I wrote this article for Disc Golf World News #32. Please note that when it was written in December of 1994, the masters age was still 35, there no such thing as ratings existed, and Ken Climo was establishing his rep as the best disc golfer ever with his sixth straight world championship title. I believe it's relevant to some of the discussions we have has had out here this year concerning leagues (pro, pro 2, masters) and rewards at the KCWO, but its intent was to make top-level tournaments more marketable. Love to hear what people think. Warning, it's Loomis-like long!
Looking at Pro Golf—Risk, Rewards, Divisions
by Rick Rothstein
Most competitive players look at disc golf tournaments as a place to meet and compete, ideally in a division where the competition is fair; where there is a chance for reward. A sports-minded onlooker, or fan, views a disc golf competition differently; to find out “who’s the best player out there that weekend.” This relates to the most primal reason that people started to gather for tournaments in the first place: to discover “who’s the best man?” or “who’s the best woman?” I think that the proliferation of playing divisions and how we reward these various divisional winners have diluted our competition.
Some tournaments these days offer so many divisions they should call it a birthday tournament. “We’ll form a division for the people who were born on the date of your birth.” Seriously, we have been adding divisions so quickly, with little or no foresight, that sometimes there might be four men shooting the same score for four rounds who never played each other because one was open, one was master pro, one was advanced, and one was am master. This isn’t right. Players of the same skill level should be playing in the same division.
Relatedly, how the entry money is distributed is often not correct. I think that the best player should get the biggest reward and then the divisional runners-up should get correspondingly lesser rewards. It’s not unusual these days to see an advanced player, who might have made $80 as an open player, walk away with 30 discs with a street value (and discs are easily sold) of over $200. Similarly, a master might win his division with a score that would have netted him $100 in the open, but instead takes home two or three times that amount. I don’t think this is right either.
My reference here is to our most competitive tournaments; the ones we would like to showcase to the public, and to sell to sponsors. It’s at these events where most of the players are in the pro divisions, but also to be found is a sizable core group of amateurs who are playing with a pro-like goal: to win as many prizes as possible. For pure amateur golf, I think it’s healthy and desirable to offer lots of divisions in order to provide positive reinforcement to as many players as possible. For example, it would be great to see junior divisions for 8- and 9-year olds, 10- and 11-year olds, 12-13, etc. Or for adult amateurs, playing primarily for the experience, there could be age divisions at five year increments such as 20-24, 25-29, etc.
Most people would agree that creating divisions by gender is legitimate. So, for the rest of the time here, I will be focusing on men’s golf.
I think there’s general agreement that it’s proper to create divisions in professional disc golf based solely on age, but there is disagreement about what age is correct. Should a “senior” division be created at 35? I think not.
Before giving the reasons why I think that 35 is too young, I want to examine what players make up the masters division. I see four distinct groupings. There are the long-time players who came up before there were amateur divisions, who proudly, if not too successfully, toiled for years in the open as pros. With anxious anticipation, they look forward to joining what they perceive as the less-competitive masters division. In fact, some of these players view gaining entrance into the masters as a well-earned “right”. Once there, some often do experience some success for a year or two. That is until the players who were keeping them out of the money as pros, turn 35, and start playing masters. The second group consists of somewhat newer players to the game, who matriculated as amateurs. They often have experienced some success as ams, but because they never tested themselves in the strongest field, they don’t know how they stack up. Most of these players are similar in ability to the first group and will experience some initial successes. The third distinct group are the players who were having, and in some cases, are still having, very successful careers as open players. These players will play open one week and play masters the next, and as often as not, will cash every time out. The fourth group are the guys who seldom had any luck as either ams or as open pros, and things haven’t changed that much as masters. They tend to view disc golf more in recreational terms. They don’t mind “donating” their money for the fun of the event, and prefer the camaraderie that exists on the fifth or sixth card of the masters more than competing in the advanced or amateur divisions, where they may, in fact, be more competitive. Thus, as most of the players in the masters division consist of secondary pros or advanced players, it is in fact, a secondary pro division.
Now, I personally believe that disc golfers do not suddenly become less-skilled when they turn 35. If you were average at 34, you’ll still be average at 35. If you were a world class player at 34, you’ll still be great at 35. I’ll concede that distance off the tee may start to diminish slightly around this age, although advances in plastic technology have tended to counteract this to some extent. I also concede that it’s a known fact that an aging body takes longer to heal when injured. But a true professional competitor who takes pride in what he does, will take care of his body, and if that means working harder to stay competitive, he will do it. What an older player might be losing in distance and vulnerability to nagging injuries is compensated by the experience of many years of playing. It’s only with experience that a player learns to deal with adversity, course management, strategy, mind games, etc. I’d say the age of 45 would be closer to the age when a player‘s sharpness begins to decline more rapidly, largely due to age. Golf’s seniors division begins at 50. Runners are “old” at 40. Tennis does have a 35-year old division, but it’s not featured with the best players.
My argument here is based on the assumption that we want to develop pro disc golf as a marketable commodity; one with the potential for drawing people out to watch, and to be entertaining enough for television. To provide this product, I think it’s necessary for our most competitive players to be in the same division, and the rewards should be commensurate with their performances.
