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Mind Of A Champion: Sarah Hokom and the S.F.O.

By Baker Helton
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In 2018, Sarah Hokom became the first winner of the inaugural San Francisco Open. As we prepare for the 2019 San Francisco Open presented by Innova Champion Discs, I was lucky enough to catch up with her to hear her take on the start to her 2019 season, how she’s preparing to defend her title this weekend, advice for up and coming players, and even some tough talk about tee pads and rules in disc golf. I hope you enjoy our chat as much as I did. For context, Sarah won the 2018 edition by eight throws over Paige Pierce and Catrina Allen who tied for second. Suffice to say she crushed it, oh and she made Sportscenter with her ace on hole 3. It was a great weekend for her and one that seemed to propel her into a dominant spot on the leader board for the rest of the season. You can get a great summary of last year’s event in. For now, let’s get to the chat!
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Although unconventional to some, Hokom’s lofty putt should work nicely on the uneven greens at the S.F.O.
Zach Podhorzer (ZP): First, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and talk to day. I really appreciate it and am sure your fans will too. Since this is the first time we’ve gotten to talk this season, fill me in on how your 2019 has been going. How’s the new bag feel?

Sarah Hokom (SH): I think it’s been going pretty good – a little bit of a slow start. I did get a couple of wins in Texas which was encouraging. I would say the first half of the season doesn’t really suit my strengths. So this is kind of normal. I’m trying to not get down on myself for not finishing higher. A couple of factors would be the courses are long and windy, which is not really my strength, but in addition to that we’ve seen the inclusion of a whole bunch of new ladies on the road and they’re really playing great. The field is way deeper so where mediocre play in the past may have gotten me a top-five finish, that’s just not the case anymore. In fact, there’s always that thought now in my mind “I could miss out on the cash, even.” Which didn’t happen in the past very often. I’m thankful that I’ve played well enough to get in the top 10 at every event and I’ve got a couple of wins against some really good players. I’m looking forward to playing more of the wooded courses and the technical lines I prefer though.

Percentage wise I could probably put the new bag in there a little bit – just when it comes to learning my lines. Playing with all new plastic it just takes time to get to know the discs. I’m excited because I know I’m going to just keep getting better with the plastic I’m throwing. I’m getting more and more confident with everything I’m throwing already. So maybe this year’s performance so far is a tiny percentage due to the new bag, but I think it’s really more that the first half of the season doesn’t really suit my game and the field is way deeper. We got a lot of great ladies out there!

(ZP): I hear ya. That makes sense. Speaking of your new bag, Last time I was chatting with Paige Pierce she told me you had just filled the spot in your bag that the Jokeri had filled with the new MVP Entropy. How are you liking that?

(SH): Yes. Yes. I actually took three discs out of my bag and replaced them with the entropy. I had a little bit of a flippier putter, a stable mid, and a really overstable mid and I replaced all of three of those with the Entropy. It’s been awesome to simplify things a a bit and get that disc in my bag that I know I really trust the line on. It immediately did exactly what I was expecting.

(ZP): Comparing your 2018 Season stats to your 2019 season stats thus far, you’re trailing yourself in 6 categories – everything but scramble and C1X putting. The biggest performance gaps may be two of the most important ones though – C1 and C2 in regulation are both down about 10%. What’s keeping you from making those opportunities this year?

(SH): That’s a good question. Actually, I’m not really sure. I assume inconsistency off the tee, you know? I’ve had a few injuries already this year but I really think it’s just me getting to know the lines on my discs.

(ZP): When I spoke with Ricky about how his new bag is going he was talking about how it felt like he was seeing all of these tournaments he’s played for years in a whole new way with his new discs. Has that also been the case for you or has it been more of a direct translation from one disc to another?

(SH): To a degree I would say that is the case, I have three different distance driver molds in my bag now whereas before when I was with Legacy I just used one, in a bunch of different plastics. I actually really like the fact that I’m able to throw a bunch of different lines now. In particular, I’m able to throw a similar angle with different molds rather than manipulating the angle of one mold. So I think that’s part of it. I’m getting to know all those different lines and I do even have some lines available to me that I didn’t have at all before. But that also brings in more decision making and at first consistency issues. In particular, at Vegas and the Memorial, I didn’t have much practice in the wind yet, and also at WACO. I’d really only played a couple of rounds in the wind before we had that major wind in Vegas and I had to completely adjust my game plan. I think that’s had something to do with why I’m not reaching Circle 1 and 2 as much now. What’s weird though is at GBO, my best round was the round in the wind. How did I shoot my best round on the windiest day?

