September 12, 2023 4:06 PM

A Look Behind the Curtain: A TD story for the DGPT

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

Here are some facts for you that can never be disputed:

 - On September 8-10, 2023, our team in the Maritimes ran the first ever Disc Golf Pro Tour event in Canada.

-  The current PDGA World Champion and a 5x World Champion played a Flickline designed course.

-  A Flickline sponsored FPO player made 3 rounds of coverage and shot the FPO course record.

 - The event was live streamed around the world.

- The weather was near perfect.

- The event went off without any major problems.

Everything else I am about to tell you is from the perspective of the course designer and tournament director who put their heart and soul into an event. It is all subjective and open to interpretations, but as brutally honest as I can make it.

It is also 100% true to note that this week was not just a pro tour event, it was also seven days of disc golf for amatuer and masters players. It was a celebration of two languages, of people being together, and one that showed exactly what happens when resiliency triumphs over adversity and hardship.  People traveled here from all over the county. It means something to have an event where the locals can see what it takes to succeed on a bigger stage. It was not perfect, but it worked and for that I hope many people take a great deal of satisfaction.

As with all of our Flickline events, we tried our best to make the overall experience the goal. Treat people with dignity and respect. Make holes that are appropriate for each division. Have social events at places who support disc golf. Find ways to bring the community together. What you see on the scorecards is a very small part of what the event actually is.  It took 11 months of building, rebuilding, volunteering, thinking, trying, and sometimes failing just to get to a point where people could tee off on hole 1 and play this event. Almost everyone that our team talked to had a positive experience and overall that is all you can ask for. A friend once told me that when doing important things try to use the 60/60 rule.  If you can make 60% of the people happy, 60% of the time, you are on the right path.  I feel like this event might have been more like 80/80 but as I mentioned before, I am somewhat biased on the whole thing.

What I do know is that 11 months after our biggest ever recorded hurricane, all of the courses in PEI were rebuilt to a playable state and people traveled here to be a part of it.  I wish I could say more about the amateur and masters side of this event, but the truth is I barely left Rose Valley for the last ten days.  Truthfully I have barely left there for the last seven weeks. The tournament directors that had their own courses for this event absolutely crushed it. Each one ran a fair competition that dealt with their own minor problems. As a team, we did our best to correct each bump in the road. Everyone contributed in a meaningful way.  Overall we found that players brought things to our attention in a way to make sure we knew about it, not as a way to complain but to improve.  Most of the divisions were close and all of them were fun. As always, the people who take part in this event are some of the kindest, most generous people you will meet.  It’s the people that make the place. I am certain of this.

Not everyone fully understands what goes into this kind of thing and I decided the best way to try and help educate is to give an honest take from my perspective as the course designer and tournament director for Canada's first Pro Tour Event.

To start with, I am in a unique position; I designed the course, did the majority of the physical work associated with building the course assets, funded portions of the event out of pocket, and then TD’d it. To say I am sensitive about this going well is an understatement of epic proportions. There are owners to this course who do tons of upkeep and maintenance. They originally hired me for my design and building services and compensated me fairly. Over the last year or so, I have tried to fill in any shortcomings that our course might be faced with to get it to 'Pro Tour’ level.  Again it wasn’t perfect, but I certainly think we achieved that 60/60 rule or better.

The interesting thing is, after the hurricane, there was so much to do that I simply couldn’t focus my energy the way I wanted to.  In a perfect world, I would have spent the entire year planning, prepping and perfecting this course alone, either by hand or by hiring people who excel at their jobs. But this world is not perfect and I still had to take on other jobs to have enough money to live and eat. Also sometimes during the year there are times that I just want to hang out with my kids, dogs, or my wife so I have to force myself to take valuable time off from the course. Funds are always limited and although we were fortunate enough to get some grants for this year, running this event requires me to put close to $40, 000 on my back until it can be repaid.  None of this bothers me and I am not offering you any of this insight as a complaint or for sympathy, merely just letting you in on the behind the scenes of what the current state of disc golf looks like in at least one corner of the world.

