Should the Disc Golf World Tour create a female-only division?
March 24, 2016 by Steve Hill in News with 28 comments
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When registration for the La Mirada Open, the first stop on the inaugural Disc Golf World Tour, went live on December 10th, 2015, it was open to the top-100 ranked players on the tour based on “points awarded for performing well in MPO (Men’s Pro Open) division of select events.”
On December 17th, Phase 2 of registration began, welcoming players with a PDGA rating of 970 or higher.
A third phase of registration was set to begin on December 23rd, giving players with a ranking of 940 and higher the chance to join in.
On December 22nd – one day before their ratings levels would have allowed them to sign up for the event – the top-three ranked female professional disc golfers were invited to register.
Only one woman, Catrina Allen, ended up playing the event. She finished with a four over par 193 for the three-day tournament, putting her in a tie for 45th place and one spot shy of earning a payout.
‘Kind Of A Jab’
The timing of the women’s invite was not lost on 2012 PDGA Women’s World Champion Sarah Hokom, who has become an outspoken critic of the World Tour format and what she sees as its tacit exclusion of women.
“I don’t know, I think [tour director Jussi Meresmaa] was trying to add, ‘Oh yeah, women can play. We’re inviting women to play,’ but it was still kind of a jab,”Hokom said. “But you’re asking us to play under these circumstances that are totally unfair.”
Hokom said the ‘one division’ concept does not equate to fair competition, pointing to studies that prove women perform 10-15 percent lower than men in athletic contests due to differences in genetics and hormones.
“To ask women to compete against the men just to get air time and publicity is wrong,” Hokom said.
Hokom was not one of the three women extended an invitation to play the tour, but her PDGA rating would have allowed her to enter during the event’s third phase of registration. She decided to skip the tournament as a form of protest.
She also said that playing against men and trying to climb up the payout scale was not an appropriate way for women to improve.
“And expecting to just try to cash is not how a woman will build her mindset to be a dominant champion,” Hokom said. “Asking us to play against the men, knowing that we don’t have a chance to win, is wrong, for the best women in the world. And it doesn’t matter to me that there’s only four or five or six or eight women that can really play great golf right now. The quality and the quantity are totally different parts of this equation, and they don’t go together.”
Three-time PDGA Women’s World Champion Valarie Jenkins was invited to play in the Disc Golf World Tour. She also chose to sit it out, but did not take the decision lightly.
“I was back and forth, the pros and cons of what me playing or me not playing represent,” Jenkins said. “And to me in general, I just imagine I’m going to come out here, play my best, and that’s not necessarily representing women’s disc golf. It’s not growing women’s disc golf. I think more of the women’s tournaments and the women’s divisions are growing that. Me placing 50th at this tournament’s not going to make a huge impact.”
Both Hokom and Jenkins said they want to see the Disc Golf World Tour add a dedicated women’s division.
Meresmaa, though, does not have a timeline for establishing a women’s field.
“Currently, an FPO division is not feasible or sustainable on DGWT,” Meresmaa said in an email to Ultiworld. “If female disc golf develops and there will be more talents willing to travel around the world, we might see them in our promotion.”
‘A Fair Platform’
Until that happens, Jenkins – who is also the head of the PDGA Women’s Committee – said it did not make sense for women to sign up.
“I don’t think it’s worth our money, our time,” Jenkins said. “It does nothing for our professional career as traveling and professional disc golfers.”
Another prominent professional disc golfer, though, said signing up for the DGWT would be a great learning opportunity for women.
Juliana Korver, a five-time PDGA Women’s World Champion who competed several times against men at the United States Disc Golf Championships, said the chance to play the Disc Golf World Tour could help women on a competitive level.
“They will get to be part of what looks to be an amazing series, they will play against great players on great courses and their games will likely be better for it,” Korver said. “Of course there are many variables for each to consider, as it may be cost prohibitive for many of the pro women to do so. But money aside, I would encourage all pro women with a rating over 900 to strongly consider it.”
Hokom, though, pointed to the experience of golfer Michelle Wie as a cautionary tale for women who might consider playing against men.
“Michelle Wie, in her teenage years – her, if I can say, naïve teenage years – attempted to play the PGA Tour events over a dozen times. And it actually never helped her,” Hokom said. “She thought that as a teenager, ‘Yeah I can do this, I can prove something,’ but it really only proved that women still can’t [compete with men]. She only made the cut once, then got cut the next round because she didn’t shoot well enough. It just really proves that women can’t compete at a high level with men, and it destroyed her mental game.”
And that idea that women cannot, nor should not, have to compete with men in order to achieve fair play is at the heart of Hokom’s discontent with the DGWT.
She expressed those sentiments with a long Facebook post outlining many of her concerns with the event, adding a modified logo for the Disc Golf World Tour that called it the “Disc Golf Men’s Tour.”
But while she was vocal in her displeasure with the tour’s format, she said she appreciated what the tour was aiming to do for disc golf. She just wanted to see that goal extended to all players.
“The concept of offering great events and venues, and having a spectator-based tournament, having really high quality media available to cover it live streaming, all that is awesome,” Hokom said. “And at the point where women’s disc golf is just starting to explode, not giving us a platform – a fair platform to compete in – is really doing a disservice.”
