Shaping the Pro Tour

Disc Golf Information: Shaping the Pro Tour for Tomorrow

It’s mid January 2015 just outside Tampa, a little early for the spring break madness to hit Florida. The third stop on the PDGA men’s pro tour is about to get under way in Plant City, just east of town. It will be held on two private courses owned by a disc manufacturing company from the Midwest and managed by a sports marketing company from New York. One course is a 12,000 ft. par 71, built from the ground up and designed to challenge all of the 144 players who have qualified for the tournament. This course is the cream of the crop with many elevated tees, manicured fairways, a 30 foot wide waterway, and two ponds. Small bushes, deep sand bunkers, and mounds guard the baskets and green areas. Half of the trees have been planted and all of the elevation changes are man made. The back nine is even lit for nighttime play.

Quite the contrast is the “tough” course near the swamps, which will require almost every shot you have ever thrown. It’s only 9,600 ft., but a hard-to-break par 72, carved out of the jungle with palmettos everywhere and lots of underbrush. Playing too aggressively will take you off the fairway and cause you to make bogey or double bogey on almost every hole. The swamp doesn’t really come into play but the thought of gators may keep you playing it safe; placement shots of 250-325 ft. and good putting will card good scores.

Entry fee for the tournament is $225.00 for everybody, with only one division. The top 100 money winners from 2014 who wish to enter will automatically qualify for each of the forty-two events on this year’s tour. 90 of those players have pre-registered, leaving 80 players signed up to play a qualifying round on Thursday for the remaining 54 spots to fill the field.

It’s now Friday morning at 6:30; half the players with early tee times are on the driving range or practice green. The other half are eating in the clubhouse or resting in their travel homes. I overhear advice from a caddy on wind condition and pin placements. (No practice is allowed on the course the day of the tournament.) Each course will be played once before the field is cut to the low 68 scores (plus ties) for Sunday.

A gallery of over 1,000 spectators is expected, made up of local amateurs from high school leagues, friends and family, and players who didn’t make the cut that opted to stay and watch over traveling to Myrtle Beach for a one-day B-tier event.

Cut to 4:00 pm on Sunday at the awards ceremony; the traditional long-winded “Crazy John” speeches are a thing of the past. The promoters thank the players, spectators, and sponsors, give a brief description of the action, award the first place trophy and the check for $5,600.00, and then say “see ya next week in Orlando.” Players who finish in the money can get their checks later that night or have them mailed.

A typical purse of $45,000-$50,000 that pays the top 33 players will break down nicely with $2,400 for 5th, $1,700 for 10th, $1,300 for 15th, and $600 for 33rd.

  1. $5,600.00
  2. $4,100.00
  3. $2,900.00
  4. $2,600.00
  5. $2,400.00
  6. $2,250.00
  7. $2,100.00
  8. $1,950.00
  9. $1,800.00
  10. $1,700.00
  11. $1,600.00
  12. $1,500.00
  13. $1,400.00
  14. $1,350.00
  15. $1,300.00
  16. $1,250.00
  17. $1,200.00
  18. $1,150.00
  19. $1,100.00
  20. $1,050.00
  21. $1,000.00
  22. $950.00
  23. $850.00
  24. $850.00
  25. $800.00
  26. $750.00
  27. $700.00
  28. $650.00
  29. $650.00
  30. $650.00
  31. $650.00
  32. $600.00
  33. $600.00

This kind of tournament won’t happen overnight, but there are things people in the sport can start doing now to head in that direction. Private courses are being installed with facilities for big time tournaments, which is a step in the right direction. (Examples: John Houck’s and Dave Moody’s work in Texas, many others in northern California and my own course in the Ozarks, just to name a few.)

The PDGA should sanction all new courses to be eligible for tournament play; as a result, some existing courses may need an update to meet certain criteria for an A-tier or series event. Having stricter standards for course design will only improve layouts and make future courses safer. One course in each city could be promoted as the country club-style course, while the best city, county or state course with the most facilities will work until more private courses can be built in every location.

One philosophy for marketing disc golf could be to model ourselves after ball golf in as many ways as possible. This strategy could speed up the game-hobby-sport transition we are currently going through. The formats, rules, and promotions seem very successful for them, so why not give it a try? We should work to create exclusively 18-hole courses, not 19- or 23- hole courses, and making top tournaments all 72 total holes. When we start having too much room for an 18-hole course, maybe we should start redesigning and making the holes longer. More holes that are par fours and par fives will push course pars into the upper 60s and will make disc golf scores look more like ball golf scores. To quote top German player Christian Voight, “That would be really cool.”

