Choosing the Right Golf Disc
by Blake Takkunen
Originally Posted: 7-22-04
Last Updated: 2-28-06
Table of Contents
I. Disc Terminology
II. What disc is best for me?
III. What type of discs do I need to get started?
IV. How do I interpret the manufacturer's ratings?
V. What type of plastic is best for me?
VI. What disc weights are best for me?
VII. What type of discs will I need in the future?
With over 100 different discs on the market, finding the right golf disc is often an overwhelming task for a newer player and can be an expensive and frustrating process for the up and comer. With this article I hope to help make the disc selection process easier for players who do not wish to buy one of everything or are just getting started. It's best to approach disc selection with an open mind but also to have a good idea of what you are searching for. Remember, there are no bad discs, only bad throws.
I. Disc Terminology
Disc terminology can get overwhelming for newer players who are not familiar with the vocabulary used in describing disc types and flight patterns. I will be using many of these terms later on in the guide and it is best to have an idea of what they mean up front. All of these terms will reference flight characteristics of a right handed back hand thrower. For right handed sidearm or left handed backhand, simply reverse the directions.
Distance driver – the most common disc type, usually small in diameter with a low profile and a sharp edge, these discs are generally the most difficult to control, but also the longest flying. If these discs were golf clubs they would encompass the spectrum from 1-Wood to 5-Wood.
Fairway driver – these discs are slower and do not have the same distance potential as distance drivers. However, fairway drivers are also much easier to control and usually glide better than most distance drivers. Oddly enough, most fairway drivers were at some point in time distance drivers but technological advancement has bumped them down a notch in the greater scheme of things. If these discs were golf clubs they would encompass the spectrum from 5-Wood to 4-Iron.
Midrange disc – these discs fall somewhere between the fairway drivers and putt & approach discs in terms of distance. They are even slower and more accurate than fairway drivers. Many of these discs were at one time distance drivers and many of the most versatile discs fall into this type. It is quite likely that the majority of your throws on the course will be performed with midrange discs. If these discs were golf clubs they would encompass the spectrum from 4-Iron to 8-Iron.
Putt & approach disc – these discs are the slowest and shortest flying of the disc types. Often high profile, these discs usually have good glide and are very easy to control and finesse and are generally the most accurate discs available. If these discs were golf clubs they would encompass the spectrum from 8-Iron to Putter.
Stable – a term used to describe the flight of the disc when it flies straight at high speeds when thrown flat.
Overstable – a general term used to describe the flight of the disc when it has a tendency to pull to the left. A disc that is high speed overstable will begin to curve left immediately out of the hand and require an anhyzer angle to achieve a straight flight. A disc that is low speed overstable will end its flight with a left curve. Nearly all discs are low speed overstable.
Understable – a general term used to describe the flight of a disc when it has a tendency to turn to the right at high speeds. A disc that is high speed understable will curve to the right when thrown flat, or flatten and fly straight when thrown with a hyzer angle.
Neutral – a general term used to describe the flight of a disc when it holds a flight path consistent with the angle it is released with. For example, a disc that is thrown flat and straight and finishes straight on line would be high speed stable, low speed neutral. A disc that is thrown flat and curves to the right and finishes on a right curve would be described as high speed understable, low speed neutral.
Gyroscopic effect – the physics principle that dictates why most discs finish their flights overstable as the disc falls in the opposite direction of its spin, usually described as low speed fade. This effect is greater with larger diameter discs.
Cruise speed – the speed range that a disc is designed to fly at for a given nose angle. For example, the cruise speed of a stable driver is the minimum and maximum speeds required for a disc to fly straight when thrown flat. Exceeding the cruise speed maximum will make a disc fly understable, while dropping below the cruise speed minimum will make a disc fly overstable. Players generally have greatest success when throwing discs with cruise speeds that match the velocity they are able to consistently generate on a disc.
Low speed fade – the flight of a disc finishing with a left curve. Low speed fade between discs differs in both how much the disc fades and when in its flight it begins to fade. More overstable discs will generally fade both earlier and more than less overstable discs.
