The Disc Golf Pro Tour (DGPT) has become such a staple of the professional disc golf landscape that it's a little hard to believe it only started in 2016.
From then to now, the tour's prominence and event offerings have grown, it's given out the highest single-tournament payout in pro disc golf history, made it possible for many more players and media outlets to subsist on professional disc golf, exposed thousands of people to the sport by getting multiple tournament rounds featured on ESPN2, attracted new sponsors to disc golf, and plenty more.
Through interviewing people who played key parts in the DGPT's development as well as digging through coverage of the tour from those early days, we've put together a close look at how the tour went from one man's dream to a group endeavor to progress the pro side of the sport. But the journey the tour has taken to its current standing in the disc golf world hasn't always been smooth, and we also explore the controversies and tensions that were part of the Pro Tour's early years.
This is the first part of a three-part series. Here you can learn what dreams, ideas, and people played central roles in starting the tour and why, at the end of its first season in 2016, the DGPT threatened to end its relationship with the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).
Disc Golf Pro Tour Basics
Here are quick facts about the Disc Golf Pro Tour we cover in more detail later in this piece. Read on to learn more about the people and events mentioned.
- How old is the Disc Golf Pro Tour?
The tour started in 2016.
- What was the first Disc Golf Pro Tour event?
The Vibram Open on June 23-25, 2016
- Who started the Disc Golf Pro Tour?
Steve Dodge is the founder of the Disc Golf Pro Tour.
How the Disc Golf Pro Tour Started
Steve Dodge founded the DGPT and was the original majority owner. Dodge co-owns the renowned Maple Hill Disc Golf Course, co-founded Marshall Street Disc Golf (2003-2007), served on the PDGA & New England Flying Disc Association Boards of Directors, and once headed shoe sole maker Vibram's disc golf operations (2009-2016). Clearly, he had plenty of experience with the business side of disc golf when the DGPT first launched in 2016.
But his dream to be part of a high-profile disc golf tour catering to the world's best players started long before that.
"When I moved to Maple Hill back in 2003 to start the course, I wanted to have a top tier tournament, a top tier course, and a disc golf shop," Dodge recalled. "It felt like if there were eight or nine venues like Maple Hill that had all three of those things, we could band together and make a tour."
Within a few years Maple Hill had already become a revered course with a shop and a big annual tournament that was building a must-play reputation. The creation of the tour Dodge had envisioned was still in the works, though.
Originally, Dodge attempted to sway the PDGA to make its National Tour more like what he believed a professional disc golf tour should be. He thought the locations and dates of tour stops could be better arranged to reduce the strain of travel on players. Additionally, there needed to be a huge uptick in media coverage. Finally, to his mind, the sport's biggest events should feature only its most elite divisions: Open and Open Women.
"From 2006 to 2008 while serving on the board, and again in 2009 to 2010 on the PDGA NT Committee, I'd tried working within the PDGA to turn the National Tour into what the Pro Tour is now," Dodge said. "They consistently pushed back and wouldn't make the changes that I wanted to see."
A 2016 article from Ultiworld Disc Golf contains details of Dodge's last attempt to revamp the National Tour. The article quotes then-PDGA Executive Director Brian Graham as saying that Dodge "came to the PDGA last year  and put in a proposal, he wanted to manage the National Tour for the PDGA...he was turned down."
Two tournament directors with growing reputations, Nate Heinold and Jeff Spring, were aware of Dodge's efforts to change the status quo of professional disc golf touring. Heinold's Ledgestone Insurance Open and Spring's Green Mountain Championship had made waves thanks to their meticulous organization and were the exact sorts of events Dodge wanted to see more of on the pro circuit. Heinold and Spring were both interested in supporting Dodge's vision but had never met in person before Dodge's 2015 proposal to the PDGA was turned down.
Their first meeting came at the 2015 United Stated Disc Golf Championship, where the two found time to sit down to a meal and talk about what they knew of Dodge's hopes, the current situation, and what they could do to keep the dream of a different sort of pro disc golf tour alive. Heinold told Spring that he knew Dodge was discouraged by the PDGA's decision but was deliberating about whether to start a different tour.
