A glimpse of the future.
August 1, 2023 by Kingsley Flett in Analysis, Recap with 0 comments
In the week before the 2023 European Open on The Upshot podcast, EO Director of Media Jussi Meresmaa spoke of the tournament that has been his brainchild since he first directed it in 2006 and is now firmly established as Europe’s premier disc golf event.
“Our internal aim is to build the finest disc golf tournament in the world,” he said. “I really want to create and build a stage, so you have those everlasting memories of disc golf. That’s the beast, and that’s the European Open that I want people to remember.”
As far as stages go, this year’s tournament, held for the eighth time at the Nokia DiscGolfPark in Nokia, Finland, served up some of the most compelling disc golf of the year: with a tense finale in MPO where the winner could have come from any of six different players on the course and with Ricky Wysocki a couple back, waiting in the clubhouse for anyone who might slip up in the treacherous final stretch. For it was this very final stretch, the dangerous sequence of holes 16, 17, and 18, that made this year’s European Open such compelling viewing.
You can call it cognitive fatigue or decision fatigue, but whatever you name it, courses like Winthrop Gold and The Beast seem almost purposely designed to exploit this aspect of our psychology. The more we need to think hard and make decisions throughout a day, the more we accumulate glutamate as a waste product in the part of our brain that does the thinking (the prefrontal cortex). To avoid this buildup of glutamate becoming toxic, the brain starts shunting our decisions to more impulsive and less strategic sections. It’s the psychological equivalent of throwing your car keys to a 17-year-old and saying, ‘Why don’t you drive?’ This might help explain some of the carnage that we saw on hole 16 all weekend.
For most of their round at Nokia, the field contends with tight line after tight line. Not too many decisions to make besides ‘hit the spot or pay the price.’ Then, after 15 holes where the trees largely make the decisions for them, they emerge into the open, still with the task of hitting a precise line, but having to decide what exactly that line is. Then, in the case of hole 16, facing the gambler’s choice of whether to lay up or go for the little patch of green inside the circle of haybales.
There may be, somewhere out there, a support group for the survivors of haybale trauma. If there was such a thing, then JohnE McCray could make a good group leader. Joining that group after this weekend might be the likes of Hannele Määttä, Rachel Turton, Eveliina Salonen, Robert Burridge, Matěj Vojtík, Gustav Dahlén, Luke Bayne, Keiro Jõgisalu, Onni Arminen, Morten Brenna, Hjalte Jensen, Luke Humphries, and Anthony Barela – all players who had eight or more throws in a single round on hole 16. It was Barela’s eight, while holding a one-stroke lead in the final round, that provided the final drama to what had been an enthralling four days of competition in MPO.
The MPO Derby
In round one, some severe weather arrived not long after the final cards started and threw up the occasional unfamiliar name on the leaderboard who had enjoyed the better conditions earlier in the day. By the end of the round, though, it was Kyle Klein leading by one stroke over Ezra Aderhold, who shared second with Nestori Tuhkanen. Eagle McMahon held a share of fourth place with four other players two strokes back, while Calvin Heimburg and Corey Ellis, who were to feature so much later in the weekend, had slow starts, finishing in 15th and 20th place after day one.
After round two, Anthony Barela shot to the lead on the back of a hot round of 51, while McMahon shared second place with Albert Tamm two throws back.
During round three, Anthony Barela’s birdies dried up in the home stretch and he dropped two strokes back from Heimburg, who took his turn to shoot the hot round with a sparkling 51. One stroke back from Barela was Ellis, who had recovered from the bogey, two double-bogey stretch that had set him back so far in round one.
At the turn into championship Sunday, there were seven players within four strokes of the lead and, given how hole 16 was meting out punishment, anybody from the top three cards couldn’t be ruled out.
