The Curious Case of Zen Disc Golf: A Review of Two Books by Patrick McCormick

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McCormick’s Zen and the Art of Disc Golf, published in 2014, and his Discs and Zen, released in November 2016, can be read from multiple perspectives. Drawn to their titles, some readers may be interested in McCormick’s interpretation of Buddhism and how this school of thought can be applied to everyday life. Others may sidestep the metaphysical and treat his writing as a guide to the mental game of disc golf.

But what I found most compelling about McCormick’s work was not the advice he offers, but rather the reason he gives for playing disc golf. His books contain, without question, the most curious and unique justification for playing the sport that I’ve read.

McCormick’s answer to the why disc golf question is bigger than winning, social recognition and material gain. His disc golf journey is about awakening and self-awareness. It’s about coming alive and achieving dreams. The angelic spirit of his writing is more akin to the novels of Jack Kerouac or Herman Hesse than sports journalism or disc golf instruction.

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McCormick, it seems to me, is a striver—a passionate, albeit ascetic, seeker of happiness. Like a Dharma Bum, his youthful curiosity, thirst for experience and irreverent musical tastes have collided with the strictures of a religious upbringing, mild introversion and the social pressures that so often block pathways to hedonism, freedom and fun. The result of this collision is Zen Disc Golf.

While many of us relish competition and the thrill of victory, McCormick’s approach to the sport is non-competitive, inward-looking and meditative. In Discs, he argues that a fixation on beating the competition is a recipe for unhappiness on the disc golf course.

“My standard for fun on the course,” he writes, “is being outside playing a game I love, possibly with the company of people I enjoy. And because this happens every round … I have a much higher chance of finding enjoyment” (4, p. 52).

McCormick, #73859, has not played in many PDGA-sanctioned events. In the PDGA’s player directory, he has no rating history or player statistics. It seems clear that his goal is not to card a better score than someone else, but rather to become a better version of himself through mediation and practice.

In McCormick’s disc golf domain, partners are optional. As he puts it, “Not many sports can be played alone, in the woods or the fields, where a man (or woman) can be alone with his or her thoughts” (1, p. 27). The disc golf course is McCormick’s solitary oasis, a place to relax, decompress and escape the distractions of “jobs, bills, families and money” (1, p. 22).

In Zen, McCormick’s writing shines brightest when he’s talking about the simplistic purpose of disc golf—get the disc in the basket—and the tension that arises between maintaining this focus and overthinking a shot.

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Zach Melton putting at the 2016 Seth Burton Memorial, Fairmont WV. Photo by Jesse Wright.

“The trick,” he writes, “is to allow your body to do what you trained it to do in practice and think only of your purpose – getting the disc in your hand into the basket on the horizon” (1, p. 28).

His point here is straightforward, but profound. Disc golfers from all walks of life arrive at the course, step on to the first tee pad and attempt to perform the very same task: put the disc in the basket. Doing so is an artificial goal with arbitrary obstacles set before us for no purpose other than the delight of overcoming them. Like all sports, disc golf involves a series of often exhilarating performances that are ultimately futile and carried out in the absence of utilitarian purpose.

In McCormick’s mind, and in mine, this universal truth of amateur sports is not a shortcoming. It is the futility of disc golf and the fact that we play it nonetheless that unites our community and makes the game so appealing, so intoxicatingly fun to play. In other words, part of the allure of disc golf lies in the fact that no one tells us, pays us, or pressures us to play. As Christopher Lasch put it, “Games quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement” (2).

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Scott Stokely, photo source: discgolfaddiction.com.

Playing disc golf is, for some, a kind of social protest—a grassy, often intoxicated, opposition to the conformity of traditional sports, a refusal to abide the norms that keep us working and clicking and watching and consuming. McCormick is no revolutionary, but his non-competitive, self-sufficient motive for playing disc golf is utterly unique, and his lessons cut across the win-at-all-cost fabric of American society.

Zen and Discs are not simply reflections on the spiritual path of disc golf, but represent a quiet, if insistent, call for paradigm shift, for a new way of seeing the world that goes beyond the chains.

McCormick’s two books cover several other reasons for playing the sport.

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Chris Dickerson putting at 2016 Seth Burton Memorial, Fairmont WV. Photo by Jesse Wright.

