For as long as I can remember, there has been a feeling in my part of the world that not much is ever built just for us. That somehow we are an afterthought in the design of things. We are hidden in plain sight, and never considered a place of equal greatness, even though we have all the things a person could ever need to live a happy life.
It's a bit funny for me to think that the COVID-19 pandemic might draw people back to the Maritimes, and force us all to realize that the things we have here are the things that should be cherished. Whatever the reason, something is happening here, and I'd love to share it with you all.
When I first proposed a large event for traveling disc golfers, I got a slew of questions that ranged from, "Where?", to my favourite, "I didn't even know you could go further east than Maine?". It been well documented that when I found disc golf, the first thing I thought of was bringing it back to the place I was born because I thought it was a perfect fit for Maritime culture. In the beginning, I wondered if people would play the sport, and if towns would see the value. Now, the only question I have for growing disc golf is, "Why not us?"
So far, I haven't found a single reason why we can't be among the best places in the world to play disc golf.
All of that leads us to this point in time and the National Championship Satellite Event for Atlantic Canada. Since we couldn't bring the people here to play together, we brought the game to the people. Canada now finally has a robust group of players and organizers all across the country, enough to warrant a major event in each province. The intent was to run them at the exact same time to give people the feeling of togetherness, but as with many things over the last 18 months, COVID-19 made that impossible. As it turned out, only Ontario and Atlantic Canada were in a position to be able to run these events in July, but the rest of the country is set for a September event. By all accounts, Ontario had a smashing success (see https://www.pdga.com/tour/event/50794 showcasing their semi-secret Peterborough course). Without being there personally, I can't tell the stories of Ontario, but I was lucky enough to be in PEI, so let me tell you a few stories from there.
Again, for a tiny bit of context, let's back up a few years. If I were to ask people about the first course they played, or how they found the game, most people would tell you about their local community park, or their friend who found some baskets and tried it out and got them into it. Most people would tell you they had a simple 9-hole course a few blocks away that allowed them to throw some disc, and get a few birdies early on in their career, and really get that feeling of success. Well, Islanders aren't most people. The vast majority of disc golfers on PEI started at Hillcrest Farm, the best course in Canada, and quite possibly the second best course in the world. It's completely bonkers to hear of their experience playing on an island where many players assumed every disc golf course looked like that. Despite the world-class facilities, the level of competition on the island had lagged behind the other Maritime provinces. Our interprovincial team championship, the "Chowder Cup", has had a bit of a running joke for the first few years, that it was an accomplishment for Islanders to just finish the event, let alone be competitive. While the rest of the world was on lockdown for the last few months, PEI was quietly crushing it. Tight border controls, regular testing, and an educated public who believes in science, meant that while the rest of us couldn't do anything other than organize dinner in a different room of our house, Islanders were playing regular events and playing a boat-load of disc golf. Couple that with the fact that several new courses popped up to address the need for long, open shots, and a community course you could play in the winter, meant there were more options than ever before to play and practice.
There is one other factor that I believe should be noted. From 2014-2017, more and more disc golfers were playing Hillcrest. It was evident to a lot of us that it was good, like really really good but none of us knew how it would stack up with touring professionals. I can't personally tell you how many conversations I had with people speculating on what a top-rated pro would shoot, or if the traveling player would like the course. So, when the first, and then the second, National Championship came to town, and reviews were all glowing, it was a shot in the arm to local players. Seeing Hillcrest on film, and watching the lines some of the players took, let us know what you could strive toward, and let us see what was possible. For those of you that know the course, it is still almost impossible for me to believe that Simon goes over the trees on holes 2 and 5. This outside validation was exactly what we needed, and it is directly responsible for what is happening right now: an entire crop of players from PEI who are taking disc golf seriously, and choosing it over all the other sports out there. The proof is in the pudding as they say: Islanders were first in three divisions at the Atlantic Championship this year, including MA2, MA1, and MPO, and had top three finishes in every division. In many cases, they were downright dominant.
The lead-up to this event was like nothing I have ever experienced. As of Wednesday, a mere two days before the first tee-off was scheduled, we had nothing in our hands for the players' packs, despite having ordered things months in advance. My personal drive across the bridge was one of the most tense two hours of my life. The long-term weather was calling for a potential hurricane, or at the very least, a tropical storm, which would make it the earliest one on record. I split my emotional time between, "You have to be freaking kidding me", to "People are just going to be happy to be here", over and over again. By Thursday, all of our items, other than the stickers, had shown up, and two full days of Island life had done plenty to placate me. I used the feedback from previous years and from the touring pros, and did my best to build on what all three course owners had done to make their courses look beautiful. We roped OB lines and put putting circles on every hole that we were allowed to do so. The thought was: if we couldn't have player parties and celebrations, we would make the courses look like a million dollars. In the end, I think we succeeded.
Day 1 had some bad weather, but nothing near a worst-case scenario. Lots of rain and a few bits of rolling thunder, coupled with some high wind gusts, made the courses extra challenging, but not insurmountable. Government restrictions meant we had to do 15-minute tee-times, which had the pleasant effect of making you feel like the whole course belonged to your group when you were out there. The cohort-size restrictions allowed for only one spotter at Hillcrest, but she was a gem! She weather the storm and hustled out there for every group. The lack of backups was a testament to how well she performed. I heard from more than one group just how thankful they were to have her.
Day 2 started out rainy, but eventually calmed down to a perfect windless day that allowed for the later groups to attack their courses. The Pros moved to Rose Valley and the Ams went from Huck-It to Hillcrest. By the end of two days of play, almost every division was four strokes or less between first and second. Every division was competitive, and the mood was downright jovial, especially since there were two aces to split that $555 pot!