(ZP): At last year’s inaugural SFO you crushed the competition, winning over Catrina Allen and Paige Pierce who tied for second 8 throws behind you. You were the only player to finish a round under 60 (with a little help from a sweet Sportscenter highlighted ACE!!) and the only player to finish any round with a 100% scramble (round 2) bogey-free round. Looking forward to the event what are you psyched for?

(SH): I’m excited to get out there and see the course with my new lines. The course seems like it’s open and big and long, which people might not think is my strength, but because of the elevation change, it ends up being very technical. I’m really excited to get out there and see what I can do on that course. A lot of it comes down to keeping it in bounds and giving yourself those opportunities. And the tee pads at SFO are a far cry from what we’ve played so far here. Outside of WACO, I haven’t had access to very many birdies. Even though we had women’s tees. They’ve basically been designing the women’s tees for a 400′ power shot rather than what the average female throws, which are more like 330′ or 340′ power shots. So SFO is one where they designed the course appropriately for the ladies in my opinion. I have access to a lot of birdies out there while so far this season has been more about mitigating bogeys. So, combine that with some technicality and I think I have a chance here.

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A power stance for power players – if Hokom wants another win she’ll need to go through Pierce and Allen to get it.
(ZP): As I mentioned earlier, the SFO was a real turning point for you. It was the first time you beat Paige Pierce in 2018 and after that, your worst finish was a fourth place at your next event – the Beaver State Fling. You would go on to finish the year with a podium finish at every event, including four wins. Do you think that the 2019 SFO could be where you get the momentum going this season?

(SH): Yea. I mean, it has a lot to do with the course design. A lot of people like to say “oh, everyone has to play the same hole. Everyone’s playing the same thing” but people’s games are different so when the tee pads are designed in a way that gives me opportunities to score then certainly that is way better! At GBO I could only get six birdies out of the 18 there.

(ZP): so there were 12 holes you were just playing for par?

(SH): Yea, and several of those even the par felt like a birdie. A lot of times a par on a hole that’s just a little bit out of reach you’re like “okay, this is an easy little up shot and then I’m gonna tap out my putt” but there were at least three holes where getting even par was hard. You had to throw two really good shots and make a putt just to get a par.

(ZP): What’s your practice routine on a monster course like this? I’ve heard it’s quite the hike just to walk the course and I can hardly remember a flat spot on all the coverage.

(SH): Definitely trying to play one round a day – multiple shots though. One round each day in the morning and the final day before the tournament just throwing a few of the holes. Just a couple of the ones that I need an extra shot on or I wanna try something different. So not playing the whole course the day before. And actually, I’ll probably have my caddy out there pulling my cart during my practice rounds. I remember last year my knee really started acting up by the end of the week. Just blew up like a grapefruit just from walking up and down those hills. And it’s already blown up this year so I’ll have to make sure to keep off of it and get my Disc Golf Strong recovery in!

(ZP): Alright, important question, what are you gonna throw to ace hole 3 again this year?

(SH): I’m gonna throw a Photon on that one. Yea. I think I got that same line. My beat in photon, my Neutron Photon.

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Gleneagles might sound long but that doesn’t keep Hokom from being surgical with her elite forehand.
(ZP): Since we’re talking about distance, I’d love to hear your thoughts on adapting holes at the elite level. In 2018 there were eight modified holes at Gleneagles. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic as a player who isn’t known for her distance like Paige and Catrina but still, you’re able to not only score, but win, against them. In my chats with Paige, she is obviously very anti-short tees. She has told me you two disagree on this at times so I’d love to hear your side of things! You’ve already told me there’s a difference in how well certain events do it – somewhere it’s not helpful and not even creative, and then some courses – like Gleneagles you said – really get it right. Where’s your stance on the direction the women’s game should be going with the tee pads.

(SH): In general I really appreciated, even at the GBO,  that people took the time to think about what would be better for the ladies – what could make this course play better for the distance ladies throw. However, I’ve really been noticing some things about how that is done lately. If we assume that the course design of a gold level course is based on the men’s game, with that assumption in mind, the course designers are not designing par 3s where only the top distance throwers can get to the green. You don’t see 600’ par 3s, the reason behind it being, “oh well, Simon can get there.” If they designed courses like that for the men, and most of them couldn’t get there they would complain and be upset about it. They’d all be saying “This is not fair. I can’t get to any of these holes but these four people can”. But on the flip-side, on the women’s division, they do design the courses and the tee pads for the Simon of our division.