For instance, I liked his take on the disc golfer’s endless pursuit of the “perfect flight.” There is, no doubt, something magical about watching a well-thrown disc, even if the magic is experienced in different ways—as a work of art or poetry or spiritual uplift to some, as an amusing demonstration of physics to others, and to still others, as the momentary joy of mastering a sport that leaves so many of its adherents defeated, ruined and disgraced.

The “graceful and intriguing manner” of a disc in flight may even explain the sport’s early development, according Palmeri and Kennedy’s excellent book A Chain of Events (3, p. 128). In the early days of Frisbee sports, Ed Headrick, vice president of Wham-O toys, saw the graceful flight path of Frisbees as the key to his marketing strategy. Still, I doubt that even Headrick imagined that watching a disc fly would become a near-religious experience to some people, including McCormick, myself and many others.

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McCormick’s devotion to the aesthetic side of disc golf is also seen in his appreciation for nature and being outdoors among the poplars and spruce. When a disc golfer says, “I like playing in rain,” I rarely believe him, but McCormick’s claim seems sincere: “Playing alone in a light rain can be an amazing event,” he writes. “All is quiet on the course, and listening to the rain hit the leaves on the trees is one of the most relaxing sounds there is” (4, p. 92).

Beyond his motivation for playing, McCormick offers a few insights on how best to play the sport that are worth noting. For instance, I appreciated the brief chapter in Zen on developing successful training habits.

McCormick follows a motto that he learned in firefighting school: “Train how you fight, and fight how you train” (1, p. 57). In the world of firefighting, a small mistake in a stressful situation can have grave consequences. The same is true of disc golf. McCormick’s goal is not simply to practice in order to improve, but to form habits that intercede errors. Thoughtful practice rounds lead to stronger performances, says McCormick, just as sloppy practice breeds lackluster finishes.

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As someone who once carried his discs in a plastic grocery bag (mostly for the sake of carrying beer), I also relished McCormick’s critique of “big bag disc golfers” (4, p. 42). As we catch the disc golf bug, many of us evolve quickly from hands-only, ultralight golfers to overpacked, chiropractic nightmares. Unfortunately, I am no exception.

If I didn’t enjoy McCormick’s books, I wouldn’t be writing about them. Still, both books have low points. In Zen, his diatribe on littering seemed preachy, and some of his prescriptions for success (he literally offers a “secret formula for success”) read more like self-help shtick than revelation. At times, he charges into the realm of sports psychology without the proper implement—namely, a strong grasp of the voluminous research on the mental game of sports.

In some passages, I also found his emphasis on belief and faith unrealistic.

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On more than one occasion, he describes the potential benefits of the spiritual path as “exponential.” He writes, for instance, that without embracing the “spiritual part” of his formula, the chance of making an ace is left to sheer luck. But, if you have faith, randomness gives way to intention, and “your chances of making that ace go up exponentially. Faith and belief are the spiritual part of the success formula” (1, 46).

From a psychological perspective, overestimating your ability to control the disc is unwise. Decades of psychological research has demonstrated the importance of managing expectations in sports, not simply believing in one’s self or having confidence. A sound mental game requires a balance between our desire to make a shot and our ability to achieve it. To find this balance, most of us need more skepticism about our abilities, not more faith.

McCormick’s second book, Discs, lacks integration, and devotes less time to disc golf than his first one. Instead of more Zen and the art of disc golf, we get Zen and the art of everything else: parenting, kayaking, the Bible, grade-school report cards, the author’s triumphs on social media and the music industry, marital disputes and the list goes on.

Still, I’m happy with my purchase of both books. If McCormick’s writing falls short in some respects, it makes up for it in several others. For me, above all, McCormick offers an interesting, well-written answer to disc golf’s why question. His answer differs from mine, yet seems no less authentic and compelling. If a secular-minded social psychologist (like me) can find something valuable in his work, anyone can.

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References

(1) McCormick, Patrick D. (2014). Zen and the art of disc golf. ZDG Press.

(2) Lasch, Christopher (1977). The Corruption of Sports. New York Review of Books, April 28.

(3) Palmeri, Jim, and Phil Kennedy (2015). A chain of events: the origin & evolution of disc golf. Wethersfield, Connecticut: Wormhole Publishers.

(4) McCormick, Patrick D. (2016). Discs and Zen: More writings on disc golf and life. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Photo credits

Zen logo, allthingsdiscgolf.com; Melton and Dickerson putts, Jesse Wright; Scott Stokely, discgolfaddiction.com.

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