It was a golden day in August of 2014. Holly Finley stood in the middle of a wooded park in Portland, eyeing a metal basket that stood off in the distance. She clutched a white disc, which she hoped to drive into the basket, or as close to it as possible. Successfully carrying out this objective would be no easy feat; Finley’s target was nested in a cluster of trees, one of the many landscape challenges facing contestants of the 2014 Disc Golf World Championship.
Wearing a fuchsia athletic dress, with a visor and sneakers to match, Finley took a few steps forward and hurled her disc into the air. It soared upwards and weaved deftly between the trees before landing by the basket. Somewhere in the deep annals of YouTube, you can find narrated footage of the tournament. When the two sportscasters see Holly’s throw, they get downright giddy. “Damn, she’s playing!” one of the announcers says. “What a great drive. Really impressive.”
Finley placed seventh out of the 35 women who had entered the 2014 tournament. It’s an entirely respectable ranking, especially considering that she had only gone pro the year before. But Finley is determined to score higher at this year’s World Championships, which will be held in Pittsburgh in August. “I’ll probably go up about three weeks early, which is insane,” she told Women in the World. “Nobody goes up that early. And I’ll just play the courses every day, hopefully more than anyone else.”
Disc golf functions much like traditional golf, but balls and clubs are replaced by plastic discs, and holes are swapped out in favor of elevated metal baskets. In both games, the objective is the same: to reach your target with as few strokes as possible. Like “ball golf” (as the traditional sport is called by purveyors of the disc variety), disc golf requires players to implement focus, coordination, and strength. It is often played on wooded courses and parks, making it all the more difficult to land a shot. To meet different needs on the course, players rely on a range of discs that are designed to maximize accuracy, distance, or control.
But disc golf can be, and often is, played with a simple Frisbee. The game is, in fact, more commonly referred to as Frisbee golf, or “frolf.”Aficionados don’t particularly appreciate the moniker; they tend to refer to “frolf” as the “f-word.” Devotees of the game take disc golf seriously—far too seriously to tolerate goofy portmanteaus—and Finley is no exception.
“I … want to be a world champion disc golfer,” she said, her Southern twang deployed to full effect. “I just think it’s a good title. It’s the best. I like to be the best. I’m competitive, and that’s all I’m really working towards, is getting that world title.”
There are currently around 2000 women registered with the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), and Finley ranks 14th in the world. In the four short years since she began immersing herself in the sport, Finley taught herself how to play, rose beyond the amateur ranks, and scored a coveted sponsorship with a disc manufacturing company called Innova. But not too long ago, she didn’t know a mid-range disc from a distance driver. Finley’s days were instead consumed by glossy magazine shoots, designer dresses, and slick runways.
Finley grew up in La Vergne, a small town in northwestern Tennessee. When she turned 14, her mother passed away. Her step-father died the following year, and so Finley went to live with her grandparents. As she got older, Finley was often told that she could be a model, and it’s hardly any wonder: she is tall and lithe, with a porcelain complexion and a shock of ginger hair. Intrigued by the prospect of a career on the runway, Finley began contacting modeling agencies. She boasts the sort of delicately angular look that is favored among European bookers, and at the age of 21, Finley moved abroad.
“[S]he moved out on her own,” Finley’s aunt, Cheryle Lanning, told Women in the World. “She worked, took care of all her finances and was continuing a modeling career … No one in the background was pushing her. She did it all on her own. If she wants something her focus is intent.”
It’s an attribute that becomes instantly clear upon talking to Finley: the woman is resolute in her ambitions. Once she decided that she was going to make it as a model in Europe, Finley traveled throughout the continent—to Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, and more—posing for high-profile designers like Donna Karen, Calvin Klein, and Luis Vuitton. In 2011, she took a two-year gig with an agency in South Africa. But life on the move began to get wearisome. After a decade spent abroad, Finley wanted to come home.
In 2013, she moved back to the States, hoping to break into the American fashion scene. She signed with an agency in Chicago and settled in Madison, Wisconsin,because she is not “really much of a big city kind of girl.” But modeling is no nine-to-five gig, and between bookings, Finley found herself in a strange city with time to kill.
