Urbandale teen is disc golf rising star

URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) — The sun was starting to set on a warm November day as Gannon Buhr walked off the disc golf course at Urbandale’s Waterford Park. Buhr stops when a man walking a dog notices him.

“Great season this year,” the man yells to Buhr, who was out trying some new discs.

He didn’t know the fan, but these interactions on the disc golf course are common for Buhr, one of the sport’s top players in the world. He can stroll in and out of most places around Iowa and go unrecognized. But the second he steps on a course, it seems everyone knows him.

“It’s cool to a certain extent,” Buhr told the Des Moines Register. “Sometimes I just want to go out and practice myself and tune the world out.”

At age 17, the Urbandale resident and Waukee Northwest High School student racked up nearly $90,000 in prize money in 2022 and tallied a victory in one of the sport’s top events. After quickly rising to fame, he could be even better next year. That’s why he’s one of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch for 2023.

“I think it’ll be very big because people are looking for him to prove that he is actually that good and it wasn’t just a fluke,” said disc golf star Will Schusterick.

Buhr played flag football, was a pitcher in baseball, tried basketball and even played golf, with a regular club and a small ball.

But none of those sports stuck with him. Disc golf did. He got into it when he was around 9 years old by using a disc golf basket in his neighbor’s yard.

Disc golf offered him something most of those other sports didn’t. Buhr had complete control of his results and didn’t need to rely on teammates to get him the ball, force a stop or make a big play. Buhr was the entire team.

The sport requires participants to throw discs, smaller than frisbees, into a basket in as few tries as possible. It requires precision, focus and coordination. But it’s also accessible to people of all ages and many physical abilities.

And it has become increasingly popular. According to UDisc, which helps players find the often-free courses, the number of courses in the U.S. has grown from a few hundred a few decades ago to more than 9,000 today. Travel Iowa says the state has more than 300 courses and nearly 100 tournaments, making it, potentially, “the amateur disc golf capital of the world.”

Buhr traded his junior golf clubs for golf discs and baskets. He arranged a set in the backyard of his family’s Urbandale home.

“We lived on, like, a park. There was a lot of room to throw everywhere,” Buhr said.

Buhr played as often as he could, even if there was a foot of snow on the ground. He learned forms and techniques by watching YouTube videos of some of the sport’s biggest players. His favorite was Schusterick, now a three-time United States Disc Golf Championship winner.

Buhr and his mother, Michelle Nesheim, followed Schusterick around at a tournament so Buhr, who was around 10 years old, could watch the star play. He made an impression on Schusterick, who posed for a picture with Buhr and gave him a disc.

“I wasn’t even playing well … but after every shot, he would clap,” Schusterick said.

Buhr competed in his first tournament in June 2015. Later that year, he won his first victory, at Maytag Park in Newton. The prize was $70 that he could use to purchase discs. He bought four and kept playing.

Buhr put up a new net in his basement to practice throws and a basket to improve his putting. As he got better, he competed more. Tournaments across the country became family vacations.

“All of our time has been spent at disc golf tournaments,” his mother said.

By 2017, Buhr won the 2017 PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) Amateur and Junior Disc Golf World Championship. The following year, he tallied eight wins. In 2019, he added another PDGA Junior Disc Golf World Championship and finished the year with seven victories.

Buhr joined the Disc Golf Pro Tour, the highest level of competition, in 2021. In October of 2022, he won one of the sport’s most prestigious events, the United States Disc Golf Championship. Buhr, who had turned 17 just five months earlier, became the youngest player to win the event and earned a $25,000 payout.

“It’s been within the last couple of years that I thought, ‘You know, I think this could actually go somewhere,’” Nesheim said.

At the same time, he’s still a student at Waukee Northwest. He said teachers have been accommodating about his schedule, letting him miss as much time as he needs as long as he keeps up on his schoolwork. That’s not always easy. According to a write-up of his championship victory on United States Disc Golf Championship’s website, he said he was “very behind” on his school work at the time.

He’s had precious little time for other typical teenage pursuits. Buhr has yet to buy a car. Because of his hectic schedule, he hasn’t even gotten his license yet.

Fans treat him like a celebrity at tournaments, his mother said.

“They have set up areas for autographs and things like that after the tournament,” Nesheim said. “When he’s walking around the area, he gets a lot of people coming up to him, a lot of little kids and some older people and really kind of all ages. So, it’s pretty cool.”

Buhr has won 24 events and as of late November had accumulated $106,869 in career earnings. He believes he reached the $100,000 plateau faster than any player in the history of the sport.

That doesn’t include the money he receives in endorsement deals from his five sponsors, who pay him to wear their clothing or throw their discs.

Buhr has also become a social media star, with more than 31,000 followers on his Instagram account @gannon_buhr_dg. The account is full of videos of Buhr hurling discs and working on his game.

“Dude, you killed this season. I knew it was coming. You’ve got a long, successful career ahead of you. To be where you are at the age you are is a gift. Keep having fun, enjoy the ride,” one person wrote on a Buhr Instagram post.

Buhr says the money is nice and the fame is interesting, but it’s not what drives him. Most of his earnings have gone into the bank, he said. He hasn’t splurged on any big purchases. He bought some nice shoes and some LEGO sets, he said.

What’s important to Buhr is getting better.

“Paul McBeth is our Tiger Woods of disc golf,” said disc golf player Gavin Babcock. But he said of Buhr, “He’s definitely got the potential to overtake that title.”

Buhr does not plan to go to college. He’s found his career.

“People are expecting a lot,” Buhr said. “But, I think, I’ll be even better.”

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