Nine To Watch In '19
On the lunar calendar, 2019 is the Year of the Pig. A cursory internet search for personality traits associated with people born during the time of the swine brings up words like “diligent,” “brave,” and “willpower,” all qualities that can be useful during tasks that are mentally and physically demanding.
Tasks like, say, touring the country as a professional disc golfer.
So with another dual tour season about to kick off and more tournaments than ever calling to avid competitors, it’s only natural that the Year of the Pig is when some young disc golfers have chosen to go big. No, they weren’t born this year, but their careers are in their infancy and they’re taking their first steps toward the biggest stage.
The up-and-comers, though, won’t be the only ones we’re keeping an eye on. There are seasoned veterans and 2018 breakout candidates looking to reclaim glory or further cement their standing in the sport, too. With that in mind, here’s a look at nine players to watch out for as the 2019 season gets underway.
At first blush, leading a Nine to Watch in ’19 article with the reigning Open Women’s World Champion might result in a “huh?” But when you remember that this time last year Paige Bjerkaas was focused on midterms instead of midranges, she’s an easy lock for this list. On the one hand, she’s a world champion and a force to be reckoned with. On the other, she’s an unproven commodity.
“All of this happened because of one week, one tournament, ya know?” Bjerkaas said as she drove from Florida back to her home base in Emporia, Kansas, for a brief rest before heading to Las Vegas for the PDGA National Tour opener next week. “…I probably wouldn’t have the van, the contract I got with Dynamic Discs probably wouldn’t have been as good. Absolutely, just feel like everything is woosh! It feels like I was sitting in class jealous of everyone last week. Now I’m living the dream.”
That dream, though, can just as easily overwhelm, so Bjerkaas is aiming to keep reasonable goals. She plans to bring the same control-based game plan that lifted her to her world championship with her to Las Vegas. She wants to win, obviously, but if she doesn’t, she has other aspirations, like aiming for a 960 player rating by the end of the season – something that doesn’t necessarily need to be accompanied by victories.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure I’m putting on myself,” Bjerkaas admitted. “The other night I was really thinking, yeah, I won Worlds and I didn’t even tour full-time that year, which is a good sign. But with people like Paige [Pierce] getting better, Jennifer Allen getting better [and playing at Vegas]…It was kinda freaking me out. I don’t know. I think that knowing that you’re never gonna play perfect, I guess, is a good motivator…That kinda helped me remember: Just keep playing your best.”
Can a 1039-rated player – fourth best in the Las Vegas Challenge field – technically be poised for a breakout?
Considering Calvin Heimburg was rated 1015 at this same time last season, and that he didn’t venture west of the Mississippi in 2018, and we’ll say yes.
The 23-year-old Floridian made a splash with the opening hot round at Pro Worlds before finishing in 16th place, then made it to the semifinals of the Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship. His biggest performances, though, have come in his home state of late:
Calvin Heimburg has averaged 1053.3 over 23 rounds in Florida since October 2018. That is frightening.
— Andrew Fish (@Fish58320) February 4, 2019
The epitome of speaking softly but carrying a big stick, Heimburg exudes a fairly stoic nature on the course – but he insists he’s more than approachable. After graduating from the University of Florida in 2017 with a degree in chemical engineering, he traveled around Europe for two months before diving deeper into disc golf. Now building on both his game – his putting and sidearm have improved most recently, he said – and his finish at the end of 2018, he’s hitting the road for a full season.
“I guess some of it was the success from the end of last year, and some of it is reluctance to go into the engineering world,” Heimburg admitted. “I think a lot of it is the success I had last year. I really enjoyed traveling around and playing, and I wasn’t operating at a loss.”
Heimburg will travel solo before hooking up with Zach Melton later in the year, and he said he’s not setting any concrete goals for the season. He just wants to gain more experience and see some sights; he specifically mentioned the Grand Canyon, and that he was most looking forward to tournaments in California and Oregon.
“I’m just trying to go out there and put together rounds I feel good with,” Heimburg said. “I feel like I’ve avoided the mental errors and stuff like that. I’m just trying to go out there and play my own game.”
That game is one predicated on power and “controlled distance,” Heimburg said. He didn’t put himself on par with Simon Lizotte or someone like state-mate Garrett Gurthie, but he said he’s comfortable placing the disc inside 500 feet.
As for that engineering degree, does that mean he’s the smartest player on the course?
“It means I can do math,” he demurred.
With three top 10 finishes on the national scene in 2018, including a ninth-place showing at the Las Vegas Challenge, Emerson Keith wasn’t exactly flying under the radar. But a well-filmed ace and subsequent victory at November’s Veterans Park Open – his first career W at an A-Tier – put the 20-year-old Texas pro on the map as a consistent contender.
