Disc Golf Worlds 2021: Drama At The Championships

Disc Golf Worlds in 2021 was a championship for the history books.

When the coronavirus pandemic brought the pro tour to a halt and canceled the 2020 World Championships, the sport experienced massive growth. Seemingly overnight courses across the country were jam-packed and manufacturers struggled to keep up with unprecedented demand. Interest in competitive play soared as the number of active PDGA memberships more than doubled from 2019 to 2021. 

With all this new attention, anticipation was sky-high for 2021 Worlds in Ogden, Utah. 279 players battled it out over five rounds, and when the dust settled we were left with the two most dramatic finishes in the history of the sport. Every Worlds is important, but 2021 will go down as one of the greatest events of all time. 

The Controversy at Mulligan’s

Before the dramatic finale, 2021 Worlds was shaping up to be remembered as the year of minor controversies. With more eyeballs on the sport than ever before, players used their swelling social media followings to apply pressure on the PDGA to raise event standards. Disc golf media was abuzz each day with a new topic to argue about. 

Most of the chatter involved the Mulligan’s Creekside course. This ball/disc golf hybrid has long been host to the Utah Open, a popular A Tier event that made an appearance on the Pro Tour in 2018. The controversies there highlighted some of the growing pains the sport experienced during the pandemic boom, as the influx of money and attention has rapidly raised expectations for event standards.

The Driving Range Incident

When players voiced their displeasure at what they thought was an inadequate warm-up area, Brodie Smith took matters into his own hands. He paid $1000 out of pocket to reserve the golf driving range for disc golfers, setting off a flurry of activity on social media. The PDGA took the brunt of the criticism for not securing it themselves.

Event staff attempted to reimburse Smith, who then refused payment. So instead, they added an additional $1000 to the overall purse. Say what you will about Brodie, but he certainly knows how to leverage his Twitter following to raise his profile. Despite finishing 40th in the event, his purchase of the driving range kept his name in the spotlight. 

Like Smith himself, this kind of public social media criticism is new to the pro tour scene and represents a paradigm shift in the relationship between players, the PDGA, and event staff. 

OB lines Drama

After the first round at Mulligan’s, there were complaints that the edges of the hazard bunkers were not clearly marked, making it difficult to make borderline OB calls. The night before round 4, tournament staff added painted lines to clarify the edge of the OB ponds and hazard sand traps. 

Players were frustrated by this last-minute change, arguing that altering the course mid-event was unacceptable. Shots that were safely in bounds in round 2 were now considered OB in round 4. Top pro Eagle McMahon went so far as to post a video about this controversial decision:

Pierce Misses Triple Mandatory

Course designers built a triple mandatory on hole 10 by hanging a ribbon between two poles, creating a “tunnel” that forced a right-turning flight. In round 4, Paige Pierce’s backhand anhyzer tee shot went above the ribbon and missed the mando, but nobody called a penalty. After missing her birdie putt, Pierce tapped out and carded a 3 that likely should have been a 4:

Disc golf does not (yet) have referees, nor is there any video replay. The burden falls on Pierce’s cardmates to confirm the missed mando and assess the stroke penalty. This did not happen, and the tournament leader saved a crucial stroke. 

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Yes, her card mates should keep a closer eye on things, and sure, perhaps Pierce could have simply called the penalty on herself. But at the end of the day, like the muddled OB lines, the makeshift triple mando and its thin sagging ribbon did not create a clear enough tunnel, and when doubt exists, the benefit goes to the player. Let's just hope it doesn't happen again at the European Open Championship.

Pierce vs. Allen

The rivalry that has dominated the FPO division for the past decade took center stage again.

Going into the final nine, Allen clung to a slim lead. But after hitting a long birdie putt on 11 and throwing a perfect drive on 15, Pierce took a one-stroke advantage. As they stepped up to the final teepad, the score after 89 holes was Pierce -11 and Allen -10. 

After a pair of solid tee shots on the treacherous par 4, Allen faced a 369-foot right-turning approach into a narrow green surrounded by OB. To have a chance at the win, she had to get into putting range. She uncorked a towering backhand flex that turned the corner before banking back late and landing about 30 feet from the pin. 

Pierce was now faced with a decision: attempt a similarly difficult 325-foot approach, or lay up to the corner, play for par, and force Allen to make the putt to tie. She stayed conservative, pitched forward 100 feet, and left herself with an unobstructed 230-foot path to the green. In a shocking turn of events, Pierce’s shot left her hand early and skipped OB well short. 

Pierce would eventually card a double bogey, allowing Allen to lay up her 30-foot putt and win her second world title with a pressure-free tap-in for par. Allen’s incredible approach under extreme pressure deserves to be high on the list of the greatest shots in the history of disc golf. 

A Crowded MPO Final Nine

The MPO finals showed off the depth at the top of the field, as six players went into the final nine holes within 2 shots of the lead. The crowded leaderboard reflected just how competitive the pro tour has gotten in recent years. 

With only nine holes remaining, six-time champion Paul McBeth led the way at -33. “McBeast” has a well-earned reputation for thriving under pressure and stepping up in the biggest moments, and he backed it up again by going six under on the next eight holes.

Though they had their share of dramatic highlights, close competitors Nate Sexton, Chris Dickerson, Kevin Jones and Calvin Heimburg couldn’t keep pace. Only James Conrad, the long-haired backhand specialist with an extra long run-up, matched McBeth birdie for birdie. Going into the final hole, the scoreboard read McBeth -39 and Conrad -38. 

The James Conrad “Holy Shot

McBeth was first to act on the final hole, uncorking a nearly perfect tee shot into a clear birdie position. Conrad followed with a solid rip that squared up a tree well short of the ideal landing zone. Seemingly doomed to par at best, he was forced to pitch ahead for positioning. McBeth, assuming he only needed a 4 to win, played the odds and layed up as well. 

This left Conrad lining up a gentle anhyzer approach from 252 feet for birdie. To have a chance at the win, it absolutely had to go in. Long regarded as one of the best putter throwers in the world, he picked up his MVP Envy, visualized the line to the basket, and took a few practice swings. After a deep breath and a two-step walk-up, Conrad made the throw heard round the world:

Factoring in the degree of difficulty, the urgency of the moment, and the enormity of the stage, Conrad’s throw-in is inarguably the greatest single shot in disc golf history. For sheer improbability, you could make a persuasive case that it is among the greatest feats in any sport. 

The “Holy Shot” is not simply a play on Conrad’s Christ-like appearance, it was in a sense a disc golf miracle, where a confluence of factors – the growth of the sport, the increased media attention, the long wait between World championships – came together to create a transcendent and unforgettable moment. 

Conrad Seals the Deal His Way

The epic throw-in on 18 deservedly gets the most attention, but that was only to tie McBeth. On the first hole of the sudden death playoff, the competitors went back to the teepad of 16, a hole that Conrad aced in round 2

Despite just making the shot of a lifetime, Conrad calmed his nerves, harnessed his energy and sent a putter on a high, stalling backhand hyzer line over a guardian tree and landing softly within 15 feet of the pin.McBeth’s forehand hyzer came in a bit too hot, skidding across the green and rolling into the pond:

Though the result was poor, McBeth’s strategy was sound. Most players in the field opted for a forehand on hole 16. It is a straightforward sidearm with nothing in the way. Conrad is famously one of the few players on tour who almost entirely relies on his backhand discs

By opting for the backhand hyzer with a putter, Conrad was winning the tournament his way, using his particular set of skills. In doing so he showcased another thing that makes disc golf so great: the infinite variety of play styles and strategies. 

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