All-star events? Big prize money? Disc golf takes off, opens pro season in Tucson

The sport is similar to regular golf. Participants start at a launchpad and throw discs at a metal basket. Each hole is assigned a “par” number. (Photo by Alyssa Polc/Cronkite News)

The Pro Disc Golf Association kicked off its season in Tucson recently with an All-Star Weekend that set the tone for competition in 2022. (Photo by Alyssa Polc/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – Though more people are taking up the deceptively difficult sport of disc golf as a hobby, it has long been a way of life for pro disc golfers, some of the best of whom participated in the recent season-opening All-Star Weekend in Tucson.

“Everyone here is amazing,” said Lisa Fajkus, a competitor from Texas who has earned more than $90,000 on the tour. “All the competitors are good. Beyond good.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the sports landscape, it also inspired some to seek new outdoor options. Disc golf was that for many. Membership in the Pro Disc Golf Association increased from 53,366 in 2019 to 71,016 in 2020, according to the PDGA. And from 2010 to 2020, total prize money jumped almost $2 million to $4 million.

The sport is similar to golf. Participants start at a launchpad and throw discs at a metal basket. Each hole is assigned a “par” number.

Opening the season with All-Star Weekend is unique to professional disc golf. In most sports, the all-star competition typically takes place midway through the season or near the end. The thinking behind the placement of the disc golf tour event is that it serves as a kind of trailer for the season, giving fans a glimpse of what they can expect from their favorite disc throwers in future matches.

Disc golf tournaments attract fans of all ages include Bodhi, left, who was there to cheer on her favorite competitor, Heather Young. (Photo by Alyssa Polc/Cronkite News)

“It kind of gives me spring training vibes,” said Hunter Pickard, a disc golf amateur. “You have these great players in one city, on one field, basically, warming up for the season ahead. I think it encourages more people to get into the sport because they see how competitively fun it can be. It’s fantastic to watch and be a part of.”

Fans come from all over the country to attend live disc golf events, including many who travel in renovated vans and buses from tournament to tournament just like most of the players do.

One at All-Star Weekend was Bodhi, who is described in her Instagram bio as a “toddler traveler.” She tours full time with her parents, Stephanie and Taylor, in a “skoolie,” where they live and explore different parts of the country, all while attending disc golf tournaments.

Bodhi could be spotted in her plum-colored attire. Her bubbly and rollicking personality was as hard to miss as her colorful wardrobe. She held up a “Go Heather” homemade sign as she cheered on one of her favorite pro disc golfers, Heather Young.

This year, the PDGA made the decision to spice things up and add a snake draft to the mix for the very first time. The snake draft consists of captains taking turns picking players to create teams. For the women, team captains included Paige Pierce and Catrina Allen. Eagle McMahon and Calvin Heimburg served as captains for the men.

The tournament lasted three days at El Conquistador Resort. Friday consisted of a skills competition between teams. Doubles matches were held Saturday, followed by singles matches on Sunday. Each event drew intrigued fans who stood around and watched.

“You know, these fans are dedicated to watching and coming out each season and to each tournament,” Disc Golf Pro Tour owner Todd Rainwater said. “We want to give them the best experience possible. They’ve traveled from all over to be here, and they deserve to have a good time.”

Rainwater is banking on the fans returning home and talking to their friends and families about the event. “That’s how the sport continues to grow,” he said.

With tournaments all over the United States between February and October, people have ample opportunities to take in a disc golf event – either in person or through live streaming. All-Star Weekend was a perfect example of the different ways to experience the event. Hundreds of people of all ages surrounded the course and followed the players from hole to hole. Those not able to physically attend streamed the tournament online at DGPT.com. With improvements in technology, course setups, and streaming, attendance is expected to continue to increase in the coming years.

“We have a nice foundation,” said Rainwater, who added, “These players put in so much work and are great at what they do. That needs to be displayed for people to see and enjoy, whether that’s online or in-person.”

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Disc Golf is one of the fastest growing sports, according to Disc Golf Mentor. With the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacting the sports world in 2020, people looked for new ways to stay entertained. Suddenly, disc golf became the new fad.

“It was never something I had even thought about, let alone doing,” Pickard said. “When the pandemic hit, there was nothing going on. Nothing was open, and if it was, there were so many safety regulations and hour changes.

“So, I ventured to a park near my house to get some fresh air and noticed the disc golf baskets. I figured, ‘Why not try it since I’m not doing anything else?’”

Pickard is just one example out of the thousands of people who recently got into playing disc golf. According to Sabattus Disc Golf, approximately 50 million rounds were played in 2020, triple the number played the previous year.

All-Star Weekend was a big hit with the fans and competitors alike.

“Getting that text was so cool,” said Rebecca Cox, a pro disc golfer and president and founder of Diversify Disc Golf. “It was a fun surprise for me. …I got kind of lucky being an All-Star. I had to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Alyssa Polc uh-lis-uh paulk (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alyssa Polc expects to graduate in August 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Polc, who covered Mesa High School boys basketball for AZPreps365.com, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

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