That’s just a natural consequence of beating players like Eagle McMahon and Simon Lizotte, and it was the push he needed to commit to disc golf as a career.
“I just like competing against the best guys in the world. It brings another level out of me,” Keith said as he drove to the Victoria Open before heading west for the PDGA National Tour opener. “It makes me play harder and better, and maybe concentrate on that 25-footer more than I would at a local B-Tier or C-Tier.
A former minor league hockey player who gave up the game after sustaining too many head injuries, Keith has been a lifelong disc golfer. When his dad wanted to go disc golfing when Keith was a youngster, he had to bring his son along, and it was love at first throw.
“I was out there in diapers,” Keith said. “…I was always out there throwing and I had a lot of old school guys teaching me to play growing up, so I had tons of help.”
The end result has been a level of power that belies his stature. At just 5’5”, Keith said he gets a rise out of being able to challenge people’s perceptions when he gets on the tee and recalled one particular instance at the Glass Blown Open when a cardmate was surprised by his height.
“He says, ‘I thought you’d be bigger,’ were his first words to me,” Keith said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, thanks. I don’t know what to say, but this is me and this is what you get.’”
Just 17 years old and a junior in high school, Wisconsin native Hailey King is already making disc golf her priority. Case in point: She’s switched to online school so she can devote more time to touring.
Now, if it’ll just stop snowing so she can practice some more.
Until then, the long-throwing pro is hitting the books, but she took some time out from her studies to share what’s driven her to make the leap. Namely, disc golf wasn’t easy. And she loved that.
“It’s kinda weird, because disc golf is like the only game or sport that didn’t come that easy to me,” King said during a homework break at Starbucks. “It’s a challenge. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I’m really athletic. Disc golf was a little bit of a change, learning how to throw the disc…I just love the challenge and I love nature, so it’s awesome having a challenge and being in nature, as well.”
Although King says it’s been a challenge, her early results say otherwise. In 2018, for example, she won two B-Tier and logged two top 5s at A-Tiers. Oh, and she came in 10th place at both the PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championships and the United States Women’s Disc Golf Championship, where she played on the opening round feature card.
Drawing inspiration from players like Vanessa Van Dyken and Madison Walker – the latter of whom she said was like a “second mom” – King has also set lofty goals once her season starts at the Dynamic Discs Glass Blown Open.
“When I go out for these really big tour events where Paige, Sarah [Hokom], Cat [Allen], Madison are playing, my goal is to get top 5 at every event,” King said. “And I would like to get two wins at big events, at A-Tiers or NTs, this year.”
After a second consecutive playoff victory last March at the Waco Annual Charity Open, 2016 United States Disc Golf Champion Jeremy Koling struggled with consistency. Sure, there were highs, like a second place finish at The Open in Ale, Sweden. But more often than not, Koling’s performances were not up to his usual standard, as he mixed in a 51st place showing at the Beaver State Fling, 34th at the MVP Open at Maple Hill, and a 32nd place standing at the PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championships as his average placement post-Waco plummeted to 21.5.
That begs the question: What was going on with Koling in 2018?
“It was a combination of a lot of things -- certainly mental, I think partly physical,” Koling said. “There was a lot of things going on off the course which were distractions and kind of led to bigger distractions on the course and kind of compounding my own negative thought patterns just by putting too much pressure on myself to perform. With the early win in the season at Waco I felt like things would naturally come to me, and that’s not how things go in this sport.”
So instead, Koling has spent his offseason putting in the work to improve. He’s employed a personal trainer and has noticed an increase in his on-course endurance. Most notably, he’s pushed himself to play disc golf on days where he has already logged a workout, something he avoided in the past for fear of injuring himself. That’s given him the confidence that he can continue his training throughout the season and remain in better physical and, ideally, mental condition.
“You can’t really sit back and let you natural talent do the talking. You have to go out there and be more proactive,” Koling said. “I’ve put more stock in that this offseason than ever before…I think there is a lot to be said about somebody who really puts 100 percent of their effort into the profession of disc golf and not just going out there and doing practice rounds, but going out and working on their body and trying to maintain a professional athlete’s figure. I feel more like a professional now than I have in years past.”
Now 33 years old and facing a younger crop of competitors, that conditioning is more important than ever for the North Carolina product. And with a new, supportive relationship providing an emotional boost, Koling is bringing positivity into the season.
“I don’t know why I feel like my body was dying at the age of 32. I didn’t feel young anymore,” he said. “I felt old in 2018. I don’t feel old right now. I feel young.”
She has a higher player rating than touring mainstays like Madison Walker and Zoe Andyke. She’s only two points shy of the world champion.
And you’ve likely never heard of her.
