Right Person, Right Time
Right Person, Right Time
DiscGolfer interview with Doug Bjerkaas
Doug Bjerkaas is driven by making an impact. When he received the call to join the PDGA last year as Director of Operations, he had already demonstrated his long-standing commitment to growing disc golf. Whether he was designing and installing courses, founding the Rocky Mountain Women’s Disc Golf Championships or working for Dynamic Discs, Doug’s career has been noteworthy. His skill as a tournament director for numerous events, including several Elite Series and World Championships, won him the 2016 Brent Hambrick TD of the Year Award. It is this hard work and dedication over the years that has given him an intuitive understanding of what it takes for this sport to flourish.
As he steps into his new role as the fourth Executive Director in the history of the PDGA, he will draw from his diverse experiences and build upon the work of his predecessors: Brian Hoeniger, Brian Graham and Joe Chargualaf. He brings a deep resolve to be a good steward of the sport and to serve the membership. Doug walks us through his plans for taking the PDGA and the sport of disc golf to the next level. I sat down with Doug in person on January 19 at our International Disc Golf Center. — Cara Hovius, Senior Editor, DiscGolfer Magazine
CH: Tell us about your experience playing disc golf. What initially drew you into the sport?
DB: I had a screen-printing business in Abilene, Texas in the mid-90’s, and a guy came into the shop and said, "I need 40 t-shirts for a disc golf tournament." I gave him his price and he said, "Yeah, I can't afford that." He told me about disc golf, and I said, "You know, what if I put our logo on the back of the shirt and I'll do them for half price?" That was still too much. By the time he left my office, I gave him the shirts in return for two Wall City round bags with five discs in each and a private disc golf lesson for my wife and me.
We went out to the course, and I made the assumption that it would be easy. Having played lots of traditional golf, I figured it could not be as tough as that. I proceeded to shoot 36 over par. I loved it but hated that I was so bad at it. My wife was the same way. It turns out the guy that showed us the sport was an intermediate level player, although he seemed like a world champ that first time we played with him. When I first got the job as Executive Director, he was one of my first phone calls. I called him and said, "Hector Velez, I just want to thank you again for talking me into going to play disc golf." If it were not for Hector, I likely would not be here in this role today. This is one of the reasons I tell people that the best way to grow our sport is to take somebody out to a course. It’s a great way to make a difference.
My first focus was on throwing and putting better. But then I started getting to know the people. Disc golf is a vehicle for so much more than just the sport. When playing a round of disc golf, throwing might take five percent of your time. The other 95% of the time you're walking, and if you're playing a round by yourself, enjoying your surroundings. If you're with people, which is my preference, you're getting to know them and developing relationships with other human beings. It is hard to make friends like the friends I’ve made through disc golf.
CH: As someone who has gone from being Paige's dad to having an established career working at Dynamic Discs, what can you share about your experience working in the sport? What have you learned or enjoyed the most?
DB: I feel like since I started working full-time in disc golf, I have been able to make a greater difference on the sport. I started seeing things on a larger scale. I've been committed to this sport for a long time. But it started out on a smaller scale.
My journey started in 1997 when I volunteered to help run our weekly doubles league in Abilene. It was as simple as taking entry fees and writing names on a piece of paper, followed by a random draw for partners, and finishing with issuing payout. When we moved to Denver, I served as the tag master at the weekly Tuesday tag match at Expo Park in Aurora, Colorado. A few years later my good friend Ray Woodruff and I, along with the Mile High Disc Golf Club, started the Rocky Mountain Women’s Disc Golf Championships (RMWDGC). My wife, Noemi and youngest daughter, Paige were playing tournaments and often would get frustrated that there were only a few other ladies split amongst about as many divisions placed on random cards. Starting an event that was just for women is one of my proudest accomplishments in disc golf. Over the course of running that event, several FPO World Champions won including Catrina Allen, Valarie Jenkins, Sarah Hokom, Paige Pierce, and my daughter Paige Shue. As the RMWDGC grew, Dynamic Discs founder Jeremy Rusco started to take notice and offered me a part-time position as the Events Coordinator for the company. For the first year, I worked part-time for Jeremy and full-time for an education technology company which was my last job in higher education. That first year, I TD’d the Glass Blown Open (at the time the largest single site tournament in the history of disc golf) and the 2016 PDGA Pro Worlds event; the last time age-protected pros competed along with the MPO and FPO at the same site. Seeing Val Jenkins win her last world title and Ricky Wysocki win his first was very special. I was fortunate to win the Brent Hambrick TD of the Year award that same year. I feel that this award had as much to do with the RMWDGC as it did the GBO and Pro Worlds. This award was a great personal achievement but would not have been possible with those who worked with me on the events I helped organize. The amazing people associated with the Mile High Disc Golf Club and later the staff at Dynamic Discs made for excellent teams!