Resistance to high speed turn – the discs ability to fly straight at high speeds and not turn to the right.
Predictability – a term that describes the discs consistent ability to finish with a left curve at the end of its flight.
Nose angle sensitivity – a term referring to how much the disc responds to variations in nose angle. Fast, wide rimmed discs are generally more nose angle sensitive than older, slower discs.
II. What disc is best for me?
While it is true that people can make a disc fly almost any way they want to, it is important during the learning period of disc golf to throw discs that are within your ability to control without having to make extreme adjustments. This is imperative for developing proper technique and keeping your disc options open further down the road as you develop more power and prevent you from forming bad habits that you will have to unlearn in the future.
Most of the distance drivers that have been released within the past couple of years simply require too much power for the average beginning player to throw for distance and accuracy. Selecting discs that are suited to your level of play will make playing and learning disc golf much more enjoyable.
Most players start out throwing somewhere in the 125-250' range and will have best success with neutral midrange discs or fairway drivers. While these will probably not remain as your primary drivers for very long, they will still have a place in your bag after you are throwing distance drivers much farther.
I generally classify stable drivers into 4 tiers. The first tier of drivers is mainly fairway drivers and some of easiest to control distance drivers and generally suitable for players throwing in the 200-250' range. The second tier of drivers includes older distance drivers usually controllable for players with power in the 250-300' range. The third tier is targeted at players with 300-330' of distance, and the final tier for those who can consistently throw 330+. Discs I recommend are marked with a *.
For newer players, I generally recommend starting with a set of three discs, an easy to control distance driver (tier 2 driver), a neutral midrange disc, and a stable putt & approach as a set including all three will give you the best impression of what you should expect from discs of these type in the future.
I realize that not all players testing the disc golf waters are looking to spend more than $20 to get started. For those looking to start with two discs, I recommend a tier 1 driver and a stable putt & approach. For the “what if I hate it?” pessimists who prefer the bare minimum, a neutral midrange should provide at least moderate success in all types of throws.
IV. How do I interpret the manufacturer's ratings?
Currently, the only manufacturer's that supply flight ratings for their discs are Innova and Discraft. While they may seem straightforward from the start, I believe they fail to emphasize the importance of certain characteristics.
Innova's ratings include speed, glide, high speed turn resistance, and low speed fade. Speed is in reference to the disc's relative cruise speed and is quite possibly the most important characteristic they map for players with less than 350' of power. Thrown with speed less than the disc's minimum cruise speed, they will fly more overstable than otherwise indicated. Similarly, throwing in excess of the maximum cruise speed will cause the disc to fly more understable than otherwise indicated. The other ratings are taken under the assumption that the disc is flying within its cruise speed range.
High speed turn resistance refers to the disc's high speed stability (assuming the disc is flying at its cruise speed). Positive numbers mean that the disc will begin curving left relatively soon after leaving the hand. Negative numbers imply that the disc will turn to the right at high speeds. The value of zero represents a stable flight at the disc's cruise speed.
Low speed fade covers the amount the disc will curve left as it slows down. Higher values of this number will also typically fade earlier in a disc's flight. A value of zero is found on discs that are generally low speed neutral and will finish on an angle similar to which it was thrown.
Glide represents the ability for the disc to stay in the air as it loses speed. This characteristic becomes difficult to notice with many drivers as it begins once the disc drops below its minimum cruise speed. Most midrange and approach discs will have the greatest ability to float at the end of their flights.
Discraft's ratings are much less specific. They include a single number to describe the overall flight characteristics. An important note is that these numbers for have the speed characteristics already factored in and are only relative to other drivers. For example, a Wildcat, rated 1.5 has similar turn characteristics to an XL, which is rated 1.0, but the Wildcat is much faster and requires a greater cruise speed to achieve this type of flight pattern. The numbers for midrange and approach discs are rated at their cruise speeds.
