I first saw Sarah Hokom play in 2008 at a tournament in Emporia, Kansas. I had just started playing tournaments and Sarah was one of the first “really good” female players I had ever seen. She was a regular at tournaments all over the Midwest and though I didn’t know her personally, I knew OF her. Her wicked sidearm was a common topic of conversation on many of the cards I played on. Mostly because she could throw farther side arm than most of us could throw backhand.
Sarah left the Midwest for Charlotte, North Carolina. She picked up a sponsorship from Discraft and she began to tour as a pro in 2009. In July 2011, she won her first National Tour event at the King of the Lake in Lake Tahoe, CA. “Most of the touring Pros were over in Europe at the time and I got the win. I don’t want to diminish the accomplishment, there were a lot of great players there, but it wasn’t a full field,” Sarah remarks.
Sarah’s next two National Tour wins would come later that year in Pittsburgh and at Maple Hill. Both of those tournament wins were over a full field of top-flight competitors and now there was no doubt that Sarah Hokom had arrived.
“In those first few years I would compete against the same women over and over again in the Midwest. So when I finally started touring around I got to see more players. It felt good to push myself. There are a lot more women who play on the coasts and in the South so it was good to tour around and meet them,” Sarah says looking back. “At first – when I began playing tournaments I never thought I was going to be able to compete at the same level as Val (Jenkins), and Sarah (Cunningham) and Elaine (King), and Des (Reading) and Angela (Tschiggfrie). So when I finally started winning and playing better, I started to believe I could win the World Title. That’s why I moved to Charlotte, I wanted to get familiar with those courses so I could win Worlds.”
Sarah would win the World Title in Charlotte in 2012, narrowly beating three-time World Champion Val Jenkins and then up-and-coming, Catrina Allen. “I played everyday when I lived in Charlotte on the same five or six courses and when it finally came time for Worlds, we didn’t play any of the ones I knew. I just played really well that week.”
Sarah had trouble winning the World title because of something she had never experienced at a disc golf tournament. “It was a really close final nine and I barely won. The crowd made me nervous in the final nine. I’m not used to crowds and had played in front of one that big before. I consciously didn’t look at the scoreboard because I didn’t want to know where everyone was. I just wanted to focus on my game. And, the final nine was sort of peculiar because we hadn’t played those holes during the tournament and one of the holes was totally not side arm friendly. I told a friend during a warm up round that I had to have a big lead by this hole (the island hole #4 of the final nine) or I am going to lose it right here. And it happened. I missed two drives and barely made the putt, it hit the tree and went in. That was lucky. Then on Hole #6, I got over anxious and threw long into the water behind the basket but I hit a big come back putt to stay in it. So by the time I got to the final hole, I looked up at the scoreboard to see what I had to do. I would have laid up but I knew I needed that putt. So I was like, go for it. Do your best. Play your game. And it worked out.”
And where does she keep her World Champion Trophy? “It’s at my parent’s house in Idaho.”
Sarah was now the best player in the World and for the year that followed she said she felt she had a target on her back. “People would treat me differently even during a casual round. ‘Oh, let’s see if I can beat the World Champion.’ It’s a mixed blessing. You want the title and it’s nice for people to recognize you but it’s not always that fun to have people judging you. It could be a casual round and you just want to throw around and people watch you and think, ‘well, she’s not THAT good.’ So, it’s good and bad.”
Sarah had moved to California prior to the Charlotte World Championships. There she met her present boyfriend, Don Smith and they started touring together. She also left her long time sponsor Discraft to join Team Prodigy. “It was a strange time for me. I was the IT girl at Discraft because I had just won the World Title. For so long they made it clear to me that in order for them to give me their full support and pay my way I needed to win a World title. So I did it. Suddenly I was the one on top, but then I saw my friends leaving to go do this new thing and I had this choice to make. Do I stay and get ALL the new benefits of my new title? Or do I leave and risk it everything? It finally came down to me looking into the future and seeing that, yeah. Things are good now. But what happens when I’m not the World Champion anymore? Would I still get the support I need? I didn’t think so. That’s why I made the choice to go. And it was the best decision. Things are better for me with Prodigy. I love my team, my friends and the company. I believe in what we’re doing here.”
