Tuesday, February 11, 2020

GROW THE SPORT - Tag Matches

By: Doug Bjerkaas

I learned how to play disc golf in Abilene, Texas. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to the sport by some locals who were heavily involved in the local disc golf scene. After three weeks of playing, I came out for my first “mini” event. “Minis” cost $5 to play, and I had my choice between signing up for the amateur pool or a pro pool. The amateur pool played for discs, and the pro pool played for money. I initially spent several months donating $5 each week towards plastic for the other amateurs who were winning. I did finally start to win some plastic, and eventually, I ended up playing for cash with the pros. While this progression was very instrumental in me growing into the disc golfer I am today, it sure had a cost. While I like “pay to play” leagues like the “minis” I played in Abilene, it was in Denver that I discovered “tag matches” and have ever since advocated that they are perfect for growing the sport!

What is a tag match?

Tag matches are simple. Players show up on a given time and day and give their tags to what we called the “tag master” in Denver. Sometimes called “bag tags”, these are made out of leather, metal, wood, or plastic, and are individually numbered from 1 to however many tags are made. The tag master would then randomly shuffle the tags and assign the players starting hole numbers for a shotgun start. At the conclusion of the match, the best score would be given the lowest tag. The next best score gets the next lowest tag, and so on until the worst score gets the highest numbered tag. There was no cost to play in these matches other than the initial expense to purchase the tag. Typically, an optional ace pot was added for those who wanted to throw in a buck or two.

I love this model because there is no financial decision for a player to make as to whether they play or not. They can show up with their tag, throw it into the mix, and experience a competitive round with others. My kids learned so much about disc golf by playing in competitive groups for tags as they grew up in the sport. Some weeks, they would be paired up with a local pro, and other weeks, they played against novice players who were just starting. At the end of the day, though, they could see success or failure depending on what tag they left with. I can remember my kids being ecstatic to get a two-digit tag after a match at Exposition Park in Denver when they initially arrived with a three-digit tag. It was a great way for them to see improvement as they played in a competitive environment. Growing the sport with low cost competitive options is a great way to groom folks who may someday play in competitive, PDGA-sanctioned tournaments!

Tags as a fundraiser

My first recollection of tags goes all the way back to around 2000. A new course was going into South Fort Worth at Z Boaz Park. According to local John Maiuro, Brian Mace brought the idea of tags back from Northwoods, Wisconsin, where he had seen them used as a fundraiser. Players paid a certain fee for the tag, they played for tags when they wanted to compete against each other, and money could be raised for a cause. Maiuro mentioned that when the idea was brought to south Fort Worth, almost 300 tags were sold at $20 each, and people played for them as often as they could. John, who worked for Xerox at the time, was able to make the tags for next to nothing. Close to $5,000.00 was raised to help further develop the course!

History of disc golf bag tags

While my personal recollection of tag play only went back to the Z Boaz tags in Fort Worth, Brian Mace remembers seeing them first in Wisconsin. Mace credits Terry Miller with first turning him onto the idea back when he was touring in Wisconsin. Terry had many fond memories of several Wisconsin events connected to the tags that local disc golfers were playing for in the early 2000s. In fact, the entire state has had year-long tag challenges resulting in state winners each year. As much as he wished he could, Miller could not take credit for the idea.

Terry had picked up the idea from the Club Dead Disc Golf Club in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I spoke with Scott Wilson from the Club Dead Disc Golf Club, and he reminisced fondly on the first tags that his club produced. Scott loved that the tags they made were one more “excuse for competition”. However, Wilson also could not claim the idea as his original. His first tag actually came from the Grand Rapids Dogs of Disc club.

Scott referred me to Derek Strang who told me that the early “dog-bone” tags from this old school Michigan disc golf club likely started sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s! He was not aware of another club inspiring the idea. In a time period when tournaments were few and far between, playing
for tags in Grand Rapids allowed folks “bragging rights for the week”. While my quest for the starting point for disc golf bag tags may not have lead me to the exact starting point for tags, it was interesting to find that Grand Rapids, Michigan could be the starting point. If anyone reading has an early story on disc golf bag tags that predates the dog-bones played for in Grand Rapids, please let me know your story (doug@dynamicdiscs.com).

Grooming future TDs through tags

The Mile High Disc Golf Club in Denver has scheduled and run tag matches throughout the Front Range of Colorado for many years. I personally got my first taste of running events by serving as the tag master for Tuesday night tags at Expo Park for three or four years. This experience of gathering tags, randomly assigning groups, and then distributing tags at the end of the night was a great springboard to eventually helping with sanctioned events, running sanctioned events on my own, and eventually being afforded the opportunity to TD the PDGA World Championships! Disc golf needs to keep growing. Not only does it need to grow in number of players but also in number of qualified folks that can organize and run events. Starting out being a “tag master” might just be the best first step! I know several seasoned TDs in the Colorado disc golf community that also got their start running tag matches.

Building community through tags

One of my favorite benefits to tags is the visible connection it creates between disc golfers in the area or region in which they play. Typically, tags are attached to disc golf bags or carts and can be seen by others on the golf course. Maiuro fondly recalls being able to see the “bumblebee” Z Boaz tags from across the course when someone had one on their bag. These “bumblebees” also indicated that the tag was a low number. The yellow and black tags were the first tags produced for Z Boaz. As the numbers grew, the tag colors changed.

There is certainly a connection that disc golfers make with each other. Having a visual indicator of belonging to a group of disc golfers has a benefit in starting a conversation with someone new on the course. I cannot tell you how many new people I have met in Emporia over the last three years through having an “Emporia Knows Disc Golf” tag.

Bag tags have also allowed me the opportunity to start a conversation about competitive disc golf with a local that does not have a tag. Several folks have asked about tags that are hanging on my cart, and it has given me a perfect opportunity to invite someone to a tag match. These players are often surprised that there something so accessible for new disc golfers to participate in, and it is awesome to be able to briefly explain what it is and invite them to our next match. In Emporia our tags cost $5, which basically covers the cost of the tag. Our goal has not been to raise funds (which is not necessarily a bad thing for all clubs) but to simply create another competitive way to play that is easy for a new player to jump in.

Get a tag and go play!

There are several ways to grow disc golf, and playing or running tags is one of many. I challenge every disc golfer to find some new folks and get them playing. If they get that itch for a more organized and competitive version of our sport, invite them to a tag match! If you are in a community that does not have a regular tag match…get out and start one.
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