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Feldberg adding jewels to the crown of disc golf king

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    David Feldberg has made a solid career of throwing the discs towards the metal basket with seven major championships. CONTRIBUTED
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    David Feldberg accepts his prize for winning the Pro Masters World 40+ on Aug. 7 in Johnson City, Tennessee. That oneshot victory made him a three-time champion in the bracket. CONTRIBUTED
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    The David Feldberg family includes wife Synthya and son Leomax. CONTRIBUTED

In disc golf, this is not just a legendary career. It is arguably THE legendary career.

David Feldberg, who has resided in Putnam County for five years with his family, turned more than one “never walk again” or “never play again” prognosis around to become the best in the world.

For the third time, Feldberg won the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) Pro Masters 40+ World Championship. The competition for 2021 – after 2020’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19 – was in Johnson City, Tenn., and he scored 60-under-par in six rounds of play.

The entire field played the first four rounds, 18 holes, and Feldberg’s scores were 13-under, 8-under, 12-under and 9-under. Then there was a cut and a semifinal round where the champion of 2018 and 2019 scored 13 under. Yes, with another cut but only nine holes for the final round, he was 5 under to win by one.

Only one time through this entire event did he score above par on a hole.

Feldberg has gone all over the world to play disc golf and starting in 2008 he was ranked No. 1. This is also the year he won one of seven major championships, the PDGA Men’s Open World held in Kalamazoo, Michigan, by 15 strokes.

Another accomplishment for 2021, also at the Pro Masters, is four years in a row as doubles champion with first-time partner Philo Brathwaite. This is played like Ryder Cup competitions with the better ball and alternate shot formats.

Feldberg is originally from suburban Washington, D.C. His family moved to Michigan when he was 10, and he attended Western Michigan, where he got into disc golf as a 20-year-old. After being in a major car accident while in high school, he broke an ankle playing soccer in college.

But instead of never walking again, Feldberg claimed his first major, the United States Disc Golf Championship in 2005. This is always held in Rock Hill, S.C. His other majors include two European Opens in 2006 and 2011, both held in Finland; the Japan Open in 2008, the Players Cup in 2007 in Florida and the 2010 Scandinavian Open in Sweden. There’s eight second places, two thirds and 34 top 5s in 53 major appearances.

Feldberg’s introduction to disc golf came when he went to meet his usual group of friends in college, and they told him they were going to play Frisbee golf. They ended up going to a park he wasn’t familiar with not far from his family home.

“They beat me pretty bad,” said Feldberg. “I’m very competitive, so I practiced for a week, challenged them again and surprised them. Not by beating them but playing as good as them.”

One week of practice vs. guys who played every day consistently for three years. Those friends encouraged Feldberg to get involved in disc golf leagues. One year into playing in a local league, he was encouraged further to enter the world amateur championships.

“I didn’t know there were tournaments,” said Feldberg. But he paid the entry fee and membership dues to the PDGA. “I show up with a plastic bag with three (discs) in it. They all have full golf bags, 30 discs, caddies, dressed in full gear with sponsors. I got 188th out of 216.”

The eye-opening experience motivated Feldberg to practice further, and one year later he was runner-up going into the final round. He’s now dealing with spectators for the first time.

“I choked,” said Feldberg, falling to seventh place. “Still, 188th to seventh in one season drew some attention from professional people.”

He said there were players good enough to go to any town and win up to $2,000 on a weekend. Feldberg was offered the chance to travel with them, so he made the choice to drop out of college and toured as an amateur for three months before turning pro.

“I was on tour in a Winnebago for six seasons, and that’s hard life,” said Feldberg. “We would only come home for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Fortyseven weeks of the year I was in a different city playing.”

His travel companions “burned out,” but Feldberg continued as the sport grew. He was only making between $10,000 and $20,000. He made another academic-based decision to return to college, and he and fellow player Avery Jenkins enrolled at the University of Oregon in 2005.

Feldberg was pursuing degrees in Japanese and business management with a goal to work for the investment banking company J.P. Morgan in Tokyo. He said he knew the path to making big money there, but he was also trending upward in the rankings of disc golf, No. 2 in the world during his third year at Oregon. Then it’s 2008, he’s graduating school, won the Men’s Open World and became the best in the sport.

Being the best meant royalties, discs with his name on it, bonuses. Feldberg looked at the downside of moving to another country, mainly losing connection with his home country and everybody he knows.