Sarah has had a rough transition with the new Prodigy line but she says there are lots of options on the horizon for her that should get her back to where she was when she won the World title. “There are a few discs in our line that are coming out that I need for my game and I miss it in my game right now. But they’re coming, and I hope to fix those few shots and get back to where I know I can be. It has been a learning experience for me, working on new throws but it’s all been a positive. I may never be able to throw a backhand anny flex shot or a thumber, but I’m used to making adjustments for my style of golf, and I feel confident with Prodigy in my bag.”
This off-season Sarah embraced a very strict workout regime and diet. “I started getting hurt; I would twist my ankle like three or four times a year. I even tweaked my knee. And it was all because I wasn’t building my muscles evenly. Oh, and I hurt my shoulder, too. I still hear a tick when I throw sometimes. I realized that I couldn’t keep drinking beer and eating like crap on the road if I wanted to remain competitive. When I played sports in college they had us on a very regimented workout schedule and I went back to that. I started lifting and stretching again (Yoga) and my knees and ankles feel great now. I really need to watch how I treat my body while I’m touring to maintain my energy and my health. It’s helping. I rarely need my knee brace when I play now.”
Long before she was a World Champion, Sarah was just a normal girl from Caldwell, Idaho. She is the youngest of three children and the only girl. Having two older brothers she says made her tough and she pushed herself to be better at sports to play with them. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a construction worker. Bother were very supportive of all her activities growing up. They encouraged her to play sports and she excelled academically. “My parents will still come out and continue support me at events near their home in Idaho. They’re retired now so it’s a little easier for them to come see me. I go back and see them once or twice a year.”
A chance encounter at a high school volleyball tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada led to a full-ride scholarship offer from George Washington University. “I was ready for the change from small town Idaho to Washington DC. It was perfect for me. I loved DC. Playing volleyball in college, however, was at a whole other level. My talent was raw in the beginning, but through hard work and great coaching I finished my career with NCAA All American honors and got a double major in Biology and Biological Anthropology”
After graduation, Sarah married her college sweetheart and they moved to St. Louis where she got a job as a high school science teacher and completed her Masters in Education. It’s while she was living in St. Louis that Sarah first picked up a disc. “I started playing with Greg Khuen – the self-proclaimed St. Louis Disc Golf Ambassador, Jerry Barklage, and all these guys called, “The Ridgerunners.” They helped me develop my game. FYI: My first disc was a 150 Champion Valkryie. It didn’t last long. You need something more stable if you’re going to sidearm. Having played softball for so long the sidearm just came naturally to me. I found it harder to throw backhand.”
Sarah says her earliest frustrations in disc golf were not with her own talents but the unsolicited advice from men who didn’t know her. “It used to piss me off when guys would see me playing and then come up and try and show me what I was doing wrong or how I could do something right. I hated that. Just let me play!”
When Sarah starts touring again in May she will most likely skip over the Midwest tournaments and keep to a strict schedule of A tiers and NTs. “It’s hard to play at tournaments where there aren’t that many women playing and right now there just isn’t much of a female presence in the Midwest. It costs a lot of money to tour and if you go to an event and you’re the only woman, or there is just you and maybe one other girl, then the money isn’t going to be there to make it worth your while. Right now, there is a big scene on the West coast, Texas, and Arizona. A lot of new women are playing in Oregon, Washington, and even Montana has a strong Pro women’s division. And I hear there are a lot of women up in Michigan – Oh, and Virginia has a new women’s league – so it will be nice to see some of those ladies come out. I hope.”
Her tour plans do not include going to Japan for the Japan Open, instead she will be heading to Europe to play at a few events. “I didn’t make it on the Japan Open list and to be honest, I don’t like to throw light weight plastic so it wouldn’t be a strong showing for me. I know the other guys will do great. Me and Don are going to head to Europe.”
