Tuesday Tips: Ten Steps for Ultimate Players Trying to Learn to Play Disc Golf

You can still play disc sports amidst social distancing rules.

Professional disc golfer Catrina Allen lines up a shot. Photo: Stu Mullenberg — TheFlightRecord.com

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

In this summer without ultimate, what’s an ultimate player to do? Why, try disc golf of course! 

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Many ultimate players are making the temporary switch or giving the sport a serious shot for the first time. However, you may be surprised to find it isn’t as easy as it might first appear. We’ve all played disc golf, but most of us have done it casually, maybe using an Ultrastar for every shot. This does not a disc golfer make.

Disc golf, for those wanting to make a serious go, has its own equipment, strategy, lingo, and style, and it often is very different than our expectations. Even worse, you might find that you aren’t as good as disc golf as you want to be! There is nothing more earth-shaking than realizing your sick break throws and monster pulls may not directly translate into this new sport.

For those people who want to give disc golf a serious try, but are struggling with the “how” in the transition, here are some good tips for you! And be sure to check out our six-part series From Ultimate to Disc Golf for even more tips.

1. Start simple: Play with a putter!

When you’ve played disc golf before, you probably did it without all the different discs and the cool-looking bag.  In fact, you may have just had one disc to mess around with or even an ultimate disc. And you probably did pretty well!

Disc golf discs are very different than ultimate discs. Though there are some discs that have a similar flight pattern to an Ultrastar1, most fly a lot differently. As a result, if you dive head first into buying ten different discs and heading out to play, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

The first few times you play disc golf, start simple and just play with one disc: a putter.

The putter is the disc that is the most easily controlled by the novice player. It will fly somewhat differently than an ultimate disc (you’ll immediately notice differences in size, weight, plastic, etc), but it won’t be too big of a transition. You’ll be able to throw your normal throws more or less, and importantly, the disc won’t take off on you or do something you really don’t expect.

A few specific tips: 

  • Each disc is different in its numbers (more on that later), but most putters will have a strong fade finish. In other words, if you throw a right-handed backhand, most will end their flight to the left; for a right-handed forehand, most will finish right.2
  • Don’t try to rip this thing the way you do ultimate discs (more on this later as well), because it isn’t going to fly like one.
  • Pay attention to the type of disc you have and throw around with it, watching what it does in the wind with your throws. Some of the best advice in disc golf? Throw your disc repeatedly in different ways and remember what it does.

2. Play it safe: the fairway is your friend!

Ultimate players usually have pretty good throws in a variety of situations. So, when encountering a moderately difficult course or hole, they feel confident trying to be aggressive.

This is not the right move.

Usually, trying to go “over that tree” or “break through that gap” or “curve it past that creek” is too aggressive for the first timer. Disc golf is played with strokes. Unlike if you throw a terrible pass in an ultimate game, you can’t get the stroke back with angry defense. In fact, the angrier you get, the more likely you are to add to those strokes, and they stay on your scorecard forever.

It’s a battle of risk-reward. Could you hammer over the tree? Maybe. But you have probably a ten percent chance of making it. The other nine times out of ten, you end up inside that tree or bush, which usually means three or four more strokes to escape and maneuver around. The layup throw has no shame. 

Stick to throws you know you can make. It’s OK not to throw your furthest every time! If you see a bend in the course, throw to where you are confident you can hit, nail the next throw, and keep the steady pace.

The drive, approach, putt strategy is good…but equally good for a beginner is the approach-approach-approach-putt strategy!

3. Begin to explore and begin to learn

Once you’ve played a few rounds and know your limits, as well as your strengths, you can begin to test out the cool stuff. Again, start small! 

A good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t let yourself buy any fancy discs until you can make close to par on a moderately difficult course. There’s nothing worse than spending a bunch of dough on that nice disc only to toss it in a water hazard a week later.

However, once you do start small, you can begin to learn. Try some different discs. If you can, borrow some from experienced players.

Begin to learn about what the numbers and flight rating systems mean. Begin to watch the awesome quality of professional disc golf. There are also tons of videos online with people giving very detailed tips about throws, courses, and more!

Just like in the game of ultimate, there is a lot more strategy than meets the eye. The difference here is that most of the strategy is solo. It isn’t related to what other people are doing, but what you choose to do. 

It’s all about choosing the right disc and the right throw/shot for the hole. It’ll take lots of practice and lots of learning to know that.

