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Anthony Barela, Eveliina Salonen Win DGPT Season Opener

Originally published at: https://discgolf.ultiworld.com/2024/02/26/anthony-barela-eveliina-salonen-win-dgpt-season-opener/

Anthony Barela (center) is congratulated by Paul McBeth. Photo: DGPT

Curiosity breeds in the off season. The imagination of the average disc golf fan starts to run wild in the long, dark, two-and-a-half months since the top professionals competed for a Disc Golf Pro Tour win. Will the stars of 2023 reprise their roles? Will we see new breakout winners?

The Chess.com Invitational — complete with chess superstar Magnus Carlsen on hand — gave us some early answers as Anthony Barela and Eveliina Salonen silenced critiques of their games with strong showings to win the first event of the DGPT season.

Barela finds his relaxed place

Anthony Barela’s name has been on everyone’s radar since he won the World Junior Championships in 2013. He was throwing huge distances as a 15-year-old and is now one of the premier long throwers in the game. But since he started to tour in 2016, Barela’s story has been more about his potential than his results. That narrative peaked at hole 16 in the European Open last summer, where he threw away a four-stroke lead trying to get over the notorious arc of haybales and on to the island green. However, observers at the Olympus course this weekend noticed a different demeanor in the tall kid from Arizona: the negative self-talk was gone and replaced by a steely calm. The word was that Barela had been working on his mental game.

Barela shared the lead with Ricky Wysocki, Joseph Anderson, and Niklas Anttila after round one, then charged away to a four stroke lead in round two, only to falter slightly on the closing holes to allow a fast finishing Wysocki back to within one stroke on the final turn. Barela again got away in the final round, on the strength of a clean card and seven birdies, to lead by five strokes with three holes to play. The ghosts of Nokia Park, Finland, seemed to be in everyone’s mind but his.

“I didn’t think about that once all weekend,” said Barela. “I dwelled on it for about a month after it happened then I tried to get it out of my mind. I felt comfortable having that lead the whole way. I know now I can clutch up and execute when it really matters.”

It needn’t have come down to that final nervous approach to the elevated green on hole 18, but Barela’s drive on hole 16 slid out of bounds left in almost the exact same place it had in round two. A double bogey six on that hole left the door open for Wysocki and that ‘stumbling at the final hurdle’ narrative.

“That hole just confuses me, I don’t understand it, “said Barela afterwards. “I can’t seem to play it right. I was a bit shaky there but that comes with the nerves and if you’re not feeling them, you’re not loving what you are doing, and I love disc golf.”

Another Wysocki birdie on hole 17 and Barela held a two stroke advantage on the hole 18 tee. Both he and Wysocki hit the fairway clean with their drives.

He threw his approach to circle’s edge beyond the basket but safely on to the green. Knowing that victory was his barring a Wysocki throw in, Barela showed the first strong emotion he had all weekend. He was able to lay up and tap in for his first big win.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Barela said. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. All the losses are worth it now.”

When asked about what exactly he’d been doing in the off season to develop his mental game, Barela said “I started doing a ton of ice baths and stuff like that and I went to steam rooms and meditated a little bit. It helps me get relaxed and now I can find that relaxed place. It helped me this week execute all my shots.”

Wysocki was able to hang on for a second place finish, holding off Aaron Gossage, who shot a course record eight-under-par 58 to climb into third.

Could this win be the key to unlocking Barela’s full potential? It certainly sends an ominous warning to the rest of the MPO field this year.

Eveliina returns to the top of the podium

Eveliina Salonen (right) is high-fived by fellow Finn Henna Blomroos. Photo: DGPT

While the MPO leaderboards for much of the 2023 DGPT often resembled a bike racing peloton — with a pack of contenders heading into the final rounds and a winner often emerging only in the last few holes — the FPO competition was more about the head-to-head battles: Kristin v Ella, Kristin v Missy, or Kristin v Ohn. If the Chess.com Invitational is any guide, then this year may be more open.

After two rounds (sans Kristin), there were four additional contenders all within three strokes of the lead shared by Ella Hansen and Holyn Handley. Missy Gannon was one stroke back, Eveliina Salonen and Natalie Ryan were two strokes back, and Henna Blomroos was three strokes away. By halfway through the final round, it looked like a battle between Salonen and Gannon as the rest of the contenders either failed to convert birdie chances or found trouble.

Just like her co-winner in MPO, Salonen has some ghosts of tournaments past to exorcise. Eveliina’s yips on the putting green had cost her many chances to contend in the almost four years since she last won on tour (WACO, 2020). In the USWDGC last year, she putted 56% from C1X; at the Throw Pink, 68%; and at the MVP Open, 78%. Compare this to the final round at the Chess.com Invitational, where she putted 89% from C1X, and you don’t have to look too far for the key statistical reason for her success.

She long has ranked at the very top of the driving categories but often found herself dead last among touring players around the green. Some green shoots in her putting towards the end of last season appear to have taken root.

Salonen birdied five of the final nine holes on her way to a provisional 1031-rated 8-under par round and a comfortable five stroke win over Ella Hansen, who took second place from Gannon after Missy dropped three strokes in the final two holes to finish in a tie for third with Holyn Handley at 10-under par.

“I feel really good,” said Salonen after her win. “I’m so relieved. It’s been a long wait for this one. I want to thank my friends and family for believing in me when I haven’t always believed in myself. They have always believed in me.”

On a course designed for shot shaping, the power throwers still prevailed

Paul McBeth expressed his dissatisfaction with many of the converted ball golf courses on the DGPT last year, lamenting how fairway drivers were being made extinct on courses where a power hyzer and putter upshot was the way to attack most of the holes. So it was no surprise that when the property he co-owns with Chicago White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease made its debut on the tour that the holes would be highly technical. “I think he likes to make us suffer,” joked Simon Lizotte before the tournament.

In his pre-tournament press conference, McBath said how pleased he was to see the variety of discs that players were using off the tee. Yet the final standings show that all of the top five finishers in MPO and four out of the top five in FPO were players renowned for their power game, rather than their finesse. It points to those players having worked on their technical game in the off season and suggests that the top ranks of the DGPT this year will be no place for players without arm speed.

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