Playing Up Can Be a Downer: Rethinking Tournament Division Rules May Help Grow the Sport

By Cory Wiebusch ~

Eight-year-old Hayden Wiebusch showed up to play at the 2021 PDGA Junior Disc Golf World Championships, but she would not be allowed to take home the trophy for the ≤8 division.

The 2021 PDGA Junior Worlds wrapped up in Emporia, Kansas earlier this month, and nine juniors were crowned World Champions. However, there could have been a tenth, my daughter Hayden who represented Team Throw Pink in the junior girls ≤8 division (FJ08).

She was one of two girls invited to compete in this division and the sole entrant in the field when registration closed on July 2.

Since Hayden was the only registered player in her division, the PDGA sent us an email prior to the event stating, “We don’t run divisions of one at the PDGA World Championships,” and that she was required to “play up” at the main event if there was not a second entrant in her division.

A similar statement could be found on the Disc Golf Scene registration page: “Divisions require at least two (2) players to be contested at the World Championships; if only one registered player, they will need to move up a division.”

As the registration window closed, I remembered watching a PDGA video of two young players, Landon and Virginia, who became world champions in divisions of one in 2016. What a memorable final round that must have been, as none other than Paige Pierce joined the twosome to have a full card of three.

There have been 13 solo winners of world championships who won by walkover in junior age divisions. Eleven of them were girls. There have also been multiple masters division winners who took down uncontested world championship titles, including PDGA #1 “Steady” Ed Headrick in the 1985 Masters 60+ division.

On one hand, the PDGA did clarify its “play-up” rule prior to this year’s world championships. My eight-year-old daughter still wanted to play and so she was happy to join her nine- and ten-year-old competitors on the field.

On the other hand, given the inconsistency of the rule in the past, I can’t help being a little disappointed in the outcome, both as a dad and as an advocate of youth and women’s disc golf. The challenge of filling divisions and cards at tournaments is a problem that disproportionately affects women and youth.

The PDGA seems to understand the need for establishing rules that support underserved demographics. For instance, the 2021 PDGA Tour Standards highly recommend that tournament directors include underserved groups and allow divisions with less than four players.

In an email, I mentioned the Tour Standards and the precedent created by past events to members of the PDGA staff and Board of Directors, hoping they might reconsider, but the PDGA did not change its stance.

Hayden and I prepared for the trip to Emporia. The PDGA allowed her to participate as a sole entrant in her field events in the FJ08 division, and she did her best against older competitors in the main event. Hayden finished tied for fourth in the junior girls ≤10 division, and after a one-hole playoff won her way onto the final-9 card.

My daughter and I both had a memorable experience at Junior Worlds and all the volunteers at Emporia as well as the Dynamic Discs staff made this a great event. Hayden especially enjoyed the off-course activities where players went to the zoo, played mini golf and drove go karts. I think her favorite part was stamping a disc during the warehouse tour. The courses were in awesome shape and water was widely available in the hot July weather.

Still, the “play up” rule at Junior Worlds deserves some further thought. In the spirit of growing the sport for everyone, players should be allowed to compete in the division they qualified for and were invited to join. It should not be the responsibility of a competitor to find an opponent for any event (from C-Tier to Major), especially members of underserved groups.

If you feel the same way, consider offering feedback to the PDGA via the Majors/NT Committee and vote in the ongoing elections for candidates who place a special emphasis on encouraging all competitors, young and old. The PDGA Board Elections are ongoing throughout the month of July. You can learn more about the candidates here.

Author bio

Cory Wiebusch (PDGA #113366) is a firefighter and stay-at-home dad to four. In a ploy to get out of the house more, he got his kids into the sport of disc golf. You can find him in his free time playing disc golf, being a daddy caddy for his junior disc golfers, or working with others to grow the sport.

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Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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