If you are new to the world of disc golf, you may be wondering what is meant by “flight numbers.” Outside of the sport, you may have only thought of a flight number as what you are scrambling to remember when rush hour traffic lands you at the airport gate with only minutes to spare before the boarding door closes.
Some think of flight numbers as in “the second flight of wine paired especially well with the charcuterie.” But flight path numbers here are much more about disc golf science and the way speed and angles play into the game.
You do not have to bring an advanced mathematics degree to the game to excel, and disc golf does not require a physics background to compete.
Many athletes excel simply because of natural ability; in the NBA, for example, you may not find an abundance of ultimate players who can rattle off the perfect angle of a free throw or the percentage of three-pointers landed from a particular spot on the court.
Understanding the science of a game or sport is helpful, though. In the case of disc golf, this is especially true as the numbers printed on the discs relate to what you can expect when you throw them, and we will walk you through those numbers here.
Once you start to understand what these numbers mean, you will have a much better idea of how to use that information as you play and improve your throws and your game overall.
How to Find and Read Disc Golf Flight Numbers
Before we get into disc golf numbers, now is a good time to point out the difference between discs and regular frisbees. If you assume you can play disc golf with an old plastic frisbee you found in the bottom of your beach bag, you are (mostly) wrong.
Frisbees can be used for practice tossing, but it is nowhere near a regulation disc. Disc golf dics are smaller and denser than frisbees. Frisbees can be around 12 inches in diameter, whereas a disc will be 8 inches.
Another important reason to distinguish between the two is the numbers representing flight patterns. You will not find these on the plastic frisbee that came in the radio station swag bag at a summer concert series!
Discs intended for disc golf will have four numbers on top. These numbers represent the flight pattern when the disc is thrown, and they are identified from left to right as follows:
- Lift or Glide
To understand a disc flight characteristics and patterns, you need to understand each of these four components.
This number tells you what the optimal speed is for that particular disc. On the subject of arm speed, it is important to remember that it is not just about the force with which you toss your disc.
The wind will play a role in the speed of your disc: a headwind will help a disc go faster, while a tailwind will slow it down. The more experienced you become with disc golf, the more you will pay attention to the wind when you are playing!
The optimal speed for the disc is when it will turn and fade.
Disc Lift or Glide
When we refer to lift or glide, we mean the disc’s ability to stay in the air. Clearly, gravity will play a role in this!
A disc stays aloft initially when it is thrown. The higher the disc’s glide, the further it will travel. The factor that influences glide more than any other is the shape of the disc. This shape is what air passes over and under when the disc is in flight.
In addition to shape, the glide is affected by the player. The way you throw your disc and the angle you use will have an impact on glide. If you choose to throw the disc at an angle where the wind is under the disc, it will achieve more glide. If there is more air across the top of the disc, it will have less glide. Less glide is also inevitably going to mean less distance.
When you throw your disc initially, you may start to notice the disc will turn right, or it will flip up in the air. This movement is the disc turn.
An easy way to picture the fade is to think of your disc fading off into maximum distance at the end of its glide. The fade describes the strength of the disc’s left turn once it nears the end of its flight.
It is important to note that the fade to the left is based on a right-hand throw. Of course, it will be the reverse if the player throws her disc with her left hand. Then the fade will be to the right.
Now That I Know the Numbers…What Do I Do With Them?
Your disc numbers help you strategize and choose the best possible disc for each throw. This is one area where disc golf resembles regular golf. Just as a golfer would make a specific choice to use a wedge for a particular shot, and he would not tee off with his putter, a disc golfer needs to choose specific discs based on the distance to the target and other conditions.
When it comes to using the numbers as a guide, nothing beats practice, practice, and more practice. The more you throw the discs and pay attention to the results you get with specific numbers, the better prepared you will be to make quick decisions in tournament play.
Flight Numbers for Beginners: How to Get Started
It can be overwhelming to make all of these choices, and some players feel pressure in group play and do not always pull the best disc for fear of holding up the group.
By spending a good amount of time practicing on your own and studying the numbers, you will become a more confident and intuitive player in no time.
When you start out in disc golf, the rule of thumb to live by is lower numbers. A distance driver with a speed of 9 or lower will be your best bet, especially until you really get the hang of controlling angles and accuracy in your throws.
