Tuesday Tips: How to TD Your First Disc Golf Tournament

A guide to getting started running your own events.

Photo: PDGA.

Tournaments across the country are filling quickly, and many have long wait lists of players eager to get into the event. Tournaments are in short supply and tournament directors are in high demand. If you are thinking about being a TD for the very first time, there has never been a better time to start. Knowing that you will have a good turnout when registration opens makes it much easier to budget for a tournament and run a successful event right out of the gate.

I’ve been running tournaments for years, and I have some tips to share with you for how you can get started as a TD.

Sanction Your Tournament with the PDGA

There is nothing that says the first tournament that you run has to be a PDGA sanctioned event, but there are many advantages to doing so. Most importantly, when you sanction a tournament, the PDGA extends their liability insurance to you. Most parks require you to have insurance to run an event. But even if insurance is not required, you should never run an event without it. Injuries and accidents do happen — and so do lawsuits. Don’t leave yourself unprotected from a possible legal situation.

You can purchase insurance from an agent, but it is unlikely you will find a better value than having it included through the PDGA for the small sanctioning fee ($50-100, depending on the event tier).

Additionally, when you sanction a tournament, you are going to get advertisement at the best place possible: the PDGA website. PDGA members will also get round ratings from the event.

What is required to sanction a tournament?

The PDGA has a list of requirements on their website, but here are the key points:

  • You need to be a PDGA certified rules official.
  • You need to know the format type for the tournament.
  • You need a tournament date that has been approved by the course and PDGA state coordinator.

How to get certified

The PDGA certification test is available online: it will require you to be a PDGA member and pay a fee of $10 to take the test. The test is open-book, but since you will be serving as a tournament director, make sure to read the entire rulebook and competition manuals. You will be the one to have the final say on tournament rulings, and it is important to have a firm understanding of the rules.

The certification is valid for three years from the date of purchase.

Tournament Format Choices to Think About

You have many options when you’re running a tournament: the course(s) to use, the divisions to offer, tee times vs. a shotgun start — the list goes on. For now, we’ll assume that you want to run a division-based singles tournament — the simplest type of tournament to run as it is the one that most players are familiar with. If you run a doubles or team type tournament, be prepared for a lot of questions; even if you understand those types of tournaments, you would be surprised how many emails and phone calls you are going to get from people wanting clarifications.

Pros or Amateurs or Both?

If you have experience playing professionally, then a pro tournament will probably be the easiest type of tournament for you to run first. Pros don’t expect player packs, payout is simpler, and trophies are optional (although you should still do one for first place in each division). Expectations are generally higher for a pro tournament, and because money is on the line, players are much more likely to be upset about any mistakes you might make.

I would not recommend pro-only as your first type of tournament if you do not have a lot of experience playing professionally.

Amateur-Only Tournaments

It is not difficult to plan a player pack for amateurs or offer merchandise payout, so don’t be afraid to run these tournaments either. Amateur tournaments are usually much less expensive to run as it is not hard to find a way to get merchandise for wholesale prices.

One thing to consider is running a “true amateur” tournament. For these events, there is no payout — just trophies. There are still rules about what you have to offer, though: “True Amateur events should provide 100% of Net Entry Fees in value to all participants through player packs, trophies and tournament amenities,” per the PDGA.

Still, not having to manage payout can remove one of the more labor intensive aspects of running a tournament. But you really want to make sure that you offer a really good player pack. You will always have a few competitive players that prefer winning payouts, but generally a great player pack will have most of your amateur players leaving with a good experience.

If you are fortunate enough to have someone with TD experience helping you, then a combined event may be right for your first event.  If you don’t have a strong support staff, though, stick to Pro or Amateur only for your first event.

Divisions and Caps

It really pays to know your audience.  If you have time, consider doing a survey to identify what divisions people want to play in. Another useful tool is looking at how many players were in each division of published past tournament results in your area on the PDGA website.

It is okay if you restrict certain divisions, even if it means everyone doesn’t get to play. However, you should always create a female division for every open division that is offered. If you would like to include junior divisions, be sure to consider the time of year and difficulty of the course for age appropriateness.

Tournament Tier

The next thing you will have to decide is the tier level of your event. A-tier tournaments are reserved for a select number of events.  To be an A-tier, you must apply during the PDGA A-tier request period, which is usually in the fall of the previous year. A-tiers require a substantial amount of added cash and resources. An A-tier will almost certainly not be your first event as a TD (nor should it be), unless you are taking the reins from an already-established event.

B-tiers requires added cash for pro divisions and a larger player pack for amateurs. If resources are not an issue, this could be a good fit for you. A B-tier will require a $75 sanctioning fee and also a $3 fee per player.

A C-tier designation is most likely the right starting spot for a first tournament, as it provides you the most flexibility. C-tiers only require 18 holes be played and a payout of just 85% of net entry fees. C-tiers also have the smallest mileage restrictions, which will make it easier to find a date, especially if there are a lot of other tournaments in your area. A C-tier will require a $50 sanctioning fee and a $2 fee per player.

Shotgun Starts vs. Tee Times

Should you run your tournament with a shotgun start (everyone on the course at the same time) or with tee times?

Shotgun starts make it easier to have time to complete two rounds in one day, give a natural break to volunteers between rounds, and ensure that players will encounter the same weather, since everyone starts and finishes the tournament rounds at approximately the same time.

However, shotgun start tournament will limit your field size based on the number of holes you have available. If you have an 18 hole course, try to stay at or below 72 players, so that no group is bigger than four people. Although it is permitted to host groups of five, the tournament experience is dramatically different.