The fact that this corner of the world is being illuminated at all can be traced back to one man in particular, Dana Vicich.  Dana from Discmania is the person that saw what we were doing and offered to take the next step in investing in us.  His belief that myself, our team, and our region could pull this off was the push that was needed to make a major company like Discmania invest in us. Their support helped us build 26 new tee pads and replace all the baskets to become an official DiscGolfPark course and address some of the core things our course lacked. It was our honour to try and represent them in a positive light by showing what one of their designers could do and how their products stack up against the rest of the disc golf world.  

A great place to hide on hole 3 while you spot discs

When we eventually partnered with the Pro Tour, we had no idea what that would mean. I thought that we would be able to pull back the curtain to see the high end side of the game and be offered insights and support, but the reality was something different. Each one of the people sent to help us was a wonderful human being who I am happy to now call my friend, but the Pro Tour is saddled by the same problems that the rest of the disc golf world is; we had a huge growth in players and expectations but not an equal growth in resources, be that financial or physical. Don’t get me wrong, they are trying, but it is a difficult and somewhat impossible situation to know what direction the game is going head in. Disc golf is in the best shape it has ever been in, but it might also be facing its most critical juncture ever. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Working with the Pro Tour this year meant we had higher expectations, more media, and more responsibility. There were also more voices at the table and since their staff, like me, run other events there were plenty of times where communications on both ends were a struggle. Everyone is still learning their jobs or at the very least, learning how to perfect their jobs. We are still trying to figure out how to work smarter, not harder and it isn’t as easy as it sometimes looks from the outside.

From my end, designing this course was a test of my mental and physical fortitude. This summer has been brutal for outdoor projects. We have had significant rain every week since late May and almost nothing went right for us in terms of timing. Instead of mulching in dry weather and leaving no tracks, we were forced to work around rain storms and hire different machines to clean up after ourselves. Instead of planting grass seed on all the fairways so it looked perfect on camera, we were trying to haul out hurricane trees in soggy ground to give players a scramble chance. Instead of perfect we got passible. I worked off and on here all year and for roughly the last seven weeks almost 40 hours a week, away from home, for no money to get this course back to a state of play. I missed my 14 year old daughter's provincial baseball finals to be here. All the volunteers and staff share at least some version of those statements. In the end, the event was beautiful, peaceful, and soul filling work that I cherished every day but it still costs me (and our team) a lot physically and mentally to get it done.

What I didn’t anticipate is how hard the pro players' criticisms would be on me.  Day one of practice was like a gut punch every time someone said something about how bad aspects of the course were. Their views were softened the more times they played it and the bruises to my ego were easier to accept.  Eventually some really great ideas came forward.  Things like:

Hole 3 MPO needs the left side fairway and by the basket cleaned if we want to keep that shot shape (which I really do).

Hole 4 needs a bigger secondary fairway to make the gap more enticing.

Hole 5 should switch the tee pads making it a par 4 for the FPO on the long tees and a par 3 from the short pad for the MPO (although after watching the coverage I believe I was closer to perfecting this hole than I thought)

Hole 10 should have the front right corner cleaned more and potentially a second line created for the second shot. Drainage issues there are already being addressed.

Hole 11 and 12 were only temporary and will be enhanced as we get closer to a perfect course.

Hole 14 needs a few trees gone on the left side for the second shot and should be a par 5.

Hole 16 needs a bigger landing zone on the left side and should be a par 5.

The entire course needs to have the rough cleaned up to allow for more scramble shots and to look better on camera.

Areas need to be enhanced for cameras behind the tee pads.

Areas need to be widened for spectating.

The playoff holes should be 1 - 2 - 17 -18.

We didn't get everything right but we nailed the quiet signs

These players forced me to look wider at the lines, taught me about fairness, and showed me that no matter what I do, someone might have a skill set that can break any hole. All of these things were great.  

