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Changes Abound At National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships

The PDGA's International Disc Golf Center plays host to this week's National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships. Photo: Dalton Slantis

When nearly 300 student-athletes representing 41 schools descend upon the South for this week’s National Collegiate Disc Golf Championships, they’ll be doing so at a new venue for the first time in the PDGA Major’s 13-year history.

Fortunately, that new venue is a proven stomping ground for disc golf, with three championship-level courses, a bustling staff, and several professional events on its resume.

The NCDGC hops across the Savannah River this week to the International Disc Golf Center, as the PDGA headquarters plays host to four rounds of team doubles competition and two rounds of singles play that will determine 2019’s top college disc golfers. Sporting a unique structure that puts eight players on a card at the same time, the tournament stands out from others in the sport not just for its playing format; the camaraderie and school spirit on display throughout the week make for memories both on and off the course.

“When you’re competing for your school, representing your university -- that really gets your blood pumping,” said Tournament Director John Baker, himself a former college disc golfer for hometown squad Augusta University. “There’s not many things that compete with that level of passion these students have.”

And they’ll put that passion on display at the same place that has hosted illustrious events like the Ed Headrick Disc Golf Hall of Fame Classic and the 2017 PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championship. The NCDGC is employing the IDGC’s W.R. Jackson, Jim Warner, and “Steady” Ed Headrick Memorial courses after an ownership change at the Hippodrome left the annual event searching for a new home. According to Baker, the switch has actually worked out for the better.

“Basically, we just no longer had access to the facility,” he said. “They weren’t interested in maintaining the disc golf courses. The players had demanded it for a few years, and we love the IDGC and we work closely with the PDGA on a regular basis, so it made a lot of sense to keep it close to home for 2019.”

Indeed, the change was welcomed by 2018 Individual Women’s Champion Alex Lambert. The Clemson sophomore played at the venue at October’s Southeastern Collegiate Open, and, despite coming away from the event with a shoulder injury she is still nursing, she saw the move as an upgrade for the Championship.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” Lambert said. “The IDGC is a lot more traditional and straightforward and time-honored...It also offers a venue that is professional, just like the Hall of Fame Classic. I feel like that just brings the credibility of Nationals up more.”

Mississippi State senior Steven Hillerman also applauded the move. While he did say he was disappointed that fewer courses -- the Hippodrome had six -- meant that the Bulldogs’ A and B squads couldn’t potentially be playing at different times and caddying for each other, the low number was offset by high-level design.

“I love it...The courses here are great,” Hillerman said. “I am a huge fan of W.R. Jackson, in particular. I think the quality of courses is definitely an improvement this year.”


Oregon State's Aspen Eagle takes in the festivities during practice day. Photo: Dalton Slantis

Fewer tracks, though, means fewer opportunities for singles play, which is another of this year’s significant tweaks. Past NCDGC tournaments have featured two rounds and a final 9 to determine the individual champion in the Championship, First Flight, and Women’s divisions. That drops to one round and a final 9, which means a greater emphasis on the team scoring.

That’s exactly how Baker likes it.

“Previously, if you’ve done well in the singles you’re gonna do well in the tournament because it’s counted so heavily,” Baker said. “With less scores being counted toward the team total in singles, it’ll actually -- I think it’ll bring the competition closer together and put a higher importance on the team play, for sure.”

According to Hillerman, that might benefit Mississippi State in their bid for a repeat. He is the only player returning from the 2018 team, and last year’s Bulldogs thrived during singles play en route to a 33-shot overall victory. Without experienced individual competitors, Hillerman said they would lean more on their cooperative team play.

“This year we have really good chemistry with doubles, so having the opportunity for the doubles to count the same as the singles is gonna help our case a little bit,” Hillerman said.

Lambert, meanwhile, was pleased with the changes to the Women’s team competition. It only takes two women from the same school to complete a squad now, as opposed to the required four in past years. Lambert still competed with a Clemson team in 2018 as part of a mixed unit, but this year she has found a female counterpart in Emily Huffer, and the duo comprises one of eight squads who have made the trek to the Championship.

That doubles the number of 2018 Women’s teams.

“I am so excited to play with [Huffer] because that’s something neither of us have ever done before [at the NCDGC] and I think we have a really good shot at winning if we just keep it together,” Lambert said. “...I think it is a good thing. I think it lets more teams bring girls. The women’s side of the sport is smaller, so having smaller teams allows us to play with different people.”

That continued growth is what the National Collegiate Disc Golf Championship is all about. So as carloads of coeds piled into the IDGC parking lot and a tailgate-style vibe started to unfold before the event, the youthful exuberance found with tried and true college traditions like Spring Break and March Madness started to take shape in Georgia.

“The unbridled energy and passion these kids bring to the table creates an atmosphere rivaled by none,” PDGA Director of Operations Mike Downes said. “School spirit is paramount this week, and the excitement of the competitors is palpable.

“The future is bright for many of these student-athletes,” he continued. “And so is the future of College Disc Golf.”

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