Some of the disadvantages of shotgun starts include communicating to large groups of players at one time, effectively accounting for players at the start and end of rounds, dealing with crowded parking lots, and having inconsistency in starting holes. And in the current day, shotgun starts require much more planning to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

With tee times, field sizes can be larger as tee time events are more restricted by daylight than by course size. However, there is usually only enough time to complete one round in a day with a larger field. Having tee times works best for multi-day tournaments.1

The main advantage of tee times is improved communication, as the groups are smaller. It is also much easier to account for the players before they tee off: just be sure to tell each group exactly the same instructions. Also, you usually can have most of the tournament wrapped up before the final card finishes, as you will know most of the outcomes as players come in. Traffic flow in the parking lot is much better with tee times as well. Tee times make planning for COVID-19 risk management much easier.

Some of the disadvantages of tee times include difficulty in scheduling volunteer breaks, being busy for nearly the entire day, and dealing with weather inconsistency across the day.

Deciding on tee times or a shotgun start will a lot of times come down to what fits your personality. Either one will work great for your first tournament. If you don’t mind talking to large groups and prefer a one-day tournament, go with a shotgun start. If you enjoy talking with players individually and being at the course all day for two days, opt for tee times.

As of March 2021, the PDGA is encouraging the use of tee times to “provide better distancing of players without as much potential for mass gatherings,” which reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Choose a Date

Sometimes, finding the right time to hold your event is the easy part; other times, it is the most difficult.

It is important to know the format before you choose a date: the divisions that are offered, the number of days of the event, and the tier level will help determine what dates are available and what mileage restrictions apply. For example, if you are running an amateur-only event, your mileage restrictions don’t apply to another event if it is pro only. The farther out you plan the event, the easier it is to secure your date. Be sure to check the schedule with your course/park owner and the state coordinator to find a date that works for everyone.

Now that you are a PDGA certified rules official, know the tournament format, and have a date, you are ready for sanctioning.

For a C-tier, you are required to sanction your tournament at least 30 days before the event date and pay your $50 fee to complete the sanctioning.  Once you have completed your sanctioning agreement, the event will be published on the PDGA website for everyone to see, and you will receive an email with information to help you create an event listing on Disc Golf Scene. Player fees are not due until after the tournament is completed.

The PDGA also has fantastic tools for TDs in the back-end of their website to make it easy to communicate information, track player packs and payouts, and manage the online presence of your event.

Publish Tournament Details

Take some time to learn how Disc Golf Scene works and take a look at what other tournaments have used to describe their tournaments. The more information here, the better. Tell the players the registration fees, let them know if there will be tee times or shotgun starts, identify the courses and layouts being used.

Lately, a lot of tournaments are selling out quickly. The most common question I usually get asked these days is “What day and time does registration open?” There is no reason to overthink this part, and you can always go back and make changes later (although it is better to have a majority of your information posted).

If you do not have a lot of the information ready when you announce the event, you are going to be fielding a lot of questions. It is better to simply advertise “more information coming soon” than to post incomplete information. Be sure to have the participation waiver that players are required to sign posted before registration opens.

Prepare a Budget

It is best to have an idea of what your costs are before you create a registration fee. Identify all the supplies you will need and add at least $200 to what you estimate. It is easy to overlook important items — you most likely won’t just be buying player packs and trophies. Some of the basics you may need to purchase include scorecards, pencils, rope, marking paint, water, a first aid kit, and an air horn.

Also, don’t forget to account for PDGA player fees or city permit fees. For C-tier events, you are allowed to deduct the PDGA player fee from the payout and also the permit fees. I prefer to make this as transparent as possible and identify the fees on Disc Golf Scene.

Payouts can be difficult to budget and plan for, especially for your first tournament. The easiest solution is to work with a local disc golf store or online retailer to obtain vouchers for the players. This gives the players a lot more selection and gives you a lot more flexibility if the turnout is not what you expected. Keep in mind that when you are calculating the value of player packs and merchandise payouts, you are allowed to use the retail value of those products for your calculations, not what you pay at wholesale.

Keep it Simple

The primary key to running good tournaments is to keep things simple. If you add too many little things like ace pots, win your card, closest to pin, longest drive, and longest putt to your tournament, it can become overwhelming very quickly. Skip adding these extras for your first tournament so you can focus on executing the basics.

If you read through this and felt overwhelmed, just remember: you’re not alone! The PDGA is an amazing resource and always there to help you answer questions. Additionally, reach out to local or regional TDs: you might be surprised at how many are willing to help.

If you don’t believe you are ready to TD your first tournament, consider volunteering.  Volunteering is a great way to learn about running an event without shouldering the full responsibility.

But don’t be scared off by being a beginner TD: you can do it! The PDGA makes a lot of resources available for you to understand what you need to do — and every TD has to start somewhere. If you’re frustrated by how quickly events are filling up, be a part of the solution!

Want more tips? In the subscriber-bonus segment of a recent episode of The Upshot podcast, Jamie Thomas gives some tips about how to run a successful disc golf tournament.

  1. Two rounds of tee times in one day can be accomplished by limiting the field size. 

  1. Joe Douglass
    Joe Douglass

    Joe used to be an avid disc golf competitor but now spends more time helping run tournaments rather than playing in them. He is the president of the Columbia, MO, Disc Golf Club and serves as the tournament director for the annual Mid-America Open. He is also excited to serve as the tournament director for the upcoming 2021 Tim Selinske US Masters tournament.

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