The Winthrop Tightrope

The trials and tribulations of the USDGC and TPWDGC.

Gannon Buhr taps in for the win at the 2022 USDGC. Photo: DGPT

How do we unlock the mystique of Winthrop Gold? How does this course that winds around a college campus by a lake, one that seems so benign on the surface, wreak such havoc? The USDGC layout has had its critics over the years. Harold Duvall (and now his son Andrew) have creatively pushed the limits with innovations that haven’t always been popular. Yet you only need to scan the hole-by-hole scores of any USDGC to see more double, triple, and quadruple bogeys than you’ll see on any other disc golf event. 

Talking to the press before the 24th running of this history shaping event, Event Director Jonathan Poole gave a clue when he explained how the new hole three, which connects the tee of the previous hole three to the basket of the old hole four, had come about: “That was an original gold course beta hole when it was just an idea. We had a safari loop that we played out here and when we finished the lake course we would go to that tee and play from hole three to hole four’s pin so it’s kinda neat to see that played in competition for the first time.”

Some of the most iconic holes in our game began their lives on safari courses; being shaped and refined through play. Then at Winthrop, year after year, some of the finest course designing minds have applied themselves to make a tightrope of risk and reward so fine that when the best players fall off it, they tend to fall a long way. Say what you will about this course, but you can’t deny that it has consistently served up some of our sport’s biggest moments. 

The Big Moments

After the first three rounds, most of the field had slipped off that tightrope one way or the other: putts had skipped off baskets into OB, discs slammed by strange downdrafts on hole 11, or players had simply been eaten alive by hole 17. By Sunday, the USDGC lead card had a five-throw separation from the best of rest. Chances of a Simon Lizotte style victory bid off the chase card were remote. 

There were two throws separating the lead card as they stepped onto the first tee. That didn’t last long. The foursome’s two youngest members – 17-year-old Iowan Gannon Buhr and 20-year-old Finn Niklas Anttila — drained 70- and 50-foot putts, respectively, to set the tone. That opened a gap that drifted wider in the front nine. 

As they walked to the tee of hole 10, Calvin Heimburg was four throws behind and Paul McBeth five. Both veterans needed an eagle to stay “in the conversation,” as DGN commentator Nate Sexton said. Heimburg’s drive was pulled slightly right and then kept sailing towards the tennis courts to land OB. McBeth’s was high, stalled early, faded left and fell short into OB also. Anttila played the hole as he had all week: laying up to the left and then again for a birdie putt. Buhr went for the green with a powerful drive that flipped in a similar fashion to Heimburg’s, but crucially faded back inbounds to land at circle’s edge. He putted in for eagle. McBeth made par from the drop zone and Heimburg missed, then two-putted for a triple bogey. That broke the invisible rubber band connecting the top two with third and fourth. From here on, it was a battle between the youngsters. 

Three holes later, the two were still one throw apart, but then Buhr opened the door for Anttila by failing to clear the trees off the tee of hole 13. On his second shot, he allowed his midrange to be pulled right into OB by what DGN’s Philo Brathwaite called “the gravity of the hole.” The double bogey that followed created a two-throw swing that gave Anttila a three shot lead going into hole 14. This set up the tournament’s next big moment. Anttila didn’t swing his hyzer wide enough, and the disc caught the large tree mid-fairway, though he was able to lay up to within 20 feet. Buhr threw too wide and his high hyzer spiked early. He was left with a 60-footer, staring at an elevated basket with a slope rolling into hazard behind. Miss, and his bid to win the tournament was likely over. 

“I was so nervous in the first couple of holes I was shaking,” Buhr said after the round. “But after my double bogey, there was just zero nerves. I was saying to my caddy, ‘it feels like a practice round.'”

Buhr floated the putt bravely and rode it home into the bottom right of the chains with a knee lift and a fist pump.

They say that correlation is not causation. But it’s hard to separate that putt with what happened next. Maybe Antilla had been ‘big putted’ and his concentration affected because he inexplicably threw what looked to be barely more than a tap-in, high into the top band of the basket. The two-throw swing from 13 was erased, and it was back to a one-throw difference with four holes to play. 

Holes 13 and 14 were rare blemishes for the two atop the leaderboard, who turned on one of the most consistent displays of excellence than we’ve ever seen in a final round all season. Almost identical low and straight drives through the triple-mando on hole 15 set them both up for birdies. On 16, they both threw almost identical drives again to be right on circle’s edge, just beyond the small guardian trees. Buhr faced the more difficult angle, having to straddle off one knee to get an angle at the basket, but, like he did all day, hit his putt. Anttila had the more direct line to the basket but skipped his putt off the left rim. They began the long walk to hole 17 dead level. Time for big moment number three.