I couldn’t get to any of the par 3s except for the one island hole at GBO. All of them were over 400′ or if they weren’t they were uphill. I came to this one hole in practice and it read 315, par 3, and it was a sidearm line, I was like “SWEET!” I could barely get within 100′ of the basket. I was 70 or 80 short every time. So it really just played like a 400′ hyzer. So I think that that’s the part the course designers are missing. They’re designing the courses for a 400’ power shot when that’s the elite distance of our division. That’s not what the average touring woman throws. If you ask the touring women what their power shot is, it’s 330-350 it’s not 400 feet. So we’re being put in a position where the courses are being designed for the elite distance throwers in our division and leaving the rest of the players behind.

When I say this isn’t fair, people tell me, “Oh well Paige can get there.” And I think, “yea, she can”. And Paige and Jen Allen and Cat should be rewarded for their distance but what people don’t realize is they’re being rewarded for their distance even on short holes. They’re rewarded for their distance on every par 5 and every par 4. They get to smash it as far up the fairway as they can and have a way easier approach. And on the par 3’s they’re able to throw a way slower disc, even a mid, whereas the less powerful throwers are having to throw a much more technically difficult shot to cover the same distance. I think that’s something that the disc gold community and some of the designers are missing.

I think it’s actually really hurting the women’s division right now. I think it’s really discouraging, especially for up and coming pros who are playing courses that aren’t suiting the average distance that they throw. I really don’t think par 3s should be out of the range to most of the players. I’m not saying I should be able to get every birdie but the average female in our division should be able to get to most of the holes. If you look at the stats, and I know I’m biased, but that’s why I ask people to look at the stats. Look at the stats from GBO. Look at the stats from Texas State Championships – I won that tournament and I got one birdie the whole weekend. That is not the kind of golf that will grow the sport for the women. It was boring. As was the golf at GBO for me. It was boring.

I’m throwing the same shot over and over again then throwing a little upshot and tapping in a putt. I’m not even putting most of the time. If you look at GBO there were 10 holes that basically no one got. 5 of those literally no one birdied. 5 only one person did. More than half the course and no one is getting birdies? That’s not right. Thankfully it still allows scoring separation because there’s OB everywhere and if you miss a shot you’re gonna pay for that. But we see a huge discrepancy between 2nd and 3rd place, we’re talking 15 strokes! And I know Jen Allen was that third place and we’d expect her to be up there with Paige and Cat, but honestly she doesn’t get to practice, she’s flying in and out. We know the distance is there but she just doesn’t get the same chance to dial in her game. It’s not rocket science to see that the course is distance heavy when you have all of the distance throwers at the top. And it happens all the time, the whole first half of the season has been like that.

(ZP): Right. If that’s the only thing we’re testing on the course then why aren’t we just having distance competitions?

(SH): exactly.

(ZP): Since it came up a little bit in that last question, what advice would you give to any up and coming players who want to take their game to the next level?

(SH): Absolutely. I have a good handful of pieces of advice.
1. Practice, rather than play scored rounds, correcting errant shots.
2. Set your bag up with less molds and multiples of the same disc to practice with.
3. Take video of yourself and analyze your form. Then, work on your weaknesses.
4. Commit to specific routines before each type of shot.
5. Play big events to gain experience with pressure, to gauge your progress and learn how to play difficult tracks.
6. Read Bob Rotella to begin developing your mental strategy​.

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You don’t need rose tinted glasses when you’re winning but when they look that stylish it’s best to rock em!
(ZP): Alright before we get to predictions, anything else you wanted to cover in our time here?

(SH): Actually, I did really want to touch on the rules situation at GBO. It’s been a bit of an issue over the years with a couple of players in my opinion kind of bullying people for calls. Inside the group we’re all just a little more friendly with each other in my opinion. On the course, it’s a little weird and I think women tend to take it a little more personal, not only when you get calls made on you but in general our interactions are more personal in our gender. It’s a real problem that these calls are coming down to people fighting for the benefit and we’re not getting an appropriate actual call made. For example, the call with Cat this weekend [on hole 16 at GBO] was exactly the amount of strokes she won by. And the fact that when Paige called her on the courtesy violation, Cat fired back with a courtesy violation for over-celebrating. Is that even a thing? Can you call that on someone for over celebrating when they can a huge death-putt in the wind? Is that something you can even do? As far as I’m concerned that is not okay. It’s not okay to bully people out of calls, it’s not okay to start making calls on them because they made calls on you. I’m not perfect either. I mean, I let a foot fault go this weekend. I watched a girl step on her disc and I didn’t call her. Overall we need to find a way, and I don’t have an answer, other than we have to stop taking things so personally and we have to start making calls.

