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Chip Shots: Playing with a Pro — Spending Time with Sarah Hokom at the United States Women’s Disc Golf Championships

Recently, Sabattus Disc Golf (SDG) in Sabattus, Maine, made history, becoming the first venue in New England to host a Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) Major tournament. The United States Women’s Disc Golf Championships took place September 23rd to September 25th, and it featured many of the world’s top-ranked female disc golfers.

Disc golf is one of the fastest growing recreational and professional sports in the United States. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the PDGA states: “Disc golf is played much like traditional golf. Instead of a ball and clubs, however, players use a flying disc. The sport was formalized in the 1970’s, and shares with “ball golf” the object of completing each hole in the fewest strokes (or, in the case of disc golf, fewest throws).”

Since I enjoy disc golf as much as traditional golf, I had been excitedly looking forward to attending this event, watch the world’s best women compete in person, and hopefully get a chance to interview a few of them for my Blog. I started my preparations by messaging a few of my favorite players via Facebook, requesting the opportunity to speak with them.

Sarah and Don
I’m a happy guy, getting to spend time with professional disc golfers Don Smith (L.) and Sarah Hokom at Sabattus Disc Golf.

To my surprise and delight, I heard back from one of my very favorite players, the 2012 PDGA Professional Women’s World Champion, Sarah Hokom. Sarah, who lives in California and travels the country with her boyfriend, professional disc golfer Don Smith, said she would be happy to grant me an interview. Little did I know at the time, but I was going to get a chance to talk with the eventual winner of the tournament, and not only that, but actually get to play a practice round with her and Don just prior to the competition!

I arrived at SDG on Thursday, September 22, the day before the start of the tournament. It was a sunny day, with temperatures in the high ‘70’s and little wind. Owned by Peter Ruby, SDG is a premier disc golf facility, featuring three 18-hole courses and one 9-hole course. Two of the courses, The Hawk and the course’s showcase track, The Eagle, were going to be played twice each over three days.

Shortly after arriving, I saw Sarah at the putting practice area warming up for her final practice round on the Eagle prior to the competition. Selfishly, I had brought my discs with me in the hopes that I might be able to not only shadow Sarah, but actually play at least some of the round with her. I wasn’t disappointed!

When I introduced myself, Sarah immediately made me feel welcomed. Even though she was on the verge of competing in one of the sport’s major tournaments, one that she had won in 2013, she was very relaxed and said it would be fine for me to join her and Don, and even play the course with her. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

At the first tee, Sarah introduced me to Don, and he also was very friendly and laid back. Over the next few hours I had a front row seat into the minds of professional disc golfers, getting to watch how Sarah and Don assessed each hole and determined the proper lines to throw and discs to use. Don and I played many of the holes along with Sarah, and while I tried to respect her preparations, she graciously answered questions about strategy and how she prepared for a tournament.

sarah practice round
Sarah throwing her patented side-arm during a practice round the day before the championships, while Don looks on. Sarah and Don worked closely during the round, discussing positioning and disc choices.

Sarah is known as a side-arm disc thrower, otherwise known as a “forehand or flicker.” Her style of side-arm throw is quite unique, and she rarely throws backhand. Prior to the tournament she was ranked fourth in the world and has a reputation for being precise and mentally tough. These attributes would serve her well throughout the tournament.

At the end of the round, I spent some additional time asking Sarah and Don more formal questions. I found out that Sarah and Don met in 2011 and had been touring the country playing disc golf tournaments ever since. To supplement their income, which is meager when compared to other pro sports due to its early stage of development, they started a disc golf gear, apparel and equipment company called Cali Connection.

When asked about the professional disc golf lifestyle, Don answered, “It’s amazing. If you can imagine, never having to be anywhere in particular, because on the PDGA schedule there are multiple tournaments across the country on any given weekend. We can go wherever we want. We’ve been all over the United States and around the world. The game is pretty amazing in that regard. We get to type in our GPS and just go.” Sarah added, “It makes the country seem so small. We can be in a totally different place on just a few tanks of gas. Actually, this is the first time we’ve been in Maine, which is the 49th state I’ve visited. Alaska’s the only state I haven’t gotten to yet.”

Sarah’s overall impressions of Maine were very positive, “From what I’ve seen so far, Maine is incredibly picturesque and the people have been great.” And the SDG courses? “I think the courses are beautiful; the lines are tricky and quite difficult, which they should be for a major pro event. And I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into getting them into such incredible condition. This is as good as it gets.” Don added, “This is a world-class disc golf facility right here. The people who play only at Sabattus don’t realize how lucky they are; they are completely spoiled. The fact that there are four courses here that are all unique is incredible.”

After giving so much of their time for my interview, I wished Sarah and Don all the best in the tournament and then played a round on the Hawk with a guy named Rasta Mark, which could actually be another Blog!

Over the next few days, I followed the tournament scoring via the PDGALive.com updates, and was pleased to see that Sarah had jumped out to an early lead and continued to hold that lead into the final round, scheduled for that Sunday. I traveled to SDG to watch the final round and follow the lead card. The weather had turned, with a decidedly fall feel – temps in the ‘50’s combined with a strong breeze. The conditions would certainly provide a challenge for the competitors.

Sarah approach
Sarah preparing to throw a side-arm approach shot, as the fans watch intently.

Throughout the round even the top players struggled to hit the lines and stay out of trouble on the difficult course, and the tension was palpable as the round continued. Gone was the relaxed vibe from the practice round; a lot was at stake for the players, and it showed on their faces and in their reactions.

Sarah putting
Sarah making one of her many clutch putts during the final round of the PDGA U.S. Women’s Disc Golf Championships.

Sarah ended up battling with Madison Walker, another side-arm dominant player, and a few times they were actually tied, but Sarah hit some key putts and ended up pulling away for her second major victory. In fact, she was the only woman to shoot under par, finishing at -3. Walker was runner up, with Paige Pierce placing third.

In the week that followed her victory, Sarah was featured in multiple online stories and interviewed on a variety of disc golf podcasts. Also, Terry Miller, known as The Disc Golf Guy, posted video coverage of the tournament rounds on YouTube, funded by the PDGA. All of these activities help generate interest in the sport overall, and it continues to grow.

sarah celebrates
Sarah celebrates winning the 2016 PDGA U.S. Women’s Disc Golf Championship.

After the tournament Sarah and Don hopped in their Cali Connection van and started their cross-country trek back to California. I reached out to her, asking for her perspective on the win after having some time for it to soak in, and she commented that, “It feels great to finish the season on such a high note and in such a beautiful part of the country. It’s kind of magical when everything comes together just right.”

As a disc golf enthusiast and true fan of the professional players, both male and female, I have to say that meeting Sarah and Don, then watching her win the tournament was one of the best sports-related experiences of my life. I also loved being around both the players and fans; the disc golf community is amazing and the positive energy at the event permeated the entire crowd. Peter Ruby’s crew at SDG did Maine and disc golf proud, putting on a remarkable tournament. The future is bright for this fun, affordable and growing sport. The sky’s the limit, and Sarah is a terrific champion and ambassador of the sport she loves.

If this sparks your curiosity, you could take a drive to SDG, or go to DR Disc Golf in Orrington, on Center Drive, where Dave Enman has created two of the best 18-hole courses in Maine, the Bobcat and Lynx. They both weave through the woods and are immaculately maintained. DR also has a great 9-hole par 3 course. They have a pro shop with discs to rent, and it will all cost you less than $10!

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