You might throw a disc and realize that it was completely wrong for the moment. The great thing about disc golf is that, to a certain extent, the do-over is just as strong as in ultimate! Except this time, instead of calling a foul, you can just cry “Mulligan” or simply try another shot again. You’re learning.

4. Practice your releases

Another big change from ultimate to disc golf is the release. This is true in angle, height, speed, and footwork.

To begin: in disc golf, you are allowed (as long as you are outside the putting circle of thirty feet), to run up and even carry past the lie of your disc once you have released your throw.

Footwork will be a challenge for a while. It’s different than trying to release before the endzone line on a pull or holding a pivot for breaking a mark: you’ll need to get used to following through in a new way. 

So, as a beginner, don’t be afraid to start throwing without moving your feet. You can plant just like ultimate to start. Brodie Smith, as many ultimate players have done, started simply by working on the mechanics of arm, wrist, and release. It’s not a bad idea! Once you do start moving your feet, start small. You don’t need a ten-step run up, when a three-step can do for you. You’ll get more and more comfortable as this goes on.

Likewise with speed. It’s OK not to throw as fast as you can. Put control as a priority over conquering. There’s a crucial axiom every new player should remember: “Slow is smooth and smooth is far.” Focus on a smooth, clean release and you’ll throw a lot further than if you try to sprint up to your drive. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the height and angle of release. Ultimate players tend to release with an nose-up angle on the disc. We are used to throwing low and around people (or underneath outstretched hands) and discs needing time to rise to reach certain spots. We also like to put sharp angles on our throws to put them around opponents. In disc golf, discs, especially drivers, can fly low and at nearly the same height for hundreds of feet. A nose-up release with a disc golf driver is going to result in a major shank.

Similarly, you need to throw the disc flat. A small tweak in angle for IO/OI (called hyzer/anhyzer in disc golf) can send a disc far in a direction you might not expect. This is challenging for ultimate players, especially on power shots, because Ultrastars have to be thrown with a hyzer release to flip up and fly straight. Don’t drop your shoulder!

Remember: there is no mark to break here, and even the slightest tilt can cause the disc to veer off to the right or left.

For putting, this is also surprisingly in effect. When ultimate players putt, they often try to curve discs into the basket. The very best strategy, however, is to keep the release flat and strong, sending the disc dead center into the chains.

5. Fix the forehand

Something that most ultimate players discover entering into the disc golf world is that the forehand is very different. Forehand is so commonly forced in ultimate that for many players it becomes almost a default or more-comfortable throw than the backhand. 

As you are learning to play disc golf, this will probably be the opposite case. Many players struggle with forehands in terms of the speed, snap, and angle they put on the disc to place it where they want to.

First off, don’t panic! You aren’t alone. You haven’t completely forgotten how to throw forehand. It is just very different, so don’t expect that you’ll be able to crush that forehand drive (at least not right away).

You’ll need some time to practice your releases to get used to various discs. 

Some tips: 

  • Just like in ultimate, sometimes overthinking it can be your downfall. Snap and throw, without hesitation in the middle of your throwing motion.
  • Generally, you need a little more zip/snap on a disc golf forehand than an ultimate one. Many ultimate players find forehands falling short or wobbly.
  • Many ultimate players short-arm the forehand. You need to really follow-through to be successful. 
  • Remember: disc golf discs often fade/finish strong. “Throw flat” is usually good advice. If you put a lot of hyzer (inside out) on a forehand disc, it will probably take a very sharp right turn at the end (for right-handed players).
  • Think “palm up” and “follow through.” You have to fight the well-ingrained urge to throw a forehand with hyzer (IO). Most new players will feel like they are throwing outside-in (anhyzer) when in fact they are just throwing flat.

6. Know your lingo

As already hinted at, the language of disc golf is different than that of ultimate, even if we are often talking about roughly the same thing. You’ll also find many of your beloved terms are gone. No hammers…instead you have overheads and tomahawks. 

Your three key basic disc golf terms are drive (your initial throw, somewhat similar to a huck or pull), your approach (your secondary shot, middle distance, to get into range of the basket), and your putt (your shot at the basket). You also have other classic golf terms like fairway, rough, etc. 

Out of bounds is an important term, but also one with different meaning. OB discs result in one-stroke penalties, so keep that in mind.

