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Par vs What We Should Expect

Par was originally used as a term to discuss stock prices. Par was the normal or expected price of a stock. In golf, it was originally used to define what a perfect round would be.
In 1870, at the 10th “Open”, Tom Morris won with a score that was two above par. As a golf term, par was born.
Note: For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to focus on par for the touring pro (gold) level player. Also, “golf” refers to traditional golf.
Today, at the largest golf events, we expect the winning score to be close to par or perhaps a few strokes below par. For golf, it has been this way for nearly 150 years. Shoot par, be in the running to win.
With scores of 30 down winning disc golf tournaments, no wonder disc golf has a problem with par. Our expectations have been set by the very long tradition of golf and disc golf does not fit into our expectations.
We either need to change our expectations or we should change the way we calculate par. Our ingrained expectation is that par in disc golf is going to be about the same as par in golf. It just feels like this should be the case, so we struggle with the best way to determine par. In golf, the average number of putts is theoretically two. In disc golf, the average number of putts is theoretically one. In golf, par is the number of shots to reach the green + putts (2). In disc golf, par would be the number of shots to reach the green + putts (1). This would make about half of our holes into par 2s.
Pro golfers average around 6 one putts, 11.5 two putts, and .5 three putts per round. Pro disc golfers average around 16 one putts and 2 two putts (presuming all their putts are from Circle 1).
There are two ways to “fix” this. Either accept par 2s into disc golf and “correct” par or, increase the size of the green.
Par 2?The first option, creating some par 2s, is not good for the game for multiple reasons. First, non discers are used to the direct comparison of golf and disc golf. Since there are no par 2s in golf, this would instantly confuse people that are new to the game. Second, happiness = results – expectations . Setting a par 2 makes the scoring expectation much harder and, oddly enough, decreases our enjoyment of playing the game. Disc golf has a tremendous advantage in that it is more fun to play because our par score is easier to attain. We should not take away this advantage.
Close Range ParThe second option, increase the size of the green so that the average number of “putts” (shots from the “green”) approaches two, seems like a better solution. Increasing the size of the green, as described to me by Lowe Bibby, creates “Close Range Par”. Advocates have accepted 100 feet as a good size for the “green”. One caveat, as players get better at putting from long distances (in five years, Ricky’s 70 foot putts will be much more commonplace), the green may need to grow. What Close Range par does is it keeps our par as an easier number to attain than that of golf while also giving it a valid basis (expecting two putts in 100 feet as opposed to expecting two putts in 33 feet).
Time for acceptance.But won’t players still shoot way under par? Yes. Quite a bit under par. The simple answer is acceptance, one of the core tenants of disc culture. Let’s close by figuring out what ideal par is and what a winning score should be. Perhaps once we figure out why players will shoot under par we can begin to be okay with the fact that disc golf par is not the same as golf par.
Ideal par for a championship level disc golf courseBack when I had more hair, I discussed what par should be . The jist of the discussion boils down to:

  • Par in golf is traditionally 72.
  • Four par 5s, ten par 4s, and four par 3s
  • The par 4s can be divided into long par 4s (5 of them) and short par 4s (5 of them)

Let’s break down a par 5 in golf and equate it to disc golf using close range par. A par 5 has:

  • A drive
  • A fairway drive
  • An approach shot
  • Two putts

In disc golf, this would equate to:

  • A drive
  • A fairway drive
  • A close range shot (first “putt”)
  • One more putt

Golf’s par 5 becomes disc golf’s long par 4. Here is how the correlation continues:

  • Par 5s –> Long par 4s
  • Long par 4s –> Short par 4s (a drive, a fairway drive, two putts, although we may expect them to one putt for the birdie since they will probably get their fairway drive close to the basket)
  • Short par 4s –> Long par 3s (in the same way that the 5s became long 4s)
  • Par 3s –> Short par 3s (where we would expect the best in the world to birdie)

Ideal course par: 63
Then what is the expected winning score (per round)Let’s go a step further and figure out what a winning score would be. The holes we would expect players to birdie would be the Short Par 4s and the Short Par 3s. Theoretically, following our golf model, there are five Short Par 4s and four Short Par 3s. We would expect these nine holes to be birdied by the winner of the tournament. We would expect them to get par on the long 3s and 4s. This would result in a score of nine under par being a great score and would put the winning score at 54.
Expected winning Score: 54 (pro par)
Here are the birdie stats from McBeth, Wysocki and Leiviska over the Pro Tour’s inaugural season. As we can see, the best scoring players averaged about nine birdies per round. In the rounds where they pair this with no bogeys, they will find themselves on the podium. The key to thinking this is okay is understanding why it is happening and accepting it. 36 down to win a disc golf tournament is about right. And that’s okay.


