Two first-time winners at Winthrop as the hardest finishing holes in disc golf deliver the drama again.
October 9, 2023 by Kingsley Flett in Analysis, Recap with 0 comments
When telling the story of a disc golf tournament, it’s natural to go looking for the turning points. Whoever wins those key moments usually wins the day. So when looking at how Kyle Klein became the fourth first-time MPO winner in the last five majors and the 15th person to hoist the USDGC trophy, hole 5 was an obvious place to start.
Klein began Sunday’s final round with a three stroke lead over Bradley Williams and a five stroke lead over Sullivan Tipton and Joel Freeman. Klein and Willams both birdied hole 2, increasing the gap over third place to six strokes and making it look like a genuine two horse race, the likes of which we’ve barely seen all year in MPO.
On hole 5, Williams threw a brilliant forehand fairway drive from a cramped lie and what DGN commentator Philo Brathwaite called ‘delusional range’, 430 feet across the lake to within 45 feet of the basket. On the same hole, Klein was just as aggressive. His approach from only slightly less distance came in too hot and looked destined to skip into the water before digging hard into a clump of dirt near the pin like a golf ball fizzing with back spin. “It’s a common phrase,” said Klein after the round. “All gas, no brakes. But I had a game plan coming in. I was pretty aggressive, and I knew if I’d just stick to that and throw the shots I’ve thrown all week, then I can get a pretty sizeable lead.”
Williams tentative birdie putt faded early, missed the basket entirely, and rolled into the water. With the two stroke swing, the gap was suddenly five strokes. “I threw a bit too good of a shot,” said Williams afterwards. “I got put in a kind of awkward situation where I needed to make that putt to keep the gap close. It ended up being a bad position to go for that putt.”
The moment felt decisive. Kyle had some breathing room.
Klein birdied the next two holes to stretch the gap to seven strokes. Kyle then kept his foot on the accelerator on hole 10, throwing across both open space and OB to park the hole for an eagle two, while Williams stuck to his conservative plan to follow the fairway around for par. Another two stroke swing and the lead was nine.
In 2021, Klein missed a putt and a chance to win this tournament on hole 18. He went on to lose in a playoff to the greatest player of our generation, Paul McBeth. If the ghost of that memory hadn’t been banished, it had certainly been told to pack its bags. Williams drew one stroke back on hole 12 and then another on hole 15, but, standing on the tee of hole 16 with a seven stroke lead, Kyle had every right to feel safe. He didn’t though.
“I definitely did [feel some nerves],” Klein said afterwards. “I knew I was up by seven going into the last three holes and I thought ‘worst case scenario is I win by one.’ I kept telling myself, ‘It’s just you and you. There’s nothing else standing between you and this title.’ You’ve just got to beat your mind.”
Klein turned over his midrange tee shot on 16 into the hazard and outside putting range. A birdie to Williams meant a two throw swing and a five throw gap for Klein to contemplate on the long walk up to the tee of hole 17.
The two most difficult finishing holes on tour, holes 17 and 18 at Winthrop, make all talk of key moments and turning points anywhere else on the course redundant. Because nearly every USDGC of the modern era has hinged on these holes anyway. Hole 17, in particular, seems to like punishing players who swagger up College Lake Road with four or five stroke leads. When leading at the USDGC, it’s best to not provoke them — keep the margin modest, walk quietly up to hole 17’s tee pad, and try not to make eye contact with the haybales.
Both Williams and Klein avoided the wrath of the island hole by throwing their forehands high and letting the wind carry the discs to the fat part of the green. As Klein’s disc landed safe, the celebration among his fans and followers seemed to get started. Then, on the tee of hole 18, they groaned and were hushed. After Williams threw well up the hill and in bounds, Klein, throwing the same midrange that he’d turned into the hazard on hole 16, again failed to find the fairway.
“It’s one of my discs that I’ve been throwing all week on that hole that’s been working fine,” Klein explained afterwards. “Maybe it got a little weird wind gust or something and I got it over too much. It happened on 16 as well. It burned over, cut rolled, and got into the water.”
Klein now had potentially only three strokes to play with. After the penalty stroke, he was throwing three from the edge of the water and still well short of Williams’ first throw. “On the shot up the hill, I knew if I was going to go OB that I was going to go OB right. I was going to get as far as I could up the hill to give myself an open look at the basket to pitch up,” Klein said afterwards. His forehand shot was released a little late and skipped OB, further reducing the number of spare strokes he had over Williams. Then when Williams landed on the edge of the bullseye for a likely birdie, Klein had no more mistakes to make.
The 5-year pro from Wyoming played it cool. After double checking the scores, he approached, pitched up, and tapped in. After placing fifth, second, and ninth in the previous three USDGC tournaments, Klein managed to hold on for a one stroke win. Turning towards the crowd, he somehow managed to look both emotionally shattered and elated in equal measure. “It’s hard to believe,” said Klein. “It’s still setting in. But I’ve been too close too many times in this tournament to not have pulled that off. I’m just glad that I’d built up enough of a lead to know I could make some mistakes coming down the stretch.” Given the two months he lost this year to a lower back ailment, it was an especially gratifying win for Klein.