"We reviewed what we'd heard from him [Dodge], basically that there was nothing stopping him from doing a test," Spring said, recalling his and Heinold's 2015 USDGC lunch talk. "We both said, 'We're still in. Why don't we encourage Steve?'"
Spring said that Heinold called Dodge at some point during the 2015 USDGC to do just that, telling Dodge effectively, "If you're in, we're in."
Dodge remembered hearing a similar message from Heinold.
"Nate said, 'Steve, you should just do it anyway – just find some outside backing and make this thing happen," Dodge said.
Spurred by such encouragement – plus what he saw as the PDGA's refusal to evolve its own tour and a growing ennui in relation to his work at Vibram – Dodge decided to take the leap.
"The Disc Golf Pro Tour, if I wanted to shoot high in the sky, seemed like the place to go," Dodge explained.
2016: The First Tour's Successes & Growing Pains
Dodge worked with many people to make the first DGPT possible in 2016, and he made a point of saying plenty of others were instrumental in its creation – most notably Pete Johnson, the DGPT’s first investor.
"When Pete and his dad, Jim, said, 'Yes,' it started to feel like this could be real," Dodge said. "I've tried to list the people needed to make the tour happen, and it's a very long list."
Heinold and Spring are two others Dodge would put on that list, and he said the 2016 iterations of their Ledgestone Insurance Open and Green Mountain Championship – along with his Vibram Open – formed the "backbone" of the first DGPT. Smugglers' Notch Resort, host of the GMC and Spring's employer at the time, also became the location of the 2016 Tour Championship.
"It was a really good foundation, and we found other events to join and made the tour," Dodge said.
The two other competitions in the final tour lineup were the Silver Cup in Wisconsin and The Majestic at Blue Ribbon Pines in Minnesota.
Interestingly, the Vibram Open ran as a dual DGPT and National Tour event, the only tournament to ever be part of both. Rather ironically, this made the first-ever DGPT tournament part of the exact tour Dodge had not been allowed to change.
All of the 2016 DGPT events had combined Open and Open Women purses over $25,000, with the Vibram Open offering $45,497 and Ledgestone a stunning – by 2016 pro disc golf standards – $83,200. For comparison, purses at that year's six National Tour events ranged from $23,970 to $70,850, but those sums had to be split between more divisions than just the Open and Open Women at all tournaments other than the Vibram Open.
Though its events' purses were heavy enough to entice great players, the DGPT was working with a budget that was small in comparison with its big goals. One bit of evidence for this is the route the DGPT took to expand live coverage of the 2016 Vibram Open. Funds existed to pay for live streaming of the lead card, but the tour needed an Indiegogo campaign to secure the money required to put an additional camera on the chase card.
The necessity of keeping overhead low also restricted other aspects of the live coverage. There were no commentators in booths that first year. Instead, they walked with cards, talking quietly into mics about what they could see from tee pads, often knowing less than the audience – who could see discs land thanks to shots from a second camera – about where throws finished. Reception issues at some courses also meant the stream would cut out mid-hole, leaving viewers wondering if it would come back at all.
Still, the majority of pro disc golf fans were happy that the tour was making it possible for them to watch the best in the world compete more often than ever before. And Dodge said he was a little taken aback by how fast players and fans alike took the tour seriously.
"At the beginning, one of the things that surprised me most was people's willingness to agree or buy in that this was a Disc Golf Pro Tour," Dodge said. "It was hard fathoming that people were saying, 'Okay, this is a real thing.' People wanted it to exist and almost willed it into existence."
2016: The Great Unsanctioning & "A Shot Across the Bow of the PDGA"
Before September of 2016, there had been few, if any, public signs of tension between the DGPT and the PDGA. In fact, relations were good enough that Brian Graham (again, the PDGA Executive Director at the time) had sent the PDGA's Media Manager and Events Manager to assist with the DGPT's last two events of the year at Smugglers' Notch in Vermont, the Green Mountain Championship (GMC) and the Tour Championship.
Then, just days before the GMC, the PDGA announced that it was suspending touring pro Bradley Williams from sanctioned play for 18 months.