Hole 17 can change your world. The disarmingly simple hay bale hole had feasted well over the weekend, claiming the likes of Simon Lizotte, Gregg Barsby, and former champions Chris Dickerson and Steve Brinster, among its triple and quadruple and quintuple bogey victims; there was even an 11 carded in round two. Buhr and Anttila were having none of that nonsense, though. They both threw over-stable forehand shots that spiked safely onto the green. Anttila’s disc caused a few heart palpitations when it rolled towards the lakeshore and then stopped. Buhr again stared down a deep circle two putt (60 feet, according to UDisc), with nothing but air and doom behind the basket. The disc crashed into the chains. He shouted “drop” while it was in mid-air but afterwards said that, “I knew right out of my hand that it was going in.” From 14 feet closer, Anttila swung his putt right, missed everything but landed in bounds. There was still much that could unfold on 18, but everyone watching sensed that this was the moment the 2022 United States Disc Golf Championships was won. 

On hole 18, they both played safe, throwing midranges to the flat part of the fairway. Anttila was out by ten feet. The Finn applied the pressure by spearing his fairway drive to just short of the wall below the basket, forcing Buhr to birdie or face a playoff. For a second, it felt like we were headed back to hole-one as Buhr’s throw clipped some tree leaves on the right side, but it fought through to fade down the slope towards the basket, sliding just long and into the retaining wall. A five-foot tap-in and the USDGC had its youngest-ever champion.  

“My Mom usually doesn’t cry,” said Buhr afterwards. The PDGA’s Jeff Jacquart only got the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ part of his winner’s announcement out before proceedings were delayed for a minute or so by a long hug from Buhr’s biggest fan.

“I can’t believe it,” Buhr said. “This is the tournament I wanted to win the most, even over the world championship. I had to birdie the last five holes, including a couple of huge putts, just to barely defend Niklas. He pretty much threw every shot and forced me to execute the same shot and make these clutch putts. But the person who wants it the most is probably going to be the one to win. This event really fuels my fire, and I can’t wait to win big tournaments like this again.” Then there was one last reminder of the age of the new USDGC champion when Buhr added, “I’m way behind in my schoolwork. I’ve got to focus on school now to pass. Hopefully I can study for a couple of hours a day before the semi-finals.” 

Winning the War Within

Catrina Allen no doubt had many moments of her own on the last day of the Throw Pink Women’s Disc Golf Championship as she held off a fast-finishing Kristin Tattar. But I don’t think her big moment came in the final round. Allen had stretched her three-throw lead over Tattar to five with three holes to play, but then saw it evaporate to just a couple within the space of two holes. A missed circle-two putt on 16 and then a missed island on 17 saw her needing to avoid trouble on 18 to keep the Estonian at bay. Allen threw her tee shot in-bounds, and when Tattar’s fairway drive rolled out of bounds on the right side, Allen only needed to throw three layup shots for an easy par to claim the win. 

It seemed, though, watching from afar, that Allen’s big moment may have come the day before, in the middle of round three. After a double bogey on hole 10, Allen had temporarily lost her 6-throw lead to Henna Blomroos and seen her 13-throw advantage over Tattar reduced to six. Waiting on the tee of hole 11, she was visibly restless. She seemed rattled. I know this because of the DGN camera that was right in her face when she would have probably preferred some time alone to gather her thoughts.

Unseasoned disc golfers are often frustrated after their first few tournaments, shocked at how their competition play doesn’t go like their casual play. “But I birdie this hole all the time” they’ll say after carding a seven on one of their local par threes. It takes a while to accept the grim reality that tournaments are a multi-day dogfight with your own mind. This was no better illustrated by how Allen handled the next few holes. She bogeyed 11 too, but then carded 4 birdies in the next seven holes to wrest back control of her round. It was here that Allen seemed to win the mental battle. Her chasers would never get that close again. 

“It’s been a minute since I had a big win,” she said afterwards. “So I feel great. There were times where I was really nervous and I was just thinking ‘just get it in bounds’ I wasn’t really thinking about getting up and down, I was texting Austin most of the round and he was being my David Goggins if you will, telling me to ‘shut up the weak mind and play to win’. I would have felt better if I’d lost knowing that I’d left it all out there instead of playing scared and timid.”

On her goal of wanting to “play unbothered,” Allen said, “This week I definitely did. There was a month and a half there where I was getting bothered and I finally had to have the ‘come to Jesus’ moment with myself and tell myself that ‘I’m the problem. It’s me.’ Everything can be going wrong but it’s how you react. I didn’t play as great as I wanted at Maple Hill, but I felt mentally unbothered, and it slowly came back after that.”

This final leg of the season is finishing in a flurry. No time for anybody to rest as we head up the road and cross the state line to get to Nevin and the tour finale – The Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship. One last chance for redemption for some and confirmation for others, plus a very big payday.

  1. Kingsley Flett
    Kingsley Flett

    Kingsley Flett is a writer, photographer, and disc golfer who lives in Western Australia. You can find some more of his work on Instagram. He told us that he rides a Kangaroo to work every day, but we don’t believe him.



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