Gap Analysis: The science and art of navigating trees in disc golf

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Many playing companions over the years have heard me mutter “I see holes” out loud at some point in my pre-shot routine during a round of disc golf. It’s a ‘go-to’ phrase of mine, and has been for probably 15 years. Some ask why I say those particular words when getting ready for certain shots, and they get the answer(s) you’re about to read below.

The funny thing about this particular mantra is that I use it for two distinctly different reasons- yet the two reasons often blend together. And the place where the two meet – the axis of risk/reward assessment (a scientific approach) and more nebulous subjects like positive thinking and confidence (closer to an art than a science) – is really the essence of the mental side of golf. As always, this is best explained through the use of specific examples, which we’ll get into, but first a brief explanation of the two reasons for “I see holes!”

The history of this mantra for me was the light bulb-over-the-head realization that even on shots where the trees and other obstacles seem so numerous that throwing a disc cleanly through and past them is impossible, it’s rarely as bleak as that. In fact, when you consider the overall area covering a particular flight path you’re hoping to take, the gaps between the trees usually represent a much larger portion of the total space than the obstructions.

After this fact became apparent to me, I would chant “I see holes” as a way to remind myself to think about and visualize a clean flight rather than dreading the relatively few disc whacking trees it had to pass. In this context it’s really just positive thinking and positive imagery, and the mantra is a way to keep my thoughts focused on the good things that I plan to happen rather than the bad things that might occur. And it really works! That’s how it started out when the phrase first popped into my head. But it was only a matter of time before my analytical side dissected the magical effectiveness of ‘I see holes’.

Ironically, as explained above my little mantra started out as a vague positive-thinking mind trick. And I’m convinced it works. But sometimes I find myself with so many trees between my lie and the basket (or whatever fairway spot I’m aiming for) that even a positive thinker along the magnitude of Stuart Smalley would have a hard time ‘seeing holes’. I’m talking about situations where I know that realistically the chances of getting through clean on the ideal line are less than 50 percent. At times like that I’m forced to choose between (to use a technical term) the least suck-y option.

When it’s time to select from different options on the golf course, the scientific side of me kicks in. Thoughts of percentages and risk/reward kick in. You would think that would preclude the nebulous realm of ‘I see holes’, but the mantra actually has a place here as well. This time, though, the more applicable adjectives are ‘practical,’ ‘sensible’, and the more golf-specific ‘high-percentage’. Depending on the situation, there are a couple different applications for this approach.

Searching Far and Wide

When your direct path to the target is blocked, look for gaps to the left and right that offer the best alternatives. Sometimes, as in Example 1 (click on the image to get a better view), you can hit the gap with a shot that will curve toward the target after it passes through. Other times the layout won’t allow for anything but a straight shot. Either way, though, it’s better to get most of the way there than aim for a tiny slot and hit something right in front of you.

Gap Selection

EXAMPLE 1: Sometimes the best gap to aim for does not present a direct route to the target. But in tight spots the thing to look for is the best chance to get past the obstacle. In this case the player needed to throw a shot that curved left after clearing that gap. (Photo: Jack Trageser)

The ‘General Area’ Gap

This approach usually applies to instances where the obstacles in question are not right in front of you but further away, and evenly distributed, so that there is no single gap that is the clear choice.

In situations where I see what appears to be a wall of trees blocking my route that is far enough away that aiming for one particular small gap isn’t feasible I try to identify the least-dense section of that wall. Kind of like an attacking army would look for the weak spot that is most vulnerable. To be clear, I’m not talking about finding a single gap between two trees. In the situation I’m describing, the objective is to identify, aim for and hit a general area that offers the least resistance to a disc that wants to pass through relatively unmolested.

In a sense, I’m trying to find the one realistically hittable zone where there are more open spaces than trees (‘I see holes!’). A key point is that in situations like these I have shifted my goal away from selecting the shot that can get me all the way to the target – because there is either no realistic option for doing so or the chances that I’ll succeed are extremely low –  to selecting the shot that has the best chance to advance the disc as far as possible.