What I also didn’t fully understand was how gut wrenching it would be to be on the course spotting and to see a good shot hit a loose branch or broken tree. It felt like it was my fault. It was hard to see a pro lose a disc on a hole knowing we tried for months to get more spotters. For most of Friday I was on the verge of tears, for no particular reason, or for some reason that I could not quite identify.  I took every bad break to heart as if my oversight might cause someone to have a bad outlook on this course or disc golf in Canada as a whole. I worried that I wasn’t representing Discmania well enough, or that I wasn’t providing the pros with the fairest course they could play. I felt like the weight of the disc golf world was on my shoulders, at least for three days.

Now there is something else about me you should know. I have an odd look on course design. I believe players who are at the top of our game are so used to being able to impose their will on any course that it is going to take them a little while to come around to what I am trying to do. For Pro Tour quality players, I see courses more like obstacle courses that have 16 or so ‘check points’. I am trying to draw out unique shot shapes, specific landing zones, different site lines, and at least some mental fortitude. I don’t think any one skill set should be rewarded, but rather a full array of shots need to be required to master the course. I want players to tee off with multiple discs during their round and be required to make adjustments based on the conditions. After this event, I realized that I slightly over estimated some skills and modestly overlooked some lines. I will improve my craft, but stand behind the idea that breaking par should be a solid day. I also feel that it is okay for 1 out of 9 holes on a course to be only birdie-able by the top 10%. If you go through Rose Valley, you will see that almost every hole, both for MPO and FPO, have very specific shots required to drive, upshot, and sometimes putt. Some of the feedback I received I don’t agree with philosophically as I think it is ok to feel uncomfortable on at least a few holes. I don’t want to do it every time, but sometimes. Was the shape on hole 3 MPO weird?  Big time, but I don’t think that has to mean it is a bad hole.  I will clean it up and work out the kinks.  Was hole 12 too tight?  Probably, but it was done to keep balance between the extreme power required on hole 16 and I wanted to have at least one shot that forced extreme precision and touch.  Adjustments will be made.

I did not think deeply enough about how the course would look on coverage. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it, it was more like I didn’t know how to address it. In fact, the whole coverage thing was a lot more difficult / beneficial for me than I anticipated. To some degree, it is similar to filming your backhand drive for analysis. I had to get over the initial shock and embarrassment of my course not looking perfect or the announcers commenting on things I had done. Once I swallowed my pride a bit it was easier to see this coverage as a gift that would allow me to analyze my intended lines with what the pros actually played. At this point, I don’t know if I can watch it twice, but I will watch every bit of coverage once and make a game plan for improvements. Same goes for post match podcasts, hot takes, and YouTube videos.  I can’t promise I will watch or listen to everything, but I will do my best to learn from the things that get brought up.

On that note, I would like to point out that we live in a wild world of information.  Earlier in the season the Pro Tour made a (temporary) decision to cancel the FPO side of our event. National news outlets ran stories on this here. I got hate mail for the first time in my life. When the decision was quickly reversed, no media ever covered that and I was left to do damage control as best I could for our entire team. It’s wild to me that people who are well respected journalists or podcasters can throw out any theory or statement without trying to source facts, backstories, or additional information before saying things in the public sphere.  It’s hard not be defensive when you feel the most accurate version of your story is not being told. It is even harder to know when to change the narrative or say nothing at all. I guess what I am trying to say is that words have consequences and we should all be a little more mindful in what we put out there.

The actual event had great drama.  The course played tough and players navigated it with great skill and shot selection. Ella Hansen crushed it in the FPO division and gave us Canadians even more reasons to love her. Eagle beat the current world champions in a six hole playoff. Discmania players for the sweep. What more could you ask for?

