If there was only one division at every tournament then no one would be accused of sandbagging. Of course, most players would not enter such an event since they have no realistic chance of winning or cashing.
Our tournaments generally have multiple divisions based on classification (Am or Pro), ratings, gender and age. Some players are proponents of only using ratings to determine the divisions. Evidently they find it distressing that there are so many different divisions which host players of overlapping skills.
A Tournament Director can decide which divisions to offer. The TD can offer only one division (like the USDGC or Amateur Nationals) or restrict which divisions are offered. If the TD chooses not to sanction the tournament with the PDGA then he or she can invent any divisional structure they want.
At first glance it would seem that the fairest way to create divisions would be by ratings. If we accept the premise that ratings are essentially accurate (which I personally do)-that is to say that the handicap rating given to a player is a reasonably accurate measure of how well the player has performed in past tournaments-then players of similar handicaps should be able to compete fairly against one another regardless of classification, age or gender.
My personal experience is that ratings are the least fair method of creating divisions. This is because ratings divisions are based on arbitrary numerical ranges. Just as an example, let's say the top division is above 970. The second division is 970 to 920. The third division is 919 to 869 and the lowest division is below 868. So let's deal with two players, Joe the Plumber whose rating is 971 and Barack Calhoun McCain (BCM) whose rating is 970. Poor Joe the Plumber is doomed to donate in his division. There are a handful of pros well over 1000 rated who will crush Joe darn near any day and everyone in his division is better than he is. Meanwhile BCM, only one rating point below Joe is the top rated player in his division and will cash even if he plays poorly and is likely to be at the very top in his division if he plays well.
In a ratings based division the numerical range is always arbitrary. No matter where it is set it will hugely benefit some players and hugely harm others.
No other divisional criteria is arbitrary. Classifications (AM or Pro) are voluntary. No one can complain about the choice they make. Gender is rationally based. Men are bigger and stronger than women. Age is rationally based. The great cycle of life dictates that a person starts small and weak, develops into adulthood and eventually declines in old age.
It is possible to manipulate a rating. If BCM wants to stay in his division he can sometimes play poorly on purpose to insure this. No one can manipulate their gender (surgery notwithstanding) or their age.
In the lower divisions the unfairness of ratings is less severe. Basic skills in our sport are relatively easy to acquire. (It's the beauty of the game: it's easy to develop competance but near impossible to master) So players with decent athletic ability should be able to move up from the lower divisions over time. A player may be at the bottom of a division this year and rise to the top the division eventually. As a player improves, the next level is more difficult to obtain than the last. Everyone has natural ceiling based on their talents. The closer a player gets to that ceiling the tougher the climb.
So a new tournament player still developing their game can shoot 50 points over his rating on a good round and 100 points over on a great round. A player close to their natural ceiling is hard pressed to shoot 30 points over their rating.
What then can be done about the most grating (for some) scenario where the best players compete in different divisions (Open and Pro Masters)? Does anything need to be done? And can't a TD manipulate entry fees and payouts to encourage the best players to choose the top division?