Say hello to Nicole Johnson, a Washington pro who, at the age of 31, is following in the footsteps of players like Ellen Widboom and Nick Wood in 2018 and taking her first crack at life on the road.
A self-described Army brat who has played sports her whole life, Johnson took up disc golf six years ago when a co-worker took her to a nearby course and was “hooked instantly.” She’s since played nearly 50 events, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, and enjoyed a nearly 30-point ratings jump since October 2017.
Those fast improvements, plus some positive feedback from friends, helped her decide to take the leap.
“I’ve just been playing for awhile and people have been telling me for years now I should go on tour,” Johnson said. “It’s just hard because I have a steady job. For some reason, at the end of last season something clicked within me to do it. I went with a gut feeling to do it this year.
“And,” she added with a laugh, “I’m not getting any younger.”
Johnson enters the Las Vegas Challenge as the ninth-best rated player in the field, an unsponsored, backhand-dominant player who leans more on control than power. That quality will serve her well on Wildhorse’s OB-heavy layouts, but she isn’t going out with the intention of setting the world on fire.
If she does, though, she’ll take it.
“I am looking forward to just, first tournament of the year, just to be out there – I’m just happy to be out there,” Johnson said. “I hope everything falls into place and I perform well, but realistically I’m not gonna put too many expectations on it. Go out there, have fun, and hopefully kick a little bit of butt.”
At age 21 and in her junior year of college at the University of Memphis, Callie McMorran still wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do in her post-graduate life. She did know, though, that disc golf was calling her name.
So, armed with the confidence that’s come from a 41-point ratings jump since last May, McMorran has, in her words, “put college on pause” and pressed play on tour life.
Still, the Tennessee native isn’t taking the decision lightly.
“I’m risking everything to go follow my dreams, I guess,” McMorran said this week as she practiced for the LVC. “I’m just out there trying to prove myself.”
She’ll do that by jumping into the sport’s biggest events as she tours with Jonathan Ray until April, when she’ll change up her travel plans and take her own RV to hit the road with Hailey King. McMorran says she isn’t an overly aggressive player, but her comfort level on the putting green – she put her range at around 50 feet – saves her strokes and keeps her contending with top names. Case in point: Her second-place showing at the Maricopa Open in January found her ousting Jennifer Allen by seven strokes.
So, instead of being daunted by the prospect of potentially playing on cards with players who are vastly more experienced, she’s embracing it.
“I love it,” McMorran said. “I love the pressure.”
Anyone looking for clues to Noah Meintsma’s style needs search no further than hole 1 of the final round of the 2018 Santa Cruz Masters Cup. Faced with the largest stage of his young career – a date on the lead card at a National Tour event alongside Philo Brathwaite, Ricky Wysocki, and Josh Anthon – the 21-year-old Minnesota native calmly stepped up and launched a seasoned Leopard on a smooth turnover line that sidled up gently next to the pin.
That mix of precision, poise, and sneaky power was emblematic of Meinstma’s approach. And it’s one that has him characteristically excited for another journey away from his snowy home as he continues to round out his game.
“Mostly it’s just a consistency thing,” Meintsma said. “It’s about playing more events and more rounds. As I looked at my rating this time last year, I think I’ve hit the spot where I’m comfortable going out on tour and even if I’m not playing great rounds…I’m comfortable.”
And there’s no question he’ll be more comfortable, physically, this year in Las Vegas than he was last year.
In 2018, Meintsma came out for the National Tour opener and limped to a 46th place finish. He was on antibiotics at the time, and the desert sunshine caused him to have an allergic reaction that burned his skin and caused him to have trouble with his grip.
“I stopped taking it, thankfully, when I found out [what caused the problem],” Meintsma said. “I went to The Memorial the next week and got sixth.”
The 29-year-old has spent the last few seasons working 40 hours a week as a flooring sales specialist while still managing 30 events. But that job kept him from rarely travelling out of a four-hour radius from his home state. The first time he did, for the 2018 Pittsburgh Flying Disc Open A-Tier, he won. But it wasn't easy.
"In nine holes I gave up seven strokes to [Andrew] Fish for him to come back and tie me," Queen said. "In the playoff, I played the best two holes I could have thrown. I can hold strong after I've messed up a little bit."
That battle-tested mentality lifted him to an 11th-place USDGC showing and, combined with years of saving, told him he was ready for the road. A wire-to-wire victory over three-time world champion Barry Schultz at last month's King's Cup 14 made for an appropriate send-off for the 1002-rated Queen, and he's already been in Arizona practicing for The Memorial Championship. He's currently signed up for every National Tour and Disc Golf Pro Tour event as he aims for that magic quality every touring player needs: consistency.
"I'll just have one round out of four rounds that I'll drop off and not do as well," Queen admitted. "My goal this year is to stay consistent through the whole year."
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