What Division Should I Play?

How to figure out where to start or when to move up

It’s the age-old question for many many players. Players that are new to tournaments don’t know where to start and experienced players are always looking for validation, re-assurance, guidance or maybe just a swift kick in the rear end: what division is right for me? This article is intended to guide players in their division choice. Other information regarding divisions, player ratings, and the official guidelines for PDGA-sanctioned play can be found on the PDGA website. First, some key definitions in order to understand both the PDGA guidelines and those in this article.

SSA = Statistical Scoring Average. This number represents the score that a “scratch” level player would, on average, shoot on a given course.

Round Rating = a mathematical formula used by the PDGA to evaluate individual round scores on a relative scale. Each full round played in a PDGA sanctioned event is rated with this formula. SSA or “scratch” par on this scale is considered to be a 1000 rated round. Rounds played at better than scratch are rated above 1000, round scores below that level are rated below 1000 (typically in the 800-999 range)

Player Rating = an average of a player’s round ratings over a period of time. A player with an average of 1000 is considered to be a scratch golfer. The PDGA defines a “touring” professional as a player with a rating of 1000 or higher. The top rated players in the world have ratings in the 1020-1040+ range. The vast majority of disc golfers have ratings that fall below the 1000 mark.

Where to begin?

First thing to do is to try to find results from past tournaments held at a course with which you are familiar, ideally a PDGA-sanctioned tournament.  Looking at past tournament results for a course and comparing your average score to those in the top half of each division can often give you a very good idea of where you should fit in. If on a good day, your typical (not necessarily best) scores would place you right in the heart of a given division, that’s probably the choice for you.

If you find your average scores put you squarely on the bubble between two divisions, do not hesitate to go for the lower division if you feel at all unsure of how things will go. There is no harm in playing the lower division at least once and simply seeing how you actually fit in competitively. If you have success and win, you the higher division will be there for you to enter the next time. If you don’t, you can just stick with the division until you do. Either way, where you decide to begin your tournament career is up to you.

When to take the next step?

You’ve got a few tournaments under your belt, perhaps you’ve even taken home a couple trophies to put on your mantle. Are you ready to step up to the next level? Sometimes that can be a tough thing to determine. The only hard and fast rules that exist in the sport regarding when to move up are from the PDGA, are determined by player ratings, and generally are only enforceable (forced) in lower amateur divisions.

In PDGA sanctioned tournaments, the Intermediate, Recreational and Novice divisions (both for men and women) have hard ratings caps which prevent players with ratings above the cap from entering the division. Beyond those specific divisions, ratings are only used as a guideline for division choice and the ultimate decision rests with the individual player. So if you don’t have a player rating or maybe you’re contemplating a change that isn’t dictated by rating anyway (moving from an amateur division to a pro division, for example), what is it you should be considering to make your decision?

First, a word of caution before we get too far along. One must be extremely wary of the opinions of other players, especially those who are quick to give you their unsolicited advice. Many players can be quite vocal about what divisions they think everyone else should be playing, but never is their advice backed up with anything close to a view of the whole picture. Often they’re only looking at a snapshot of one or two events, or even just one round they happen to play with you. They just can’t know with any certainty if what they believe they’ve seen is the real deal or the result of a fluky/lucky day.

The biggest difference between divisions, whether it’s Recreational to Intermediate, Intermediate to Advanced or Advanced to Pro, is consistency. The higher up you go, the more consistently you have to play to succeed. The mark of an amateur is typically a wide swing in scores, often from one round to the next. The higher the division, the smaller those score swings have to be in order to have success. An amateur player can look like a pro in one round, then look very much like a beginner in the next. The physical skills to play the hot round aren’t always enough to warrant moving up a division. The mental skills to maintain composure and play a consistent game from one hole to the next, then one round to the next, have to be there as well.

These are things that no one can really see in another player, especially if they’re only viewing one round, one tournament, or even just looking at scores on a piece of paper or computer screen. They are things that only the player themselves can see, which is why the decision to move up a division is a personal one and one that requires a lot of introspection rather than solicitation of advice.

Take a good look at your recent tournaments, going back as far as you want since the bigger the sample size, the better. If you were to evaluate your play honestly, did you play well, average, or poorly in each event? By that, you’re not comparing your scores to others in the tournament, but to your own personal standards of how you expect to play.

When you walked off the course after a round/tournament, without any consideration for how anyone else might have done, were you happy with the way you played? Dejected? Did it seem like every little thing broke just right for you or did it seem like you couldn’t catch any breaks at all? Something in between? For each round or each tournament, give yourself an honest letter grade.

An “A” should be reserved for a round/tournament that was as good as you could have played it: your drives were on line, your putting was sharp, you didn’t have to play your way out of trouble all that much. A “C” would be for your typical average round: some good drives, some bad ones, making some putts but not all, scrambling to save par a few times but in the end, your score fell within the range of your average scores. An “F” would be how you’d grade yourself for just plain horrible golf: spraying drives all over, missing relatively easy putts, carding a score well above what you would have expected to shoot when you started the day.

Now take those grades and look at where in the standings you ended up for each event. It should take you having an “A” round/day to win a tournament at any level; if you don’t win, it should at least get you really close to winning. “B” or “C” kind of rounds should result in finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack (say in the 25th to 60th percentile). If you shoot “D” or “F” rounds, you should deservedly find yourself bringing up the rear in your division.

What does all this have to do with determining whether you’re ready to move up? Simple. If you’re consistently finishing in the top 10-15% of your division, maybe event winning a tournament or two with rounds you consider a “C” effort, you’re probably more than ready to jump up a level. The key word though, is “consistently”. Flukes can happen, of course. There might be a tournament where you win or finish high with a “C” effort simply because the competition wasn’t strong (a lot of players having bad days or a lot of players playing up a division from where they really should be). But if you’re noting a consistent pattern of very good tournament finishes without very good to great personal efforts, the time to move up is likely upon you.

On the other hand, if your grades fit with the results of the tournaments (“A” rounds = wins or high finish, “C” rounds = middle of the pack, etc), you are just where you belong, and there’s nothing wrong with sticking around in that division a little longer. There’s something to be said for learning to win (and learning to lose) at the top of a tightly competitive division, rather than moving up prematurely and finding yourself needing a beyond “A” effort (or hoping the best players don’t show) in order to have a chance to finish in the top half of your division.

In the end though, the decision has to be one that you are comfortable making. If you aren’t committed to the decision, and do it simply to appease the taunters, your experiences will probably be negatively affected and you won’t get as much enjoyment out of playing. If even after some introspection, you’re still undecided, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting once with the higher division with no real commitment to staying. In the off-season, away from area tours and series events, pick out a tournament or two just to try out a higher division. There are almost always lower-cost events in the off-season where playing up a division is cheaper and often encouraged. Do it knowing, even telling people, you are just giving the higher division a try. Sometimes a toe in the water is all it takes to realize you can handle the increased competition, or to realize you still have some work to do before you’re ready.

Ultimately, you want to feel right with your decision even when you’re getting your butt kicked the first couple times out in your new division, because chances are success won’t come too easy. And it shouldn’t. If it did, playing this game wouldn’t be as much fun as it is. No matter what your choice, commit to it and make it yours. Good luck.