the quality of play. The job of the better player is also to be encouraging, especially when paired with a beginner. There are few things more obnoxious than a skilled player being obviously disappointed in being paired with a new or less-skilled partner. If being paired with the worst player in the field is going to make you miserable – and worse, ruin the night for your partner – then random draw doubles is simply not for you. Doubles is a great way to introduce players into the sport or your club, so take your role as an ambassador seriously. Being positive will probably also help your partner play their best.

If you are the worse player – especially if the gap is large – be clear about the strengths and weaknesses of your game. If you don’t have a forehand or are good at upshots, let your partner know. This is the perfect time to get the most out of the skills you do have – like throwing short, accurate drives or laying up long putts. Your partner would absolutely love being paired with a steady player who gives them the green light all night. Don’t try and do things you can’t do well – like throw your speed 15 driver – when the skills you do have can help the team infinitely more. The A player shouldn’t call every shot, but, if you are new to doubles, be open to suggestions for what throw will help the team the most. No matter your skill level, you can contribute to the team and deserve to be out there. An earlier article suggested ways to play effectively with players better than you, and all that advice helps in doubles.

Picking Your Partner

In some events, you can bring your own partner. Even if you are limited to picking players within a certain rating or division, finding someone who balances your game can make your team much stronger than the sum of its parts. This is where self-scouting is key — you need to find a partner whose game enhances yours and covers your weaknesses. For example, if you are a long driver who struggles on the green, then look for a person with a great putting stroke. Be careful about choosing a partner whose game is very similar to your own, even if they are very good. Find someone who gives your team shots you can’t throw on your own.

If you are primarily a right-hand backhand player, then a lefty or someone with a great forehand can be a true weapon. I am a straight driver who doesn’t throw far but is very consistent, a good putter, and a weak forehand distance thrower. I pair well with my friend Brad, a 6’4” lefty who throws booming drives but can often get wild off the tee. I am usually in the middle, so he doesn’t have to play the drives that end up in the next county. And I get the benefit of finding out what it’s like to play from 450 feet up the fairway.

Don’t ignore the psychological angle. A player who would seem to be a great match but you find annoying may be a good partner on paper but a disaster on the course. You and your partner also need to agree on your goals for the event. If you don’t really care about winning, then a partner who is going to be disappointed with every missed shot is going to be a bad match. If you are a strong player, then finding someone who helps you play your best might be more valuable than someone with a great forehand. It’s sometimes smarter to give up some level of skill in exchange for a partner who makes you feel confident and comfortable. Do you want a partner who is an enthusiastic hype-man or someone who is calm and steady? One of the great things about Brad is that he never gets rattled or negative; which is a good balance for my tendency to dwell on my bad shots.

Strategy and Psychology

Even with a good partner, the game of doubles can hinge as much on psychology as skill. Great players who would normally never miss a fairway may find themselves tightening up after watching their partner go OB. The feeling of having someone depend on you can produce uncomfortable pressure or added focus, depending on the player.

Lots of players ignore this psychological aspect and don’t think about doubles as that much different than a regular round. Rather than playing as a team, they approach doubles more like “parallel singles.” Some players find discussions of doubles strategy distracting and would rather stay as close to their normal game as possible. This is understandable; but engaging the nuances of doubles allows you to leverage your team’s strengths into greater advantages.

The biggest question facing a doubles team is “who will tee off first?” A common split is having one player tee off first on odd holes and the other on evens. This is a kind of “parallel singles” approach to the game. It lets people know on which holes they will tee off first, but to me it makes no more sense than teeing off based on blood type or astrological sign.

There are almost always reasons, whether tactical or psychological, for one player to tee off first on a given hole. Who is the stronger player? Does the hole demand a shot that one player is better or worse at throwing? Does one player have multiple options on a hole? Is there the danger of a missed mando or OB? One of the most important factors is psychology – does one player better handle the pressure of having to throw a shot after their partner goes OB? This is why the better player often tees off second, so the less-skilled golfer never gets put in the position of having to carry the team. But this is not always so clear-cut. The better player throwing first and ripping a good shot can free up a nervous partner to throw without pressure. So how do you decide?

Let’s imagine Bob, a player who throws very well when the pressure is off but can blow up badly if they are stressed. In that case, should he throw first or second? Partly, it depends on their partner. If Bob’s partner is much better than him, then Bob could throw second – his partner’s drives will almost always be useable and sometimes excellent, which takes all the pressure off Bob. If Bob’s partner is worse than him, then it may be good for Bob to throw first, so he can throw with less pressure since his partner could still pick him up. It could even change from hole to hole – having the worse player throw first on open and easy holes, so Bob can throw with confidence if they do well or with less risk if they throw poorly — but have Bob go first on dangerous holes where his partner could get in real trouble. If his partner goes OB, Bob may panic, so better to reduce the pressure off by throwing first.