  • Steve West
    October 21, 2016 at 6:36 pm Steve, you are one of the best TDs when it comes to setting par according to the actual definition. However, not much of what you say up there has anything to do with the pars you set or the actual definition. This discrepancy is troubling.
    The only motive I can think of is that you recognize the value of including some shorter holes on a course, but you want to avoid the stigma of calling something a par 2. Are you trying to convince yourself, or the rest of us, that the resulting way under par scores you fear are OK?
    OK, enough conspiracy theory which everyone is free to ignore. Let’s talk about what par really is.
    First, par 2s are not the biggest problem. There really aren’t many of those under any rational method of setting par. If par were set according the definition, there would not be many par 2s on a course that is appropriate for Open players. There would be some, but even if these were labelled par 2, winning par would not be “way under”. Most of the time, last cash would be at or over par.
    A much bigger issue is using course par for Open players. Often, courses are designed for Advanced players and par is set higher accordingly. Yet, the TD does not take the time to develop pars that are appropriate for an Open division.
    The second biggest problem is the tendency to give holes that are just a little bit longer than the typical par 3 a par of 4.
    A third problem is the mistaken myth that all holes must be birdie-able. If no players get a 2, some TDs will set par to 4, even if almost all the players are getting a 3.
    I analyzed the scores of 1000-rated players for 424 holes at 20 big tournaments. By applying a mathematical formulation of the actual definition to the scores, I found 71 holes where par should arguably have been set lower, and just one hole where par should have been higher. There were:
    21 so-called par 3s that should have been 2s,
    39 holes set at par 4 that should have been par 3,
    10 erroneous par 5s that should have been par 4s, and
    one wannabe par 6 that should have been a par 5.
    Note that the biggest, best-run tournaments are trending toward similar pars. The fact that not everyone has caught up to the leaders is not a reason to stop chasing the ideal, or change the definition of par.
    So, yes many TDs should change how they set par. They should change to caring enough about it to actually set par according to the definition. Here is how:
    • Steven Dodge
      October 22, 2016 at 8:09 am I have come to the conclusion that a Par 63 course should be our ballpark target for championship level (DGPT) courses. I have also come to the conclusion that winning scores will be around 9 down per round. Lastly, I have come to the point that I am okay with this. Acceptance is a wonderful thing.
      My goal with the article is: If you think yucky thoughts about disc golf seeming easy because of the seemingly low scores (to par), like I used to, then it is time to accept this and redefine what a good score for disc golf is. For top level players, par is not going to cut it. 9 down is your goal.
      • Steve West
        October 23, 2016 at 9:09 am Why 9 down? How did you arrive at that? What score relative to par would last cash (or 40th place out of 100) be?
        FWIW, I’m at 4-5 down per 18 holes round for winning and slightly over or at par for last cash. That’s where I think the current definition puts us, and it is also the point where the differences between the scores of players in contention and par are minimized. Which optimizes the “optics”.
        • Steven Dodge
          October 23, 2016 at 2:04 pm This is where I get -9 per round:
          Ideal course par: 63
          Then what is the expected winning score (per round)
          Let’s go a step further and figure out what a winning score would be. The holes we would expect players to birdie would be the Short Par 4s and the Short Par 3s. Theoretically, following our golf model, there are five Short Par 4s and four Short Par 3s. We would expect these nine holes to be birdied by the winner of the tournament. We would expect them to get par on the long 3s and 4s. This would result in a score of nine under par being a great score and would put the winning score at 54.
          Expected winning Score: 54 (pro par)
          • Jolyn
            February 5, 2017 at 9:13 pm That’s really thinking at an imprsseive level
  • Dominic Sawtelle
    October 21, 2016 at 7:37 pm I’m curious as to why going to a smaller basket like a Marksman doesn’t seam to be a serious part of the question as to how make par feel more accurate. Not saying it’s the only way but for majors and NTs, etc. I think it could add a lot of interest to the game. Our putting has become too easy for the top pros, why not make it harder and closer related to ball golf?
    • Steven Dodge
      October 22, 2016 at 8:10 am I think this is a viable option and have and am giving it serious thought. It is tough for this idea to get traction partially due to the 7000 or so courses that are already in existence. If a smaller basket became the standard, there would be a lot of retrofitting that needed to be done.
      • Dominic Sawtelle
