Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Two time world champ and three time US champ Barry Schultz wants to ask you a question: are you a golfer or a thrower? This is a question on which he based his disc golf clinic at the 2011 USDGC. Click here to watch the whole video. Roughly paraphrased, according to Barry a golfer is someone who warms up, thinks about their shots, takes the sport seriously, purposefully varies their practice, enjoys new challenges, and seeks to improve. A thrower is the opposite of that. They do the same thing every time they play and complain that they never get any better.
Most importantly, Barry believes becoming a golfer helps you enjoy the sport of disc golf.
Now this is a big topic and one I really enjoy so I’m going to chip away at it over time. Today the angle on becoming a golfer I would like to explore is how to use golf smarts to shoot your personal best score.
Play the Odds
Believe it or not your entire golf being is a set of percentages and probabilities. Every time you pick up a disc and try to throw it a certain distance in a certain direction at a certain angle, there is a measurable probability that you’re going to pull it off. If I was going to place a bet on you succeeding, all I’d have to do is look at all the times you tried to do it in the past, and divide how many times you made it by how many times you tried. Are you 80% on that shot or 30%. I’ll bet on anything over 75%.
Here you are: you’re on the edge of the green of Thrill Hill’s hole 3 after a botched layup, there’s a slight headwind, and you’re 25 feet from the basket. Behind the basket looms the muddy creek. You want to putt hard to cut into the wind, but you want to putt soft so if you air ball it might not make the creek. You know headwinds lift putts most of the time, especially on uphill putts, but what if it doesn’t this time? So you’re trying to decide whether or not to aim low. However, if you doink off the cage it might roll. You just parred hole 1 and birdied hole 2 so you have kind of a streak going - you definitely don’t want a bogey now.
Tough situation. Would it change anything if I, your caddy, leaned in and whispered this in your ear: “Your percentage on normal 25 foot putts is about 50%. In a headwind and with these nerves that’s bound to drop to 35 or 40%. Also, your average on this hole is 4.2, so laying up now for a 4 is actually putting you ahead of your average.”
Suddenly, it’s a no brainer. Pitch that putter under the basket, ignore the jeers from your cardmates (who are just jealous of your golf smarts anyway) and move on to hole 4.
Let’s look at some of the methods you can use to analyze your golf game, and how to use that to plan out your best round.
Average per Hole
If you keep track of your scores on UDisc you can look at some of your stats for each hole on a course. This is very informative for planning out how to get your best performance on a course. Even if you don’t keep track of your scores, you might have a general sense of how you typically do on a hole “I usually bogey hole 9” or “I’m able to birdie hole 13 about half the time.”
Here’s an example of how UDisc breaks down your hole averages. (To find this in your UDisc go to Courses > choose a course you have played > My Stats tab at top)
Since I started using UDisc a year ago, I played 95 rounds on Thrill Hill. You can see my average for hole 1 is a bit over par at 3.3. I happen to know that most of those bogeys are caused by trying to throw a drive down into that tunnel for a birdie and getting into trouble. I have way more bogeys on that hole than I do birdies. So if I was trying to get my best score, should I risk the birdie or lay up for the par? The numbers give you the answer: I should probably lay up for par.
When you look at hole 2 at an average of 2.5 it’s a no-brainer. I’m running birdie all day long.
Hole 3 shows that I average just under par. Yes, I’m running birdies. Actually, if you split my 95 rounds in half they would tell different stories. The first half I would probably be at or over par, but for the second half I would probably be down around 2.7. That is because later last year I finally developed the power to reach that hole on a hyzer and it became a frequent birdie. Am I disappointed if I get a 3? No.
If you were to hire me as a caddy to help you shoot your personal best and take down your rival, I would probably start with assessing your averages and design a strategy to get you around the course deciding smartly where to attack for birdies and where to stay out of trouble and take the easy par.
Just as you have an average per hole, you also have an average success rate for throwing the disc a certain distance accurately. This is most obvious with putting where you can practice and calculate your exact percentages. For example, putt 100 times from 20 feet and see how many you get in. Did you sink 75% of them? If so I’d bet on you making a 20 footer.
This early spring I practiced a lot of putting from 35 to 50 feet and just for “fun” I kept stats at each distance. What I learned is that keeping stats on your performance isn't that fun and kind of stresses you out, but I also learned that from 50 feet I was hitting about 1/3 of my attempts. That’s good information if I’m ever facing a 50 foot death putt to take the lead on hole 17 - should I bet on a 33% chance now or lay up and take my chances on hole 18 and a potential tie-break? Depends how I’m feeling, but the odds on the death putt aren’t great.
You also have percentages of success throwing longer distances as well. At 150 feet you may be 75% likely to hit a landing zone 30 feet wide, but as the distance pushes out to 200 feet that percentage might shrink to 50%.
Pros often talk about percentages of getting up-and-down. What they mean is that within a certain distance range, no matter the angle or obstruction as long as it's a fair line, they should be able to throw an upshot close enough to the basket to be guaranteed to make the putt. I believe they generally consider getting up and down from within 200 feet a must. What distance do you feel getting up and down is a must? I remember when I started, getting up and down from 30 feet was not guaranteed.
Shot Type Percentage
Everybody has their favourite shot that they know and trust. For me it’s a 200-250 foot backhand hyzer with a stable midrange (to read more about hyzers click here). For some it’s a flat sidearm with an overstable fairway driver. Whatever throw is your cozy go-to shot, it is your high percentage shot. This is your most powerful tool to get you around the course with the best score.
