“Blowing up” was the phrase used all weekend to describe disc golf. The sport has seen tremendous growth in popularity, which was evident Saturday as the Pro Disc Golf Association’s (PDGA) World Championships concluded after five days in the Ogden area.
To win the world title, 288 players had to contend with two very different courses split up over the five days. Mulligans, which doubles as a golf course, plays longer with water and sand obstacles that prevent birdie opportunities. The Fort, actually Fort Buenaventura in Ogden along the Weber River, on the other hand, is known nationally to players for its vegetation that can eat up any player’s disc shot after shot.
“You definitely have to have every shot in your bag to walk away from here a world champion,” said Hayden Henry from PDGA Media. “The two courses complement each other.”
The courses fall in line with what’s happened across the U.S. as most courses double up with public parks, golf courses, ski resorts and colleges and universities. Ogden was awarded the bid to host the world championships for 2020 but had to wait a year with events postponed due to COVID-19.
It was during pandemic shutdowns that a sport already experiencing a 15%-30% yearly growth rate among casual players exploded as people sought a socially distanced activity once it was safe to start back up with outdoor activities.
Disc golf blew up so much that UDisc estimates rounds were up 250% from January 2020 to January 2021, with the growth occurring on both the men’s and women’s side as well as across ages and skill sets. It’s also a low-cost sport, with intro discs costing around $8 and the vast majority of courses not charging greens fees.
Another contributor to the popularity during the pandemic was increased coverage of pro player events on YouTube, as fans were binge watching at home and quickly realizing that although disc golf is an easy sport to get into, it’s definitely not an easy sport to master.
“We’ve been in this waiting game for the tournament,” said Rob Bullen, tournament assistant director. “So while we were in the waiting game, popularity was exploding on what was already a fast growing sport. It’s been great to get the fans out to watch their favorite players and help build an amazing atmosphere for the players to compete.”
Fourteen hundred fans were allowed to attend worlds in person, hopping back and forth between courses and the men’s and women’s championships before both concluded at the Fort Saturday. They were spoiled with competitive play throughout as both titles were decided on the final hole.
“I felt the love out there all week, and coming down that home stretch, I felt it.” — 2021 men’s disc golf world champion James Conrad
Catrina Allen earned her second world title, topping defending and five-time champion Paige Pierce. The two had seesawed the lead throughout the week and Saturday. It looked like Pierce had locked things up after she hit a 60-foot putt to save par while Allen bogeyed 16 for a two-shot difference, but the final two holes favored Allen, who shot even par while Pierce was three over to fall just short of Allen.
“These are tears of joy, tears that come from hard work, determination, discipline, never giving up no matter what was thrown at me the past couple of years,” said Allen, whose last world title came in 2014.
Fans and fellow players cheered on Allen while also trying to show support for a devastated Pierce. It’s a theme many in the sport tout as another reason for its popularity across both the men’s and women’s games.
“We play against each other week in and week out. Some of us have been playing against each other 15-20 years,” said player Nate Sexton. “You want to see good shots and beat somebody when they are on their best game. I of course want to play the best, but I don’t want anyone to play bad.”
Sexton, who finished third, was one of several players who joined the fans after finishing up to watch the men’s finale, and it was a grand one for sure, as James Conrad hit a 247-foot shot for birdie on 18 to force a playoff with defending and five-time champion Paul McBeth.
The crowd erupted and you could sense the momentum shift for Conrad as he then topped McBeth on the first playoff hole (16), which he had played well all week, including an ace.
“I felt the love out there all week, and coming down that home stretch, I felt it,” said Conrad to the fans, “and all of you helped will that shot right into the basket.”
Conrad was one of many players who thanked the fans for a great tournament, while admitting how excited they are to watch the sport continue to evolve and blow up.
Melissa Yack is a contributor for the Deseret News.