James Duong could not resist the lure of the blueberries – and that turned out to be a very good thing.
The 34 year-old Brampton native, who confessed to consuming blueberries nearly every day at lunch, posted a dramatic one shot victory at the Blueberry Brawl IX this past weekend in Sudbury.
The majority of locals can be forgiven for claiming a complete lack of awareness about the exact nature of this four round weekend competition which attracted 78 participants, more than 50% of whom came from out of town, some from as far away as Quebec (St Jean sur Richelieu, to be precise).
It’s not as though disc golf rivals some of the more high profile summer activities in these parts – though that might soon change.
“With COVID, disc golf is really booming right now,” noted Ben Kurvits, a regular at the Lions Club of Sudbury Disc Golf Course, just off Selkirk Avenue and weaving through the valley that runs alongside Frood Road. “I’m not too surprised to see this tournament sell out.”
Sidelined by an injury, Kurvits was lending a helping hand to lead organizer Dean Aelick, the man who has championed the sport locally for the past decade or more. While previous versions of the tournament had averaged perhaps 30-40 disc golfers, bumping up to 50 in 2020, this marks the first sell-out of the event which is now part of the Ontario Club Championship tour schedule.
Like most who have taken to the sport, Duong explained that the attraction ranged well beyond the similarities to any athletic pastimes which previously filled his leisure-time hours. “I moved in to my place and noticed that there was a disc golf course, basically in my backyard,” stated the men’s pro open champion who first picked up a disc some six years ago.
“I joined in and the community was so welcoming, so overwhelming that I just got hooked. I used to be an avid tennis player, so I was able to convert my experience on the forehand to the forehand in disc golf. But to be honest, with disc golf, pretty much any sport could translate over.”
“I know people that have done ballet, that are Olympic figure skaters - they’re all able to bring over that athleticism and the skills that they have trained to this game.”
A mainstay with White Spruce Park in Brampton, Duong was pleasantly surprised playing a practice round Friday, noting that some of the features that define the Sudbury course might not be as unique as we might imagine. “This course is a very wooded, park-style course and my home course is very wooded, so I felt right at home.”
Still, there were takeaways as he navigated the 22-hole course for the first time before completing four subsequent rounds in the next 48 hours. “If it looks like it will roll away, layup,” suggested Duong. “If you’re looking at a putt and it looks a little treacherous, there’s no shame in laying up under the basket or maybe giving it a safe run.”
Finishing fifth in the bracket in which Duong claimed first prize (one shot better than both Greg Grootenboer, also from Brampton, as well as Chris Ozolins from Hamilton), Nao Nasu could be classified as a local entry – just barely.
A Toronto resident for much of his life, Nasu and his wife made the move north from the GTA in March, following her career to the area. “We needed to make a lifestyle change and COVID kind of helped with that,” said Nasu, now 44 years of age and with almost 20 years of disc golf experience to his credit.
“We feel very fortunate to be here (in Sudbury). The disc golf community here, since day one, has been most welcoming.”
Though his most recent home course had been on Toronto Island, Nasu also spent time picking up tricks of the trade in the Ottawa/Hull region, providing plenty of points of reference for course comparisons. “Toronto Island has elements of more traditional golf in the sense that there are par fours with nice big manicured fairways,” he said.
“It’s flat, with no elevation to deal with, but you do have to know which side of the fairways you wish to land on so that your second shot approaching the pin is more advantageous.”
“This course would be considered more of a wooded technical course. It’s great to be playing among these giant rocks, although they do tend to chew your discs up pretty quickly. I appreciate the fact that it’s quite different from my home course.” Having been around the disc golf scene perhaps longer than any other entry in the 2021 Blueberry field, Nasu is quite candid in his assessment of the local venue.
“What Dean has been able to do here is pretty incredible. He and his volunteer crew help keep this course in amazing shape.”
Few would appreciate that more than Toronto native Jeffrey MacKeigan, the 42 year-old who took home top spot in the Advanced (MA1) division. An avid disc golfer dating back to 2014, the former national accounts manager with Smuckers has found his passion, working with city officials to bring new courses to the Beaches, Marilyn Bell Park as well as Scarlett Woods.
“I had never been to Sudbury prior to knowing disc golf,” said MacKeigan, who has attended the Blueberry Brawl pretty much every summer, even adding a mid-winter visit to partake in the Sud-BBBR!-y Ice Bowl (the off-season version of disc golf).
“I’m a huge proponent of Sudbury. If you are coming up to play Sudbury for the first time, you’re going to have to “disc down”, meaning that you’re going to have to become a little more humble, focus a little more on one shot at a time, not throwing as hard as you can, but playing it more like you would play traditional golf.”
Joining Duong and MacKeigan in the winners’ circle were Darrel Nantais (Amateur Masters 40+), Jane Logan (Amateur Masters Women 40+), Laurie Dotto (Amateur Masters 55+), Eric Guite (Intermediate) and Dylan Michaud (Recreational).
At the top end of the competition, the drama came right down to the final shot.
“I was able to convert a 30 foot putt through trees,” explained Duong. “My aggressive play paid off.”
Part of the charm of this summer tradition is the awarding of fresh blueberry pies to all divisional champions, adding a luster to the festivities that helped incentivize Duong and company just a little bit more.
“I came up here with Greg (Grootenboer) and he is fiending for blueberry,” said Duong, preparing for the return trek south.
“This pie is not going to make it home.”