Meresmaa acknowledged the criticism and pointed to the one division format as being all-inclusive.
“I understand that our ladies would love to play on DGWT,” he said. “Therefore it is open for every person. No older player has complained about not having their own division. Our sport is so small and juvenile that people still have difficulties to understand what is best for us.”
He also had high praise for Allen as the event’s only female participant.
“She attended this event knowing that her chances to make money were limited,” Meresmaa said. “What she did was gain a lot of publicity and she became the most known female disc golfer of this year. She played well, too, and almost cashed. Her sponsors got extra visibility and she made a lot of new followers and likes. Also, her athletic persona gained a lot of value. She was smart.”
Allen did not respond to a request for comment.
‘It Still Looks As Good On Tape’
For the men who played the La Mirada Open, the issue was not necessarily black and white.
DGWT 5th-ranked player Will Schusterick said the one division format was an issue of numbers, not discrimination.
“I think that women’s disc golf just has to grow,” Schusterick said. “I don’t think that there would be one division and one champion if there were even half the amount of women as there are men. And right now we are looking at maybe 20 percent – I’m talking major events, the biggest pro field compared to the biggest women’s field – you’re maybe getting 10 to 20 percent. And it’s tough because the women at the top are very competitive, but the thing is, is you have to have another thirty people to want to go play those events.”
Philo Brathwaite, who finished 23rd at the La Mirada Open, tried to put the DGWT into perspective with a different set of numbers.
“I think also, though, another thing to consider is that out of how many tournaments on the year there’s how many in the World Tour? Eight tournaments in the World Tour?” Brathwaite said. “Five, well there you go. So out of 1,100-plus tournaments on the year there’s five of them that [women] feel like, ‘Oh, we can’t play.’”
Still, Brathwaite acknowledged that women’s disc golf is ascending, and that it should be recognized as such.
“The ladies are definitely a part of what’s going on in disc golf,” he said. “More and more ladies are playing all the time and getting excited about the sport, and more guys are going out with girls that play disc golf on tour even. Their ladies are competing now, and I think it’s a good thing. We need to include everybody.”
One of those players dating a woman on tour is Nikko Locastro. His girlfriend is Jessica Weese, who is currently the PDGA’s 5th-ranked women’s disc golfer.
Locastro offered a solution for including women as part of the tournament.
“Maybe they should bring a female field and only make 20 spots available for the females, because they’re out here doing it and they’re professionals as well,” Locastro said. “And they’re trying to make a living out of disc golf, too, so it would be nice for the World Tour to put together a showcase women’s event as part of this.”
While the World Tour did not showcase multiple women playing disc golf, Hokom said she unequivocally supported Allen for playing and acknowledged that tour organizers portrayed her participation in the event in a positive light.
Still, Hokom pointed to other major sports – she mentioned tennis in the 1970s and UFC today – as arenas where women have been given equal media treatment and have flourished as a result. She wants the same for disc golf.
“The public has to think that the women’s side is exciting and interesting,” Hokom said. “But if we don’t show it to them and we don’t think it is, then nobody else will.”
This general sentiment was shared by tour veteran Dave Feldberg, who said that women should have their own division or their own event, regardless of field size.
“If they get 20 pros out there and they’re the feature of the course and you’re filming it, it still looks as good on tape,” Feldberg said. “I think that if it’s featured on the women, then people will respect their game more and they’ll be the highlight of the course. But in our situation, where they’re playing in our division or you put them in a separate division on the same course, they’re never the highlight and the crowd will never choose to follow them over Paul McBeth.”
‘One Of The Biggest Inequalities’
Since that separate division is not currently a reality, Jenkins and Hokom took their talents to another venue on the morning of the La Mirada Open’s final round: a women’s disc golf clinic an hour away in Pasadena.
“Being here I knew that it was going to be a men’s focus, so I wanted to give back to the women that were hanging around and that wouldn’t be at this tournament playing,” Jenkins said.
Eight women attended the clinic, which Jenkins called “super positive.” But she also acknowledged that the small turnout is something she, Hokom, and other female disc golfers are working to build upon through social media and this year’s PDGA Women’s Global Event.
“That’s what we need to keep working on,” Jenkins said. “Making sure that women want to come out, giving them instructions to play better and feel more encouraged to go out and play, whether it’s with the guys or at their local tournament.”
For Hokom, increasing the number of women playing disc golf is part of the advocacy she has taken on as a mission since she started the game. And it’s this advocacy that has driven her to speak so strongly against the World Tour’s format.
“It’s been something I’ve been working on, and this is just one more thing,” she said. “This is just the one that’s given me the most publicity, because it’s the most ridiculous thing that I’ve seen most recently… and it’s one of the biggest inequalities I’ve witnessed in the sport since I’ve been playing.”
And while she realized that some may not agree with her stance, she was unapologetic about her approach to the issue.
“So the fact that this is just coming out now, you can call me whatever you want,” she said. “But I’ve been an activist at heart, I’m a huge feminist, I believe in women’s rights. I practically had a minor in it in college. So I really have strong feelings about this, and I’ll continue to do whatever I can to push it.”