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One week from tryouts to titles

From Walmart runs to six-packs at practices, Georgia's disc golf team took an unorthodox approach en route to capturing the first-ever College Disc Golf Championships

Photo courtesy of College Disc Golf Association

In 2007 and 2008, the University of Georgia won back-to-back national championships.

Did you know that?

It seems worth mentioning, right?

Now, it didn’t have title-starved fans pouring out of the stands at the New Orleans Superdome. There was no sugar falling from the sky to celebrate this title. It wasn’t even a scrappy basketball team playing three games in 30 hours to win a conference tournament no one thought they could.

Instead, it was greeted with little fanfare on campus, even from those who were actually on the title-winning team.

It was just four guys who hung out at Sandy Creek Park in Athens who decided to snag some Georgia shirts at a Walmart and head down to Augusta to play some disc golf.

“I can’t even stress to you how casual this whole thing was,” said Pete McPherson, an All-American on Georgia’s national champion disc golf teams of 2007 and 2008. “Laid back is the positive term for it I guess, but it was just not a big deal for anyone involved.”

Practice? Come on. Just insert your Allen Iverson joke here because there wasn’t really a practice. In fact, there wasn’t even a season. The only tournament the team ever participated in was the literal national championship, and the only reason the Bulldogs participated in that tournament is because Augusta native Pete May, one of the sport’s top promoters, called up Kenny.

Who’s Kenny? Well, that’s an interesting story too because McPherson joked he couldn’t even remember Kenny’s last name. (It’s LeClair, actually, and his initial interests fueled the start of Georgia’s disc golf team.)

Interesting? Sure.

Weird? Absolutely.

Tryouts and trips to Walmart

Today, McPherson is the founder and CEO of Do You Even Blog?, one of the top digital marketing practices in the industry. In 2007, he was navigating an academic journey in The Classic City that would feature five majors across a wide and seemingly unrelated number of disciplines. 

“I studied Italian, but I don’t speak a single word of Italian and failed almost every class that semester, so UGA kicked me out,” he said. “Well, I took a semester off and came back and selected sociology because I thought it was interesting.”

In the background of his academic interests was a growing passion for disc golf. The sport is just what it says it is — an absolutely insane, yet intoxicatingly fun marriage of the structure of golf with the flinging of what resembles a frisbee replacing the hitting of a little white ball.

McPherson, along with his buddy Spencer Smith, enjoyed the sport, primarily playing on the weekends with friends. It was an excuse to have a few beers, hang out and enjoy the outdoors.

That weekend hobby turned into a real — well, somewhat real — opportunity when they saw a call for tryouts for a new disc golf club team at Georgia.

“We went just for fun to try out, and we didn’t know what it was for,” McPherson said. “We were like, ‘OK, there’s some tournament, and they’re looking for UGA students only.’ 

“We were like ‘we’re down, so let’s do it.’”

Disc golf was not some new phenomenon at Georgia, or at any college campus for that matter. As far as cylindrical-based sports go, it may not have the same popularity as something like ultimate frisbee, but it was a game whose popularity would rise and fall throughout the years. 

The critical piece is having access to a quality course.

That’s because it’s one thing to toss a frisbee around on North Campus. It’s another thing to navigate the unique challenges that each hole offers on a dedicated disc golf course. In the Athens area, the most prominent course is at Sandy Creek Park.

McPherson and Smith joined six other aspiring Bulldogs for a marginally formal tryout. The participants paired off into groups and competed as doubles teams for a few hours before LeClair settled on his playing partners – McPherson, Smith and Nick Evans.

Photo courtesy of College Disc Golf

With a roster set, the team needed some apparel. Given that they weren’t an official sport – or even an officially recognized club by the university at that point – that meant they had to get a bit creative. So they headed over to the nearest Walmart, sifted through as much Bulldog apparel as they could find and settled on a red-and-white golf shirt with the easily recognizable “Power G” emblazoned on the left chest.