So here’s a somewhat radical, but simple proposal, that by allowing players, to a certain degree, to choose what they want to play for, should result in larger, fairer, and more competitive fields. The basic tenet of the proposal is that the top rewards should go to those who risk the most, with the assumption that the best players want to prove they are tops. “A” players pay the highest entry fees, expecting at least 100% back. “B” players pay lesser entry fees, with about 80-85% of the fee back to the purse. “C” players, playing for prizes, expect 100% retail value for trophies and merchandise received, regardless of the cost to the tournament. There would also be emphasis on trophies and rewarding a larger percentage of “C” players.
The “A” players compete in the pro division, the “B” players in the semi-pro division (pro 2?), and the “C” players in the advanced division. Let’s say it’s a big pro tournament with entry fees of $60 for pros, $35 for semi-pros, and $20 for amateurs. Pay about 33% of the pros and 45% of the semi-pros with a flatter scale than the open. Added money would go only to the pro division. Then, add 15% of the semi-pros entries to the pros. There would also be a seniors division and, at 45, would become increasingly interesting as more of the legends of the sport became eligible. Its entry fees would be somewhere between pro and semi-pro, with 100% paybacks.
If the PDGA were to endorse this idea, then all players would be PDGA members, paying the same dues, and would be considered professionals, in the sense that they are knowledgeable about the rules and show respect for the game and other players. Rules to control divisional switching by cash-winning pros and semi-pros would be necessary. It could be something like this: If a pro or semi-pro wins cash once, he would have to be out of the money for his next three tournaments before exercising his option to return to a lower division. Cash again and add another three weeks. However, a player who cashes consistently probably wouldn’t want to move back anyway, because he would generally be winning more where he was, but we would have this safeguard anyway.
There it is. While this scheme, by itself, would not erase “sandbagging”, it would make it less lucrative. With the advanced division emphasis on trophies and rewarding many of its competitors, the top prizes would not be that great. Players who play to win as much as they can would have to risk more to win more. Except for the cash-winners, there would be total choice. Feeling strong or lucky? Then play pro. Feeling hung-over? Play semi-pro. Low on cash that weekend? Play advanced.
Probably half of what we now call advanced, and some am masters, would gravitate to semi-pro. I know that lots of these guys, who are new to the sport, would like to play for money, but really don’t feel ready for the top division. Also, some players, both current pros and ams, who just don’t have the time to practice to feel competitive at the top, would go semi-pro. Some long-suffering pro players and half of the current masters or more would play semi-pro. The masters who are motivated by the larger risk for the greater reward would play pro.
Semi-pro competition would help develop players faster. Up-and-coming players would be playing with some experienced master-aged players. These younger or newer players could learn valuable lessons from many of the experienced pros (whose games may have reached a plateau because of lack of time to play) about course management, trouble shots, strategy, and more. Also, it would be hoped that some of the more easy-going atmosphere of the masters division would permeate this new division. Our current system generally denies newer players a nurturing process where they can learn from more experienced players within their range of skill.
The most obvious problem with this scheme is how does a TD know who has cashed at the previous tournaments. While tournament reporting has improved in recent years, it’s naive to expect that we could get TDs to fax or download the results to PDGA headquarters within 48 hours, although it is possible. Initially, we would have to depend on the honesty of our players. If a player did lie about some recent winnings to play in a lower division, as the results from his previous tournaments became known, his lie would be exposed. Also, other players would exercise some control in keeping each other honest.
And then, there is the Climo factor—that’s when players claim that they are staying am or going masters because they can’t beat Ken Climo. This is definitely not an age thing, because, players of all ages have been trailing Climo. Well, if there are not enough players out there who don’t have the burning desire to “bring down” the man who has been awesomely dominating the sport, then I’d have to say we are pretty much doomed in any attempt to sell professional disc golf. A skilled player who takes this defeatist attitude should be playing semi-pro, where the risk and rewards are not as great.
One other thing to remember is that sponsorship money remains the key to get more good players playing on a more regular basis. Assuming for a second that even a small amount, say $1,000 to $2,000 could be added for the best events, they would begin to fill with “A” players and seniors. At that point, the semi-pro division would be held on a space-available basis.
As the semi-pro and pro divisions begin to swell to capacity at many of the other tournaments, am-only tournaments would become the norm. A similar payout scheme (but with less difference between the divisional entry fees) could be devised for the two divisions of amateurs. An entry level amateur division with even lower entry fees could be devised.
What about women’s golf? The numbers of women players at most tournaments is usually so small that this plan may not work. Also, there seems to be a greater diversity in skill levels amongst women golfers. However it can only be beneficial to devise a system in which at least the women’s pros and the more advanced amateurs would be competing. Using only two divisions might be the answer. And of course, if it should come to pass that 40 or 50 women begin to show up for tournaments, then women-only events would begin. (Or maybe if someone ran a women-only event, 40 or 50 women would show up.)
And there you have it. It’s really quite simple: you risk more by paying a higher entry fee and you have the chance to win more. If you lack the confidence or skill for the big risk, then you would lower it and with it, your potential rewards. Most importantly we will have returned to that primal urge for competition: to find out who’s the best man. Not the best 35-year-old man; not the best advanced man; but simply, the best man.