As a player and a tournament director, I am often asked what a person needs to know in order to play in and enjoy their first tournament. The short and simple answer is to sign up, keep expectations low (score/finish-wise, that is), and have fun. But if you feel like you need to know more than that to prepare yourself for that first dip into the competitive waters of disc golf, there is certainly more that you can do.
Talk to the tournament organizer
Every tournament has a person to contact for all questions about the event, either by phone, email, or in-person. The Tournament Director (TD) is going to be able to answer all sorts of questions, from when should you sign up to when should you arrive at the course on tournament day to what division should you play in.
When in doubt, go to the source. Way better to get the scoop from the person in charge than to make assumptions or take the word of someone not involved who is likely making assumptions themselves. The TD’s goal is to make sure everyone has a good time and wants to come back and play his/her next tournament too. They won’t steer you wrong.
Familiarize yourself with the rule book
The Professional Disc Golf Association Rules of Play are the standard set of rules most tournaments, whether sanctioned by the PDGA or not, use to govern fair play. They are available for free at the above link, including in a printer-friendly PDF format. Printed books sized for easy storage in a golf bag are available for purchase for about $3 from most disc golf retailers (including PDGA.com).
By no means do you have to memorize the book, but it can’t hurt to skim through it in order to get an idea of some of the more basic rules. The book is set up in such a way that it flows from the basic, used on every throw/hole rules (section 802 in particular) to the specialized rules needed only for certain situations (sections 803 and 804).
If any rule has you confused or unclear, never hesitate to ask for a clarification from a more experienced player (the TD being a great resource again). For a lot of rules, all it takes is a quick demonstration to see how the rule is supposed to work. Much of the time, a demo is enough to make you realize you’ve always been following a rule correctly.
Along the same lines, when you introduce yourself to your group mates at the start of your round, let them know it’s your first tournament. Everyone’s been in that same position once, and your group mates will be more than happy to help you out, point out what you need to know, and make sure your first round is a fun one.
Get to know the course(s)
Chances are that for your first tournament experience, you are going to choose an event on a familiar course, either your home course or one nearby that you’ve have played a few times before. But just because it is a course you’ve played time and again, that doesn’t mean you have the whole picture.
The important thing you want to know about the course(s) being played is if there is anything about any of the holes with which you might be unfamiliar when tournament day comes. Even if you’ve played the course many times, there may be existing features or changes made to the course of which you would be unaware without playing a tournament.
One common example would be out-of-bounds areas. Usually they are marked on the tee sign or on a sign near the area itself, but sometimes they are only marked clearly on tournament day. If you have never played by out-of-bounds rules before (check into 804.04 if that’s the case) or just weren’t aware of the OB area, you don’t want to be caught off-guard when the time comes to play the hole in the tournament.
Another example might be alternate teeing areas. This could be using short or long tee pads on holes where there is a choice, or it could be creating temporary teeing areas used just for the tournament. In either case, the result might be that you are starting a hole you know from a tee area that you might have never played before. Knowing when and where these alternates might be used will give you the chance to practice them or at least have time to think about how you might go about playing the unfamiliar tee.
The important thing is familiarity with the course will breed confidence. And confidence will result in (hopefully) better throws and a more fun experience all around.
Give yourself the day
The biggest thing that tends to catch new people off guard at their first tournament is the pace of the day. The pace of the rounds themselves are generally going to be a bit more deliberate than the average recreational round. As a result, once round 1 begins, the rest of the day’s schedule has to be a bit more fluid.
The TD (or his/her tournament flyer) should be able to give you a good ballpark estimate as far as when the lunch break between rounds will be and when the last round will end and the awards ceremony will occur, but there are always elements that can affect the timing of the day.
My advice, at least for your first time, is to give your whole day to the tournament. It’s a lot easier to plan to be at the course all day and have things wrap up early than to expect to be out at a certain time and have things run later than that expectation. Nothing will increase the stress and anxiety of a delay in play like the thought that it means you might not make your dinner reservation in time.
Keep it all in perspective
Your first time playing in a tournament probably won’t result in you playing the best rounds of your life. Whether you play well or play poorly, though, it’s important to keep an open mind throughout the day and absorb as much of the experience as you can.
The result of your experience might be that you decide tournaments aren’t for you. Nothing wrong with that. But more often than not one’s first tournament experience leads to a desire to play another, and another. And every tournament played is more experience that will help make the next one that much more fun and enjoyable.
All journeys start with a single step, so sign up…and have fun.