Really enjoyed this interview with Derek Robins @, a mainstay of UK Disc Golf and Ultimate Frisbee.
Your ultimate career, when did you play? What was it like to play at Warwick from the 70’s onward?
I started playing Ultimate in 1979 and was a committed player for the next 18 years. I made a few appearances after that, but not on any regular basis. I went to study at Warwick University in 1979 because it was the best place for Ultimate and had the only marked out Disc Golf course in the country, albeit the targets were wooden stakes rather than baskets. The Ultimate team had just won the UK and European Championships, although we couldn’t really claim to be the best in Europe as there were only a couple of overseas teams, and none from Scandinavia, which was the strongest region.
It was exciting to be part of a new sport that we felt was going places, but at the same time, it was such a small scene that it was barely viable in the earliest days. There might have been only 4 or 5 clubs that could regularly field a team and beyond that a few teams that might get put together for the National Championships and then melt away again. Fixtures were fairly sporadic, as we would look to play those 3 or 4 teams home and away, plus enter a few indoor tournaments.
You playing disc golf prior to, and then after the ultimate career?
I played my first overall Frisbee tournament in 1977 and my first disc golf tournament in 1978. I continued playing disc golf all through my ultimate career, but there were very few courses and tournaments in the 80’s, so Ultimate was my main sport. In the 90’s I started to get more into disc golf and the sport expanded.
What sort of analogy would you make between the two of them? What aspects did you like of both disciplines?
Ultimate is a more exuberant, intense, high energy sport and of course it’s a team sport so there’s a lot of camaraderie. Disc golf doesn’t have the adrenalin and intensity of physical effort, it’s sociable, but doesn’t have the wild parties that I remember from my ultimate days. I would say that Ultimate is more exhilarating and there is more buzz on and off the field, but as you get older injuries become more of a factor and I would feel totally drained of energy after a weekend tournament.
In disc golf I love the challenge of reading the wind, understanding the characteristics of the different discs and trying to achieve in reality the shot that I have imagined in my mind. When you launch a disc on a trajectory to avoid a couple of hazards and it lands by a target 100m away, it is a beautiful and satisfying experience.
The other great thing about disc golf is that it often takes place in beautiful surroundings, and I love to be in the countryside appreciating my surroundings. If was to draw an analogy with drinking then perhaps Ultimate is like being in a circle chugging beers or knocking back shots, whereas disc golf is sitting back sipping a whisky or wine and savouring the taste.
Leamington Spa is a lovely place to be based, do you get many locals coming to your disc golf course?
Yes there are lots of locals who come to play, but also people from further afield, plus tourists who are in the area, and even some groups of disc golfers who come from abroad just to play at Quarry Park.
It’s been 20 years a-growing, your course, and I remember you telling me about it in the 90’s – do you have before / during / now shots of it?
I bought the land in April 94 and planted most of the trees in 1995. It took 5 or 6 years before the trees started to become effective obstacles, but after 20 years the design is fully effective and now I’m spending more time trimming them back. The course will never stop evolving and I love to see that. It’s pretty amazing to look at the old photos and see just how different it looks.
How is the golf course going / growing?
Is it mostly a weekend / summer time for visitors?
The course is going great. Visitor numbers spiked up in 13/14, and 14/15 has been slightly better again. I’m always looking to make improvements and a few years ago I added 7 extra baskets and tees half way down the fairways to make a 16 hole short course layout, as an alternative to the regular 18 holes. Then we added a couple of extra holes and tees to give a “Black course” variation on the original 18. The par on the black course is 57, and nobody has broken 50 on that. I’ve had a round of all 2’s on the short course where the holes average 50m.
We’re open at weekends year round, and whilst it’s more popular in summer, there are quite a few winter visitors, and not just hard core regulars but first timers. In the summer holidays the course is open every day. Weekday evenings in May and June are usually pretty busy.
I imagine you have events there, are you given a handicap as you know it so well?
We have one or two big tournaments each year on the British Tour. The last 2 years the QP Open has had the highest attendance of any Tour event in the UK, with over 70 players. We don’t have handicaps but we do have a points rating for players which determines which division we can play in.
Designs for the new club house, due to be built this year.
Ultimate, I know you played for GB in the 80’s (from Nick Cash’s photos) what was the standard of the GB team then, both among themselves, and relative to the rest of the world?
I first played for GB Open team in 1982 when I was one of 4 or 5 players drafted in to a Bristol Samurai team. There’s no question that the pool of players and the standard of the top teams in the UK has grown hugely since those days. Back in the 80’s the Swedes were pretty dominant usually followed by the Finns. GB would have close matches with Germany, Netherlands and a couple of other countries.
Is ultimate played in a different way now? Is it more athletic?
Ultimate is more athletic and more structured, and I’m sure it can be more effective, but I think I would miss the freedom that I had in the old days when offence was much more “organic”
Are you happy with how UK ultimate has grown in the last 3 decades? Faster or slower than you expected?
I’m very happy to see it keep growing, and I’m particularly pleased to see that Sport England or whatever it is these days has got behind it and helped it grow in schools. Back in the 90’s Sam Neilson and I tried to get official recognition for disc sports and I was really annoyed by the way that we were dismissed by the Sports Council.
Is Nick Cash’s memory fading, I thought STAN beat Hombres first time they played in National finals?
STAN were national outdoor champions once in the late 80’s and then had a long streak of losing to Hombres in the finals
I remember you telling me about going over to the states to play disc golf and even winning money at one of the events. Is there still money in the disc golf tour, how did you do in the states? (congratulations on making their hall of fame – pretty cool achievement!)
I won some prize money in the States, but now the European Tour has prize money and even some British Tour events. All the stats for individuals and collectively are on www.pdga.com so you can see that my career prize money is now over $10k and the top 2 guys both won over $40k in the last 12 months. Total prize money over all sanctioned events was $3,000,000 last year.
Has disc golf grown in terms of the numbers playing in the UK & Europe?
Disc golf is growing all the time, all over the world. It has been rather sedate growth in the UK, but in some countries it is really booming. Finland is the real powerhouse in Europe and has over 300 course now, but places like Estonia and Czech Republic are growing very fast too. It’s also spreading south to Croatia, Italy, Spain and east to Poland, Slovakia, Russia. I have now competed in 25 different countriesJ
We used to play a bit in Dublin, just with 175s, and there is talk of a golf course being built in Wicklow, any tips for us on how to regrow disc golf in Ireland?
There is a new course opening at Kippure Estate on 7th March. I really hope that goes well, and hopefully I’ll get over to play it in the future. I think the sport grows well when there are a few keen people in one place who have a regular meeting place and time and are welcoming to new players. We have had a few failed courses where baskets have been plonked in the ground with no real publicity, no discs available to borrow, and nobody to show people round and give advice. People are the key to success.