—By Jim Palmeri—
Currently, there are a relatively large variety of chain pole hole targets approved for use by the PDGA. Let’s start this Mike Sullivan story with a quick review of the origin and genesis of the chain pole hole type of disc golf target.
Wham-O Frisbee Pluto Platter The general Frisbee culture of flinging flying discs for fun, recreation and competitive sports as we know it today began to evolve in 1958 when the Wham-O Mfg. Co. trademarked their Pluto Platter flying disc with the term “Frisbee” as the name for the line of flying discs.
Jake HealyInventor of guts and founder of the International Frisbee Tournament along with his brothers—mimicking a pose from the early days While a guy named Jake Healy was finishing up his law school studies at the University of Michigan, he became intrigued with the Pluto Platter Frisbee disc that showed up on the UM campus during the spring of 1958. He joined in on some of the disc flinging activities going on, which induced him to buy a Pluto Platter for himself. He brought that Pluto Platter along with him when he joined his family in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Jake continued his disc flinging fun with his three brothers. They put together a game they called guts, and began playing it on a regular basis with their friends and neighbors.
This “guts” game proved to be so much fun that it became a special and traditional event of their long-running annual Healy family Fourth of July celebration picnic. By 1963 this annual picnic had evolved into a fun-filled beer fest and Frisbee event that they called the “International Frisbee Tournament” or IFT as it became to be known. In the spring of 1964, Bob Healy contacted Wham-O about the newspaper attention that their annual IFT event was getting in hopes that Wham-O might sponsor and support the event. In response, the new guy at the Wham-O Mfg. company that year, Ed Headrick, investigated the Frisbee sales levels in the geographical area close to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He found that the sales of their Frisbee item in that geographical area were a bit above the national average.
Original Official Pro Model Frisbee Based upon the IFT-generated newspaper publicity, Headrick convinced the Wham-O owners to hold off on dropping the Frisbee item from their line of products. Wham-O gave him the go-ahead to try some new ideas. Headrick created the Pro Model Frisbee and began marketing it as a sporting goods item at the top of their Frisbee line. With generous Wham-O support, the Healy Brothers’ annual IFT event began to grow in size, generating even more newspaper publicity as subsequent years went by.
There was enough of an upswing in sales to make Wham-O decide to permanently put aside the thoughts of dropping the Frisbee item from their line of products.
IFA NewsletterClick to read them all In 1968, Ed Headrick came up with the idea of using the Healy Brothers’ International Frisbee Tournament to help promote the Wham-O Frisbee product, which turned out to be a huge marketing success for Wham-O. That significant happenstance resulted in the IFT-driven Frisbee culture to start growing rapidly and expanding far beyond its original geographical area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Along with the growth in Frisbee sales generated by the IFA Newsletter, new activities like freestyle, ultimate and disc golf began to get popular all over the nation, further enhancing Frisbee sales.
Ed Headrick's 1975 Octad Super ProThis is the disc Ed used to compete at Octad, signed with his name and IFA number. Note the quotes are around "Ed" rather than the normal "Steady" 1975 Octad Super ProEd Headrick's Octad Super Pro; these 50 molds were the second transition to the World Class 50 mold When disc golf began to spread and gain popularity as organized tournament play in 1974, Ed Headrick got curious about the growing interest in disc golf. He began to wonder if the game could be marketed successfully and wanted to see what it was all about, so he attended the 1975 Octad event to observe organized disc golf competition firsthand.
Ground BasketJim Challas putting to an early ground basket target at the 1976 NAS tournament in Amherst, Massachusetts But there was one thing that rankled Ed Headrick, he strongly disliked the ground basket concept of putting that had become the de-facto standard putting target for disc golf—a two and one-half foot diameter wire basket sitting on the ground.