Day 3 was magic: perfect weather, world-class courses, great people, and competitive disc golf. What more could you ask for? The Am side was decided at Huck-It, where Charlie and his family once again made everyone feel like they had privately been invited to play in heaven. The day started with our deepest Junior field yet, and finished with Antoni Richard going Eagle, Birdie, Par, Birdie, and Par to take home the title of best Junior in Atlantic Canada. I know I am not the only one that wishes I had found the game at such as young age, and my heart was full of pride to see all of these kids out there competing at such a high level. It's one more reason why the future is so bright.
Next up was MA2, where a first-time winner was crowned: PEI's own Cale Oliver. The only MA2 player to come in under par, Cale earned the title of Atlantic Champ by parring his way out of the final five holes, and holding off a charging Oscar Kempe.
In FA2, we had the second most dominant division win, with Nathalie Deveau winning by 11 strokes, making her 3 for 3 in her young career. She would set the pace for her household, and put the pressure on her husband, Matthew Sullivan, who would go on to win the MA40 division. He was the only player under par in his division, and capped off his round with a beautiful eagle on hole 18.
In FA1, there was another friendly, but heated, battle for all 4 spots. Breagh Wallebeck took 3rd with a birdie on 18 to capture the trophy by one shot, while Tanis Trainor took home 1st place with a two-stroke victory over Lysiane Soucy. It was wonderful to see a great group of women competing together, but Tanis's story is one that is worth highlighting for at least a moment. Tanis is another one of those folks who eventually found her way to this wonderful game, and when she did, she went all in. With a disc golf career that spans less than two years, this is her fourth victory in six events. She was the FA2 winner last year, and rightly made the jump up to FA1. She has also been a huge supporter and organizer of women's disc golf in the Halifax area, and in the weeks ahead, she has an amazing 57 women signed up for the delayed Women's Global Event.
In keeping with the success stories from folks from the Halifax area, we come to the MA50 division. Mr. Scott Guthrie capped off a perfect week of going 3 for 3, winning two flex starts and the A-tier in MA50. Scott is another true gem, with a heart of gold and a deep love of disc golf. We are certain the future of this division will be one worth watching, as several of these gentleman competing are all capable of great things.
The only other "Bluenoser" to win was Sparrow Barr, who ran away with the FP55 division.
Back to the Islanders. We had another first-time winner in Devon Simmons. A PDGA member for less than a year, taking home a huge A-tier win in a stacked division is something to be proud of. The early leader in the FlickLine tour is now one event closer to having six baskets in his position. Devon was a wire-to-wire winner, shooting 79 points above his rating for a blistering 981-rated final round. We look forward to seeing Devon out there all season. MA1 is poised to be a fun one to watch this year.
In MP40, Nick Martin played three solid rounds to cruise to an eight-stroke victory, and claim his first A-tier win. As one of the leaders of the Dieppe club, Nick put his stamp on the event as the player to beat in MP40. It was made extra special for him, as he has been one of the primary mentors of Antoni Richard, also from Dieppe, so to see both student and teacher win made for a nice drive home.
The final division was full of stories and surprises. At the start of the final day, almost the entire division was still in the hunt for the cash, and with Hillcrest Blue tees being the challenge at hand, virtually anything was possible. Sunday did not disappoint! There were wild swings in terms of scores, with some of the open players feeling great and others feeling, well, suboptimal. There are two distinct stories I would like to highlight that both point the future of our region being in good hands. The first is Nathan McCarthy. Nathan is a supremely talented athlete who is a standout baseball player, and could succeed at virtually any sport he chose. Not only that, but he is a genuinely kind and positive human. He is among the group of players who picked up disc golf during the pandemic, and excelled at the sport. On Friday in the rain, he had what can only be described as a disastrous round, possibly the worst of his young career, shooting 17 over par, and over 60 points below his rating. I know some players who would have packed it in right there, or at least given up mentally for the remainder of the event, but Nathan possesses that uncanny ability to remain positive and believe in himself no matter what the circumstances. On Sunday, he shot 24 strokes better, for a 1018-rated round, and improved to a 4th place finish from the bottom card, making it one of the highest rated rounds from a Maritimer ever. It's certainly not my place to take ownership over anyone's kids out there, but I spoke with his father on Sunday night by phone, and I am not sure which one of us was more proud of him. Even as I write this, I get a bit emotional thinking of what it took for him to stick with it, and keep believing in himself to make that comeback.
However, the biggest story came out of nowhere, with a name you'll be hearing a lot more in the near future. That name is James Mallard. At the start of the week, a few Islanders told me he was the odds-on favourite to win, and they were not wrong. All of the same things that I said about Nathan can be applied to James. He is, by all accounts, a stand out athlete and a wonderful human being. During his rugby years, James was head and shoulders above the competition, and this fact hasn't changed during the two short years with which he's played disc golf. Over the last 400 days, James has logged over 600 rounds, mostly at Hillcrest, many of them done while jogging between shots, from what we have been told. James shot an even par 66 during the rain-soaked first round on Friday, and played nothing but solid golf for the rest of the way, sailing to a five-shot victory for his first open win. The question is no longer will we have a 1000-rated player in the Maritimes, but when. With so much wonderful talent in our area, and the world-class courses on which to play, we are already looking forward to the 2022 National Championship, when we once again invite the world to our shores to take in the best of what we have to offer.
A very special thanks goes out the McCardle family and everyone who contributed at Huck-It, to the ownership group at Rose Valley for making their course look its finest, to the Best family for having the vision to create Hillcrest, and to each and every person who contributed, played, and helped make this year's event the smoothest and most pleasurable event we could have asked for.
Book your tickets for 2022: it's going to be one heck of a show!