In his post-round interview of the winner, Disc Golf Network commentator Brian Earhart mentioned that at the start of round four, it was “anybody’s race,” before correcting himself with “anybody’s tournament.” The Freudian slip was an apt one, though, because the final round resembled a horse race that sounded something like this:
It’s Heimburg at the jump but he drops back after hitting trees off the tee on his first few holes and he just can’t buy a birdie in the early running. Aderhold comes through on the inside with seven birdies in the first ten holes. McMahon misses an early hurdle with a double bogey on hole three but then claws his way back to the pack with nine birdies in the next eleven holes. After hole 12, we are three abreast at the front with Ellis, McMahon, and Kyle Klein all at 29-under. On hole-13 it’s McMahon with the lead. After hole 15, it’s Barela by a length over Ellis with Klein, Aderhold, McMahon, and Heimburg neck and neck one stroke back. Into the home straight now and Barela stumbles on 16! He throws long of the island six times before landing in bounds! Two holes to play and it’s Ellis with a two-throw lead. Ellis holds the lead on 17 with a nerveless drive and putt and can afford to lay up on hole-18 to take the win by one throw over Klein, with Aderhold one throw further back and Heimburg and McMahon tied for fourth place! Phew.
Barela’s eight on hole 16 was especially cruel. He’d fought his way back into contention after looking like he might fade away after round three. The 2013 MJ13 Junior World Champ has been viewed as a potential heir to Paul McBeth’s throne, and with a few holes to play, it looked like Barela’s big breakthrough win was imminent. But then he threw his drive a touch long, leaving himself slightly out of position and in an unfamiliar spot from which to make the green. This was when hole 16’s unique BUNCR rule took its last huge bite out of the dozen or more players that it feasted on over the tournament.
Ellis had watched Barela throw long six times from his position in the middle of the fairway. He had laid up for par in the previous two rounds, but with Kyle Klein already on the green and putting for birdie, Ellis knew he needed a birdie to step through the door that Barela had just left wide open for him. After landing his backhand just outside the bullseye, he gave his wife (and caddy), Molly, a high five that left her wringing her hand in pain. But at least he had saved the surge of adrenaline for after his throw and not before it.
Seeing Ellis stand on the tee of hole 17, it was impossible not to think back just 301 days to the final hole of the MVP Open at Maple Hill last year. Ellis was 166 feet out from the hole 18 basket and one measured approach shot away from his first Elite Series win when he pulled the forehand shot wide and out of bounds into the crowd. The Disc Golf Network footage of him sitting in the scorer’s hut, head in hands, while Simon Lizotte celebrated his storming comeback win, was one of the most poignant scenes of the 2022 Tour.
There is a reason why hole 17 was the least birdied hole of the tournament. The 459-foot par-4 hole drops 27 feet from tee to basket diagonally across a sloping fairway with OB on both sides. Forehanders and left handers need to risk a shot out over the OB on the left, while right hand back handers have to carefully judge how their disc will fade and finish down the slope towards the basket, with many throwing cautiously too short and many more fading OB left.
Ellis couldn’t afford to lay up. With the tournament on the line, his tee shot looked too high and destined for OB. The beaten-in Buzzz seemed to hold its hyzer angle for three quarters of its flight before flipping to straight, turning and settling just outside of the bullseye and, crucially, in bounds below the basket. Klein birdied the hole, too, but with a 2-stroke buffer, Ellis only had to lay up for par to seal his first Elite Series and Major win in front of an enormous gallery in Finland.
Ellis’s emotion after the win was obvious and justified. He didn’t manage to say much before his voice broke. “I’m shocked,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m even here. It’s incredible.”
When asked how his win might have come about, Ellis said, “The woods remind me a lot of home. The tight woods, weird hills, and elevation changes. I think just focussing on getting tee shots off and sticking to my game plan the whole weekend — that’s what really sealed it. In round one, the closing holes bit me, and I knew it was going to take staying clean. Three bogey free rounds in a row. That’s what it takes, one by one.”
