Back To The Future...Again 9/17/97
by Dan "Stork" Roddick, P.D.G.A. Director of Special Projects
This article was printed in Disc Golf World News

In the Beginning

At the time, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Several hours after we discovered that we could play something that resembled golf with a disc, we were churning out fliers on the mimeograph machine for the Galactic Championships in our new sport. Even before we had a cool way to finish the hole, Jim Palmeri was serving up the American Flying Disc Open in Rochesterand giving away a brand new car to the winner. Although there was hardly anyone who even knew what disc golf was in 1974, and we were putting into little boxes laying on the ground, Jim drew a pretty good national field of talented players. The shiny new car did get people's attention. Other early big meets drew the same developing elite group of players and we all began to wonder how long it would be until we could join the pro tour. The emergence of the Professional Disc Golf Association confirmed it...we were on our way to prime time. And then we had the $50,000 tournament in 1979.
We were on the way. Even the most doubtful parent or spouse couldn't deny that 50 grand was some serious cash for tossing a disc.

Well, we've been on a bit of a plateau since then. Sure, there are lots
more events now and we have a long history of World Championship meets, but we simply haven¹t met the meteoric projections that we had originally envisioned. Not that it hasn't been fun if you¹ve been part of that elite. It has been a blast. But the number of competitive players has remained too small to provide the critical base for the sport. Now, maybe you¹re a slow growth type. Did you picket against the new multiplex theater that they wanted to build down the street from your house? Were you worried about the increased traffic, pollution and litter? Or were you one of the folks only too eager to movie hop through those 21 theaters on the same ticket? If you¹re a slow growth type, you may be glad that disc golf has not gone "big
time." You probably like the down-home, informal aspects of the game as it is today. On the other hand, if you¹re the movie hopper, you are probably peeved that your favorite game, which you know is much better than most of the sports you see on ESPN 2, has been mired in what seems like a permanent role of a micro sport. Well, my theory has always been that we don¹t really have to worry much about making a choice between slow and fast growth. I see kids playing
sandlot baseball while the Dodgers are playing the Astros on TV. My goal is simply to make it as satisfying as possible to be a disc golfer and if it's a fun game for people to play and watch, we'll have good opportunities for the future.

So back to the beginning. I think the mistake that we made was that we attracted an elite group of players and concentrated mainly on them at the cost of not building a solid base of interest for the game. That is, there are simply not enough people who care if disc golf is played well or not. Enough people care about football and ball golf and as a result, Emmit and Tiger are doing great. We know that Kenny and Elaine are similarly talented, but only a small group of us care about the skills that they have developed. So, can that be changed? I think it can. Of course, many things contribute to such a change. The P.D.G.A. has a long, long list of things that should be done to promote disc golf. Only so many can be taken on at one time. It's also an incremental process. Each factor of development builds on the next. If the local folks don't do the work to put in the course then there's no place to have the clinic. If the magazine doesn't come out then there¹s no news about the event and if the local guys don't buy the magazine, etc., etc....

A New Beginning...Kinda

There is something that I believe could quickly change the face of disc golf and provide wonderful benefits for both the players who want local fun and those who want the P.D.G.A. tour on Saturday afternoon TV. We have all the pieces in place to make it happen right now. I believe that the primary form of disc golf competition should and perhaps will soon be team play. Outrageous? Well, let's look at a familiar sports cousin, track and field. A huge percentage of the competitive activity in track is local, dual meet play. Many participants never, ever, go beyond high jumping for their high school in head-to-head meets against other local schools. Some of the better athletes are a factor at the conference meet at the end of the season. A very small number may move on to the state meet. This is front page news. The chances of going on to the National Championships or the Olympics? Hitting the lottery with your P.D.G.A. number is a better bet. That mix of competion with a preponderance of play at the local level is similarly true in many "individual"sports. Consider, swimming, ball golf, gymnastics and tennis. In disc golf, we started with the Olympics and never went back to build the dual meets. Don't get me wrong. I love the big individual meets. They should and will continue to be an important part of our sport.. However, I think that we've had an adequate amount of years pass now to see that we are not attracting large numbers of new players or spectators for these events. The primary reason, I believe, is that the meets that are the principal competitive form of disc golf now are too limited and are not adequately accessible for new playing candidates. To effectively bring in new players on a consistent basis, we need to seduce them with a really appealing opportunity to have fun. I believe that team play provides such an opportunity.