Even in the case of two evenly skilled partners, there are still reasons to have a particular player throw first. Some very good players like to throw first because they don’t want their partner’s shot to affect them. They know the shot they want and being tempted to change their plan in response to their partner’s throw only introduces uncertainty. Being a steady player who is not affected by a partner’s play is also an advantage in doubles that often goes unnoticed. Some people have the kind of mentality that responds to pressure with greater focus – if so, then let them go second even if they aren’t the stronger player. A player who really doesn’t like throwing second, regardless of their skill, agreeing to go “odds and evens” is hurting the team. The key is communication and being honest enough to say, “I will throw better knowing you can bail me out.”

Sometimes style of play, rather than skill or experience, can dictate who should throw first. Brad and I are both strong putters, but our putting couldn’t be more different. I use a “safety first” straddle push putt that never goes far past the basket; Brad throws low, chain-smashing laser beams. He can make putts from 90 feet out on a flat line; but he can also throw inside the circle putts 40 feet long. I always go first because I can putt aggressively knowing my misses usually leave tap-ins that give him a green light; and because I know that if I see his miss land outside the circle, I will have a hard time making myself run a putt knowing we face a 35-foot comebacker from his disc. My safety-first style can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whether I throw first or second.

Sometimes setting up an order and not changing it – one player always throwing first – can help set a level of consistency. Other times, it is better to change the order based on the hole. If a player has multiple potential shots – they could throw one shot and have a good chance at birdie or could throw a much riskier shot that might get an eagle, then that player can throw second. If their partner’s throw is solid, then they can throw the higher risk shot that offers a low-percentage, high upside play. If their partner sails OB, then they can play the safer shot.

But be aware that not every player can effectively change plans and throw safe or aggressively as the situation demands. Be careful about throwing away shots hunting unicorns. Throwing second, there is a tendency to see your partner’s shot as “good enough” and go for the hero shot. Often, the worst shots a player throws all day are the “I’m going to go for it” shots after their partner lands safely. These result in overthrown garbage shots that are essentially wasted. Yes, if your partner is dead parked for birdie from 270 then, sure, throw a missile dead at the basket. But if they are just outside the edge of the circle, then it might be smarter to try and get an even closer putt. Don’t be too quick to abandon a chance to more firmly lock down a birdie to chase a 1% shot.

Making Decisions

Making high quality decisions also depends on the course – is the tournament a birdie fest where pars are always losing ground, or is it a course with OB that rewards smart play? It may be that playing aggressively is required and the smart strategy may be as obvious as trying to hit every basket. But, if not, it is good to get on the same page with a plan, even if it is as simple as “okay, you go for it, if you miss the mando, I can play safe.”

However, in every round, there will come times when you face tough decisions as a team. Sometimes you disagree about what shot is best. Or, you threw first and got in trouble and, while they nodded when you said they would play safe if that happened, now they want to go for it. How you resolve this issue will depend on your relationship. Can you tell them your thoughts without creating a conflict? Are they open to suggestions? There is a fine line between expressing your negative thoughts about the shot they are considering and shooting down someone’s fun or making them doubt their ability. If you threw OB and find yourself getting frustrated that your partner doesn’t agree with your plan to have them lay up, resist the temptation to blame your partner for your situation. In doubles, you must accept that the round can only be as bad as your own play. The only reason you are having this disagreement is that you threw OB. If you don’t want to leave these decisions in someone else hands, then throw your own shots better.

You can try and come to a consensus about the best shot, but, in the end, there is only one way to go. Each player is responsible for their own game and only they know the shots they can fully commit to throw. You can give suggestions, but if they are going with something you don’t want, the best response is usually “that will work, I love it.” Their game is theirs and throwing the wrong shot with confidence can often be better than half-heartedly throwing the right shot. Whatever happens next, there is no place for criticism or anger. You are a team.

Playing an individual game like golf with a partner is always a balance of skill, tactics, and psychology. Doubles can teach a lot of lessons about course management and your own strengths as a player. Taking responsibility for carrying the burden of a round when you are paired with a more novice player can give you a new appreciation for your skills; and throwing second will help you see yourself as a player who is nails under pressure. All of these are lessons that you can take back to regular tournament play. While playing well in singles is always fun, there are few things better than the joy and relief on your partner’s face when you step up and drain the 35-foot putt you need for the win.

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart. He is sponsored by Skybreed Discs.

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