Williams, who had been on probation with the PDGA following a suspension for kicking over a basket, had gotten into a verbal altercation with another pro at the Ledgestone Open (a DGPT event) a few weeks prior. Though disciplinary action wasn't entirely unexpected, the PDGA had been tight-lipped about its investigation of the situation and didn't choose to publicize (or immediately explain to Williams) why it had decided on such a long suspension.
This created an issue for the DGPT because Williams had won the Vibram Open – the first DGPT event ever – and had also played well throughout the season. His star was rising, and the DGPT, completely unaware that the PDGA was contemplating Williams' suspension, had already started promoting his participation in the GMC and Tour Championship. Those were both PDGA-sanctioned events that Williams could suddenly no longer play.
Not being kept in-the-know about a decision that affected one of the most prominent participants in his tour broke a dam in Dodge that had been holding back a flood of resentment. He had felt the whole year that the PDGA's communication with and consideration of the DGPT was lacking, and, though it most likely wasn't anything of the sort, the surprise suspension of Williams just before the tour's big finale seemed like a calculated blow to Dodge.
"He [Dodge] felt this was directly a dig at what was happening with the Disc Golf Pro Tour," said Spring, who you'll recall was director of the GMC. "He felt it was another failure to communicate. But...I think there was never a reason for him to publish what he published."
What Dodge published shortly after the Williams suspension announcement was, as he wrote at the start of the piece, "a shot across the bow of the PDGA."
The piece accused the PDGA of "consistently demonstrat[ing] that there is no desire to work with the DGPT" on issues like "scheduling, co-branding events, and even discipline." It also included various perceived slights and announced that both the GMC and Tour Championship would be unsanctioned. Dodge even suggested the DGPT would be unwilling to work with the PDGA again until these concerns were addressed.
Predictably, the post did not sit well with the PDGA. Ultiworld Disc Golf published an article with Graham on record saying not only that most of Dodge's accusations were inaccurate, but also that he'd failed to keep promises made to the PDGA.
The situation put Spring in a tough position. He was an adviser to Dodge and the director of the GMC, but he was also the PDGA State Coordinator for Vermont. Ultimately, he felt Dodge should do what he thought was best for his new venture but believed the way forward was through the tour working with the PDGA.
"My personal vision was that it was an incredibly important relationship for the tour," Spring said.
Spring asked Dodge to edit his post to make clear that the GMC would remain sanctioned, which Dodge promptly did. Spring also contacted the PDGA to let them know his tournament's status would remain unchanged, as well as talk through recent events as someone who only wanted the best for both the DGPT and PDGA.
"I remember talking to Brian Graham, to [then-PDGA Board of Directors President] Rebecca Duffy, and what came out of that was basically a role that I had for the next year, which was PDGA Liaison for the Disc Golf Pro Tour," Spring said.
Interestingly, the day before the GMC began, the DGPT publicly announced that it, too, was suspending Williams for the remainder of the season. This meant Williams would not participate in the Tour Championship even though it would remain unsanctioned. The announcement itself would've been a crafty mixture of solidarity with and diplomatic critique of the PDGA had it not followed that "shot across the bow." It showed the DGPT believed Williams deserved repercussions for his behavior but also cited specific reasons for the suspension and said exactly who made the decision, which was more information than the PDGA had offered publicly.
The two events went off without further public incident. During those competitions and after, many people behind the scenes were counseling Dodge to make amends with the PDGA for the sake of the fledgling DGPT. This led to Spring meeting with PDGA representatives on behalf of the DGPT at the USDGC in October, the same place where just the year before he and Heinold had decided to encourage Dodge to start the DGPT to begin with.
"I left there charting the course for the continued relationship of the organizations," Spring said.
The Story Continues
As the DGPT continued into its second and third seasons, its relationship with the PDGA normalized as its fanbase, prominence, and number of partners grew, but media issues set the stage for what one long-time DGPT staff member called the "black hole year" of 2019.
You'll get more of the story in "History Of The Disc Golf Pro Tour, Part 2: 2017-2018."