So What's A Disc Golf Team Look Like?

There are, of course, a number of team events that are already taking place. I love them. However, to achieve the goals that I have mentioned, there are several characteristics that team meets must have:

-The teams must be based at local courses. This makes it easy for new
players to access. They already play there.

-The teams must be large. Many of the existing team meets have 6 to 12 players. Again, nothing wrong with that. However, it only involves the competitive elite who are already being successful at individual events. To promote an expansion of play, teams should be composed of 36 members. The usual response to this number is, "Oh, man! I don't know that many players who we could get to play." That's exactly the point. We don't know them yet, but they are out there, playing the course already. This is the seduction part. We have to really need them. People respond to being needed. Think about it. The big annual tournament doesn't really need them. Sure, new players are invited to come, pay and get their butts kicked and some survive to kick some butt. The number is just too few. The recruitment for the team is a whole different thing however. The top players at the course have to go out looking for talent to fill the team.

-The team must include all the divisions that we are trying to develop. The suggested team makeup is:
Open - 16 players
Master - 8 players
Women -4 players
Grand Masters - 4 players
Juniors - 2 players
Senior Grand Masters - 1 player
Legends - 1 player

Again, remember that you may not have the players to fill all these
positions initially, but it's the shortage that brings in the new talent. Of course, if the meet is two days away and neither team can locate a Senior Grand, then, of course it makes sense to convert the position to a division where you both have players ready to play. Just don't give up too easily or the outreach won't happen. If you don't see some new faces, it's not working.

-There must be enough play to make it worthwhile to get involved. In the beginning that may only be a few matches. After it gets rolling, there might be spring, summer and fall leagues. It depends on how the appetite for play develops.

-The team ladder for match play must be an ongoing activity that is
available to anyone who comes to the course. It works best if it is posted at the pro shop or first tee with all the information on how to participate and the upcoming team schedule. The ladder for most courses should probably be pretty long. Remember that there is no reason not to have matches for the lower parts of the ladder also. New players will have just as much fun playing on the B or C squad. I would expect to see some ladders that number into the hundreds. Make it as easy as possible for new players to get onto the ladder.

How's It Work?

Team play is really pretty simple and involves relatively little
organizational structure to run. We start with two teams of 36 players each. The players from each team match up with the corresponding players from the other team. On the first tee, for instance, we have the Swope Park Birddogs number one open player matched up against the number one player from the cross-town rival Sioux Passage Tomahawks. Also on the tee are the number two players open players
from each squad. On the ninth and tenth holes we have the four women from each team going head-to-head and on down through the order on each succeeding hole. Of course, each individual match is its own competition in match play format. No handicapping needed here. The number twelve Birddog simply has to do the best he can with the number twelve Tomahawk. At stake in each match is a team point. In match play of course, unlike individual medal play, the score is kept by the number of holes won, not the total strokes taken. This makes things pretty exciting because if the opponent has a sure putt win a hole, it certainly pays to go for your own long approach to save the hole. No worries about the comeback putt. It doesn't matter. Individual match scoring can be easily kept in the head. No scorecards or pencils needed! Just remember the net hole score. If you're up by three with only two holes to play, you've won a team point and your
match score will be recorded as 3 and 2 in your favor.

The Big Match

In the case of Swope Park and Sioux Passage Park, their proximity may make it desirable to do a "home and away" one-day format. Start off at 8:00 on Saturday morning at Swope. Play those matches, then go somewhere for lunch to fill in the scoreboard and give adequate time for the players to make their excuses for the morning play or gloat over their obvious mastery of the game. Then, with 36 points already on the board, go on to Sioux Passage and play the second half with the same match ups. It¹s important to note that each position is worth exactly the same. It might take world class golf to win the number one position over Crazy John, but the fourth women's position is just as valuable to the team. In terms of team preparation and strategy, it's obviously a better use of time to work with that novice woman in fourth position because a little bit of guidance from other team members can probably take 5 strokes off of her score. It's pretty hard to take many strokes off of Crazy's score. The result is that there is a lot of sincere interest in working with the newer players to make the team more competitive.