Behind the scenes there is always a lot going on and each person who has a job does what they can to make things work. It is amazing and not enough unnamed people get the credit they deserve. Sunday night after the tournament is by far the best point of the week for me. People who I care about deeply come together and we discuss ways to improve the overall experience for players, fans, camera operators, and spectators.  I might argue that all the years of my working life get me to a point where I can learn from those precious few hours on Sunday.  Many players and staff who work at these events are thoughtful and offer valuable insights that can help shape the game when you listen to them. Players typically agree that the closer we can get to having good shots rewarded and scramble opportunities provided when they miss, the better. I agree, and now we are looking at what it takes to do that. Most organizers that I talk to think the structure is close but not perfect. TD’s and LOC’s are bearing a lot of the burden right now and that’s ok but we should be aware that because the game hasn’t grown as fast as we would like in the advertising world the ability to fundraise adequate funds is still lacking.  It would be amazing to hire a full time staff to run these events, including someone who is only focused on fundraising.  That day is coming but it’s just not here yet, at least not in this corner of the world.

In the end, I felt exhausted but somehow replenished. Usually I need a week away from the game but this year I only took a few hours. Don’t get me wrong, I need a week or two away from Rose Valley but that is just to let my calf muscles heal. If we are lucky enough to come back on tour in any way, shape, or form, we will use what we have learned to improve our product and display it for more people. I personally think I can make the perfect course at Rose Valley. Couple that with our secondary courses like Kings Pine, Glenaladale, Huck It and if the stars ever realigned maybe even Hillcrest and we are onto something. Place those courses in the middle of Prince Edward Island and you have the recipe for the secret sauce. What you cook up with that is anyone's guess.  For now I am just thankful we have got this far.

A few side notes:

I know I have said this before, but it was so hard to not have more volunteers. We wanted to, we tried, we asked other sports teams, groups, etc. I know the world is squeezing people tighter than ever but this part was tough. Having said that, the volunteers that we did have all earned a special place in my heart. These people skipped work, took vacation days, and carried a burden with them that can't be overlooked. I always feel guilty when I see how hard they work and how much they care and I have decided that they only way I can do their services justice is to try my best to work harder.

There is a very deep irony in our FPO field only being 7 women since at the start of the year we made it a focal point for our company to do what we could to grow the women's side of the game. I hope that all 7 women had an amazing time here and we did our best to focus on quality or quantity. One of the Canadian FPO players made lead card coverage every round and another made her first ever ace and it was recorded on film.

On that note, when you get a phone call from a 5x World Champion asking if she can sign up late and then you talk to hall of fame inductee about course design, you know it is going to be a good time. JK and Jim Oats are honorary Canadians now if you ask me.

Handpies are officially the food of Canadian disc golfers. The fact that they are opening up a facility soon that is capable of sending them almost anywhere should be good news to all. I don't know what the final count for Ella and company was, but I am pretty sure each pro in her house had double digits for the week.

For the playoff holes, it is impossible to express how quickly the conditions changed. There was literally 0 wind which happens about 2 times a year here. It stopped being windy just as they got to hole 18 for the final hole of regular play. If you look at the data, those holes are birdied about 20% and 25% of the time. Two of the best players in the world just made it look easy. As I said before, adjustments will be made.

If someone (specifically Brodie Smith) wants to be in charge of what an acceptable trophy is going forward, I am here for it. Personally I thought the hockey jerseys with 'C' for the champions and vase that doubled up as both a mini 'cup' (think Stanley Cup) or could hold a rose for 'Rose Valley' was fitting. Not everyone on the internet agreed. My wife, who is the potter that created these trophies, and I did take a few minutes to read some of the funnier takes (Canadians and our deep attachments to air filters is the best) but after a few minutes it was just kind of sad. The truth is, there is only so much time and money that anyone like me can put forward.  We do our best and hope that the people who win these appreciate them.

If I could ever make it my job to perfect Kings Pine and Rose Valley then I would do it. I love these courses and I think they have what it takes to be world class.

Lastly I want to say thank you to each and every person that reached out to me. I hope Canada was proud.  I did my best and so did our team. Thank you to every single person who played a part in making this happen. To Disc Golf PEI, the Prince Edward Island Government, and all the additional sponsors, we could not have done it without you!

If you're local our next stop is the Iron Leaf. If you're global, keep an eye on Flickline Disc Golf as we might be designing something fun in your area someday soon.

As always shoot a little and have a lot of fun out there.

I hope to see you on the course!