Sarah is a busy lady and I was finally able to catch up with her for an interview.
All Things Disc Golf: This past off-season, a new rule about uniforms was passed by the PDGA rules committee; how do you feel about the new rule?
Sarah Hokom: Well, I have mixed feelings. I think it was great there was a change but it seemed so narrow and should have included more than just tennis dresses. I mean, for years women have been begging for skirts and tank tops – which is essentially the same thing – but they didn’t pass that. So, it’s like it’s good for one person but I think they really should have gone further with it.
All Things Disc Golf: Is there anything else you would like to see the PDGA change?
Sarah Hokom: I think the rules committee should address the dress code change for women again. It should be worded appropriately and allow for “tailored tank tops, made from a performance material with at least a one inch strap” as well as the tennis dress provision that was made last year. As much as I like and appreciate Holly Finley’s influence on the rule change last year, the rules committee made a rule that was far too specific to her chosen attire and should include other clothing that covers the same areas and are equally as professionally looking.
Other changes should include the wording for putting outside the circle, as the wording requires one to watch both the release of the disc and the player’s foot at the same time, which is impossible, thereby making the rule almost unenforceable unless the situation is really obvious. It should be changed to a more enforceable definition.
I also think the rule requiring 48 hours notice to withdraw from a tournament is excessive. There have been several situations this year where a person has injured themselves or had a family emergency the day before the tournament and the TD has refused to give the entry fee back even though there is a player to fill the spot and the purse wouldn’t change. This is an extra burden on the player, who already spent a lot of money on travel costs and now can’t even try to earn their money back in the tournament. To make matters worse TD is gaining extra cash for the purse because they still add another player, without reimbursing the injured/emergency player. There should at least be provisions for injuries and emergencies that require the TD to give the entry fee back provided there is a player to fill the spot.
I think the two-meter rule should be eliminated completely, due to the variance in how discs fall out of trees. Rules should be fair and should be equally experienced by all players. When a disc gets thrown into a tree, it gets stuck sometimes and not other times. So, if a player is “lucky” after they accidently throw into a tree, they will not have a penalty, while if they are unlucky, they get stuck and get the penalty. Obviously, neither player threw a good shot, but one is penalized and the other is not. This is not a good rule when “luck” determines your penalty or not.
All Things Disc Golf: I wanted to ask you a few things about being a female athlete. With the recent cover photo on GOLF DIGEST magazine with Paulina Gretzy – and then Val Jenkin’s comments posted on Facebook ; What is your take about how women are portrayed in sports and specifically; Disc Golf?
Sarah Hokom: I think its unfortunate that Gretzky is the first woman on the cover since 2008 and she isn’t even a real pro golfer. There are plenty of beautiful lady golfers to choose from that would be a more appropriate cover, but I guess they aren’t trying to sell the magazine to women. I get that sex sells, and in a male-dominated sport, why not market to the majority? Why should we care that the women don’t actually play the sport? Because we are trying to grow the sport–including the women who actually play. Models are photo-shopped in every picture that is published so what is the difference in picking some attractive female disc golfers and photo-shopping them instead. I can see why disc golf media would not want to put a picture of a bunch of frumpy-looking disc golf ladies on a cover–we want the sport to look attractive, like the cool kids play. But, the disc golf community has plenty of attractive, cool women to choose from, so I hope we can work with that.
All Things Disc Golf: Do you think Disc Golf will eventually become two separate tours; a male and a female tour?
Sarah Hokom: The tour will not split for a long time, if ever. Before the men and women split apart there needs to be a major split between the professional and amateur sides. There are major conflicts of interest between the PDGA membership base and the touring pro players so the pro tour needs to become independent of the PDGA and form their own events and gain their own sponsors. Once the pro tour is established with a quality governing body, excellent media coverage and an extensive fan base, then I could see the male and female tours splitting. Oh yeah…and we need at least 10x more women to play.
All Things Disc Golf: Juliana Korver once said that disc golf could attract more females if they had more bathrooms on the courses. She was just joking around, but what do you think Disc Golf could do to attract more female players?