So what do these mean for you? For Innova, it's probably best to start at the lower end of the speed spectrum and work your way up. For Discraft I recommend starting at an older disc such as a Cyclone or XL and then take into consideration that the greater stability numbers generally imply the disc is faster and probably not significantly more overstable until you start getting into the +2 or greater range of discs.
V. What plastic is right for me?
Champion and Elite Z plastics last forever, so they are the best, right? This statement can be argued to no end, but for the player that is just starting out, they are probably the worst choice of plastic for their first driver. A general rule is, the more expensive the plastic, the smoother it is. Smoother plastic has less air friction. What this translates into is that higher end plastics will make discs faster and less controllable. Faster discs require more power to throw them well, have less glide, fly more overstable, and do not fly as far. Also, smoother discs are more difficult to flatten from a hyzer, turn over, and more difficult to make fly straight.
The best plastics to start out with are generally the less expensive plastics with more air friction. While these are generally the least durable, they also break in fairly well and will actually fly farther and be easier to control for newer players. Innova's DX plastic, Discraft's Elite X (their mid-level), Gateway's S, Millennium's standard (non-Quantum), etc. will probably give the best results for those who are still developing their technique and do not yet have power to spare.
This does not mean that the super premium grade plastics should be ignored, just that they may not be the best starting point. Discs that you want to be very overstable, such as sharp left curve or headwind discs will hold their overstable lines better in the high end plastics and will stay this way for longer. A stable flying (tier 1 or 2) driver in super premium plastic may also be desirable for heavily wooded courses. Slower discs such as midranges and approach discs do not require nearly the speed of the faster drivers to be thrown straight and so the plastic does not make as much of a difference in controllability or distance.
The pro players that throw the high end stuff generally are able to sacrifice some distance for durability and predictability, but they are also throwing well over 400' and can afford to lose a little bit of D. I just want to give warning that there is a trade off for speed that players should be aware of and it is in the best interest of the player's long-term success to focus more on discs that will fly well for them than on discs that will last longer.
For more information on disc plastics, I have an in-depth description of the available disc plastics at: http://www.discgolfreview.com/resources/articles/plastics.shtml
VI. What disc weights are best for me?
Disc weights also come into play. The weight can be found somewhere on the bottom of the disc, either in pen or with a sticker, depending upon which manufacturer's discs you buy. Discs have a maximum weight based upon the diameter of the disc. Most modern drivers and putters will reach max legal weight in the 174-176g range while many old-school drivers and midrange discs will reach max legal weight closer to 178-180g or even higher. There is no minimum weight and you will often find discs produced in weights in the 140-150g range. These discs are known as "150 Class" discs.
As a general rule, heavier drivers are more accurate as they rip out of the hand more consistently, be less affected by wind, and will fly more overstable. Lighter drivers will fly farther and have more glide, with less low speed overstability. Midrange and approach discs will actually fly farther in heavier weights assuming that you have the power to throw them.
However, the key to successfully utilizing disc flight characteristics is to find the weight range that works best for your level of power (based on technique) and strength (based on your physical characteristics). If a disc is too heavy for your level of power and strength, you will not be able to throw it as well or as far as a lighter disc. If a disc is too light, it may turn over too easily as you build power. Ideally, you will find a weight range that gives you the best mix of distance and control.
It will probably take some experimenting to find the weights that are best for you. If you are an active adult male age 18-30, I generally recommend starting with a driver in the 167-169g range and working from there. For women and younger players I would suggest starting with a driver that is 166g or lighter. If you feel the disc is too light, try heavier with your next purchase. If you feel the disc is flying too overstable and with too little glide, try lighter. For midrange and approach discs, the weight is less important for success among newer players. I recommend whatever feels comfortable and adjusting weights in the future based upon your experiences. Overall, it is probably not a good idea to start out with maximum weight drivers but you may gravitate towards them in the future as you add more distance and are placing a greater premium on predictability and accuracy.