“I was like, ‘What am I going to do all day every day?’” she said. “I had played disc golf one time in about 2008, and I was horrible at it.” But Finley decided to give the game another go and tracked down a disc golf course near Madison.
She bought a set of used discs and set out. After receiving some pointers from fellow players on the course, she learned to maximize her throws and discovered that she had a pretty strong game—so strong that she started to beat more seasoned players. Finley liked being outdoors and enjoyed the camaraderie among her fellow disc golfers, but, the sport’s appeal is perhaps a little more visceral. “I just love throwing stuff,” Finley said. “I’m kind of an aggressive person, so just throwing things is fun in general.”
Thoroughly hooked on the game, Finley started watching disc golf instructional videos on YouTube and competing in amateur events. She won many of them, and in 2013, she decided to go professional. It was a somewhat hubristic move; though Finley was sure she was in league with the pros, other female players often beat her by 50 strokes. But she kept at it, competing at 30-odd events over the next few months, and was ultimately named the PDGA’s Rookie of the Year.
Though Finley didn’t yet rank among the top female players, the disc manufacturer Innova noticed her skill and offered her a sponsorship. “She just has such a sense of style and grace on the course,” said Jonathan Poole, team manager at Innova. “Everywhere she went, that’s what people were talking about. She was different. She was unique. She kind of jumped off the page, and the attention that she was getting was good visibility, we felt. It seemed to make sense to support her.”
With her runway physique and meticulously coordinated sports gear, Finley does make for a somewhat exceptional figure on the course (a disc golf acquaintance once deemed Finley “The Duchess of Disc Golf,” a title she has happily embraced). But women as a whole are far from a ubiquitous feature of the professional disc golf scene. In 2013, Finley was the only woman who competed in the United States Disc Golf Championships, one of the sport’s most prestigious events. Innova secured her a place in the tournament, but according to Finley, qualifying spots are normally only given to men.
“Being the only female at that event was intimidating, because every round I had to play with guys, and they’re out-throwing me by hundreds of feet,” she said. “But what’s fun is coming back to the fact that I am a girl. And when I do better than the guys that I’m playing against, it just fuels my drive more.”
Brian Graham, executive director of the PDGA, estimates that about 8 percent of its members are women. That percentage has stayed consistent as the organization’s membership has grown—and it has done so exponentially over the past few years—but female players nevertheless represent a small portion of the professional leagues.
“I personally think that most women—and I hate to be general like that—but I think a lot of women prefer to play for fun,” Graham said. “They’re not as serious into the competitive side of disc golf. It’s a great, fun, sport to play.”
Finley is not interested in leisurely sporting: she wants to win, and she wants to be the best. But because women’s divisions of disc golf are a small subset of an already niche sport, disc-golfing is not a particularly lucrative endeavor. There are no multi-million dollar contracts or booming corporate sponsorships. Top female players can pull in around $2,000 after winning a championship game (top male players score more than double that amount), but rising competitors like Finley don’t always turn a profit. Traveling around the U.S. to compete in events costs her about $30,000 per year. “To be honest, my income from modeling funds my hobby of disc golf,” she said. “I don’t make enough money disc golfing for it to even break even.”
But there are upsides to immersing oneself in a fledgling sport. In spite of her desire to trounce her opponents on the course, Finley has found in disc golf the sort of friendship and understanding that often flourishes among devotees of the same sub-culture. To cut expenses when she travels to out-of-state competitions, Finley posts messages on Facebook, asking if she can board with players who live close to the course where a given event is being held. She is usually astounded by the hospitality she receives.
“People that I’m not even friends with on Facebook, [whom] I’ve never talked to in my life, say, ‘Yeah, you can come stay with me for 10 days in my house, with my family,’” Finley explains. “They make you dinner, they wash your clothes, they’ll offer to drive you around if you don’t have a rental car. And it just blows my mind, the kindness and generosity of these people … How can [they] be so kind to a complete stranger? It’s all because of both of our loves for disc golf.”
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