Standing on the first tee at the Winthrop Gold Course in South Carolina with the world's top player just feet away from him, Duncan Schulz was a little nervous.
It was understandable. He was playing in the signature event on the Professional Disc Golf Tour (PDGA), the United States Disc Golf Championship (USDGC). There were plenty of fans in attendance and thousands more watching online around the world. He had just watched Paul McBeth throw a beautiful shot within inches of the basket.
And perhaps most impressive of all for the 27-year-old from Kamloops, seven years ago Schulz didn't have a clue what any of those words meant.
"I never would've thought in a million years ... if you'd have told me while I was playing hockey that in a few years I'd be playing in the most prestigious disc golf tournament in the world, I would've said, 'What's disc golf?'" says Schulz.
He was shown the game by a few friends about six years ago. Still an avid hockey player at the time, they brought him out to give disc golf a try in what Schulz thought would be one of the last times.
"I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous game, and I was like, 'You're not going to get me away from ball golf,'" he says. "Then after a couple more times, I started to really enjoy it. It's the same feeling as ball golf, once you get the hang of it and you start to throw a couple good shots, it's pretty enjoyable."
Schulz was playing hockey for Thompson Rivers University at the time, and soon after would pursue tryouts with the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL and the Louisiana IceGators of the SPHL. But as injuries and recovery eroded his desire to keep pursuing hockey, he found himself playing disc golf more and more.
Soon, he was in a Wednesday night doubles league at Rose Hill, which was how he met Chris Wilson, the top dog around the Interior, as Schulz describes him. Wilson turned him on to the Doomsday Circuit, a series of disc golf tournaments held around the Interior, in places like Logan Lake, Clearwater, Penticton, Kelowna and here.
After cleaning up on the amateur circuit, he moved up to the Open level (which is professional, but awards only modest sums to winners). There, he and Wilson would battle for top spot, but Wilson also took him under his wing to show him the finer points of the game.
"I've always been pretty athletic so that part of the game was simple," he says. "Learning to throw the shots and those other things were easy, but he showed me how to win. In the amateur scene, I could get by just throwing farther than most of those guys. There wasn't a whole lot of pressure on me to make a key shot or key putt. It wasn't until my first year in Open with those guys that I learned that kind of stuff."
The Doomsday Tour was fun and helped Schulz improve his game, but it's a more casual style of tournament than the rigid rules of PDGA sanctioned events. However, he was soon taking part in larger tournaments, going to Canadian Nationals for the first time in 2015, where he finished 16th in the field of 35.
He entered this year with the goal of qualifying for the USDGC and managed to secure that feat in June when he finished sixth at the B.C. Open in Langley. But it wouldn't be cheap for him to travel to South Carolina this fall, he would need some help to get there.
In the United States, where the sport has a larger fan base, the top PDGA tour disc golfers can make a comfortable living doing it full-time. According to the PDGA website, McBeth, the current number-one-ranked golfer, made $57,245 in tournament winnings alone this year. Last year, he made over $69,000. That's before you include sponsorships and other marketing opportunities.
Around B.C., Schulz says those opportunities don't really exist yet. With a few high-level events taking place and not as much exposure, securing a sponsorship deal can be difficult. So in order to get to the USDGC, he got some help from some big supporters of the provincial disc golf scene. John Gould-Thorpe of Ace Runners Disc Golf sold a signature disc for Schulz, with all the money going toward his trip. He also got a boost from Dennis Greffard of Bigfoot Trading Co. in Clearwater.
Schulz didn't have to make the trip alone either, as a few other golfers he knew from around B.C. – Casey Hanemayer, Dave Ross and Chris Hartmann – managed to qualify for the championship later in the season.
But once he got on that tee in the opening round, it was just Schulz and his nerves.
"You go to tee off and you've got all these eyes watching and I can admit, I was pretty nervous. I was very happy the disc came out of my hand when I threw it," he says. "But then after that, it was pretty easy to deal with all that stuff."
Ultimately, Schulz finished the weekend 27 over par, good for 92nd out of the 130-man field. But there were some signs that he could definitely hang with these top players. He managed a 1-under-par 67 in his third round. And before the tournament, he took part in a long-distance contest where the top five throwers would move on to a showcase. Schulz threw his disc 582 feet, missing out on the top five by a single foot.
"I didn't have too many thoughts going into the tournament, I was just pretty stoked to be there," he says. "After playing there, there were some mental mistakes I made. I wish I would've played smarter and scored better, but I definitely saw signs that I could play with the top guys. I definitely have the distance to compete with those guys."
Coming off his best season yet, Schulz wants to play in more events in the U.S. next year, already eyeing the Las Vegas Challenge in February 2019. He's still unsure of what his PDGA goals are or how far he thinks he can go, but as the sport grows in popularity, it will open up more opportunities.
"It's exploding. I wouldn't be surprised if it starts to rival ball golf in the next 10 to 15 years, just because it's more cost-effective," he says. "There are not many courses that are pay-to-play and a bag of discs is a heck of a lot cheaper than a set of golf clubs."
After all, Schulz didn't think he'd like the sport and now it's taking him all over North America. Now, he's hoping more people will give disc golf a shot, so the community can grow even more.
"If you've never tried the sport, go give it a try. And give it an honest try because it will open your eyes. It's a lot of fun."