In 2021, we saw some of the largest cash purses in pro disc golf history. The standout, of course, was the $250,000 doled out at the Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship, which now ranks as the largest purse ever at a disc golf tournament. The winners of the Open and Open Women divisions at that event, Nathan Queen and Missy Gannon, respectively, added $30,000 each to their 2021 earnings – the largest single-tournament winnings for any players in the Professional Disc Golf Association records.
Though those numbers might seem paltry compared to the biggest professional sports, they're huge in relation to the purses offered throughout most of disc golf history. A testament to that is how, less than 30 years ago, every pro disc golfer also had to be a pro at something else to make ends meet. Even the player many consider the best of all time, Ken Climo (who competed actively from the late 1980s until the mid-2010s), worked in construction until the mid-1990s when his yearly earnings crossed $19,000 – $11,000 more than his closest competitor.
We delved deeply into disc golfers' earnings to get a fuller picture of the payout trends throughout the history of pro disc golf. But before we dive into what we found, we want to point out some things you should know about the numbers you'll see in this piece:
- When we discuss earnings, we only mean in terms of cash prizes at Professional Disc Golf Association-sanctioned tournaments. It's difficult to know exactly how much money each player made from non-sanctioned competition. Additionally, money players make from sponsorships, YouTube channels, and other avenues is generally confidential.
- Because of the variance in payouts between MPO and FPO, we will release a separate post specifically focused on FPO earnings at a later date. That said, the totals and information in this post do not exclude FPO purses or players. Notably, an FPO player cracked the top 10 all-time earners for the first time in 2021.
How Have Disc Golf Payouts Changed Over Time?
The earliest data available for disc golf payouts are from tournaments put on by the man who founded the PDGA and is known as the father of disc golf, "Steady" Ed Headrick.
One early event Headrick ran was the WHAM-O $50K Frisbee Disc Golf Invitational held in May of 1979 in Huntington Beach, California. It awarded $10,000 to the first place winner with total cash payouts amounting to $41,000. Tom Kennedy won the tournament and took home the top prize, which would have the same buying power as over $38,000 today.
But while that event was likely meant in part to serve as a signal that people could start taking professional disc golf seriously, looking at it in retrospect demonstrates how the sport didn't have a broad enough audience to consistently attract sponsors who would help maintain and increase such payout levels. The first season to have payouts surpassing that one 1979 tournament didn't come until 1987 when payouts broke $45,000.
Even with the lower payouts, some players, like David L. Greenwell, Steve Wisecup, and Sam Ferrans, had consistent earnings in the mid-1980s that took their career totals over $10,000 before an upstart named Climo even passed $500.
But a trend of larger purses being up for grabs has made it possible for a growing number of players to become full-time touring disc golfers.
Disc Golf Pros Earned More Money in 2021 Than Ever Before
In the graph below, you can see the dramatic increase in players surpassing the $10,000 threshold, with a record 20 different players winning above $30,000 dollars in 2021 alone. That's 15 more than in 2020.
The jump between 2020 and 2021 payouts shown in the chart above is the largest season-to-season change ever in pro disc golf. Of course the low 2020 total was pandemic-related, but it's still interesting to note the 98% increase from 2020's $3,257,522 to 2021's $6,463,571 purse total.
Additionally, if you compare events that ran in 2020 to their 2021 counterparts, the upward trend is clear.
The table shows 14 of the largest events in 2021 that also ran in 2020. The sums of their purses jumped from $777,306 to $1,222,630.
Who's Won the Most Money from Disc Golf?
These 10 players have won the most money from professional disc golf:
On mobile, swipe left to see every column of the above table.
However, we all know that a dollar doesn't go as far as it used to.
Due to inflation (the decline of a currency's value over time), the earnings of longtime players like Climo and Steve Rico are a bit different when you consider what the buying power of their past winnings would equate to today. So we also created a chart with earnings adjusted for inflation using U.S. Consumer Price Index rates.
These are disc golf's all-time top earners with inflation factored in:
The "Change" column refers to how players' positions differed from their position on the list not adjusted for inflation.
Though the same names appear on both lists, the order shuffles around some, so players like Wysocki and Pierce lose out to those who've been in the pro game longer. However, if payout trends continue their dramatic rise, we expect younger players will soon have the upper hand.
All-Time Top Earners in Women's Pro Disc Golf
Clearly, the tables above are dominated by men. If you're interested in the top earners exclusively among professional women disc golfers, check out "Women's Pro Disc Golf: Top 10 All-Time Earners & More."