The pad and the pin are two to note. The pad is the tee box (or concrete/stone/gravel slab you start a hole from). The pin is the basket, which you might also hear referred to as bucket or chains.

There are lots of other important terms to grasp once you start mastering the basics of disc golf. Stable and under stable are two key ones in terms of disc features and the discs, and you should learn more about the flight ratings if you haven’t already.

There are also other terms to explore and get comfortable with as you move along.

7. Play to your strengths

Once you’ve explored the world of disc golf and given it a try, you should start to play to your strengths.

You are going to begin to realize that, just like ultimate, there are certain things you are better at than others. You might find you are more comfortable with certain throws. You might realize that your game is stronger in certain areas (such as putting over driving, etc).

Once you learn about yourself, begin to build your strategy around your strengths. It’s always good to explore, but if you want to compete in disc golf, you really have to know what you can and cannot do.

If you are confident in a certain disc with a backhand, there is no shame in throwing it consistently. In fact, it’ll make you a better player. Remember, confidence and control in disc golf is key. If you are fairly sure you can make a certain shot but less confident in another, go for the one that you feel best about and avoid the risk, even if it has a bigger reward.

Of course, it can always be fun to play by yourself and mess around, or try out new discs and throws. It is just recommended to try this on an easy course (preferably one where it isn’t hard to find lost discs) or to practice in an open field. If you play in the woods and are throwing your brand-new overstable driver, you’ll probably spend more time looking for your disc than having fun.

8. Play your type (and your difficulty level)

Level of difficulty and challenge are important to think about when disc golfing. As mentioned previously, the worst part about disc golf for beginners is searching for lost discs (or hitting trees…probably hitting trees). The second least favorite is feeling like you’re holding back a group of stronger players.

When you are starting, try to find other beginners to play with on courses that match your abilities.

It might look really cool to try that one with the giant canyon and creek, but you might also be rather frustrated by how hard you find it. There’s no shame in playing “the beginner” courses really well. Likewise, there is no shame in playing by yourself or with other new players.  Once you start to become more confident, you can absolutely transition to harder courses and playing against more veteran players.

Remember, however, when you do that, you should stick to your confidence level and plan. Don’t try to match throws with other players. Just because Simon Lizotte threw that amazing roller around the trees, doesn’t mean you have to. 

9. Be nice to the locals (and be aware)

Disc golfers are not ultimate players.

This is worth repeating. Disc golfers are not ultimate players.

Many ultimate players assume that the two communities are very similar, when they are in fact very different. Now, of course, there is crossover (and more all the time), and new people are entering the sport who are novices to both areas.

However, many disc golfers are different than your normal ultimate player. They may not know your lingo, just like you don’t know theirs. They may not have your standards of what casual camaraderie is. In ultimate, it’s common to talk to tournament strangers and interact in a goofy way with people you don’t know, but you’ll probably find less of that in disc golfers, who tend to be a bit more solitary. There are other differences as well. For example, you might find more disc golfers like to smoke cigarettes or drink on the course or wheel around bags full of discs. They may not share your athletic excitement or your views on the world. Just remember, you are the newcomer, so as always, be kind. 

You also need to be aware of yourself and where you are playing. You aren’t going to be alone out there. Watch where you throw, let people know if you are throwing near them (or better yet, wait until they are gone), and be aware of your own location in regards to other people throwing (and their pacing).

Another important tip is that most disc golf courses share park spaces with walkers, cyclists, runners, dog enthusiasts, etc. Your disc golf game does not take priority over their activity, so please be safe and courteous around them!

Disc golf protocol is fairly similar to golf protocol, but without much of the formality. When in doubt, you can ask someone a rule or question without problem! Generally, just be courteous. There’s no shame in letting someone else play through a hole while you wait if they are moving at a faster pace.  In fact, it’s the right thing to do!

10. Find a guide

The best tip to learning to play disc golf is to find a friend who has made this transition before.  If you can, find someone who has played more serious disc golf, ask for that person’s advice, watch them as much as you can, and go disc golfing often! Just like any sport, a veteran can teach you a lot, but you also need to be patient, willing to listen, and to do a lot of practicing (often on your own).

This may not be an overnight transition, but the more you get into it, the more you’ll realize how fun disc golf can be!

  1. very understable and very glidey 

  2. Reverse these directions if you’re a lefty. 

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.


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