Tuesday Tips: When to Switch Disc Golf Divisions (And Avoid Sandbagging!)

Moving on up?

Nobody likes these.

It is a ritual at nearly every disc golf tournament. At the awards ceremony, a division winner’s name is called and, as they walk up to shake the hand of the tournament director to a quiet swell of applause, someone yells “’bagger!” And, accompanied by a few laughs, someone else yells “move up!” It’s a classic. But there is often an edge behind the laughter.

The term “sandbagging” first emerged in the nineteenth-century to describe urban criminals who would mug their victims by hitting them heavy sock full of sand. It was a weapon that was easy to hide and easy to dispose of after the crime was done. The term drifted over to poker, where a “sandbagger” was player who was dealt a great hand but started with low wagers to draw in other players and then crushed them with big bets. The term is now locked into traditional golf, where it describes a player who manipulates their handicap so they get more strokes than they should. A player who, for example, has a 6 handicap but claims to be a 14 in a tournament to allow them to subtract 8 strokes off their score. In the often high-stakes world of the country club golf circuit, a few well-sandbagged strokes can be worth thousands of dollars.

Disc golf does not have an easily abused handicap system, but since disc golf tournaments are split into divisions, players can choose their opponents. To critics, “sandbaggers” are those who play in a division too easy for them, allowing a sandbagger to essentially swipe plastic, trophies, and titles from players too weak to challenge them. There are some efforts to limit what divisions players can enter – usually by setting rating limits for certain divisions – but it does little to change the situation. Ratings are often not representative of a player’s skill and TDs are reluctant to force players to move up.

There are definitely sandbaggers who know they outclass their division but play there anyway because they love winning (even if they are beating competition below their level) or just want to walk away with a haul of plastic from the prize table. They don’t much care whether this hurts the overall disc golf community. There are other players who see themselves as “defensive sandbaggers” – they think they need to play in the rec division because the intermediate division is full of sandbaggers who should be playing advanced or pro. To them, not sandbagging is just being a sucker and handing money over to another sandbagger. If you are going to swim with sharks, they argue, you need to be a shark. It may be a way to get more plastic but winning all the tournaments in the Novice division for four straight seasons may not be the achievement they think it is.

While there are dedicated sandbaggers, there are also lots of players who don’t know where they should play or if they would be better off in a different division. For the good of your own game and the disc golf community, there are reasons to stay in a particular division and reasons to move. So, where should you play?

Your Divisional Arc

It is fine to start in any division. If you are a new player, then you should feel comfortable starting in Novice or Recreational and seeing how you enjoy the experience. You may discover that you are much better than your fellow competitors and you should move up, or that the players in Intermediate are much better and more serious about that game than you and you might be better off in Rec. Every division has its own feel, and it can vary widely from area to area.

Don’t put too much weight on your first tournaments. It is natural to underperform when you start, and you may be a good fit for Intermediate even if nerves blow up your scores while you are getting used to tournament conditions. You will evolve as a player, and this may mean changing divisions over time. Assuming you aren’t competing in a season-long points race that requires you to stay in one division, don’t get locked into your identity as a “Rec” player or an “Advanced” player. Feel free to try out many different divisions, even over the course of a single season.

There are five stages of play within a division: Participation, Competition, Conversation, Domination, and Stagnation. You may never go through them all, you may move up and down through them, or you may stay in one stage your entire competitive career. Usually, the tensions and issues about sandbagging arise as you reach the later categories.

The first stage is Participation. You are in the division, happy to be at tournaments, and enjoying the experience. You are not winning, you aren’t even fighting for wins, but you are having fun. As a newer player in a lower division, this is a great way to learn the rules, make friends, and get comfortable in a competitive environment. If you are having fun in whatever division you are in, even if you aren’t winning, then you can stay there for years.

The next stage is Competition. You are in the mix, probably not winning much, but sometimes coming close. Your good scores are in the top half of the division, and your best scores are within shouting distance of the winner. This is a great place to be; you can go into every tournament with a shot at a decent finish, you are learning a lot, and getting more comfortable with tournament pressure.

There is no reason for you to feel pushed to change divisions if you are in these first two stages. If you are having fun, enjoying your cardmates, and learning from your tournament rounds, you are in the right spot.

Once you have been competitive for a while, you may become part of the Conversation. The “conversation” is the discussion that occurs whenever players talk about who could win the tournament in that division. Are you one of the four or five names kicked around? Do other players say, “you know, Bob has been playing really well, he could win it?” If so, then congratulations, you are in the conversation. This is a fun stage, as you have honed your skill level from having an outside shot to win to being among the favorites. This is often the competition sweet spot – you are good enough to get the respect of your fellow competitors but not so good you feel the weight of the expectation to win. You probably get some wins at this stage, though you need to play very well to secure them.