The Climo Factor
As we said before, Climo is thought by many to be the greatest disc golfer of all time. And while we're not venturing into the GOAT debate here, we can say that his earnings over his 30-year career certainly tell a tale of domination.
Two years after his first of nine straight world championship titles in 1990 (he'd eventually amass 12 Open titles and three Masters), Climo became the highest earner in the sport by surpassing Steve Valencia. Through those nine world champion seasons, Climo earned $137,185 over 201 events, or $682 per event for nearly a decade.
During that period, PDGA events gave out a total of about $1.35 million in prize money. If you do the math, you come up with the astounding fact that for a 10-year span, about 10 cents of every dollar paid out at PDGA tournaments went to Climo.
Climo stayed strong through the 2000s, earning $221,634 through 199 events, increasing his per-win earnings to $1,114. During this decade, total prize money more than quintupled, leaving Climo with only three cents for each dollar of prize money. Climo has stopped touring, but throughout his career he averaged an astounding (by disc golf standards) $934 per tournament over 32 years – a period longer than many of today's top Open players have been alive.
Notably, Paul McBeth surpassed Climo's raw earnings total in early 2019 and beat The Champ's inflation-included total by the end of the 2021 season. With the rapidly growing purses outpacing inflation, it's safe to assume other professionals will pass Climo’s adjusted earnings in the near future, with Ricky Wysocki likely being next in line.
Superlatives & Stats
Here are other accomplishments related to individual player earnings:
- The most money any disc golfer has ever earned from tournaments in one year
Paul McBeth took home $88,903 during the 2021 season. He won five of his 24 tournaments and finished in the top 10 in 21 events. Even adjusting for inflation, no other player has had a season where their sanctioned play earned them more money. The previous holder of this record, Ricky Wysocki, had a $79,348-dollar season in 2017, which is still $5,194 behind McBeth’s stunning 2021 year when adjusted for inflation. Wysocki also surpassed his personal best in 2021 by $81.
It's also noteworthy that all of McBeth's record 2021 earnings were donated to the Paul McBeth Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to building disc golf courses and communities in underserved areas with little or no disc golf access.
- The biggest earnings jump from one disc golf season to the next
McBeth’s 2021 season produced the largest earnings jump from one season to the next, too. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 season lowered earnings across the board, and with 2021 offering the largest payouts ever, McBeth's numbers skyrocketed. His jump totaled $56,174 from 2020 ($32,729) to 2021 ($88,903). The same circumstances allowed for a total of ten other players to surpass the previous record of $31,138:
- 2021's top 10 earners
Player 2021 Tournament Earnings Paul McBeth $88,903 Ricky Wysocki $74,429 Missy Gannon $67,029 Paige Pierce $64,286 Calvin Heimburg $59,785 Kyle Klein $59,566 Eagle McMahon $58,065 Catrina Allen $53,851 Nathan Queen $51,494 Adam Hammes $49,916
- The longest streaks of pro disc golfers earning over $500 per year
Climo owns the longest streak of seasons above $500 in winnings: 28. Steve Rico and Barry Schultz tie for the longest active streaks at 26.
- The most disc golf tournaments played in one year
G.T. Hancock and Emerson Keith have the two highest totals of sanctioned disc golf tournaments played within one year: 75 and 73, respectively. Interestingly, both averaged between $100 and $200 per tournament, hail from near Dallas, Texas, and have been PDGA members since 2011. This feat is made even more impressive when you consider that in 2021, the most tournaments played was by Mario Short at 42.
And, finally, a few more interesting stats from our analysis:
- The amount of money pro disc golfers have earned as a group all-time
To make our data manageable, we only looked at players who have made over $500 from PDGA-sanctioned play in their careers. That set of 5,300 players have earned $46,426,967 from professional disc golf tournaments.
- First year total payouts surpassed $100,000 and $1,000,000
The first season payouts surpassed the $100,000 mark was 1989, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the million-dollar barrier was broken.
What's to Come?
With several names on the top 10 list touring much less than in past years and payouts on the rise, it's very possible those rankings will look quite different in short order. The player closest to winning a spot currently is Catrina Allen, who has a career total of $268,576 and rising.
Are you interested in other topics involving professional disc golfers' earnings? Feel free to contact this piece's author at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
Note: Another version of this post was made in Jan. 2021. The publication date reflects our latest update to it based on 2021 stats.