Example 2 (again, click on the image to get the necessary larger view) shows two gaps- one on the left of the photo, and one on the right. The gap on the right is the more direct route to the basket (hidden behind the trees on the right), and it is also a ‘true’ gap in the sense that a perfectly accurate throw will definitely get through. However, I chose to aim for the general area circled on the left for the following reasons: 1- even though a couple skinny tree trunks cut through the area, the overall area is much larger than the single gap on the right, and my odds of getting through are better; 2- the gap on the left provides a better worst-case scenario as there are no early trees to hit on the way to the gap (notice the early trees on the right side on the route to the gap on the right); and 3- as a left-hander throwing a backhand shot, if I get through the gap on the left with the throw I want, it will skip-hyzer right, in the direction of the basket. The right gap would require me to throw a shot that stays perfectly straight for 200-plus feet- a difficult feat to say the least.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, hopefully filling a few ‘gaps’ (couldn’t resist) in your strategic and mental game. Here is a quick list of the important take-aways:

  • Most of the time, even when it seems like there are lots of obstacles in the way, it’s mostly open space (holes, you see). Focusing on the space rather than the other stuff will enable you to hit those gaps more often. In other words . . . visualize success!
  • When you find yourself hemmed into a particularly tight spot, take a wide view of all your possibly escape routes. If all the more direct paths to your target require hitting tiny openings with an unlikely perfect throw, settle for a higher-percentage throw that at least allows you to make some progress.
  • When your obstacles are further away and no single gap stands out as the obvious route to take, look for a general zone that is the most open. Then target that large zone and revert to the first bullet point: think positive!

You Make the Call

In the last photo – Example 3 – there are three routes circled. If you open the full image you can see that the basket is shown in the middle of the center gap. The question I have for you, the reader, is ‘Which gap would you choose (the right rough on hole 10 at DeLaveaga, by the way), and why’? Please use the Comments at the end of this post to provide your answer. I’ll wait a few days for the answers to come in, then I’ll post a comment with the route that I took, and why.

Gap Selection

EXAMPLE 2- In this photo the basket is to the right, behind the wall of trees. The gap on the right- despite the fact that several small tree trunks criss-cross the opening – is still the best option for the left-handed thrower. (Photo: Jack Trageser)

Gap Selection

EXAMPLE 3- On this one you get to make the call. Would you go for: A-the gap on the left; B- the gap in the middle (note, the basket is in the middle of this gap); or C- the gap on the right? And most importantly, why? Vote in the comments section below. (Photo: Jack Trageser)

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9 Comments

  1. Derek Beaudoin on

    This article reminds me of a short tip that I read once from Valerie Jenkins… Choose the path of least resistance.
    I would probably go for gap A to the left using my champ gator on a RHFH line. The middle path looks tempting though with a putter low and straight.

  2. I would go for the left gap. Being left handed I would feel more comfortable with a natural curve after hitting the closer gap than trying to hold a line straight or anhyzer for a farther gap.

  3. Gap A. Anny turnover with a putter. Gap C is a luck shot and Gap B is just a smaller hole then Gap A

  4. Cesar Zermeno on

    Having been in that same spot multiple times, I usually go for A gap with a RHBH anhyzer. The middle gap is low and it can be difficult to get enough air underneath it to leave yourself with a putt. And the gap on the right flirta with going OB off a bad tree kick. A gap is actually where the fairway is

  5. I’d either go lhbh through the gap on the left, or throw a thumber on through the gap on the left. Third option would be rhbh through the middle w/ my Wolf. It’d really depend though after seeing it in person.

  6. Rick Pendleton on

    I would go for C with a right hand, back hand, and slight hyzer.
    Reason… there are fewer early obstructions than A or B, a bigger hole than B, and I feel I could get in tight enough for a nice putt.

  7. Are you saying that if you have a problem too large to feasibly solve in one step, that a good strategy would be to break the problem down into ‘bite-size’ pieces that you CAN handle in one step? Moreover, if several options appear while solving the problem, you should evaluate the options and choose the best one for you based on your personal goals for the situation? Later, might one also evaluate the results of your actions to complete the feedback loop?

  8. Jim Mayes on

    Hey, great article. Funny thing is that I see a fourth gap to the right of C. I would throw a hyzer at the Y shaped tree and let it fade right and skip towards the basket. My goal is the area right of the basket with maybe a 20-25 footer for the up and down.

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