“(LeClair) organized one or two practices which were really just let’s meet at this time and date at Sandy Creek Park, and we’ll just play,” said McPherson with a laugh. “So that’s exactly what we did. We brought some beers, and we had a good time. That’s literally it.”

With some discounted Bulldog shirts in hand, the team departed one week — one week — after the tryouts as the pseudo-official representatives of the University of Georgia at the first-ever College Disc Golf National Championships in North Augusta, S.C.

Rain, wind and a horse venue

The tournament was organized by Pete May, and brought together seven schools that were primarily from Georgia, but included some as far away as Southern Cal. It operated as an invitational, with May — a premier sports and events promoter in the Augusta area — working to identify and invite teams to compete.

The tournament was held at the North Augusta Hippodrome’s disc golf course. Sitting atop a hillside in North Augusta and overlooking the Savannah River, the Hippodrome is best known among locals for being the home of the Augusta Cutting Futurity and the World Champion National Barrel Horse Race. 

It’s an equestrian facility, more accustomed to cowboy hats and spurs than college kids in khakis and hoodies.

Around it, however, are a collection of disc golf course layouts that have enjoyed a steady following of fans, as well as attracted various tournaments across the years. It features six courses, as well as a driving range.

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The event’s organizers rolled out the red carpet for the participants, coordinating accommodations and offering lists of things to do to give it the feel of a major tournament.

“I remember when we got there, and they greeted us with a player’s packet and a welcome pamphlet, so it felt very official,” said David Croomes, a member of the Alabama team. “(The event staff was) very helpful, and I remember everyone was very excited that it was happening. 

“There was this sense that we were starting something, which was really cool.”

Photo courtesy of Pete McPherson

Alabama dominated the opening rounds of the event. Just like in football, the Crimson Tide spent two rounds methodically marching through the course and building a 19-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final round. 

Georgia stayed within striking distance, joining Alabama in becoming the only two teams in the field to fire a sub-200 cumulative round. Still, McPherson noted it would take a significant effort to push past their SEC rivals that day.

“Alabama was starting to run away with it,” McPherson said. “It was looking like we weren’t going to be able to mount a comeback, and Georgia was going to take second, so on and so forth.”

What everyone got instead was a significant weather event. 

The first two rounds had been bathed in the customary spring weather that most associate with April in Augusta — warm temperatures, sunny skies and cool breezes. That changed in the hours leading up to the final round as a storm front began rolling in overnight on Saturday. 

Periods of heavy rain were in the forecast, as were wind gusts of up to 45 miles per hour.

The tournament organizers considered canceling the final round, but they settled on an unorthodox plan to preserve the competition. Rather than bring everything to a stop, why not modify the style of play?

“I’m not sure whose decision it was, but they decided to try out this new concept,” McPherson said. “It was literally, like, a 100 foot by 100 foot square with 18 holes or 9 holes, something people could play inside. It was fun to poke around with, but it wasn’t actual disc golf.”

This new format was slated to be a portion of the event, but the weather condensed the schedule and the organizers put it forward as the lone piece of competition on the final day.

Asked about it 13 years later, Croomes just laughed … and then sighed.

“For lack of a better term, I’m going to call it the putt-putt round because that is basically what it was,” he said. “It was a game with its own scoring system that Pete May had designed, and he thought it would be an exciting way to end the tournament.”

Even with this modified format which many hoped would mitigate the impact of the weather on the conditions of play, the wind gusts and bursts of rain sent scores soaring. Participants told the Augusta Chronicle that the conditions were “miserable” and “absurd.”

Photo courtesy of College Disc Golf

The leaders went off in reverse order, with Alabama slated to compete last. Georgia, meanwhile, observed how the weather impacted play. The conditions hadn’t improved by the time the Bulldogs took the square mini-course, but they had learned a thing or two. 

