Without a net: All professional disc golfers are underdogs, even Paul McBeth

Paul McBeth
Paul McBeth at the Pittsburgh Flying Disc Open, 2017 – Moraine State Park, hole 3, final round. Photo by James McDonald, editor at Full Metal Basket.

Paul McBeth is feeling small.

On September 16, 2017, shortly after dropping out of the Green Mountain Championship due to an injury and carding his first-ever DNF in a PDGA event, McBeth posted a message on Facebook:

“Being 5’8″ 160 lbs you’ll never be the favorite in sports. That’s why I like my story. #MyMindIsReady #USDGC”

McBeth’s friends and fans responded. A flood of well-wishes spread across disc golf land. And yet, no one really embraced his point. No one acknowledged the simple truth that McBeth is not “the favorite” … he’s an underdog.

Of course, to many disc golf observers, this simple truth is neither simple nor true.

Paul McBeth is a four-time PDGA World Champion and currently holds the highest PDGA rating in the world. The efficiency of his long-distance drive is mind-boggling. His putt, fine art. He is an alchemist from one hundred feet, proving, time and again, that lay-ups can be converted into gold.

Watching McBeth play disc golf is like watching a jungle panther leaping, nimble-footed, through tree limbs to catch its prey.

McBeth is many things, some would argue, but an underdog he is not.

I certainly agree that McBeth is talented, but to reject his status as an underdog is to ignore the broader context in which he and many others play. To overlook the economic uncertainty, the opportunity costs of choosing disc golf as a career, and the sheer courage it takes to go on tour is to miss the most inspiring aspect of professional disc golf.

As the highest paid athlete in the sport, the risks are lower for McBeth than for many others, but all great athletes are only one serious injury away from losing their livelihood.

Several studies have shown that pro athletes, after leaving their sport due to injury or retirement, often suffer financial, physical and psychological woes.[1] Having forgone a college education, many emerge from their sports without business knowledge or other skills that could help them bridge the gap to a new career. The psychological trauma of giving up your dream, your identity, your self has also been well documented.

And this is the “plight” of big-time athletes. These studies examine former pros from football, basketball, baseball—institutional sports with deep pockets, players unions, and a level of popularity that eclipses that of disc golf. These folks may face challenges, but they enter the real world with institutional support and a level of fame that can be converted into financial gain.

Former disc golfers do not share these opportunities. The probability of a pro disc golfer finding success after retirement by landing a lucrative book deal, appearing in a Hollywood movie, or becoming a spokesperson for Hanes is close to zero. Professional disc golfers are performing without a net. And many are merely scraping by—couch crashing, camping, sleeping in their vehicles, and praying that they “cash” at the next event.

As football season ramps up this fall, millions of Americans will be cheering for their gridiron heroes. I’ll reserve my applause for the dreamers, the free climbers, the scrapers, the sunset chasers, the underdogs of disc golf.

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End note

[1] See, for example, Kyle Carlson, Joshua Kim, Annamaria Lusardi, and Colin F Camerer (2015). “Bankruptcy Rates among NFL Players with Short-Lived Income Spikes.” The American Economic Review 105 (5): 381–84.

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