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Photo by Mic Smith
Ricky Wysocki winds up for a tee shot on Hole 5 at Winthrop Gold.
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Photo by Mic Smith
Waiting their turn
Ricky Wysocki greets fans and signs discs after Sunday's championship round.
Hole 15 at Winthrop Gold, the Rock Hill Course where the Professional Disc Golf Association holds its national championship, is a tough par four with a dogleg-left fairway and a hole that sits in a thicket of dense trees.
It requires players to throw their tee shots low and straight through two “mandos” (what disc golfers call mandatory obstacles), while threading the needle of a yellow-roped hazard on the right and a red-roped O.B. (out-of-bounds marker) on the left.
During the second round of the 2015 U.S. Disc Golf Championship, local favorite Ricky Wysocki, one of the world’s best players, went left on 15, his thin driver disc barely staying inbounds as it bounced into the underbrush beneath a magnolia tree. For his second shot, he bent down on one knee and tried a roller, a difficult toss that would turn the disc on its side and force it to arc on the ground toward the target. At first, the shot looked perfect. But then, everyone in the gallery started to wince as the disc careened into a basketball-sized rock.
Wysocki shook his head and almost slammed his hand down on the turf before regaining his composure. Things, after all, were tense. He was playing in a group that consisted of the number-one player in the world, Paul “McBeast” McBeth, and 12-time world champion Ken “The Champ” Climo. The pressure was on the 22-year-old Wysocki to win his first national championship on his home turf. But to stay competitive during the four-day tournament, he couldn’t afford many botched throws.
“Just like any sport, if you’re winning the tournament or doing really well, people are out to get you,” Wysocki says after the round. “Me and Paul McBeth, we’ve battled a lot recently in the majors. I’ve gotten second multiple times in a row the past few years, so that has to be a rivalry. We’re always competing.”
'Golf is golf’
If all this seems a little overdramatic for a sport that consists of young guys throwing Frisbees at trees, think again. For starters, the objects these well-paid professionals are hurling are properly called discs. They are lighter and smaller than Frisbees, and it takes a perfect throw to land one in the chain-link baskets that serve as targets. Second, when you think about it, isn’t traditional golf just people trying to hit a small, white ball into a cup? Why shouldn’t professional disc golfers take their version of the sport seriously?
“We love golf,” says Jonathan Poole, the team manager for Innova Discs, the tournament’s sponsor. “It’s just a different set of tools, but it feels very similar. We don’t want people to look down at us like skiers look down at snowboarders. We’re still bringing people to the mountain. And, what’s more, we’ve had 15 percent growth every year since 1983, which speaks to disc golf being more than a fad.”
Like their PGA counterparts, PDGA professionals use much of the same vocabulary, though they’re more likely to say “he flicks a birdie,” rather than “he shoots a birdie.”
They have drivers, the skinniest discs in their bags; mid-range discs, which are like irons; and putters, which are the heaviest and have the fattest rim and the easiest grip.
And while professional disc golfers are more likely to sport tattoos than PGA golfers, they also have sponsors, the names of which are printed on their shirts and bags. Disc golfers arrive at tournaments a week early to practice, and some even have caddies to carry backpacks full of discs. They travel all over the world, and they have legions of loyal fans who cheer on every shot and beg for autographs.
“And the mental game is almost the exact same,” Wysocki says. “Golf is golf.”
No home-field advantage
Quiet, respectful, humble, focused—it’s a style Wysocki perfected while playing as a high school kid in Medina, Ohio, where he grew up across the street from the popular Roscoe Ewing disc golf course.
He practiced every day, for two hours a day, and soon joined the professional tour, winning Rookie of the Year in 2011 and then Player of the Year the following season. When Wysocki was 18, his family moved to Fort Mill, a turn of events that allowed him to play year-round on the Winthrop University course, where a large lake and rolling hills make for challenging disc golf even when it’s not set up with the tournament’s restrictive out-of-bounds ropes.
Now with 73 professional wins, including two majors and more than $165,000 in tournament earnings to his name, “Socki-Bomb,” as he’s affectionately known on tour, has seen more of the world than most people see in a life-time. Disc golf has taken him all across the U.S. and to Australia, Canada, Finland and Sweden, where the sport is extremely popular. Last year, he signed a sponsorship deal with a Swedish company, Latitude 64.
“I love traveling,” he says. “I’ve adapted my lifestyle to it. I like to play new courses, but I also like to check out parts of the country with local food or local hot spots.”
Heading into the 2015 national championship, Wysocki was one of the favorites to win, but nobody could call his familiarity with the course a home-field advantage. Disc golf is just too unpredictable, and Winthrop Gold is always a challenge.
“I’m not too often at home, but when I am, I like to come out here and play,” Wysocki says. “It’s a great place to practice. This course, especially, it brings out all the shots. You have to use every shot in your bag playing this course, because you’re going to get in so many different lies.”
‘A very nerve-racking hole’
On the final day of the 2015 tournament, the weather turned cold and rainy, but hundreds of diehard fans still lined the fairways, watching as rivals Wysocki and McBeth battled it out, the lead seesawing between them over six holes—a birdie here, answered by a bogey there.
On the 16th hole, Wysocki sidearmed a beautiful drive that left him with an easy birdie putt, which he made, but McBeth saved par with a 45-footer that left them tied going into the infamous Hole 17.
Hole 17 at Winthrop Gold is an island-like par 3 upon which you either land your drive with precision or go out of bounds. If you go O.B., you must tee off again with a one-stroke penalty.
“My least favorite hole has got to be 17, coming down the stretch,” Wysocki says. “You’ve got to make sure you get that tee shot in, and that’s a big game changer if you don’t. It’s a very nerve-racking hole.”
Wysocki teed off first in front of the home crowd. Here was his chance, finally, to capture the major he’d always wanted.
The disc cut through the wind and rain. For a moment, it looked like his disc would land close enough for a makeable birdie, and Wysocki would climb the hill on 18 and wave his hand to the crowd like he does whenever he makes a great shot.
For a moment, it looked as if he might raise the trophy above his head, hug his family and pick up the $8,000 winner’s check.
But then he heard the crowd gasp. The disc had bounced on the green and skidded into Winthrop Lake. The weather suddenly seemed a bit colder, a bit windier. His second tee shot also looked good until it wedged itself into the stack of hay bales that guard the island—another out of bounds.
The collapse—not quite the equivalent of Jean Van de Velde’s triple-bogey demise at the 1999 British Open, but still heart-wrenching—ensured that Wysocki would finish second to Paul McBeth, who went on to win his fifth and final major of the year—the first accomplishment of its kind in the sport.
For many in the crowd, the moment was bittersweet. No one wants to see someone win at another’s breakdown, especially for the hometown kid, but history was being made in Rock Hill.
“You really have to look at it from the historical significance of having Paul McBeth win the Grand Slam,” Poole says. “That has never happened in more than three decades of tournament disc golf. Who knows how long before it happens again? So, for the U.S. championship, for Winthrop University, for Rock Hill, for South Carolina—that’s something that we have. That’ll always be part of our history.”
Although frustrated and searching for answers, Wysocki took the long view as well.
“I had the lead for most of the round, and I’m going to take that into next year,” he says. “I’ve been right there for every major, and that’s all I can do—just put myself in contention.”