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Europe's biggest disc golf tournament draws thousands in Finland

In the past few decades, Finland has become obsessed with disc golf, and for a few days in July, the town of Nokia becomes the centre of the disc golf world.

Paul McBeth lines up his last putt on the 18th hole of the Nokia disc golf course, known also as the "the Beast". The American McBeth has won the Disc Golf European Open five times. Image: Matthew Schilke / Yle News

In Finnish, the term "kiekko" means puck or disc, and it's quite well-known that people in Finland go a bit wild over the sport played with a puck.

However, another kiekko sport has taken Finland by storm in the past few decades, but it isn't played with a puck, sticks or even on ice. It's played with a disc.

Disc golf, also known as Frisbee golf, is a big deal in Finland.

Featuring more than 800 of the courses across the country, Finland has the second-largest per-capita number of disc golf courses in the world, surpassed only by Iceland, according to a survey by disc golf statistics tracker Udisc (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

So it should come as no surprise that the Disc Golf European Open in Nokia, Finland has become one of the premiere professional disc golf tournaments in the world and the largest of its kind in Europe.

Switching out clubs for discs

The sport is similar to traditional golf, just with a few adjustments. Forgoing clubs, balls and holes, players try to get discs into baskets with hanging chains in as few attempts as possible. The same terminology is used as well—"birdie", "eagle" and "fore" are all borrowed from the original version of the sport.

Depending on the type of shot, players also switch out discs, often named by their counterparts from traditional golf clubs—"driver" and "putter". And while not as bulky as traditional golf bags, some players even have caddies of their own to help them carry their arsenals of discs.

Although they might seem similar, the style differs greatly from traditional golf—the Disc Golf European Open's sponsors included barefoot shoes, a popular Nordic tabletop game and, of course, numerous disc manufacturers.

At this point though, Finland now has more disc golf courses than traditional golf courses. There are a few reasons behind the sport's meteoric rise in Finland. Compared to other sports it is relatively inexpensive—for both equipment and use of the courses.

The sport caters to players of different skill levels, is family-friendly, and a way for people to get outside. Additionally, unlike traditional golf courses, disc golf can be played in forests, rather than carefully manicured fairways and greens—suiting Finland's natural terrain quite well.

Thousands in attendance

Originally hosted in Tampere in 2006, the event started being held at the Nokia disc golf course—also known as "the Beast"—in 2011. The 18-hole course is challenging, littered with obstacles and offers elite players a chance to truly test their skills.

The logo for Europe's preeminent disc golf tournament is a lion in mid-roar—a nod to Finland's coat of arms and ice hockey team and to remind competitors that this is no walk in the park. This year, the prize purse has grown to 100,000 euros, with a first place payout of 12,000 euros.

If someone could be found responsible for the rise of the sport in Finland, it might be Jussi Meresmaa, the Disc Golf European Open's brainchild.

He's a former professional disc golf player as well as the owner and founder of Discmania, a firm that's one of the event's primary sponsors.

Meresmaa said he was optimistic about the turnout for the event.

"Yesterday we had more than a thousand people, and today we expect more than two thousand, with more coming for the finals this weekend," he told Yle News on Friday.

The event takes place over the course of days with the competition starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday. People of all ages, especially families and kids, come to see some of the sport's top talents.

Disc golf's biggest names

Paige Pierce, an American professional disc golfer from Texas, has won the women's event twice— first in 2013 and again in 2019. She said few countries are better hosts for the sport than Finland.

Pierce said that during the player's meeting Meresmaa told the tournament participants that disc golf is extremely popular in Finland. Meresmaa confirmed that according to a VTT survey, disc golf was the number one hobby for 28 percent of Finnish school children.

As fans approached her to autograph her line of branded discs, Pierce said it was good to be back in Finland.

"It's great to be in the community of people that love disc golf so much," Pierce added in between scribbling out signatures for her admirers.

