by | Apr 17, 2023

by Sarah Joplin  |
photos by Zach Smith  |

Disc golf on the rise across the Show-Me State

In the lighthearted yet compelling sport of disc golf, two human instincts converge. The game satisfies both the keen hunger to play and primal urge to throw at a target. Maybe that’s why, on a frosty February morning at Atchley Park in Lebanon, more than 100 people gathered on what resembled a frozen tundra. Even in such prohibitive weather, they had all come to play in the Ice Bowl tournament. Camaraderie may have motivated attendance or they may have come to get some exercise when cabin fever set in. Since proceeds from the event support local charities, it might have even been the goodness in their hearts.

Whatever the reason, Missouri Disc Golf Hall of Famer and tournament coordinator Russ Burns explains that this was not an isolated incident; it happens all year long.

“It doesn’t take long to have fun, and people usually progress quickly,” says Russ, who also manufactures disc golf baskets, designs courses and sells gear through his Springfield-based company, Disc Golf Monkey. “The sport appeals to the most diverse crowd you’ll ever meet. It is definitely something special and seems to bring out the best in people.”

As a sport, disc golf is characteristically informal, inexpensive and inclusive. It’s also outdoorsy and falls into the lifetime fitness category. “As long as you can walk and move your arms, you would probably enjoy the sport really quickly,” says Joe Douglass, past president of the Columbia Disc Golf Club.

Clearly the pandemic isn’t the only reason that the Professional Disc Golf Association reported an 84% growth in membership and 6,200 events sanctioned worldwide during 2020. With 273 courses in Missouri, several of which are ranked among the best in the world, 85 leagues and 42 independent disc golf gear stores, the state is an especially good place to take up the sport. The hardwood forests, elevation changes and waterways also make for enjoyable and challenging course terrain.

“Steady” Ed Headrick is credited with creating disc golf through two of his patented inventions: the Frisbee in 1966 and the Disc Golf Pole Hole in 1975. The sport began essentially as target Frisbee and has evolved through equipment specialization, course development and player organization. In 1983, Innova Champion Disc revolutionized the sport forever by creating the aerodynamic bevel-edge disc invented to throw longer distances than the Frisbee. People started putting up baskets in parks and cities began building courses. The vast majority of courses today are located in public parks and are free to play.

Getting in the game is a simple matter of purchasing a few discs and locating a nearby golf course. Professional Disc Golf Association-approved starter packs generally include at least a driver for distance, a mid-range and a putter disc to land in the basket, and cost somewhere between $20 and $40. The disc weight and bevel dictate whether it is engineered for distance or accuracy.

You can play with a single disc if you want and having too many discs may just complicate matters and amount to more weight to carry. Play according to your own schedule as most course locations don’t require a tee time. Play alone or bring a group of friends. Joe says that the difficulty of learning to play is akin to learning to bowl, noting, “Minimal athletic ability is necessary and the best players are simply the most consistent.” Should you get hooked on the game, consider joining a league where you can get tips from better players and learn the official rules. After playing in a league, you might progress to tournament play and delve deeper into the community of the sport.

Clubs are located across the country, but the Columbia Disc Golf Club is one of the oldest and most historically significant. The not-for-profit organization was started in 1984 by Rick Rothstein, an influential figure in the sport. Now a Disc Golf Hall of Famer, Rick published Disc Golf World News for 12 years. He also is responsible for establishing the Ice Bowl which has gone on to become the largest charity tournament event series in the sport. Since it began in 1996, Ice Bowls have generated more than $5.4 million for local and regional organizations, especially those addressing food insecurity. Organizers report more than 930,000 pounds of food have been collected for donation from participants and sponsors.

Combining an active group of players, a proactive parks department and convention and visitors bureau with good timing, Columbia is on the leading edge of disc golf. Collaboration yielded a course co-designed by the club and the city when Indian Hills Disc Golf Course opened in 2002. Building on this remarkable success, the city went on to raise funds and bring top disc golf architect John Houck to Columbia to design Harmony Bends Championship Disc Golf Course at Strawn Park. The course has become one of the top-ranked in the world. 

“To be an elite course like Harmony Bends, you have to have a great piece of land, great design and development and great maintenance,” John says. “Those factors combine to create an outstanding experience for players, and that’s why players from all over the country come to enjoy it.” He says Columbia was the first site where he had 10 innovative ideas and the city wanted to build all of them. The course is home to the Mid-America Open Disc Golf Pro Tour Silver Series tournament and draws enthusiastic spectators from near and far.

Missouri’s disc golf courses are growing hubs of fun and connection. Roots of the sport not only satisfy age-old human instincts but tap deep into the community through individual players, local leagues and clubs, small business tournament sponsors and municipalities building courses.

“The simplicity and longevity of the game has great appeal,” Russ says. “We’re seeing so many younger and older players join in the game.”

For more information, contact your local disc golf club on Facebook or visit where you can discover over 13,000 courses worldwide, keep score with friends, track statistics and follow events. For more information on Disc Golf Monkey visit

Joplin is a freelance writer from Loose Creek.

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