        October 23, 2016 at 7:56 pm I completely agree 7000 existing courses isn’t realistic to expect to just retrofit however I kind of see it like seatbelts or A/C in a car. The cars that didn’t have them weren’t obsolete they just weren’t the latest and greatest but eventually all cars had them. I could see the tours whether run by PDGA, DGPT, DGWT, etc having 18 smaller baskets as part of the tour package if you will and those get put on the course or courses that get used for those tours. If the smaller basket gets adopted then over time all courses woykd eventually go to smaller baskets. It would affect ratings for each course type but in say 15-20 years there is a cut off and any course wishing to be eligible for one of the tours would need to have smaller baskets. They also cost much less so thats an incentive for cities, P&R as well. Just my 2cents. Love what you’re trying to do for the sport by the way. Excited for the future.
    • Michael Clements
      May 17, 2017 at 9:00 pm I would rather see more obstacles on and near the green than smaller baskets. Putting in golf isn’t just more difficult than putting in disc golf, it’s more interesting as well.
      Obstacles on the green would force players into more straddle putts, hyzer/anny putts, etc. It would also add a layer of complexity to approach shots. Now it isn’t enough to simply put it close, players have to consider which section of the green to aim for (which could in turn make placement off the tee more important on par 4 and 5s).
      Smaller baskets would just make putting harder, and personally I’m not interested in watching the pros miss 20 footers just because “putting is too easy” or “players are scoring too low”.
      Another consideration is the unintended consequences. More difficult putts could tip the risk reward balance too far, leading to more conservative play in general.
      I, for one, would rather watch the pros go for it off the tee, and if well executed, aggressive play is rewarded with a “tap in” putt from 10 meters, that’s okay with me.
  • Too Long Didn’t Read
    October 21, 2016 at 7:48 pm TLDR
    Par is way too high on too many courses for disc golf. There needs to be way more par 3s. Par 2s are unrealistic because you are saying a pro would expect to get an ace
  • Nate Kemp
    October 22, 2016 at 7:57 am Par is inherently arbitrary. Many courses have pars on the tee signs that people disregard and score everything as a part 3 for convenience. So, to avoid confusion, when you tell people what you scored, it’s more succinct to just give your total score. When I bring new players out, they’re obsessed with what par is for a given hole, and are confused when I reply with ambivalence. Disc golf already has so much more variety from course to course than ball golf, that it’s kind of pointless to go back and try to get all tournament-quality courses to abide by some cookie-cutter par standards. If there is acceptance that needs to take place, it’s that par is meaningless, and total score on a given course is all that really matters.
    • Steven Dodge
      October 22, 2016 at 8:12 am As we bring in new people to watch, I respectfully disagree. I believe the courses on the Pro Tour should have a known and defined sense of what par is AND what a good score is, and the latter should be in the same ball park from tourney to tourney.
      • Steven Dodge
        October 22, 2016 at 8:13 am Having said that, I totally agree that the total score at the end is all that really matters. Par is just for optics.
    • A Ray
      October 24, 2016 at 3:35 pm Nate:
      While I understand what you are saying, that is spoken specifically from a PLAYER’s perspective. Think about what you said: “…people disregard [the signs] and score everything as a part 3 for ‘convenience’.” Whose convenience? The answer is players. However, in order to make disc golf grow as a off-site spectator experience, par is absolutely essential to be correct. If we someday hope to have great streaming DG coverage of multiple groups cutting to and from, and with a leader board/ticker tape scores, to keep viewing audiences interested we must be able to properly and accurately compare how players are doing, despite the fact that one player in contention has played the two long holes at the end of the course and the other one plays them at the end. The only way to do that IS like ball golf with actual par. One of the main the reasons par survived as a concept in ball golf is because of television viewing experience.
      • WF
        November 22, 2016 at 1:19 am Issue I have with the statement that this is for optics, if -9 a round is “par” or a score that should have you near/at the top, wont casual viewers assume this sport is a joke and too easy and these Pro’s are nothing special. Make the game harder for them is a better option, that way they shoot closer to par. Amateurs will realize that in order to move up to the pro ranks they have to hone their game even more as the courses, baskets and conditions are tougher, not just the competition.
  • Ole Long Arm Greg
    November 19, 2017 at 1:14 pm I agree with longer holes but not so much the changing of the par. why cant there be more 1000 foot par 3s? Disc golf needs more card dividing holes IMO. We are all excel at different parts of the game. I for one can consistently throw far but cant consistently putt. So all I really do is drive and pitch under the basket for an easy 3, a long hole i cant pitch under and will take a stroke. A wider variety of holes on any given course would change the outcome of the game because every player will have advantage holes and disadvantage holes. opposed to an entire course at their advantage or disadvantage. If there is a will to win we will find a way to shoot under par regardless of the difficulty.