Another American player, Kat Mertsch from the US state of Arkansas, told Yle that this was her first time visiting Finland, but she already loved the country's enthusiasm for disc golf.

"It's not like this back in the States, it's more seen as a sport here. Americans are like, 'Frisbee, we're gonna go throw the frisbee around the park!'" she said gleefully.

"While here [in Finland] it's like, 'We are going to compete in disc golf,'" she said, in a more stoic voice.

Mertsch added that Finland's appreciation of disc golf is what the sport needs.

"They are really into it. It's good to see. It's good for the growth of the sport," Mertsch enthused.

Playing on home turf was Finland's Heidi Laine, who liked having the Disc Golf European Open return this year.

"It's great to play in front of family and friends and this is a really great event," Laine said.

While Pierce was ranked in second on Friday and Mertsch tied for third, Finland's very own Eveliina Salonen led the women's division with a total of four under par.

On Sunday, Pierce took the lead to win the open for her third time, coming in with a score of 12 over par, edging out Salonen's 15.

The men's competition also had its fair share of the sport's biggest names. American Paul McBeth, the five-time champion of the event, battled it out against his toughest competitor yet in the appropriately named Eagle McMahon, also an American. By the end of Friday, McMahon was leading with a total of 24 under par against McBeth's -23.

By the end of Saturday, both were tied with -32 as they looked to settle the score on Sunday.

Making his debut appearance in the open and his first visit to Finland was American Brodie Smith, one of the sport's most well-known players.

Smith started his career playing ultimate, a team sport that is also played with a disc, albeit a different style. His trick shot videos (siirryt toiseen palveluun) have garnered millions of views on YouTube. After a professional ultimate career plagued by injuries and a brief stint on the American TV reality series The Amazing Race, Smith decided to make the switch to disc golf in 2020 and try his luck at the professional circuit.

While admitting that he has to put in a lot of work on his game, Smith said it was great to play in Finland.

"The weather's great, it's awesome playing a tournament where the fairways are lined with fans, and it's an awesome course too," Smith told Yle News.

Smith, and many other players, were not surprised by Finland's enthusiasm for disc golf, as at this point the Nordic country's interest in the sport is well known.

"I looked at past tournaments out here, so I kind of had an idea there would be a lot of people" Smith explained, adding that at most tournaments only top groups have followings, but in Nokia there are spectators throughout the course.

Smith clarified that it wasn't just the number of fans, but how young they were.

"I think that's the craziest thing out here is just the amount of kids that come out. A lot of the pro tour events back home [in the US] it's mostly people over the age of 20, so seeing all the kids out here it just shows you that the sport is growing and it's probably going to get bigger and bigger out here," Smith noted.

Fans from near and far

The open tournament also attracts fans from around the world and thousands of enthusiasts came to Friday's event.

Sven, from Germany, said that he and his girlfriend arrived by camper van to take in the action.

"No," he laughed, "disc golf is nowhere near as big in Germany as it is in Finland."

This sentiment was shared by most spectators, revelling in how Nokia had turned into the centre of the disc golf world for a few days.

Per Stalås came from Stockholm to see the action. A disc golf aficionado and player, he also owns a store that sells disc golf gear in Sweden.

"Just the opportunity to see these people play live, it's a big step up from YouTube," he joked from the VIP section near the eighteenth and final hole of the course.

Duncan Ross came all the way to Nokia from northern British Columbia, Canada. He stopped in Nokia during a trip around Europe, but said this was the most important event on his itinerary.

"Sure seeing Europe is great, but this is truly something special. It's some of the best disc golf in the world and the atmosphere here is amazing," a smiling Ross told Yle News.

But not everyone had to travel from afar to watch the spectacle. A local Nokia resident, Seija, came out to view the event from her apartment which overlooks "the Beast". She said it was good to see the Tampere suburb host the event.

"It brings people from all over the world and it's interesting to watch. Before the event came to Nokia, I'd never heard of the sport, but now I always look forward," Seija said.