After playing in the 1998 Culture Clash and at Worlds the past several years, I’ve had many conversations with touring pros, and the talk is always the same: what can we do to get to where we want to be? In the business world, it would be time to hire someone for the job. Raising dues for pros to $100 a year is more of a realistic figure, especially for what some people expect from the PDGA. How far will $50 go? One night out on the town, although I doubt it. $100 a year and $5 each time you play will raise the Association’s yearly revenue enough to spend substantially more money on advertising, marketing and self-promotion. This added income could replace that lost from the amateurs starting their own organization; it’s getting close to the time for the “young birds” to leave the nest. These “birds” are unable to fly under their parent’s wing and need room to grow to be successful own their own. The amateur portion of the PDGA (doesn’t that sound funny?) needs to work on player development from within their own ADGA. Their dues will be raised also, along more of a tiered system: a level 5 (novice) may pay $25 annually, while a level 1 (advanced) may pay $50. The professional tour’s tournaments are becoming too big for pros and ams to play on the same weekend. The two organizations could be combined under one parent called the Disc Golf Players Association (or something to that effect).

I just spent a lot of time talking about amateurs in an article about the pro tour; can you imagine how often this happens at the PDGA?

Now back to the pro tour – some rule changes might help speed up play and legitimize the game even further:

  1. Putting out rule; this can be a rule or a courtesy. The idea is that when a putt originates from inside ten meters you would have the option of putting out upon a miss. This would definitely speed up play, and keep players from hovering around the basket. When your 25 ft. putt hits the front, walk up, putt it in and go over to the next tee and start thinking about what disc you’re going to use next.
  2. Lost disc; this rule needs changing. Why should one player’s energy be wasted on searching for another player’s overaggressive drive? When there’s a chance to lose your disc on a hole, you need to make a decision to go for it or to lay up (course management it is called and their needs to be more of it). When you shank your green disc in the weeds, take 5 minutes to look for it by yourself or with your caddy.
  3. Lost disc, 2 m and unplayable lie (where to place the lie); this is where ball golf rules would help. When a player is already being penalized a stroke, he should get a clean lie. Taking the disc back anywhere along the line of flight, no closer to the hole to have an unobstructed throw would make better sense.
  4. The water rule (lateral hazard in ball golf); this should remain the same, maybe 2 m from the spot where you crossed the edge of the water, no closer to the hole.
  5. The out-of-bounds rule; A well-designed disc golf course should have very few O.B.’s. Shots should play away from park boundaries, but when your disc does goes O.B., stroke and distance would be the rule. This means re-throwing from the spot you last threw from. I think this would keep players in bounds more often (course management).When a long shot appears to be O.B. , a provisional shot can be thrown without going down to look at the lie. This is done at ball golf tournaments quite often.
  6. Marking the lie; here’s a rule that is not obeyed by everyone. To make things equal, you would be allowed to place your mini on any side of your disc (something many players do anyway). When courses start getting longer and you actually play to a certain side of the fairway this would make sense; when you play to the left mark it to the left, when you want to land short of a group of trees mark your lie on the short side, and so on.

The idea for the tour would be to start in the second or third week in January, having four stops in Florida: Miami, Orlando, Clearwater and Jacksonville. Next, it would head to Mobile and New Orleans before going to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and New Mexico in March and out west to Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz in April. San Francisco, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Fort Collins and Denver come in May, while Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Minnesota are up in June. Wisconsin, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit, and St. Thomas take place in July, then they head down through the east to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Virginia in August. Next would be heading up I-70 to Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati and Louisville in September, then south to Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta in October. As the weather grows colder, they will head to Huntsville, Memphis, Tulsa and finally Austin the week before Thanksgiving. The tour would shut down for the winter holidays and start again in January – 44 tour stops, all in a direct line, with only a few hundred miles between each city. (Note: This is only an example, and is not necessarily including or limited to all of these cities.) The Masters, Women’s and Grandmasters could make up another tour that could follow behind or be in front of the Men’s tour along the same path. The PDGA would not sanction any other events within 300 miles of the tour stop – not even a C-tier.

Information contained in this article is a collaboration of opinions and ideas gathered in conversations over the past twenty years on tour. I have played in over 200 tournaments in 25 states since 1983, all the while talking and listening to everyone about these topics. International players, top-ranked American pros and local amateurs from the East coast to the West have all chimed in to express their views. Watering down of the competition has always been a problem; Raising the Masters age to 40 is only a temporary solution to a problem that will come up again in 3-5 years. Sandbagging in the amateur ranks is a hot topic to which there’s a clear solution: having amateur levels 1 through 5 where points can be earned by scores and level of finish in ADGA sanctioned events (similar to the system in cycling) could be used. The ratio of amateurs to professionals should be about 1,000 to 1 – we need a lot more recreational players coming out to our tournaments. Creative ways to promote amateur play like handicapping, team-based tournaments and traveling teams could help.

The formats that we are using now will need to be adjusted to accommodate for the influx of new players. Although they are harder on tournament directors, rolling starts have been experimented with lately and were well received. Cutting the field for the last round in big tournaments will help create a gallery – after all, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. Potential outside sponsors always ask: how many spectators will be there? Will there be any television or radio coverage? We are going to have to rely on people within the sport to make the tour happen.

The time has come to grab the bull by the horns; we need to urge all of the current disc manufacturers to pull together on this tour idea to make it work. Can you imagine where we’d be right now if just half of the nearly $1 million spent in industry litigation over patents and trademarks had actually been spent on promotions, advertising, and marketing for a tour? (Yes, that’s right – almost one million dollars spent on lawsuits involving disc golf. Can you believe it?)