Monday, June 21, 2010

Flipping in the Far East -- inside the world's best disc golf event

There is no better disc golf event on earth than the Japan Open, which was held this month. I had heard it was great, and my expectations were high going in. But my expectations were obliterated -- truly, nothing else compares.

But I don't want to just gush here. The Japan Open is one of disc golf's four major events of the year (every other year, really -- the fourth major is held in Europe in odd-numbered years), so the competition is world class. In addition to the Americans and Japanese at the Nasu Highlands (Tochigi, Japan), players this year came from Canada, Finland, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere to compete.

The cultural exchange this event offers is certainly one of its selling points. Interactions with people from all over the world are impossible to avoid, whether it's during a golf round, recovering in the hot-spring spa or hanging out late-night with the free flow of booze at Joe's Bar.

One of the most interesting things of the tournament was seeing how the personalities of different nationalities are expressed in players' golf games. The Asians are very compact, quiet and efficient in their driving, getting an incredible amounts of power out of surprisingly limited movement, and their putting games are precise and confident. The Europeans are powerful but modest, throwing a mile but never getting too worked up when a round goes awry. The Americans are also powerful, but noisy, both in the physical approach to the game (lots of movement, heavy steps, flailing limbs, involved putting routines) and the constant chatter and need to complain about errant shots (I include myself firmly within this characterization). Very educational from a cultural and anthropological standpoint.

The host country leaves its distinct mark on all aspects of the event, from the delicious cuisine to peculiar disc-weight requirements (nothing heavier than 159.9 grams). Each individual golf round kicked off with the rhythmic booms of a group of Taiko drummers (left), pounding the skins as if we were setting off to battle.

Indeed, the courses themselves were veritable battlefields. There were two of them -- the Raijin (god of thunder) course and the Fujin (god of wind) -- laid out on the grounds of a ball golf course (which, by the way, must be one of the world's most scenic... top-tier at the very least). The holes were long, open and often prone to extreme elevation changes -- basically a disc golfer's dream. But every bunker and cart path were out of bounds, turning dreams to nightmares. Rarely will you see a course that forces a mix of such distance and precision. Veterans of the sport like Gregg "The Miniac" Hosfeld who have played upwards of 1,000 courses rank the Nasu courses among their favorites.

Taiwanese player Chia-Shih Lo teeing off on Hole 12 on the Raijin course. The basket is 518ft away and straight downhill -- a helluva heave. Lo is a solid player and he and I went head to head for much of the tourney. I think I edged him by two strokes in the end, but they were hard-fought.

The tournament's payout this year totaled 4,000,000 yen, and the men's winner brought home 500,000 yen -- about $5,000. Hardly your average weekly doubles purse. And the final battle in the men's field was epic.

Defending champ Dave Feldberg, arguably the world's best golfer at the moment, was leading youthful upstart Nikko Locastro by two strokes going into the "Final 9", a decisive showdown between the top four players in both men's and women's divisions.

The personality differences between these two players was as much a part of the storyline as anything: Feldberg is known for his cool, almost robotic composure, not the flashiest player, but excellent at everything and extremely tough to shake. He's been playing at a top level for years and years, and knows how to maintain a lead. Nikko is in many way Feldberg's polar opposite -- he's flashy, hot-headed and prone to tantrums and breakdowns. He's only 21 and his personal growing pains have been on full display over the course of the professional disc golf tour. The buzz around camp was that Feldberg would cruise to a repeat title and Nikko would have at least one breakdown round, frustrated by the rampant 'OB' and unable to cope.

The "Final 9" players, from left to right (and finish): Nate Doss (3rd), Ken Climo (4th), Nikko Locastro (1st), Dave Feldberg (2nd), Valerie Jenkins (1st), Mayu Nonaka (2nd), Des Reading (3rd), Carrie Berlogar (4th).

But here they were, facing off in the Final 9 (Ken "The Champ" Climo and Nate Doss were in a battle for third). The first several holes went about as well as possible for Feldberg, as he steadily built his lead to five strokes with four holes to play. But Nikko kept his head in it and slowly started chipping away, a stroke at a time. Up three strokes with two to play, Feldberg smartly avoided the 'OB' on a hole and laid up for par while Nikko, with no other choice, blazed home a drive, parked for birdie. They approached the final tee with Feldberg clinging to the two-stroke lead he had going in to the round. It was a fairly simple and short hole: a very straight-forward par. Everyone in the 200-strong crowd knew what had to happen for Dave to win -- just an easy layup, steer clear of 'OB', take the par and first place. It was a play anyone watching could have made.
Nikko parked the shot for birdie, as he needed to (he didn't get the ace, which we all figured he needed to have a chance). Feldberg calmly took the box, clutched his trusty Eagle... and completely shanked the shot. It went high and way too short, and the crowd gasped as we watched it plunk into the center of the bunker. OB. Feldberg swears otherwise, but it looked suspiciously like he decided to go for the green instead of lay up, clearly the wrong choice. It's hard to know what exactly was going through his mind at that moment, but one thing is obvious: he choked on the biggest shot of the tournament. Everyone was utterly stunned.

Feldberg had a chance to atone with a 30ft putt, but he clanked it off the basket -- even a robot like Feldberg would be devastatingly rattled after such a colossal mistake moments earlier. So they went to a playoff. Nikko calmly parked his third straight drive, and Feldberg, again, plunked his drive into OB. An easy 12-footer for Nikko (above left), and the tournament was over. The kid was understandably ecstatic, pumping his fist (right) in the air and bear hugging the chains of the basket ("I love everybody!" he said in the post-round interview). Feldberg disappeared. The crowd was in complete shock. For the next hour all anyone could say was "Can you believe that?" or "Have you ever seen anything like that?" No. Can't. Never. (Watch it all unravel here. It's worth it.)

But it was a fitting end to a truly epic week, and both the winners fully deserved the podium.

Japan Open 2010 Champions: Valerie Jenkins and Nikko Locastro

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