The players would crouch and try to skim their tosses across the ground, keeping their shots as low as possible. They didn’t try to overdo it either, aiming for simple tosses of just a few feet given the shortened nature of the course and the unpredictability of the wind.

When Alabama followed, the weather worsened and it was apparent the Crimson Tide’s good fortunes from the earlier days weren’t going to hold up under the relentless barrage of rain and wind.

A stray gust would send a simple 5-foot toss soaring 30 feet beyond its mark, making putting — the short tosses near the holes — challenging. And teeing off, which typically required a mixture of strength and strategy, was a non-starter. The wind was just as liable to carry a disc in an errant direction as it was to knock a toss down just a few feet from its launching point.

“Nine times out of 10, if there was any wobble on the disc, the wind would get up under the lip of the disc and throw it around,” said Croomes. “A lot of times we’d get these crazy rolling shots where the wind would pick it up, and the disc would just roll like a tire.”

In the end, thanks to a cumulative final round total of 202, the Bulldogs not only erased a 19-shot deficit, they bested Alabama by an astonishing 73 shots.

“We got up there and played it safe and casual and smooth,” said McPherson, who fired a 63 for the lowest score on that blustery day. “We’d shoot for four or five shots per hole. We played it safe and casual, and we ended up winning mostly due to that final round on the gimmick course in the howling wind.”

Enjoying notoriety for noone

The triumphant DiscDawgs, as The Red & Black referred to them, returned to Athens with a championship in hand and … absolutely nothing else remotely resembling fanfare. 

While the team earned that nice article in the student newspaper, there was no place to display the trophy and not even many congratulatory back slaps from classmates and friends.

“We just went back to having fun and playing disc golf on the weekends,” McPherson said.

While their notoriety was minimal, McPherson put in motion the steps to organize a Georgia disc golf club. While earning any sort of official recognition through the athletic association was far-fetched to say the least, the players’ passion spurred efforts to formalize the sport’s place at the school.

Earning club status didn’t mean much. While it provided some minimal structure, it offered no benefits, no funding and no real level of support. In the coming years, the team would have to reach into its own pockets to pay for travel, lodging and uniforms.

It’s a testament to the love of the sport that kept it moving along. 

Photo courtesy of College Disc Golf

“I would argue that (disc golf) really needs dedicated people,” McPherson said. “If it’s football or basketball, it’s easier because it is so institutional. They have dedicated people who love their sports, so don’t get me wrong, but you definitely need that dedication with these recreational sports where you have to pay your own way and buy your own jersey.”

The Bulldogs repeated as national champions in 2008 and, once again, that would be the only tournament the team would play in that season. A handful of practices were held to help bring the two new teammates — Luke Omeara and Adam Schneider — up to speed before the return to North Augusta. In that second edition, three times as many teams gathered at the Hippodrome to compete for the crown.

In recent years, college disc golf has put in place a more formalized structure to its tournaments, and May ceded control of the national championship tournament to Innova Disc Golf a few years ago. While Georgia has not won a title since those first two iterations of the tournament, collegiate disc golf has been dominated by Southern schools, and Georgia ones in particular. 

Augusta University has won three team titles, while four players from three Georgia schools — Nick Evans from Georgia in 2008; Jason Lynn from Augusta in 2011; Brett Wilson from Kennesaw State in 2013; and Dustin Perry from Augusta in 2016 — have earned low medalist honors on the men’s side.

McPherson, who now lives in Michigan, said he recently returned to playing the game. The area near his house has several courses to choose from, and it’s a nice way to enjoy some distanced fun during the ongoing pandemic.

And he looks back on his days starting Georgia’s disc golf program with a sense of satisfaction.

“At the time, disc golf just wasn’t that important, and maybe we didn’t think what we were doing was that big of a deal,” he said. “In that first tournament, there were only seven or eight teams there, and it didn’t seem like a national event. I guess it didn’t seem that important that Georgia took home the trophy, but you look back now and realize that it was pretty special.”

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.