Two major champions should be crowned in Rock Hill.
September 29, 2022 by Matt Thompson in Opinion with comments
At the beginning of September, tennis great Serena Williams said her farewell at the US Open in Flushing, New York. It was a final opportunity for fans to see a few more booming serves, hear some grunts of tremendous effort, and see her do her signature post-match twirl. Much like Andre Agassi’s swan song on the same court some 15 years earlier, it was a fitting tribute for Serena to go out in New York at the biggest spectacle US tennis has to offer.
But imagine this: what if instead of final twirls and night match interviews and celebrities in the stands, we got a five minute retrospective describing Serena’s last match from six weeks earlier in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because that’s where the women’s US Open was rotated to this year. How would that have felt? Weird?
Welcome to the state of women’s disc golf in the United States.
Even though Serena was in front of them playing a match on the same court where a men’s US Open champion would be crowned, tennis fans would not accept that she was in fact only playing a non-major tournament called the Hit Pink because the United States Tennis Association respects HER game.
Like disc golf, tennis is an individual sport with two tours, the WTA or Women’s Tennis Association, and the ATP, the Association of Tennis Professionals (the men’s tour). The tours generally coincide, much like the MPO and FPO divisions in disc golf typically play the same events concurrently. It’s not a particularly complicated model, and it makes sense (particularly in disc golf, where many FPO and MPO players travel together). There is also the added benefit that season-long storylines develop alongside each other for each division. Fans can debate player of the year candidates, talk about who’s on a hot streak, and who’s in the dumps. Fans will do this regardless, but encouraging discussion around your sport should be a basic tenet of season planning for a tour that fundamentally needs to be a profit generating vehicle.
While profit is a powerful motivating force, it is not always an organizing force. It is in moments like this that the relationship between the DGPT and the PDGA gets wonky for the casual viewer. The Majors are run by the PDGA, but “the tour” that the professionals rely on for their week-to-week profession is no longer the National Tour, but the Pro Tour. It is more than a bit confusing at times and creates mixed messaging.
I understand that the Disc Golf Pro Tour is building to their own finale, and the majors sit in an awkward position within the tour, but isn’t it just a little bit odd that the FPO tour has already played all four majors? These tournaments are the pillars on which the season rests. The DGPT Championship is an exciting tournament with an interesting format that has a huge payout, but prestige can’t be bought: just ask golf’s Tour Championship.
The United States Disc Golf Championship has prestige. The course is polarizing and Innova’s hold on the tournament is equally so, but the history is undeniable and players want to qualify for this tournament. So why is it men only? It isn’t, at least not according to the USDGC. On the USDGC website, under the header “One Division,” the justification for the one division policy reads:
In an effort to bring best disc golfers together, the USDGC combines all players who qualify into a single division. Virtually every other disc golf tournament in the world offers divisions based on age, gender, and skill level.
That is, to put it kindly, nonsense. This is perfectly calibrated to sound like something that could be true if not analyzed too closely. It might look nice as a banner image or screen printed on a t-shirt, but that does not make it true. Perhaps “virtually every other disc golf tournament in the world” is onto something here? While greats like Paige Pierce and Juliana Korver have both played with the men at USDGC, that looks more like tokenism than any real positive move forward for the tournament.
Winthrop is entirely capable of having two concurrent tournaments, as the women now play the Throw Pink Championship, an A-Tier, that week on the same course, and lest we forget, for the first three years of its existence from 1999 to 2001, the Women’s National Championship (WNC), as it was then called, was held at Winthrop concurrent with USDGC. This two-division major tradition was rekindled in 2020 with the return of the WNC after the USWDGC becoming an early COVID-19 casualty. In 2021, Throw Pink took the place of the WNC, and USWDGC went back on the road to Wisconsin.