A few years later, while still at Dynamic Discs, we wanted to run a juniors major. We pitched the PDGA on a stand-alone Junior Worlds and the PDGA obliged, allowing us to run three consecutive iterations of the event. Seeing disc golfers like Gannon Buhr, Zach Arlinghouse, and Cynthia Ricciotti win junior world titles in Emporia was special. During my final year at Dynamic Discs, we hosted Pro Worlds again and saw Paul McBeth win his sixth and Kristin Tattar win her first world title.
My disc golf journey made a different kind of stop when I was asked by McBeth to be the co-chair of his new Paul McBeth Foundation. Working on this foundation showed me what an awesome opportunity it is to grow disc golf in underserved areas. The first project was a course in La Paz, Mexico. The impact this course has had on the local community is mind blowing! I am very proud of the efforts of both the Paul McBeth Foundation and Dynamic Discs to grow disc golf internationally.
I was also served as the President of the Board for the SockiBomb Foundation. Through that foundation, a basket and 50 discs were donated to at least one school in all 50 states in one year (2022). This too, is something I am very proud of, although it was a team effort from everyone working with the foundation.
CH: You have had some time to settle into the PDGA having joined as the Director of Operations last year. What was it that originally interested you in working for the PDGA?
DB: I got a call from the PDGA the day after the announcement was made that House of Discs was buying Dynamic Discs. I was asked if I would be interested and knowing there was going to be a lot of change at DD, I thought, "Yeah, that would be cool." I had been at Dynamic for seven plus years and more than that as a sponsored player. I wasn’t unhappy at Dynamic Discs by any means, I was just ready for a new challenge. The worst part of the transition was it required me to update my resume, which I had not done in years! I knew it was going to be different. But I started thinking that this could be an opportunity to really impact the sport more than I had been. This was the real draw; a chance to impact the sport on a larger scale. I made the move and I love it.
CH: Are there any opportunities upon which you feel we as disc golfers or disc golf as a whole should capitalize?
DB: I think that, first and foremost, we need to start thinking more globally. I, for the longest time, thought disc golf was an American sport but we are so much more as several other countries have been or are starting to play. There's a tournament coming up in India soon. New courses are opening in Mexico. Puerto Rico had their first tournament in December. We need to realize that we should continue to grow disc golf locally in our communities, but we also want to grow it globally. Disc golf is a sport for everybody.
It would be fantastic to have a formal scholastic program for high school disc golfers. I know that different states have some really strong and robust high school programs we can build upon. The collegiate program continues to grow with 700 plus disc golfers at the collegiate championships in North Carolina this past spring. For adults, that one-to-one sharing of disc golf with a friend is the most effective way to grow the sport. For kids and students, I think you do need a more programmed approach. I work with a lot of smart people at the PDGA and the youth and education initiatives are really exciting to see and be a part of.
More disc golf courses help with the growth of the sport as well. For every new championship-level course that could be used on the Disc Golf Pro Tour or host a Major, there should be at least 20 new short beginner-friendly courses. A lot of these should be nine-hole courses where new players are not set up to lose discs. Water is an awesome feature on courses, but if I went out to play my first round of disc golf and spent 30 bucks on a starter set and came home with one disc, I may not go back out and play again. They’re not sexy, and course designers aren't making posts saying, "Look at this awesome par 27, nine-hole course with no water and just a few trees." These courses are so important, and we can really capitalize on that.
I'm also very data driven. Data yields low hanging fruit, which is a great way to make a difference immediately. The StatMando purchase is going to yield benefits far greater than any of us can imagine. Dion Arlyn and the team are so talented. We have systems, like Disc Golf Scene and Tournament Manager that are repositories of a great deal of data that can be mined and analyzed to help us make decisions about future event-related growth.
CH: What do you think are the most pressing challenges for the sport?
DB: The most pressing challenge for the sport right now has to do with some of the hot topics, one of those being gender eligibility. It's very divisive in our sport, and we understand that this is an issue that people are very passionate about on both sides. If we're going to take a side on it, we are going to spend a lot of money. The last thing I would want to do is wake up one day and wonder where all the money went, why we can't help non-profits grow the sport, and why we can't continue to grow our major events. Rather than taking a large portion of our resources and putting them towards lawyers, I'd rather spend that money on the sport. These issues will be addressed at some point, and we need, as disc golfers, to realize that we can't be the ones to lead the charge and drive that decision. We would be doing ourselves a disservice in the long run. We need to take our resources and continue to grow and expand the sport.
Look for the full interview in the Spring 2024 issue of DiscGolfer Magazine