Determining the Competitive Field Strength of Professional Disc Golf Tournaments

How do we measure the prestige of winning an event?

The hardest to win events on tour are the most prestigious. The 2021 Des Moines Challenge had only two players rated higher than 1040 (Paul McBeth and Calvin Heimburg), while the United States Disc Golf Championship and Professional World Championships each had six. McBeth’s win at Des Moines is notable, but, for multiple reasons, it is not as celebrated like his USDGC win against a stacked field. Long-running events gain prestige due to large purses, a rich history, and beautiful courses. All of these attract the top players to compete.

It is easy to tell that majors are prestigious, difficult to win events in the sport. Still, if none of the top players showed up to one, it would become a major in name only. But for the rest of the events on tour, how do we know which are the hardest to win, how do we measure the strength of each event’s field, and how do they stack up to the Majors?

The answer lies in field strength — a measure of how many competitive players attend an event. Obviously, most of the players at elite events are competitive, in that they want to play better than those around them. What we are asking, though, is how many players are attending an event who have the skill and experience to place in the top five. How many players at the event are competitive enough to compete for the win? Even at USDGC, where every player must qualify to attend, only 27 players were able to finish within 20 strokes of the leaders. Only 38 players who attended the event were rated within 30 points of the top players. There were 10 players there rated below 1000, and five players finishing more than 50 strokes off the lead. While there is nothing wrong with a player having a bad weekend or playing at an event against far superior players, we need to recognize that a large portion of the field at most elite events are not competing at an elite level.

In order to compete for the win at an elite tournament, MPO players must average 1050+ rated golf over the course of the tournament. In 2021, at the top six events, the average round rating of the top five finishers was 1052. In order to be in contention, a player needs to sustain that level of play for at least three rounds.

Most of the field at elite events cannot do so. Since the beginning of 2020, just 21 1000+ rated players played 30 points above their rating for the duration of a tournament, according to Statmando. That makes up 1.1% of rounds by 1000+ rated players at elite events in that timeframe. So, players have at least a chance of competing 30 points above their rating. Players 1022 rated are within 30 ratings points of the 1052 average round rating for a top 5 finish in 2021. In other words, players rated at least 1022 are a legitimate threat for taking down a win on tour. Lower rated players have won on tour, such as Connor O’Reilly (1019-rated) winning the 2021 Delaware Disc Golf Challenge against a relatively weak competitive field while averaging 1041-rated golf. Also, Colten Montgomery (1012-rated) won a COVID-shortened two round WACO in 2020. However, these wins are rare: the next lowest rated winner in the last two years was Mason Ford (1029-rated). Lower rated players occasionally pop off, but as a general rule, the current threshold for competitive players is roughly a PDGA rating of 1022.

Now that we know who competitive players are, we can begin to understand which tournaments have the most competition. We could count the number of players rated at least 1022 at each event and call that the competitive field, but we would have a very inaccurate measure of how strong the field truly was. The strength of the field is not just determined by the quantity of competitive players but also how competitive each of those players is. While Mason Ford is a competitive touring player, no one would disagree that Paul McBeth or Ricky Wysocki is much more skilled. A better way to measure competitive field strength is by using an average of the top players’ ratings, to take into account both the number of competitive players as well as their individual strength.

The competitive ratings system I’ve developed sets a competitive field baseline that can be used to compare tournaments. For 2022, this baseline is set by averaging the ratings of any players at or above 1022 rated from 2021’s USDGC and Pro Worlds. These top 41 players from each event averaged a rating of 1031.6. This is the baseline which all tournaments in 2022 will be compared to. For each tournament, the top rated players’ ratings are averaged to find how many players meet the competitive field baseline. At the 2022 Las Vegas Challenge, the average rating of the top 35 rated players was 1031.6. Therefore, the 2022 LVC had a competitive field of 35 players.

Top 5 Finish ThresholdEstimated Top PerformanceRating Threshold for a Competitive PlayerCompetitive Field Baseline
1052 Avg. RatingRating + 3010221031.6 Avg. Rating
  • Top 5 Finish: Average round rating for top 5 finishers at events with the 6 strongest fields in 2021.
  • Estimate Top Performance: The likely ceiling of a player’s performance over the course of an event.
  • Threshold for Competitive Players: Players at or above this rating have an estimated top performance equivalent to 2021’s top 5 finish.
  • Competitive Field Baseline: The average rating of all players meeting the threshold for competitive players at USDGC and Pro Worlds.

By comparing tournaments to the competitive field baseline, we get a reliable measure of how many players at an event have a reasonable chance of taking down the win. Here are the field strengths of each event in 2021 with at least a strength of 20 players:

2021 had some very clear trends. The majors had the strongest fields, DGPT events were the next strongest, National Tours had fields equal to lower strength DGPTs, a few Silver Series had competitive fields, and The Memorial was holding on as a top-tier tournament for one final year.

But not every season tells this clear of a story. In 2019, the last time US players were able to travel to Europe, the European Open had the 16th strongest field on tour. There were 13 Pro Tour and National Tour events with stronger competitive fields than the European Open. Were those tour events more prestigious — or merely more competitive? There is clearly an added pressure that comes from competing to win a major, but there is also much less competition to overcome against a weaker field. This year, we will face the same dilemma as US players return to Europe for the first major in Nokia in 3 years. Currently it is projected to have a competitive field of around 30 players, which is the same strength as the Open at Belton in both 2021 and 2022. How should we view the European Open when it has the same competitive field strength as the top Silver Series event? Will the large influx of disc golf fans in the past two years care about the history of an event they have no nostalgia for? Will it bother them to see a large number of competitive players missing?

But the European Open is not the only Major popping up on tour this year. The inaugural Champions Cup is only a week away. The event itself has no history as a major, no precedent whatsoever, but it is on a course and property with a long history in the sport of disc golf. In fact, the International Disc Golf Center right next door is literally the home of the history of the sport, as it features the Disc Golf Hall of Fame. While those of us who have watched the European Open for years may recognize its important history, will we have less nostalgia for the former home of the Ed Headrick Hall of Fame Classic?

While the European Open may feature a relatively weak field, the Champions Cup is predicted to have a competitive field of 47 players. That is 150% the strength of the European Open’s field. With a much stronger field facing off on just as historic of a course, I do not believe that the Champions Cup will be seen as any less prestigious than the European Open. The question is: how will the European Open and Champions Cup be compared to Pro Worlds, USDGC, and storied Pro Tour events like Ledgestone?

These questions will be asked by fans about every event on tour. How much weight do we put on its title, and how much weight do we put on the strength of the field? The Open at Belton and the Vintage Open, both Silver Series events in 2021, had stronger competitive fields than the Des Moines Challenge, an Elite Series one. Does a top 5 finish at a full tour event with a weak field matter more to fans than the same finish at a Silver Series with more competition?

Field strength is not everything, but neither is the a title. Field strength tells us which events are the most competitive and therefore most difficult to win, but it does not tell us which courses are the most beautiful or what history we remember when we go back to the same event year after year. Nostalgia cannot be quantified, only experienced.

As we enter the post-COVID era of disc golf, I hope that we can use measures of competitive strength to inform our perceptions of titles, but let’s make sure that we never replace our nostalgia and love for events, even if not every top player shows up.

  1. Douglas Tyas
    Douglas Tyas

    Douglas has been playing disc golf since 2015. Watching professional disc golf and developing stats to better understand the sport are his hobby. Go to @Disc_Golf_Doug on twitter to connect with him and see more disc golf statistics.


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