The Challenge Board

The matches are important but in terms of the total impact on a club program and new player development, the on-going play to sort the challenge ladder has probably even more of an impact. First of all, it gives newcomers an easy way to get involved in competitive play at their own levels and meet golfers of similar ability. It also provides a very flexible way for players to schedule their own competitive play. Course ladder rules can vary a bit, but most are somewhat like this:
A player may challenge up to three positions above his or her current
position. Let's say player 15 challenges player 12 and wins the match.
That means that on the board, the old 15 would take over position 12 and the old 13 and 14 would each move down one. Usually there are rules about the number and frequency of challenges. For instance, perhaps we¹ll say that a player must accept at least 4 challenges a month if they are offered. It also may be that a certain time period must pass before a player can challenge the same person again. The matches are 18 holes in the same format as the team meet and are arranged directly between the players at their mutual convenience. The results are then reported to chairperson of the board who makes the appropriate changes. Some clubs, like the one in the Fort Collins, CO area, have made little numbered totems which the team players attach to their playing bags. If you win your challenge match, you get to have the lower numbered totem on your bag. It gets pretty competitive.

How to Get It Going

-Get a couple of movers and shakers at your club to read this article.
-Decide that you want to begin a team.
-Contact some players you know from courses that would make sense for you to play against. Have them read this article.
-Agree upon a date to have an inaugural match with one of the other courses or clubs. Make it at least a month away. Don't worry that you have no team yet. Look at the New Orleans Saints.
-At your course, post an announcement of the upcoming match and the details for a team organization event.
-At the team organization event, explain the format for the upcoming match and play a conventional tournament round to determine the initial team ladder positions. Explain the board challenge procedures and put out the word that you need players for the positions that are unfilled. It's a nice touch if you can have an actual challenge board with moveable name tags to put up at the course but if that's not possible, a printed list with the information contacts and the match date is a reasonable start.
-Let people challenge away for a couple of weeks. You may want to have a practice match and let your number one play your number two and so on just so your players get to know how the format works.
-Stay in contact with your rival course and make sure that they'll be ready to play. If possible, schedule some additional matches with other courses or clubs. Invite members of other clubs to come to your first match to see how it works.
-The day of the big match! If you have club shirts, wear them. If not try to get everyone at least in the same color to build that team spirit. Have some fun with it. Ultimate has made an artform of team cheers. After the event, make sure you have some get together scheduled so that the teams can celebrate their triumph or lick their wounds. If people liked it, plan the rematch right then and see if there is anything that you can improve about the match format for the next time.

In The Future

Of course, every local area is different. In some towns, there are lots of courses and team play is begging to be done. In others, there may be only one poorly organized course, or none. How this kind of activity develops will vary greatly. In the best situations, I think that it is very
reasonable to imagine ladders of hundreds , A, B, C, and D teams, twenty match schedules and end-of-season team bracket play for the league championships. I can easily imagine college and high school teams as numerous as those in ultimate. Most importantly, I can imagine a competitive scene in disc golf which provides consistent, convenient and satisfying competition for a much, much broader range of players than we have today. I imagine meeting someone at a party who says, "Oh yeah, I'm a competitive disc golfer. I play 4th position on the C team at El Dorado. It's a blast. Tell me something though. Somebody told me that there are individual events that you can go to also. How do I find out about that. See, I'm gettin'pretty good..." That's the real key. The broader base of active team competitors will actually provide a great increase in the number of players who may eventually become interested in individual competitive play. They'll also give us the base of people who know enough about the sport to be amazed by Kenny and Elaine.

Thanks to Dan "Stork" Roddick and DGWN for allowing the reproduction of this article

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