It was a steady and measured performance from Williams, too. After facing some serious adversity in the middle of the round, he stuck to his game plan, plugged the leakage of strokes, gradually worked his way back into contention, and was ready to pounce when Klein faltered. He finished one stroke short of an unlikely win.
Handley Charges off the Chase Card
All the contenders who began Championship Sunday for the Throw Pink Women’s Disc Golf Championships had at least one, maybe two, disaster holes. For Kristin Tattar, who shared the lead with Eveliina Salonen after round three, the disaster was on hole 8. After misjudging the angle on her backhand drive, Tattar sent her disc fading early and into the bulge of OB on the left side of the fairway. Then Kristin overturned her next forehand shot into OB again. The double bogey, which came after a bogey on hole 7, dropped Tattar from a one stroke lead to a share of fourth and into a position that it took her the rest of the round to recover from.
For Salonen, it was slower bleeding, with bogeys on holes 6, 7, and 14 taking her out of the mix. Ella Hansen, who had a share of the lead at the time, went OB off the tee on hole 12 and then threw good money after bad by throwing out over the OB area in an attempt to save par and never making it back inbounds on her way to a triple bogey. Then Henna Blomroos, already four throws back from the lead, fell off the pace with bogeys on holes 5 and 7.
Seemingly out of contention, even in her own mind, on the chase card was Holyn Handley, six strokes back from the leaders. “Maybe I can shoot double digits and pop up into the top three if one of them is sleeping today,” Handley said afterwards when reflecting on her pre-round mentality. “The likelihood that all four of them would have a lackluster day was pretty low with how well they’ve been playing.”
Handley was on a prodigious hot streak, though. After starting round three with three bogeys in the first eight holes, Holyn eagled hole 9 and proceeded to shoot 17-under-par for the next 26 holes. By the time she joined the large backup of players waiting to throw on hole 18 in the final round, she had unknowingly shot to a two-stroke lead over Tattar.
Handley was choosing to not check her score during the round, but when she noticed a change in the mood of the crowd following her, she decided to take a peek. “By the time I was done on 17, I could tell the energy of the crowd and the card had changed,” Handley said afterwards. “I started to feel nervous because of it so I thought I may as well check now because I’m already nervous.”
The change in expectation had an immediate effect on Handley on hole 18, as she pulled her forehand tee shot a little too wide over the water, not giving the disc enough room to fade onto the fairway. There has been controversy over the spot her card gave her to play from, as from the vantage point of the DGN cameras, it appeared that the disc never crossed inbounds, dropping from an OB tree just barely on the wrong side of the line. Throwing three from near where the disc had advanced up the fairway offered considerable advantage from having to re-tee. Distances and perspectives can look different on camera, though, and it was the consensus of the rest of the playing group — Missy Gannon, Alexis Mandujano, and Eliezra Midtlyng — that the disc had crossed in bounds.
Handley almost went out of bounds again with her second shot but managed to land her disc straddling the OB line on the right side of the fairway. Handley then slid OB again with her approach but managed to salvage bogey with a testing 34-foot downhill putt. The door was left open for Tattar, though, who proceeded to birdie hole 18 for the first time in her career to force a playoff.
The two players arrived yet again on the tee of hole 17 in the playoff after sharing par on hole 1. Handley teed off first with the high, steeply angled hyzer forehand that has become the standard safe way to play the hole. Then Tattar threw a flatter shot to the left of the green, aiming for the disc to fade back into the range of a birdie putt. “I got greedy,” Tattar said. The disc never made it back in bounds and Handley was able to putt out for her first touring win.
“It’s definitely special,” Handley said afterwards. “When Kristin tried to park it, I guess, and pulled it over a little bit, my jaw just dropped. I don’t see her make mistakes like that very often. Immediately I almost started crying. I know my Mom’s probably going crazy right now.”
Aside from being Holyn Handley’s first tour win and the first chase card winner in this tournament’s history, the 2023 Throw Pink Women’s Disc Golf Championship will also stick in most disc golf fans minds as the first time they saw Eliezra Midtlyng play. The 16-year-old from Georgia, in her second year of playing disc golf, wowed spectators with some booming drives. Eliezra was the first FPO player to ever eagle hole 18 and she also made the edge of the green on hole 5 after two throws, a feat that most MPO players are satisfied with. Midtlyng played in the lead card in round two and despite fading from contention, managed a top 10 finish.
Special mention after the finish of the 25th edition of the USDGC goes to Andy Greene, the man who has announced 13,785 players’ names on the first tee since the beginning of the tournament. Your author is proud to have been one of those names Andy has called. He has decided to hang up the microphone. The last name Andy Greene called at the USDGC was Joel Freeman.