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Alumni Spotlight: Eaton finds competitive outlet as disc-golf pro
by Chuck Gordon

Being a lefthander is often an advantage in sports. You can wrongfoot a defender who is expecting you to zig rather than zag. Or you can deliver the ball from an angle that the batter or service returner just doesn’t see very often.

But for Andrea Eaton ’98’s athletic pursuit of choice, being left-handed only occasionally proves beneficial.

“I would say it’s a disadvantage most of the time,” says Eaton, a 44-year-old professional disc golfer, who plays on courses designed almost exclusively by right-handers. “There’s a hole on the course for the U.S Nationals that I might throw right-handed, legitimately.”

Andrea Eaton holding a disc-golf disc

The burgeoning game of disc golf, which gained in popularity last year as a pandemic-friendly recreational activity, captivated Eaton later in life. Through her 20s, she preferred more-active sports, such as basketball. A shooting guard with a deadly outside shot, Eaton helped Wingate make a pair of trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in her first two seasons, followed by a conference title as a junior, when she averaged nearly 12 points per game. She once hit eight 3-pointers in a game (a win over Catawba).

She was competitive, but aside from a short stint with a semipro team, she left athletic pursuits behind after graduation, moving on to earn a master’s degree, coach basketball and run fitness centers.

Then she played her first disc-golf tournament.

“Disc golf was fun to do, to go for a hike and hang out with your friends, but I didn’t really get the competitive side of it,” Eaton says. “In August of 2017 I signed up for an all-women’s tournament, just to see what it was all about. And I loved it.”

It wasn’t easy to get good enough to compete with the best in the world. Conceptually, disc golf is much like it’s more famous forebear. Using drives, approaches and putts, players try to get their disc in a specially designed basket in the lowest number of strokes.

Disc-golf discs are made in a variety of molds and plastics, and each one behaves slightly differently. Some fly straight; others turn quickly or have a long fade at the end. Learning how to throw properly takes time, especially when fairways are carved out of forests.

Andrea Eaton putts a disc into a basket

And especially playing courses that tend to benefit righties.

“It’s hard,” Eaton says. “I think being an athlete, there’s an advantage to that. The cool thing about it is anybody really can play it, but it’s hard. I would go out and take an 8 on different holes. I just happened to really like it once I started playing competitively and practiced every day. I mean, every day.”

In 2018, Eaton decided to try her luck as a professional, and for the past four years she’s dipped in and out of the pro tour, notching 25 wins and impressive showings in large A-tier tournaments.

It’s a rough way to make a living, which is why most pros have day jobs. The money is getting better – the men’s and women’s winners of the 2020 tour finale each took home $20,000, and one of the best players ever, Paul McBeth, recently signed a 10-year, $10 million sponsorship deal – but it’s not unusual for a top-10 performance to net a player only a couple of hundred dollars. Eaton’s best payday in the first half of 2021 was the $1,000 she took home for winning the Pro Masters division at the Las Vegas Challenge in February. Through July, Eaton had six wins, 11 top-three finishes and $2,700 in winnings in 2021, and had become one of only 56 women to ever notch a 1,000+-rated round.

It’s doubtful that Eaton will ever be able to tour full-time, but a midyear career change last year has enabled her to spend her summers going from tournament to tournament. In July of 2020, Eaton packed up her things in Colorado, where she’d lived for five years, and moved back to the Carolinas. She is now a physical education teacher at East Union Middle School, five minutes away from her old college stomping grounds.

Eaton, 43, loves her job and the kids she teaches. And she knows the touring life is best left to 20-somethings. Hailey King won the tour championship last year at the ripe old age of 19. “I could be their mom!” Eaton says of many of her competitors. But part of her still dreams.

“I would love for it to be my job,” she says. “I’m a little – OK, a lot – older than the people who are doing it. But you know, they live in their van. They live in their car. They travel place-to-place.”

She pauses, then adds: “I would totally do it.”