“I chose to follow disc golf,” he said. During the next six years, Feldberg met his future wife Synthya. He also suffered another physical setback with a neck injury that required surgery. Playing fulltime disc golf became more difficult, and he went through spell wondering what he was going to do.

It was Synthya who knew Feldberg was good at running disc golf tournaments. So he tried it, and that led to the formation of his own amateur tour. It featured 12 events in eight states.

“People started noticing it, investors,” said Feldberg. “They came to me and said, ‘You should expand this to a national thing.’ We expanded it to 150 events.”

The National Amateur Disc Golf Tour was not a money-making venture, but he stuck with it with part-time involvement while trying to be a regular player. In 2020, he said Synthya told him he had to make a decision, and that decision was to be the director full-time. So far in 2021, this tour’s had 14,000 competitors in its 230 tournaments in every state but one (West Virginia) and Canada. To compare, Feldberg said there’s around 5,000 pro tournaments with competitors numbering six figures.

Feldberg’s tour will stage a national championship in Austin, Texas, in October with 1,400 players from around the world.

“That’s become my passion now,” said Feldberg, whose wife was an amateur player and saw a need for a well-run tour at that level. “I took her to my professional tournaments. They were all roll out the red carpet. They fed me. They had tents. Media. She said this is not what you get in the amateur tournament. She said you don’t know that because you haven’t played amateur in 20 years.

“Our slogan for players is ‘Take your first step into competitive play, or your final step into professionalism.’ It’s working like a minor league.”

At the Disc Golf Pro Tour Elite Series event called the Idlewild Open in Burlington, Kentucky, held Aug. 13-15, the winner was Kyle Klein, who won Feldberg’s tour in 2019.

Disc golf is scored just like the golf Tiger Woods plays, but the arm is the club. Discs are thrown off a tee pad area, and the hole is a catching device made of metal known as a basket. The discs are smaller and thinner than a Frisbee one would throw around at a park. They also come in four custom sizes for either driving, fairway play or putting.

“One of the reasons I didn’t take the (J.P. Morgan) job is, being able to travel around the world was something I always wanted to do,” said Feldberg. “I don’t do it anymore because I’m not good enough. When you are the top ranked guy, every country, when they run a tournament, wants to offer you to come.”

So he’s packed his bags for Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most of Europe including Estonia and Iceland. Feldberg said most of his wins didn’t come easily.

The one-shot win at the Pro Masters came after a year where Feldberg picked up the training pace for 2020. As back-to-back 40+ winner, he not only wanted to continue that string but take more shots at the “kids” on the pro tour. He ran up to three miles every morning.

At his first pro event in 2020, after two rounds Feldberg got sick. The pandemic was a week away, and while Feldberg won’t say he had COVID-19, he did say his symptoms were pretty close. With tournaments then being cancelled, so ended his training, taking him to “the worst shape of my life.”

A month away from the Pro Masters of 2021, Feldberg saw he was in trouble. All of the competition was playing week after week, and he was still idle. He got back to running and managed to eke out the win against what he called “fantastic” players.

“I’m trying to achieve the record,” said Feldberg. “Five overall.” That’s held by Brad Hammock of Decatur. He won his five between 2002 and 2010.

Feldberg then went to the Idlewild Open and tied for 10th (19-under).

“I still have it, but I have a business and a family (with 2-year-old son Leomax). I’m 44, and I can still hang with them, but where’s my future? When I’m 54, I’m not going to be able to hang with them,” said Feldberg.

Now residing by Lake Sinclar, Feldberg noticed a lack of disc golf in this portion of Georgia. It’s something the family would like to change.

“Our goal is to put a course in Eatonton, one in the Lake Oconee area and one in Milledgeville over the next few years,” he said. “It’s an affordable activity. One of the best things about disc golf is your 70-year-old grandmother and 10-year-old son can play together and have fun. It’s really family driven.

“If I can get these courses installed, it would be really nice to provide this for the community. The only thing I have to do is find in the community local businesses who want to support it so we can afford to put the courses in. It’s not expensive. Putting in a disc golf course, under $20,000. It will last for a long time. It doesn’t lose value. If someday the community doesn’t want it anymore, they can sell the equipment. People will buy it. You’re not going to lose any money if it doesn’t take off.”