This is what happened:
Ed Headrick was keenly interested in the nature of the 1975 Octad disc golf competition. At one point while watching the finals of the disc golf event, Ed observed a player preparing to execute a putt of about 25 feet. The player held the disc vertically to the ground and launched it with a high up-and-down trajectory. This was known as the “vertical putt” among the disc golfers that had previously used a box or basket-type targets. Upon seeing that putt, Ed gruffly exclaimed, “That’s disgusting! A Frisbee isn’t meant to fly like that!” He held strong opinions as to just what the flight of the Frisbee was supposed to be like. “Flat Flip Flies Straight, Tilted Flip Curves” was the mantra inscribed upon every Frisbee made. But a vertical putt? No way! Not for Ed Headrick. He strongly believed that the graceful and intriguing flight with which the Frisbee sailed through the air was an important factor in its marketability. That belief was sacrosanct, and Ed was its guardian.
Original Pole HoleIrv Kalb putting at the 1975 WFC, at Oak Grove Park, with Dan "Stork" Roddick, Jimmy Scala, and Jim Palmeri looking on But he still held onto to his recent new thinking that playing golf with Frisbee discs might be a really good marketing idea, proving that he wasn’t as stubborn as some people thought. Ed ultimately decided that disc golf should be a part of the 1975 WFC, the famous World Frisbee Championship tournament promoted by Wham-O from 1974 to 1982. After making the decision to include disc golf in the 1975 WFC, Ed selected nearby Oak Grove Park to be the location for that event, and he personally designed the disc golf course to be used for the tournament. But he ignored the then current convention of using ground baskets as disc golf putting targets. Instead, he installed four-foot high, two-inch-diameter poles in the ground. He declared that hitting the pole with your disc constituted a successful putt. Ed hated the vertical putt he had seen at the Octad earlier that year, and he wanted nothing to do with the ground baskets that encouraged the vertical up and down putting flight. Hitting a pole successfully eliminated any chance that vertical putts would be used during the WFC Disc Golf rounds.
After the disc golf event, the overall feedback about the hitting-the-pole concept of putting was a bit negative. The main complaint was that it just wasn’t definitive enough as to whether a close putt actually hit the pole or not. A player would react to a long putt that came extremely close to the pole with an exclamation of, “It hit!” His or her competitors might exclaim back, “No it didn’t; I didn’t hear any ping!” The same sort of thing applied to a long upshot around a blind corner. As the players came into view of the pole and saw a disc laying several inches from it, they didn’t know whether the disc had actually hit the pole and bounced off or stopped inches short of sliding into the pole.
Ed listened to the comments, went back to the drawing board, and worked on ways to address the problems with his plain pole target. He was open to any solution that discouraged the use of the vertical putt. He felt strongly that the game of golf as played with flying discs was best served by hitting a pole-like target utilizing the primary flight characteristics of the Frisbee disc…not by plopping it into a basket with a non-aerodynamic vertical putt.
The Original Headrick Chain Pole HoleIntroduced in the summer of 1976, this 10-chain version was the third one produced [photo: Dan Roddick] Ed's patent It took Ed the better part of a year of research and development to come up with his successful chain pole hole putting device as a solution:
The chain pole hole target was basically the same simple plain pole that Headrick originally used as a putting target on the 1975 WFC Oak Grove disc golf course. However, it had a cone of chains hanging from a circular framework attached to the top the top of the pole, and a circular basket attached halfway down the pole. It was designed specifically such that if a putt reaches the chains at any point between the top rim of the basket and below the circular framework from which the chains are hung, it would hit the center pole regardless of whether or not any chains were installed on the apparatus.
Ed Later Patent Drawing The primary intent of the chain pole hole was to hit a specified target. The disc landing into the basket was a secondary effect that validated the success of the primary intent. Claims made to the contrary saying that the primary intent was to land the disc into the basket must adequately answer the question as to why then, were there chains and a pole sitting there and getting in the way of the disc’s path to the basket? The pole was there because it was the original intended target, and the chains were there to help validate that a disc was putted accurately enough to have indeed hit the intended target, the pole. But the cone of chains apparatus and the top plate from which it was suspended were also specifically designed to discourage the use of the vertical putt! If landing in the basket was the primary intent of the device, the cone of chains and its top plate would not be necessary. The chain pole hole was a complex device with which Ed Headrick intended to preserve a pre-conceived notion and culture about how a Frisbee should be flown, and what its flight pattern should look like.