If your favourite shot only goes 180 feet then what do you do? Most of the holes on Thrill Hill are in the 220-250 range. That means you’re not going to reach most of the greens without making yourself uncomfortable, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about this sport it’s when you’re uncomfortable that you’re most likely to make a mistake.
The long term solution is to work on your form to gain more distance. However, the short term solution is to use your greatest weapon to defeat your enemy: the course. In just a minute we’re going to look at an example of how to do this. But first...
Using Feel in Place of Numbers
All of these numbers can get very technical and I know it isn’t how many people think. If you’ve gotten this far through the rubbish, I’ll reward you with another way to think about it: by not thinking at all. Instead, tap into your emotions or your “feel”.
When you step on a tee and look at the shot before you, how confident are you that you can pull it off? Not very? What happens if you picture a landing spot on the grass 100 feet short of the pin, does your confidence increase? If you think you can hit that spot 100 feet short, then do you think you can make that next 100 foot shot easily and put it within 15 feet for an easy putt? Well, you’ve just become a golfer planning out how to play a hole for a smart par.
When you walk to the next tee and it’s a hole you never throw well, you don’t need to know that your average is a full stroke over par, you already “feel” like the hole has the better of you. Then why keep trying to play the hole the same way and getting beaten up over and over? Try a different strategy.
Thrill Hill Hole 11
Hole 11 is an interesting hole with which to consider your averages and decide whether to play smart or risk the big shot.
It is a 269 foot blind shot to a pin blocked by a thick grove of trees early and two tall bushy tangles flanking the pin on either side. There are a few grabby trees/shrubs 100 feet off the tee that make you throw either around them or high over them. If you’re grabbed by the early ones it’s nearly impossible to save par.
The farther you can throw the easier this hole becomes. Once you reach 325 feet of power it becomes a possible birdie and once you can throw over 350 feet it becomes quite easy. However, when you’re still struggling to break the 300 foot barrier the hole offers a great challenge and a tough decision to make. At 300 feet of power you’re just at the range where you might be able to go over the trees to access the pin from the tee, but this isn’t going to work out for you every time. When it works it’s great. When it doesn’t work it’s a difficult scramble with bogey becoming quite possible.
For reference, Thrill Hill’s hole 5 is 300 feet long.
So if your power is 300 feet or less this is probably where you’ll typically land.
You can see that a lot of that range is in Bogey Land. However, just as much of it is in Par Land. You have an important choice to make. Do you risk going in Bogey Land for the 5-10% chance you’ll make it safe into Birdie Land or do you remove the risk by taking the easy open hyzer over to the right into Par Land? Remember, for this article we're talking about carding your best score.
This is the view you're rewarded with if you take the smart hyzer over to Par Land.
200 foot hyzer to Par Land, 110 foot hyzer to the pin, tap that sucker in and strut on over to hole 12. Now you’re playing smart golf.
Shooting your Personal Best
You can analyze every hole on the course like this and I encourage you to do so. Take a good honest look at how you typically shoot on each hole and design a strategy that fits best with your high percentage comfort shot.
If your current personal best is +2 then that means parring every hole will get you the win. However, there are holes you can birdie and holes you will bogey. Attacking the holes you usually birdie without risk, taking your safe confident shots on the holes you usually bogey, and being happy with pars is going to be your best bet.
Tossing a disc way off to the left down the hill on Thrill Hill’s hole 16 because you’re sick and tired of going in those nasty woods on the right and bogeying might make your friends laugh at you, but Barry Schultz would be impressed.
Who would you rather impress, a two-time world champion or a couple chumps who are probably going to throw their discs in the woods as soon as they're done laughing at you?
Now get out there, snag some sweet pars, and post your personal bests.
Barry Schultz started playing disc golf in 1980 when he was 10 years old. He won Disc Golf’s most prestigious event, the World Championships, two years in a row in 2003 and 2004. Barry’s nickname is “The Other Champ” which links him with the dominant player of his era, “The Champ” Ken Climo. Despite the dominance of Climo, Schultz has been able to carve out an impressive career for himself, winning two world titles (and two additional master’s world titles) and three US titles. He still plays on tour occasionally and has found his way onto lead cards with the newest generation of disc golfers.
This is where Barry’s story becomes interesting. It’s the way he plays the game. Barry hails from Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a hotspot for great disc golf, and like most East coast disc golf is famous for heavily wooded courses. Barry learned to play disc golf in these woods and he learned to play through the 80’s and 90’s when the sport had closer roots to “frisbee golf” than to the modern way we play today. The difference was in the technology and the slow speed of the discs. Fast overstable plastic was still a pipedream and golfers had to learn how to carefully manipulate the flights of those touchy flying discs. For this reason Barry later tended to choose more understable disc molds like the Leopard and Beast and tended to choose baseline or medium-grade plastics like Innova’s pro plastic. He is a smooth thrower and master at carving out intricate lines through the air and then managing the action on the ground. In the clinic video linked in the beginning of this article his stage partner exclaims how Barry can manage to purposefully choose to skip a high speed disc forward off the ground rather than left or right. He does this by throwing an understable disc low with the nose angled up: something you rarely see done on purpose now by the new generation of players throwing overstable discs in very durable plastic. Also, the courses that are filmed on the highest stage in our sport tend to be open bomber style courses where you see a lot of full flex distance shots and high hyzers. It’s more rare to see players bending long shots through narrow tunnels, but that is where Barry made his payday.
Click here to watch his 6 minute in the bag video where he discusses the discs he uses and a little bit about his approach to the game.