While you shouldn’t receive a ton of pressure to move up, this is where the issue of perceived sandbagging can become an issue. The healthiest local divisions will have a large list of names in the conversation. If the conversation is essentially two or three names, and always the same two or three names, then it might be worth thinking about whether moving up should be on the horizon. A division becomes a lot less fun when it is the same two players fighting to win while 20 other players look on from six strokes back.

You need to consider when you reach the level of Domination. You win regularly, you are at the top of the conversation, and you are always on the short list. Everyone knows the winner is going to have to go through you. You may not win every time, but you are a perpetual podium presence. At this point, you need to consider whether you are helping your game by beating the same players over and over. You probably get a lot of “bagger” comments. They might be deserved.

Then there is Stagnation. At this stage, you often dominate the field and the conversation has started to shift from “Bob is playing well, he could win” to “Ugh, Bob is here, I guess we are all playing for second.” Your presence is probably hurting the division and you don’t have to play particularly well to win. You can usually coast on your B game and get a podium finish and if you are on, then it’s not going to be very close. You are legitimately surprised if you don’t win. At this point, you need to think about going elsewhere. Not only for the community, but for your own benefit.

It’s Okay to Stay a While

Sometimes people suggest that a player should move up when they start to win, but there are reasons for a winning player to stay in a division (at least for a little while.) It sometimes seems like scoring well just naturally leads to winning, but learning to win is a skill separate from learning to score. There are lots of players who know how to score but not how to win. It is hard to replace the confidence that comes from standing on the first tee knowing that if you play your game, you’re going to win. You need to win to expect to win. And this confidence, which could become a key part of your entire competitive career, may not come after just one or two victories.

This is one reason why great baseball prospects often get put in A-ball to start their careers, because they can earn the confidence they will need in the majors by dominating at lower levels of the game. Top players stay long enough to experience being great but are moved up before that success turns into stagnation. So sure, stay and get some wins as a dominant force in a division, but move up before you stagnate. Doing so is good for your game. It is also better for the disc golf community when dominant players move up and allow other players to experience winning. Staying in Rec for years and winning every tournament by 10 makes no more sense than Juan Soto spending his career in rookie ball because he likes hitting .580 and belting a home run every night. It’s not what that division is there for.

But whether you need to move up can vary a lot based on local conditions. You can be a very good player who wins a couple of times in a season and doesn’t need to move anywhere. If the division is healthy, if the conversation has a lot of names in it, and you need to play well and get better to continue winning, then you might be in the right spot. But if you have stopped getting better and you are still winning, then it’s probably time to move up.

A Two-Way Street

Don’t feel that deciding to move up has to be a permanent commitment to a more advanced division. You can always go home again. You can move up, see how you like it, and then choose where to play on a tournament-by-tournament basis. You can play up in smaller tournaments and then stay in your usual division in larger or regional events.

But be prepared; playing in a highly competitive division after dominating a lower one is probably going to be less fun. Or, rather, be a different kind of fun. Be open to the way your game will grow when you must play your best to finish well. Embrace the excitement of working your way into the conversation in a more competitive division.

There are also reasons to move down. If you are injured, spending less time on your game, or just getting older, there is no reason to stay in a division that is no longer meeting your needs. However, you may find that, while you are near the bottom of one division, you would unfairly dominate the next division down. If so, then you may need to stay where you are. But it is fine to move out from the bottom of the pack in Advanced to become part of the conversation in Intermediate. Find a division that challenges you and pushes you to get better.

Other Divisions

There are other options outside of the standard divisions demarcated by rating. There are also divisions separated by age and gender. If you are over 40, think about the age-protected divisions, no matter your skill level. As someone who usually plays in the 40+ or 50+ divisions, believe me, they are awesome. The golf can be very competitive, but the players are usually more easygoing. There is always a lot of encouragement and a welcoming attitude towards new players. I usually play in the 40+ and 50+ Pro divisions not so much because of my rating, but because the players there are some of my favorite people to play with. These divisions are usually fairly small and you get to know your competitors really well over the course of a season.

***

You can choose the division you want to play, but take the opportunity to use tournaments to test your skills and motivate you to improve. In the lower divisions, tournaments can be a fun social event that brings you together with new playing partners or pushes you to try new courses. As you improve, tournament play should put your game under pressure and force you to rise up to meet the challenge. Whatever division you are in, if tournament play has become just going through the motions and picking up plastic for beating players who don’t push you to get better, then you are missing out on the real benefits of competition.

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart.

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