Ed’s original chain pole hole was relatively successful, and as permanent chain pole hole courses started to proliferate around the country, the chain pole hole became the somewhat standardized disc golf target, eventually eliminating the need to set up temporary courses with wire ground baskets.
But while this new putting device solved the problems of the original plain pole hole, it introduced some new problems. In an attempt to fix these new problems, ongoing design modifications commenced almost immediately upon the 1976 introduction of the Chain Pole Hole. The resulting changes and modifications over the ensuing years helped alleviate these problems to a somewhat acceptable level. As the years passed there had been a relatively large number of alternate design changes for the basic chain pole hole type of target, especially when its patent protection ended and new manufactures wanted to get in on the market. However, none of resulting chain pole hole designs have yet to solve the problems inherent in chain pole hole targets in general.
OK, now we are close to getting to the Mike Sullivan story:
On the variety of currently approved chain pole hole targets in use today, virtually every person who plays disc golf can describe what a perfect putt looks and feels like.
We all know that there is a certain sweet spot on the cone of chains that if hit by a disc thrown within a specific range of speeds, angles and trajectories, the disc will be deflected down into the verification basket, come to a rest, and remain there until it is manually removed.
By definition then, if a player succeeds in achieving the parameters as per the above description of a perfect putt, a putted disc will end up in the verification basket and would be declared a successful putt.
1987 PDGA WorldsPoster 1987 PDGA WorldsProgram However, we all know that does not always happen! Sometimes so called “perfect putts” do not end up in the basket, much to the chagrin of a player whose stellar performance does not get rewarded. The granddaddy example of them all was the “Mike Sullivan putt" on the sixth playoff hole of the 1987 PDGA World Championships that was used to break the tie between Gregg Hosfeld and Mike Sullivan. That putt was a “Perfect Putt” by anyone’s parameters. In 1987, Mike Sullivan was at the top of his game, and he made a point of throwing perfect putts. Mike was that era’s Ken Climo/Paul McBeth type of player, winning many tournaments, and he was the odds-on favorite to win the 1987 PDGA World Championships being held on Toronto Island, right next door to where Mike lived at the time! He had finished in a tie with Hosfeld, ahead of all the rest of the top players of that time period.
1987 PDGA World ChampionshipsSportFlyers Unlimited Mini 1987 PDGA World ChampionshipsWham-O Pocket Pro The ensuing playoff for the title was all about stellar putting, starting off with Gregg Hosfeld canning a 50+ footer on the first playoff hole to stay in the running with Mike for the championship title.
On the sixth playoff hole, they both drove to approximately 10 feet of the chain pole hole awaiting them. Many in the crowd of spectators rushed off to get a good view of the ensuing drives to be thrown at the seventh playoff hole. Other spectators remained to watch the guys ceremoniously putt out before proceeding to the next hole. Mike was slightly farther from the hole, so he putted first.
1987 PDGA World ChampionshipsWham-O 71C* mold This is what the spectators saw: Mike’s disc hit the sweet spot at just the right angle, correct trajectory, and with the proper speed. A truly perfect putt! The crowd gave out a roaring cheer as it hit the sweet spot and began its fall to the bottom of the basket. But as the edge of Mike’s disc reached the bottom, the disc wobbled toward the rim of the basket and then inexplicably got nudged back up and over the edge by a rebounding chain! The roaring cheer quickly morphed into a loud groan! People who didn’t see it with their own eyes shouldn’t try to tell the many people who did see it that it must not have been “perfect” or it would have stayed in. Mike Sullivan was at the top of his game in 1987, and he made a point of throwing perfect putts.
It was a devastating happenstance for Mike, and I bet the vast majority of disc golfers who read this article have had a similar putting fiasco happen to them at one time or another.
If you are interested in the physics of the matter, read on.
The mathematics of chaos theory can help understand why so called “perfect putts” don’t always stay in the basket as expected.