However, having the USWDGC rotate courses every year creates a media-relations snafu that does not need to exist. It is a major whiff to have the debate every year about the quality of the courses chosen for the USWDGC. The 2021 USWDGC in Orangevale is a perfect example, as it is now remembered more as the moment where Paige Pierce took the PDGA to task for the quality (and quantity) of courses, rather than as the site of her 13 stroke victory. The moment is now immortalized in her documentary Fierce.
Throw Pink already has all the trappings of a Major as it runs alongside USDGC. It is invite-only, run professionally, and features a media presence that is on par with the biggest tournaments of the year. “We would love for it to be a major, but we run it as though it is either way,” Jonathan Poole, the event director, told me. Whatever the fate of Throw Pink, it is an error to hold what is essentially one tournament with two divisions, but only award a Major title to one of those divisions.
It would not be easy to bring the USWDGC back to Winthrop permanently. A beautiful but complicating factor to hosting the USWDGC is the tournament’s rich history and tradition of promoting the amateur side of the game. Women and girls from FJ10 all the way to FP70 compete. This can lead to delightful circumstances like Virginia Polkinghorne shooting the hot round in Advanced and then watching her mother play in FA50. There’s no other event on tour like it. One could even say this format brings disc golfers together. Having the event elsewhere also reduces the restrictions Winthrop brings. “Ideally,” Poole says, “the tournaments would be held on back to back weekends, rather than concurrently,” but Innova already takes over the campus for ten days. There is serious doubt the university would allow that time to expand significantly and there is “pushback from women on limiting the field to 40.” The men’s division, Poole says, is also down from its heyday of 170 to around 100. He fears that as things currently stand, neither event could reach its full potential, and that way back in 2001 “we let [the Women’s National Championship] go so that it could become its own thing.”
The disc golf world was at a turning point 20 years ago. It is at a new turning point now, and a major championship with a limited field is hardly a new circumstance.
What it comes down to from a professional disc golf standpoint is this: two champions are crowned on the same course on the same day. Last year, those champions were Paul McBeth, winning his third US Championship and further cementing his legacy as one of the greatest to ever do it, and Missy Gannon, who got to add another A-tier win to her 2021 season alongside the Joe Machen’s Toyota Mid America Open and The Carolina Clash. No disrespect to Joe Machen or Missy Gannon’s wins in Missouri and South Carolina, but it is a patent absurdity that her win in Rock Hill, arguably the best of her career, doesn’t rank her as a major champion.
Multiple stakeholders will need to come together to make this work. The PDGA is responsible for the Majors. Innova Champion Discs runs USDGC on the ground. The Disc Golf Pro Tour has a vested interest in all things professional disc golf. Winthrop University has a right to their own campus. When something is important, though, these bodies have proven in the past that they can get it done. It was obvious that the National Tour and the Disc Golf Pro Tour should not duplicate their efforts, so the entities came to an agreement to make the DGPT the official Pro Tour of the PDGA. I believe a similar arrangement for the good of the FPO game is not out of the realm of possibility if there is a desire and commitment from the stakeholders to get it done. It would bring the MPO and FPO tours back in sync with each other, stop the FPO tour from having such a front-loaded season, and end the neolithic policies that currently reign at the USDGC.
For their part, Poole and the Innova team, whatever the future holds, want to be involved. “We want to work with the top professional women and the PDGA. The game is evolving and we want to do our part. The women’s game deserves more attention than it has historically gotten and we want to be a part of that conversation.”
What will that conversation look like going forward? It might take more time. It might be a painful and drawn-out process with multiple negotiations and frustrations, but gender parity in disc golf is one of its most pressing issues, and the current state of the USWDGC has much room for improvement. There are more eyeballs on the sport than ever before, and as the pro game begins to mold itself into a more standardized version recognizable to all sports fans with one pro tour and four majors a year, the current standard for crowning US champions does not fit cleanly into that mold. If we want the sport to grow into something where a Serena-style sendoff is possible for a Paige Pierce or a Juliana Korver at the end of their storied careers, then the status quo cannot stand.