If you are looking for the short answer, yes. Yes, it matters a lot.
With one event remaining in the 2016 Pro Tour, it is time to start the planning and evaluating. One of the primary aspects of a Pro Tour event is the course. Without a great course, the event could be less fun to watch. It could also not create enough scoring separation, not allowing the players playing best to percolate to the top of the leader board. For our purposes, there are three traits that make a course great for the Pro Tour.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Fun to watch. In person and online. A course needs to be scenic as well as exciting. Scenic can be the simple inclusion of flowers, well kept grounds, or interesting structures. It can also be serene ponds, amazing vistas, or even carved tunnels through the woods. Every property can be a joy to view. Every Pro Tour event should be eye candy. No matter how great the disc golf being played is, if it is ugly to the eye, people will not want to watch.
In addition to picturesque, a course also needs to be well designed and exciting. If you have time, Reboot Disc Golf has a great intro to John Houck’s iconic piece about Risk and Reward. Read it here. Risk and reward is a concept everybody loves to talk about. While all course designers may know what it is, very few courses incorporate it consistently well. This is something that OB ropes and mandatories can create if the natural objects on a course are not there. Additionally, courses should challenge different types of shots. Putting on a fast green, making long runs on a slow green. Up shots that turn sharply left or right to get to the pin, and of course drives over water, through tunnels, towards thinning OB, and requiring distance as well as accuracy. All of these things are needed to make a course fun to watch.
For the Pro Tour, in addition to being fun to watch because of course design, courses also need to be easy to film. Live broadcast is an integral part of what we do. There are two aspects to this. First, lines of sight for the cameras. Second, courses need good cell signal so that we can broadcast the images to the world. Having said this, the Pro Tour would rather have a well designed, scenic course with no cell signal that is tough to film than the other way around. While it is more difficult to capture for the online viewer, there are ways to make the broadcast work (multiple cameras, tape delayed broadcast).
Lastly on the spectator friendly front, there are many discussions about wooded courses vs open courses. Both have their place and are important to the professional future of our sport. Maple Hill, home of the Vibram Open, has been a PDGA National Tour event for eight straight years. Maple Hill is definitely more of a traditional wooded course than a USDGC style open course with ropes. Initially, the event was challenging to film (see the 2004 MSDGC DVD for proof! :-) Over the years, we developed lines of sight for the cameras, put up tree stands to get up high, and incorporated multiple camera coverage (one behind the thrower, one getting the disc coming in) to be able to offer compelling coverage. Additionally, Maple Hill has developed Spectator Spots where multiple holes can be viewed and/or exciting action is going to happen. Conversely, open courses, with well designed OB areas and intelligent use of prevailing winds, elevation and the trees that do exist, can also make for compelling disc golf.
Both types courses should be utilized going forward. They require different skill sets from the players so incorporating both on the Pro Tour will make sure that the overall best players do the best overall. Quick tennis analogy: the four tennis majors are played on three different surfaces (hard court, grass and clay). Each surface plays very differently and requires a different skill set to do well. When a player wins the tennis grand slam, that player is dominating on all three surfaces. The Pro Tour would like to similarly challenge our best disc golfers to thrill us and compete on different types of courses all across North America.
While much of the spectator friendly conversation got into challenging the players, we will go ahead and cross our tees. Challenging means we are testing a wide range of physical skills including, distance, accuracy, putting, wind play, hyzers, controlled annies, and many more. Additionally, the course should challenge a player mentally. Knowing the moments when an aggressive shot is warranted vs when the safe shot will card a better score more consistently, is a key aspect to our sport. When we see a player step on the tee with two discs, they are making a decision. With good commentary, spectators can get insight into which disc would be used for which type of shot and become more intimately involved.
This leads very nicely into one of the most overlooked aspects of what a great Pro Tour course is. Fairness.
Fair means that, in addition to having consistent and quality tee pads and baskets, a course also rewards good shots and punishes bad shots. For example, on a hole with stroke and distance, a player can throw a very good shot that lands in the fairway then skips and rolls and ends up OB by a few feet. They are headed to the drop zone. Meanwhile, another player could throw an abysmal shot that never comes in bounds and was a total misfire and get the exact same result. This would be viewed as challenging but not fair.
Another example of this would be a wooded fairway with a tree in the middle of the designed flight path. There are times when trees in a fairway are okay – close to the tee to define the line the player should take, close to the pin or landing zone to define the area that the disc should land, in the fairway to define a fair flight line – but there should not be trees along the desired flight path. If you’ve ever stood on a tee and said to yourself, “I’m going straight down the fairway, aiming for that tree in the middle, and just hope I miss it.” then, on a Pro Tour course, that tree should come down. Otherwise, a well thrown shot that hits the tree and ends up 40 feet deep in the woods is being penalized while a well thrown shot two inches to the left of the tree is parked. That is unfair.
The goal is to separate skill levels by utilizing the course design and the natural surroundings. OB and mandatories, and even the Puttress, are valid ways to challenge the players and define what shots they should make. Pro Tour courses need to be fun to watch, and making them challenging and fair for the players in a scenic setting is the secret sauce.
Side note: There are statistical ways to determine if holes are challenging and fair.
Steve West recently did some interesting analysis comparing scoring separation on a particular hole compared to finish place in the tournament overall. The goal of this analysis is to determine what holes are either lucky or do not have enough scoring separation to be a good addition to the tournament. One course that he analyzed was Maple Hill. Holes 2 & 17 came back as the weakest. I can understand hole 17 due to the very small landing zone which is very far from the tee. Additionally, shots that miss the landing zone are going to be randomly assigned good lies or bad lies. Distance from the landing zone is irrelevant in that regard. From this analysis, we will look at adjusting hole 17 to make it more fair.
Hole 2 on the other hand was not obviously lucky. This whole is relatively open with an OB wall on the right and a grove of trees on the left near the pin, 360′ away. When reviewing the analysis with Steve, it became clear that the issue with Hole 2 was a lack of scoring spread. The vast majority of players card a three and therefore do not have any scoring separation. Without scoring separation, the hole is useless in determining a champion. Due to this analysis, we will look at shortening the pin for Hole 2 to increase the number of birdies and to reward players that go for it. Additionally, this may cause more players to be aggressive going for the birdie and increase the number of shots that go OB, thus increasing the number of fours as well.
Next year, we will do the same analysis, determine the holes that are the weakest, and improve those next. We will never get it completely right, but using analysis and thoughtful discussion, we will continue to improve. For the Pro Tour, courses need to be fun to watch, in person and online, as well as fair and challenging for the top players in the world.
We hope you decide to watch.