The difficulty level of tossing a disc to any given target from any given distance such that it will be a successful putt is dependent upon a variety of parameters that can be described for any specific target type.
These parameters taken together determine a specific degree of difficulty for any given distance from the target at which a putt is attempted.
Viking It’s obvious that if a putting target is too easy or too difficult, the game would not be fun. The degree of difficulty must be very carefully configured to make the game work well. A disc golf target that is too easy, requiring little skill to sink a putt, would minimize the competitive and recreational challenge of the game. Visualize a wire basket that is 30 feet in diameter with one-foot high sides, and a ten-foot-high and 3-foot diameter at the top cone of chains in its center. The approach, upshot, and putting would be meaningless exercises that would differentiate little between good throws and poor throws. A throw that landed three feet away from the target would offer virtually no advantage over a throw that landed 20 feet from the basket, or even farther. Likewise, a device that required too much skill would also be far from ideal. Visualize a box type device with a one-inch high horizontal slot cut into one side that was barely wider than the diameter of a golf disc. The skill necessary to throw a disc through that slot would be beyond human capacity, and putting success would be basically reduced to ritually hand-feeding the disc through the slot after an upshot or layup throw finally gets close enough to the target to do so.
Innova Discatcher Either of these extreme examples would completely ruin the recreational and competitive challenge of the game and would greatly reduce the fun that could be derived from playing the game.
It is within the province of the PDGA, in accordance with the wishes of a majority of its members, to determine the parameters of the putting target that would create the ideal putting game that would maximize the enjoyment and competitiveness of Disc Golf. Too easy, no good, too difficult, no good, just right, perfect!
Prodigy t2 However, that determination is extremely difficult to make with the chain pole hole type of target. Along with the obvious parameters for a chain pole hole as listed above, the current chain pole hole targets also impose a number of hidden parameters that make it impossible for any player to determine exactly how to throw a putt that is guaranteed to avoid the Mike Sullivan result. This happenstance involves parameters such as the weight of the chain links; the friction that the chain encounters when moving against immovable parts of the pole hole; and the chaotic motion that the disc and chains develop as the disc makes contact with the target. These are all factors that interact with one another such that any two discs contacting the target with the exact same disc angle, velocity, trajectory, and sweet spot position will—at unpredictable times—result in huge differences in the motions imparted upon the chains and the disc upon its contact with the target.
In such a case, one of the two discs might land in and come to rest at the bottom of the basket, but the other might be rejected by fluke chance due to the mathematics of chaos theory, as in the “Mike Sullivan putt." Human skills just cannot possibly calculate the exact sweet spot and other parameters of a putt that would ensure that the fluke-out syndrome won’t happen. This is an inherent flaw in the chain pole hole targets. For disc golf to achieve maximum enjoyment and fairness, this flaw should be corrected by developing a better disc golf target design.
The Truputt™ disc golf hole may be a viable alternative. To read a more complete dissertation about the need for a better disc golf target, send a request to: [email protected]. This dissertation will be available relatively soon—hopefully, by August 2021 at the latest.
About the Author:
On May 10, 1970, Jim Palmeri started playing Frisbee. On that first day, he created a game he called “Court Frisbee.” Three months later he discovered that that he could play golf with his Frisbee discs. He started up the Rochester Frisbee Club in order to find like-minded people to compete in Frisbee competitions, and he hasn’t stopped Frisbee flinging since.
Upon seeking out Frisbee competition far and wide, he met many of the big names of flying disc play from whom he learned all about Frisbee collecting and the many subtle nuances of Frisbee activity. His “Court Frisbee” game got adopted by the Frisbee Community for competitive play, and “Court Frisbee” was renamed “Double Disc Court”—“DDC” as it usually is referred to.
Disc golf became his all-time favorite disc sport (Jim is PDGA #023), and from the very beginning Jim has felt that the device used for the putting aspect of the game could be improved upon. To that end, he has spent much time trying to develop a better putting target for the game, and he thinks he is now closing in on coming up with something good.
To purchase a signed copy of Jim's book, A Chain of Events, contact him at [email protected]