The exact origins of disc golf history are hard to trace. People have been playing catch and throwing flying discs around since the days of the old Frisbie Pie tins in the late 1800s. Somewhere along the way, someone must have developed the concept of disc golf and thought about throwing the disc at a specific target and counting how many throws it would take to get from point A to point B.
“Steady” Ed—The Father of Disc Golf
The man credited as the “Father of Disc Golf” as we know it today was “Steady” Ed Headrick (PDGA Member #001). He patented many key inventions. The first was the plastic Frisbee that he developed in 1966 while working at the Wham-O toy company. And yes, the name is a nod to the old Frisbie pie tins that are credited for starting the flying disc craze almost 100 years earlier. Ed’s second important invention was the Disc Golf Pole Hole in 1975. This original design is essentially the basis of all disc golf targets today with a catch basket and chain assembly attached to a pole.
Competitive Disc Golf Origins
Two other important figures in disc golf history are George Sappenfield and Kevin Donnelly. They both worked as a recreation counselor at Fresno State University. They both had separate—but similar ideas—of playing golf using Frisbees. They got together and shared their ideas. George eventually reached out to Wham-O in 1968 to support a Frisbee golf tournament in Thousand Oaks, California.
Other Frisbee competitions and demonstrations were already taking place by this time, so it was only a matter of time before disc golf was included as an event in these big meets. In the 1970s, disc golf was becoming more recognized as an organized sport. Across the country, Jim Palmeri was also growing the game in Rochester, New York. He began organizing competitive disc golf clubs and tournaments. He created the 1974 City of Rochester Disc Golf Championship, which was the first national disc golf event recognized by the International Frisbee Association (IFA). It was then that people realized how the popularity of disc golf was growing nationwide.
With the growing popularity of modern disc golf, “Steady” Ed ultimately decided to include it as an official event in the 1975 Wham-O World Frisbee Championships.
The First Disc Golf Course
1975 was also the year that the first official (and permanent) disc golf course—Oak Grove Park Disc Golf Course—was installed in Pasadena, California. At that time, the targets were nothing more than permanent poles placed into the ground as targets. Baskets were brought in the following year, and one of the original pole hole baskets still sits on the course today to remind everyone of its history.
Ed saw that disc golf had a bright future. In 1976, he left Wham-O and founded the Disc Golf Association. Disc Golf Association would became the primary disc golf course designer/installer in the early years of the sport. He continued to work closely with his friend, Dan “Stork” Roddick, who still worked at Wham-O, to organize tournaments and events on these new courses.
The Birth of the PDGA
This ultimately led to Ed founding the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), as well. Membership quickly grew as the PDGA would become the governing entity driving the official rules and tournament sanctioning for disc golf. PDGA player ratings were not implemented until 1998, but that was another game-changing move by the organization. You can read a more in-depth history of disc golf and the PDGA here.
Dave Dunipace—The Innovator
There are many other influential disc golfers who helped shape the history of disc golf (too many to mention here), but another worth mentioning is Dave Dunipace. He is the founder of Innova Disc Golf and the inventor of what we now know as disc golf discs. Up until the 1980s, players had a very limited selection of Frisbees and flying discs created by Wham-O and DGA. They were all what we would consider “putter” or “catch” disc molds by today’s standards.
After years of tinkering, Dave patented the world’s first beveled-edge disc. The Eagle was the first disc ever designed specifically for disc golf. Dave’s innovative disc designs changed the game with more aerodynamic features and smaller diameters. He continues to develop new disc molds for Innova today. Innova was also the first disc manufacturer to start sponsoring professional players and implement other ideas that have shaped the modern sport of disc golf. Check out our full story about The History of Innova Disc Golf.
Though nobody will ever know the first person to play the game of disc golf, the history of our sport is very rich and interesting. DGU is proud to be associated with Innova and to have made our own contributions to the history—and future—of disc golf with the development of events and initiatives like the USDGC, College Disc Golf, U.S. Women’s Disc Golf Championship and ThrowPink.