A new player is often challenged by a disc speed of 10 or higher; they simply cannot get enough airtime with these discs. Even if you are a scratch golfer, a former baseball standout, or the ringer for your beach volleyball team, disc golf is a different game that requires a special touch. Athletic ability will certainly help you, but it does not mean you will get the hang of disc golf immediately.
Lower speed discs will help new players achieve the optimal speed and get predictable throws; you can always move up to higher speed discs later once you have mastered the basics.
Glide for Beginners: Another Reason for Lower Numbers
Beginners should still stick with distance driver speeds of 9 and under to get a high glide rating. The higher-speed discs will be rated with a higher glide rating, but it will do you no good if you cannot properly throw them yet.
Once you have mastered the basic throw, you will be able to focus more on glide.
What to Know About Disc Turn as a Beginner
A high turn disc rating will help a beginner achieve a longer flight. Understable discs, those with a high turn rating, will naturally want to turn over. You have to get the hang of throwing these in different winds, which will affect the turn. Again, we emphasize the need to practice, practice, and practice some more!
To improve your game, practice with both a high-turn disc rating and a low-turn disc rating until you master the feel of each.
And Finally, the Fade for a Beginner
As you now know, the fade is when the disc pulls to the left at the end of the disc’s flight. An overstable disc, one with a high fade rating (4 or higher), will always hook left.
How your fade plays out will be heavily affected by the disc flight speed. Optimal speed means a smooth flight with a hook at the end. When you do not achieve optimal speed—as is the case for many beginners—that disc will take a quick left hook into the ground.
This may leave a player feeling as defeated as a boxer who took a left hook to the jaw, but in time you will master the art of achieving optimal speed. By extension, this means you will master the art of the fade, too!
A low fade disc is easiest for beginner players, and it is also recommended that you practice with both low and high fade discs to get the hang of using them both.
More on Disc Stability
Now that we have introduced you to the concept of an overstable and understable disc, we will look at how that affects play. An overstable disc will end its flight with a hard hook to the left.
It will likely have disc numbers that read similar to these:
- Speed 9
- Glide 3
- Turn 0
- Fade 4
The 0 designation on turn means this disc is almost guaranteed not to turn right and will absolutely hook hard to the left.
On the other hand, an understable disc might come with these numbers:
- Speed 9
- Glide 5
- Turn -3
- Fade 1
It is a good disc for a beginner, typically producing an early turn to the right and ending its flight with less fade. The -3-turn rating means it will easily turn over to the right.
Finally, a stable disc performs as the name implies: it will turn right at the beginning of the flight, and then at the end of its flight, it will equally fade to the left. This is the type of disc that helps a beginner make accurate throws.
For stable discs, look for a set of numbers close to these:
- Speed 9
- Glide 4
- Turn -2
- Fade 2
Building Your Disc Golf Bag: Variety Is Key
If you are trying to determine what discs to buy and pack in your disc golf bag, you need to ensure you have a good mix. A bag full of only understable discs means you will not be prepared when it comes to different conditions on the disc golf course.
The best players carry a bag that holds a few different types of each disc. Some serious players will have bags that hold 20 or more discs, meaning they are prepared for absolutely any scenario.
There are tons of great choices for disc golf bags (trust us: you want to buy a bag specific to disc golf to stay organized during play). Check out our guide to the best disc golf bags at every price point.
The Numbers Matter…But They Are Not the Whole Picture
It is important to learn about disc golf numbers and apply that knowledge to your choices during practice, league play, and tournaments. However, the numbers are not the entire story when it comes to strategy in disc golf.
Wind, angles, and other variables are going to affect the way your disc performs. The numbers are your jumping-off point: they guide you toward likely results, but those results are by no means guaranteed.
The best and most expensive set of golf clubs in the world may never produce a hole-in-one for a golfer, and your discs are only as good as the choices you make when you throw them.
Those choices will get better and even more intuitive when you practice, practice, practice! There is simply no better way to learn how the disc numbers play out in real-time scenarios, and there is no better way to perfect your throws and get ready to compete.
Trying your hand at a wide variety of discs and playing in various conditions is the best way to grow in the game of disc golf.