Friday, February 4, 2011

The Vibram Disc Golf Review 'Preview'

When I began playing disc golf more than 20 years ago, all discs were basically the same in terms of material. They were all plastic, and they were pretty much all the type of plastic we now refer to as DX (Innova's term) or Pro-D (Discraft's). Yet despite the fact that the market for golf discs is now inundated with a continual flood of new models - most available in at least three grades of plastic - one thing has remained constant: They've always been made from plastic. Until now.

A couple years ago, yet another company decided to vie for a share of the steadily-growing golf disc market, and it's decision is significant for two reasons. First, the company is Vibram, whose founder is credited with inventing the first rubber soles for shoes. Their numerous products are manufactured in Brazil, China, Italy and here in the U.S. More than 1,000 footwear makers use Vibram's rubber soles in their products. You've most likely seen their ubiquitous little octagonal yellow logo on the bottom of hiking and work boots.

To paraphrase the character Ron Burgundy from the movie 'Anchorman,' they're kind of a big deal. In fact, in the comparatively tiny cottage industry that is the disc golf world, they're a very big deal. This is the first time a large multinational corporate name has entered the disc golf marketplace in a significant way. The implications of that may prove to be far-reaching, but for now it's enough to understand that disc golf has reached a point that it has attracted the attention of a corporation the size of Vibram. And so far, Vibram seems to have a strategy of growing the market for its disc golf products by growing the popularity of the sport in general. In a short period of time, it has become a major sponsor of two annual events, and a documentary film that will debut at the Pro Disc Golf World Championships in Santa Cruz, CA this Summer. Check out details of each if you're interested:

The fact that Vibram is all about rubber is the second part of the significance of their entry into the disc golf market, and the reason I wanted to write this review (yeah, I'm getting to the actual disc review). Although there are more golf disc brands out there than ever, Discraft and Innova still have an iron-fisted grip on the market. Ironically, if Vibram is successful it will be largely because of grip. You see, their discs are made of rubber (or as they put it, a rubber compound) and they claim that rubber makes for a better grip, and a more durable disc with flight characteristics that change much less than all plastic discs over the life of the disc. If they are right, and if those two factors end up affecting the purchase decisions of the average disc golfer, we may see a future where the answer to the question 'What kind of plastic are you throwing" is "none- I'm throwing rubber." But the proof is in the putting (and the drive, and the upshot), so let's get to the review.

Vibram sent me one sample each of the four models they currently market: The VP, the Ridge, the Summit, (all putters) and the Ascent, a fairway driver. Before I get into specifics on each disc, a few general notes:
  • All their putters are available in three 'firmnesses' of their X-Link rubber compound- soft, regular, and firm. I appreciate the straightforwardness of these labels, as opposed to a certain coffee franchise that insists on calling a large a 'Venti'. But I digress. The soft is extremely soft. Other adjectives come to mind, like floppy, bendy, and even sticky. But curiously this pliability doesn't affect the stability. The regular firmness is much more like a regular plastic disc to the touch, but still noticeably grippier, and their Firm blend is still as grippy as, or more so than, an old-school, low grade plastic golf disc.
  • I didn't get to test the same disc model in different grades of rubber, so I can't comment on how the flight characteristics vary in the same model when the firmness is different. But as you'll read in my review of the VP, I doubt it varies much.
  • After a month of play on several Santa Cruz, CA area courses (plenty of rough terrain, including rocks, trees, roots and dirt), all four discs have held up very well. None of my sample putters suffered any nicks or cuts to the rim, and the sharper-edged Ascent driver only has a minor nick on the inside rim. To me that's especially notable since with plastic, the softer or grippier the disc the more likely it'll show wear and tear.
  • According to Steve Dodge of Vibram Disc Golf, they plan to release a couple mid-range discs in 2011, which I am particularly eager to test. To me superior grip is especially important when the shot requires pinpoint accuracy.
  • Rather than embrace the existing flight ratings charts shared by other disc manufacturers and retailers, Vibram has created its own system. Give them credit for conceiving an entirely new method for measuring disc flight characteristics, one that is arguably more scientific and logical. But their method for measuring Fade and Turn in a disc is based on a listed optimal speed, defined by how fast the disc must be traveling to fly flat in terms of MPH (miles-per hour). Since most of us don't have radar guns handy this isn't very practical, but we can do the next best thing which is to figure out the relative speed of a disc, that is, how discs compare to other discs we're more familiar with. All in all, I found their discs to be consistent in practice with the ratings they give them, which is the important thing. And as Dodge explained to me,"the system is forward looking because once we have a complete line-up of discs, a player will be able to say, 'this driver works for me, so this mid should work for me'. I think this is better than the current systems which don't help a player find a suitable next disc."
 Coming soon, (after I've had a chance to play with the Vibram discs for awhile and test Vibram's claim of superior durability) the individual disc reviews of the Vibram VP, Ridge, Summit, and Ascent!

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