The early history of disc golf is closely tied to the history of the recreational flying disc (especially as popularized by the trademarked Frisbee) and may have been invented in the early 1900s.The first known instance of anyone playing golf with a flying disc occurred in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1926. Ronald Gibson and a group of his Bladworth Elementary School buddies played a game throwing tin plates at targets such as trees and fence posts. They called the game Tin Lid Golf and played on a fairly regular basis on a disc golf course they laid out on their school grounds. But, after they grew older and went their separate ways, the game came to an end. Modern disc golf started in the early 1960s, when it seems to have been invented in many places and by many people independently. Students at Rice University in Houston, Texas, for example, held tournaments with trees as targets as early as 1963, and in the early 1960s players in Pendleton King Park in Augusta, Georgia would toss Frisbees in 50-gallon barrel trash cans designated as targets.
The true pioneer of the sport of Frisbee Golf is Kevin Donnelly, who, until 2011, was unknown for his accomplishment. Kevin began playing a form of Frisbee golf in 1959 called Street Frisbee Golf. In 1961, while a Recreation Leader and then Recreation Supervisor for the City of Newport Beach, California, he formulated and then began organizing Frisbee golf tournaments at nine of the city’s playgrounds he supervised. This culminated in 1965 with a fully documented, Wham-O sponsored, city-wide Frisbee Golf tournament. This highly publicized tournament included hula hoops as holes, with published rules, hole lengths, pars, and penalties, Wham-O prizes and, an event in which Fred Morrison, the Frisbee inventor, was in attendance. In 1967, two years after conducting the first-ever organized Frisbee Golf Tournament, Kevin, then the Coordinator of the Parks and Recreation Section at Fresno State College, California, organized and then taught the first ever college level Frisbee Golf activity course, in which George Sappenfield was registered.
Two of the best-known figures in the sport are “Steady Ed” Headrick, who introduced the first formal disc golf target with chains and a basket, and Dave Dunipace who invented the modern golf disc in 1983, and was one of the founders of Innova. In 1976, Headrick formed the DGA, then later the RDGA and the PDGA. Headrick spun off the PDGA to be run independently and to officiate the standard rules of play for the sport. The sport has grown at a rate of 12-15 percent annually for more than the past decade, with nearly 3000 courses in the US and more than 4000 globally. The game is now played in more than 40 countries worldwide, primarily in the United States, Canada, Central and Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.
George Sappenfield and early object courses
In 1965, George Sappenfield, from Fresno California, was a recreation counselor during summer break from college. While playing golf one afternoon he realized that it might be fun for the kids on his playground if they played “golf” with frisbees. He set up an object course for his kids to play on. Other early courses were also of this type, using anything from lamp poles to fire hydrants as targets. When he finished college in 1968, Sappenfield became the Parks and Recreation Supervisor for Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks, California. George introduced the game to many adults by planning a disc golf tournament as part of a recreation project. He contacted Wham-O Manufacturing and asked them for help with the event. Wham-O supplied frisbees for throwing, and hula hoops for use as targets. However, it would not be until the early 1970s that courses began to crop up in various places in the Midwest and the East Coast (some perhaps through Sappenfield’s promotion efforts, others probably independently envisioned). Some of Sappenfield’s acquaintances are known to have brought the game to UC Berkeley. It quickly became popular on campus, with a permanent course laid out in 1970.
“Steady Ed” Headrick and the growth of the modern game
“Steady Ed” Headrick began thinking about the sport during his time at Wham-o toys where he designed and patented the modern day Frisbee. Headrick, who is now regarded as the “Father of Disc Golf”, designed and installed the first standardized target course in what was then known as Oak Grove Park in La Cañada Flintridge, California. (Today the park is known as Hahamongna Watershed Park). The park is immediately south of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which supplied at least a few of the earliest players. Ed worked for the San Gabriel, California-based Wham-O Corporation and is credited for pioneering the modern era of disc sports. While at Wham-O, Headrick redesigned the Pluto Platter reworking the rim height, disc shape, diameter, weight and plastics, creating a controllable disc that could be thrown accurately. Headrick marketed and pushed the professional model Frisbee and “Frisbee” as a sport. Ed Founded “The International Frisbee Association (IFA)” and began establishing standards for various sports using the Frisbee such as Distance, Flying disc freestyle and Guts.
Headrick coined and trademarked the term “Disc Golf” when formalizing the sport and patented the Disc Pole Hole, the first disc golf target to incorporate chains and a basket on a pole. He started designing the target because he was tired of arguing over what counted as a scoring disc with his friends.
Headrick founded the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), Disc Golf Association (DGA), and Recreational Disc Golf Association (RDGA) as governing bodies for professional, competitive amateur, and family-oriented play, respectively, and worked on standardizing the rules and the equipment for the growing sport. Headrick abandoned his trademark on the term “Disc Golf”, and turned over control and administration of the PDGA to the growing body of disc golf players in order to focus on his passion for building and inventing equipment for the sport.