VII. What type of discs will I need in the future?
A “complete set” of discs generally will have discs to cover most shots you will need on the course after you have reached at least the tier 2 level of power. Before I cover this section in detail, I think it is worth mentioning the two schools of thought on how many discs are the “right” number to carry. The first I will call the “specialization view” and is based upon the idea that each disc is designed for a specific purpose when thrown flat. The second I will call the “minimalist view” and is based upon being able to throw each disc you carry as many ways as you need to.
The specialization view is fairly common amongst players that believe that the most consistent and accurate game is played when you throw every shot flat and carry a specific disc for every type of shot. Players who favor this technique often carry from 7 to 12 or more unique disc designs in order to fill their needs during a round, covering everything from very understable to very overstable in both their drivers and midrange discs. The strength of this style is that you will develop the most consistent delivery and with sufficient mastery of how your discs fly, can yield very good scores. The weaknesses of this style are that you must know your discs very well and it does not develop a full repertoire of shots. These is a common phase amongst newer players that experience disc buying addiction and want to discover how many discs fly (often found with “gadget” type people).
The minimalist view is more often found amongst long-time players that believe with the development of a complete game, you should be able to do the most with the least. These types of players usually carry 3-6 unique disc designs and use them for every shot they need. The strength of this style is that you develop the greatest amount of “disc skills” by learning how to make the disc fly differently with adjustment of angles, body placement, etc. The weakness of this style is that it is much more difficult to perform consistently while you are learning to throw. Generally players that favor this view prefer to know a few discs very well rather than having to learn many discs and throwing them in limited ways.
While I cannot say any view is superior to the other, I generally recommend a balance. My advice is to carry enough disc designs to where you can accomplish what you need to without extreme modifications to your throw that you cannot perform well. I believe it is very important to develop the basic shots and have a good feel for angles, trajectory, wrist-rolls, etc. but I also do not think people should force themselves to do without discs that are often quite necessary to have a complete shot selection. Basically, do not neglect adding discs to your bag, but also do not become overly dependent and require a unique disc for every drive on a course.
Generally, a “complete” set of discs includes discs that will fly straight, left curve, and right curve. For drivers, usually this can be accomplished with two to four unique disc designs. A stable driver is the cornerstone of your bag. A disc designed to fly straight at high speeds and not fade too much at low speeds will probably be the most common disc you throw out on the course. For right curves, players can either throw a broken in (beat up) version of their stable driver, or use a dedicated right curve disc that will turn over when new. For left curves and headwind drives, it becomes a bit more complicated. As of now, there are two types of overstable discs, discs that begin to turn left very quickly out of the hand and will hold a sharp left curve throughout their flight (I will call these type I overstable) whereas some discs will fly straight for the first half of their flight and finish with a strong left fade (I will call these type II overstable). Type I overstable discs will generally be a bit more predictable and be more useful for very sharp left curves and trick shots. Type II overstable discs will generally be better suited for straight drives into a headwind or for longer hyzer shots that require a less pronounced curve. Some harder throwing players (~380'+ distance) have enough power to use type II overstable discs as stable drivers but most average players will have difficulty controlling these discs when trying to throw straight. Which type you prefer will be based upon your throwing style and many people carry both types.
Most stable-approach and midrange discs are versatile enough after they are broken in a bit to hold the angles you put on them and often carrying one of each or a couple of each of these discs (usually in varying stages of wear) should cover what you need. Some players also like to carry one overstable midrange for sharp left curves that are not particularly long. One thing that I should emphasize is to learn to throw your midrange and approach discs for their maximum distance. Most players can eventually throw the longer midrange discs upwards of 300' (with pros often throwing them 400+) and stable putt & approach discs upwards of 250' or more (with pros often throwing them 350+). These discs will be more accurate in the long run as they are slower and fly with much more finesse. The comparison I make with ball golf is to think about hitting a 5-iron full vs. choking up on a 5-wood for the same shot.
Basically, this comes down to four to seven unique disc designs to cover most shots while still developing an array of shots. I have made lists classifying each disc type (some of which I have already listed above).
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