As if we didn’t know already that this win meant a lot, Ellis battled his way through tears when thanking all the friends and family who have helped him along the way. It’s our third straight major with a first-time winner in MPO, and for Ellis, it came after 52 starts on the Pro Tour.
Kristin v. Kristin
It is a sobering fact for many of the FPO field that several of Kristin Tattar’s rare lapses in form on her way to a record eight wins on tour this year have been attributed to the fatigue of being on the road and a long way from family. It suggested that being back on her home continent, if not all the way home in Estonia, might prove decisive. After a narrow win the week before in the PCS Open in Norway, it was clear in the pre-tournament press conference that Tattar was setting herself for a big one.
“It feels different, to be honest,” she said. “But I think the right approach would be to take it as every other weekend. The opponents are the same, basically, and it’s just me against me most of the time. If somebody beats me, then I can’t be mad if I’ve put my 100% out there. So my job is to just focus on my shots and just execute them to the best of my ability. When I first played here in 2019, I was still trying to prove myself as a player. Now I feel like I don’t have to prove anything. I know I have the skills and it is just a matter of executing.”
Tattar did just that, gaining a four-stroke lead over Estonian compatriot Anneli Tõugjas-Männiste in round one. Eveliina Salonen looked like she might give Tattar some tougher competition, sitting at 3-under-par late in the first round before becoming one of hole 16’s early victims and taking herself out of contention.
Tattar ended the contest in the first half of round two. Shooting six birdies in the first nine holes (the only player in the FPO field to shoot under par for the round) and finishing with a 13-stroke lead over he closest chasers in Missy Gannon and Henna Blomroos. Tattar then stretched this lead to 14-strokes after round three.
Despite her even par round three being the hot round of the day, Tattar held herself accountable afterwards.
“I’m not happy,” she said. “Ending the round with a short approach straight into the OB and missing a short putt on hole-17, I don’t think anybody can be happy about it.”
With such a big lead going into the final round, Tattar’s main challenge was going to be maintaining her focus with no realistic rivals for the win. Her biggest rival was the weather, with a thunderstorm and torrential rain making play challenging and even halting the round for a while. But nothing was going to stop Tattar cruising a 16-shot win, her third major in a row and the fastest ever career grand slam.1 Equalling Tattar’s one-under-par 64 for the final round was Finland’s Heidi Laine, who managed to leapfrog Gannon and Catrina Allen into second place.
“I means everything to win here,” Tattar said after the round. “It was one of my goals going into the season to win the European Open and I’m just super happy that I did it. The last time I played here was four years ago and I had a different game back then, so I was interested to see how the course plays for me now.”
When told of her record-breaking grand slam, Tattar said, “It’s interesting to know but it’s not my goal to break records. It’s my passion to be out here, to play well and execute these demanding shots.”
Tattar also reflected on the challenge of maintaining her competitive edge after her lead grew so large. “From time to time I could feel it,” she said. “Because I know that some of these shots don’t really matter and I’ve been in these situations where I know that every putt, every drive – it matters a lot. But today I just had the pressure of playing well, of playing above my rating. I struggled a bit early in the round, but I think I did a good job again.”
As we leave Europe, cross back over the Atlantic towards the World Championships and the closing chapters of the season, there was statistical titbit mentioned by DGN commentator Nate Perkins which gave some perspective on disc golf in Europe. A recent survey showed that disc golf was the 3rd most popular sport among 11-15 year old boys and 15th among girls of the same age. This is a country with long traditions in hockey, winter sports, and football, to name a few. It is hard to conceive of a similar survey showing those percentages in the US. We are just now witnessing the domination of European women in the sport; the European men cannot be far behind. It won’t be long before we cross the Atlantic for the European swing, stay for the World Championships, and maybe crown a European World Champion in MPO as well as FPO.
For what it’s worth, there have only been two Champions Cup tournaments so far. So, call it the “modern” career grand slam. ↩