(ZP): I think you’ve identified a really good point here. As we become a bigger and bigger sport it’s only going to become more of a problem. I know I’ve seen something and not called it because I think “this isn’t a big deal”. Or even if someone calls it, no one else will say they saw it and second it.

(SH): Even when I saw it this last weekend the words wouldn’t even come of out my mouth, I couldn’t even say “foot fault!” And when I have called it in the past, all of a sudden everyone’s calling foot faults. Now all of a sudden everyone is watching my feet like a hawk and it’s a pretty subjective call. Is it where they plant versus where they pivot to? There’s a lot of ambiguity there. It gets more important and clearer if they’re reaching behind a tree or something versus if they’re in the middle of a fairway and taking a run up and then they’re a centimeter away from where they should be  – that’s an ambiguous call that I don’t have a solution for. But what I do know is that it’s not working.

(ZP): Totally, somehow we’re supposed to know where their foot was the second they let go of the disc. That’s impossible.

(SH): Yup. And the jump putt rule needs to be fixed as well. The way that the rule is defined is unenforceable. You’re supposed to watch a person’s hand and their foot? You can’t even tell on video without slowing it down and freezing it. So we’re asking people to look at two places and one time and make a determination. In reality, our sport is backwards on how the rule is defined. In every other sport you can take off from behind the line and as long as your foot was behind the line when you left the ground it’s legal. Doesn’t matter if you land in front of it, it doesn’t matter at what point you hit the volleyball, it doesn’t matter at what point you hit the tennis ball, doesn’t matter at what point the jump shot leaves your hand, it matters that you took off from behind the line. Physiologically it’s completely absurd that you’re going to jump at the same time you’re letting go of the disc. Physiologically they are going to come one-millisecond after each other. You’re gonna jump and the energy’s gonna come up from your feet through the rest of your body and out your hand. When it comes to athletes in any other sports that’s how it works. But our sport for whatever reason is not worded in the same way. I’m an advocate that we switch it to what all the other sports in the entire world and what our bodies suggest that we should do.

(ZP): I love this. These are the conversations I wish we were having more of. People just think that’s the rule so that’s the rule. But no, the PDGA changes the rules plenty. Thanks for bringing that up, it’s great to talk about. Alright, before we wrap up got any predictions for us?

(SH): Gosh, I don’t really have predictions at the moment. There are so many people that could play well this weekend. McBeth, Paige, and Cat are all streaking really well right now. I don’t think these courses will be particularly difficult for any of them. It’s not that it’s not difficult, but it doesn’t play against their game. And they’re playing well right now.

(ZP): Got it. those are some solid picks right now for sure. Before we wrap up, how can everyone find you online?

(SH): I have my standard Instagram and Facebook and I also just started a Patreon . Through that I’m trying to provide some behinds the scene footage for what’s been happening for the media team at the Pro Tour. My goal has been to show people who these people are behind the camera. The loyalty is already so established with the other media teams and people just don’t know who these folks are. So I’m just trying to help them understand that these are really good people, they’re working really, really hard, and they’re getting better.

The part that is kind of frustrating is that the public is almost going tribal on disc golf media. What I don’t understand is that it’s a free service. They’re not paying anything for this. I would totally understand people being upset if they bought a product and it was sub-par. You should get your money back in that case. When we’re talking about the Pro Tour, most of the public didn’t invest any money into that but people are coming out and saying you’re taking the sport back ten years. That’s not true. I was here ten years ago, it’s way better now! And yes it hasn’t gone as well as we wanted it to and every tournament they’ve had to readjust and do a whole new thing. Growing pain after growing pain.On top of that it doesn’t help that the public has been so critical. The name calling and saying “I’m not watching it” I don’t get it. The women didn’t even get any real coverage until the pro tour came along. So I just want people to understand who it is that they are talking about.

(ZP): Alright, Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. I really loved getting to hear all your thoughts. Best of luck this weekend!

(SH): It was great to talk, and thanks for all the work you’re doing. I really appreciate it!

You don’t want to miss any of the coverage we have planned for this week so make sure to stay tuned to our Watch page, check back for a new S.F.O. article every day this week, and make sure you subscribe to Sarah Hokom all over the internet and chip in on her Patreon! Keep disc golf alive and thriving by supporting the people that make it all happen. Until the rounds start up on Friday though, Spring has finally arrived in New England so I’m gonna get off this keyboard and go play some disc golf! see you on the course!

Article written by Staff Writer & Editor Zach Podhorzer . All photo credit to Alyssa Van Lanen , the great disc golf photographer we’ve ever known.