Sarah Hokom: I’ve been trying to figure this one out for awhile and I still don’t have any solid answers. But, it’s a combination of a several things that seem to be the deciding factors for women to play. Here’s what I have noticed:
- Better amenities make a difference, such as bathrooms on the course and maybe childcare options.
- Starting Women’s Only leagues where players don’t play for score or play doubles seems to be a great way to get new women to come out.
- Recruitment nights for women’s leagues, where ladies invite non-disc golfing friends are vital to keep the leagues numbers up and make sure all the women are having fun with the type of ladies they like to hang out with. Already low numbers are discouraging to some because they have conflicting personalities with the few women who play in the area. If there were more women overall, then a few bad apples/difficult personalities would be the minority.
- It’s important for the women in the sport to be supportive of one another and learn how to be competitive in a socially appropriate way. As a gender, we are less comfortable and experienced with direct competition with other females, simply due to how little girls tend to play noncompetitive games as children (while little boys are more likely to play competitive games).
- Women need a little more encouragement from trusted confidants. Women are more susceptible to self-esteem issues and performance anxiety, so that in combination with the fact that disc golf is an individual sport can make it overwhelming for some women to compete. I’ve noticed that when women receive feedback on their good play from someone outside their normal playing group, their confidence surges.
- Women get over-coached, constantly. As a woman, its seems like every guy on the entire course wants to help you throw better, and will offer advice on your form after seeing you throw just one time. This can be overwhelming and frustrating. So, Its also important for women to find a good playing partner who can help them improve. This person might be your significant other, but more than likely a good friend with good skills will be a better choice. I’ve found learning that learning from someone you are dating, or married to, can be counterproductive.
All Things Disc Golf: The most commonly asked question of all touring Pros is “What are your favorite courses and what are your least favorite courses?” So I am going to ask just to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.
Sarah Hokom: My favorite courses are usually private and wooded with a lot of shot variety, like Maple Hill, The Grange, or Flip City. Private courses tend to have great signage (both tee signs and next tee arrows), are well-manicured, have a great vibe and usually have unique tee/fairway features (wind chimes, flower beds, tree faces, hanging baskets, etc.). I’ll pay greens fees all day to play courses like that. My least favorite courses are open and windy, where I throw the same disc and same shot on almost every hole. I won’t name any specific ones, but there are a whole bunch of these kinds of courses out there.”
All Things Disc Golf: Is there a tournament that just seems to have your number no matter how well you play there? Paul Ulibarri said USDGC was his greatest challenge. Feldberg said wind bothers him the most. As a World Champion and great sidearm player; what are the biggest obstacles for you?
Sarah Hokom: Any courses that have mostly open, big holes with wind are the tournaments I struggle with. These would include courses at The Memorial, many of the Texas courses, Blue Valley in Kansas City, courses at the Glass Blown Open, among others. In addition, some older courses seem to favor right-backhand hyzer shots, so I avoid courses like that for competition.
All Things Disc Golf: Do you ever see a time when you might leave the sport to start a family?
Sarah Hokom: I’d like to start a family without leaving the sport. My lifestyle and budget don’t really allow for a family at the moment, but I’m working toward making the possibility a reality. Someday…
All Things Disc Golf: And finally; what do you do off the course?
Sarah Hokom: I like to read. And I enjoy wine. I go to wineries. I’m a big fan of Pinot Noir. I like the reds. But I’m lucky my main hobby is my career. It’s nice.
All Things Disc Golf: What are you reading right now? And what book do you recommend to other disc golfing bibliophiles?
Sarah Hokom: I’m reading “Fearless Golf” right now. I like to read golf books, historical fiction and science/philosophy non-fiction. My favorite book is “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson.
All Things Disc Golf: And your favorite Pinot?
Sarah Hokom: Mirissou makes a decent and affordable one. I also like Shiraz, Tempranillo, Syrahs – Mostly wines that are fruit-forward with a little complexity and a soft finish.