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Q&A: Heinold Touts Growth Of Ledgestone Disc Golf Tourney

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Ledgestone Insurance Open
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Five-time disc golf world champion Paul McBeth will be among the top competitors in this week's Ledgestone Insurance Open.

A major annual event in a fast-growing sport will attract top players and plenty of fans to the Greater Peoria area this week.

Competition in the Discraft Ledgestone Insurance Open starts Thursday, with some of the proceeds going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and other charities.

Reporter Joe Deacon talks with tournament director Nate Heinold about the event and its increasing popularity. This transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for brevity, clarity, and length.

Joe Deacon: For those who might not be familiar, what is the Ledgestone Insurance Open? When did it start, and how has it progressed over the years?

Nate Heinold: Yeah, the Ledgestone disc golf event started in 2011 with just one course and 105 players, and now we use 12 area courses and we'll have 1,975 players this year. So it has worked into the largest disc golf tournament in the world, actually, that will bring approximately 4,000 spectators here and we also expect to give a record amount of money to charity.

What is it about Peoria that makes it the best location for the biggest disc golf tournament?

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Ledgestone Insurance Open
Ledgestone Insurance Open tournament director Nate Heinold poses with five-time women's champion Catrina Allen after her victory in the 2020 disc golf event. Allen is defending her title in this year's tournament, with competition starting Thursday at various Greater Peoria Area courses.

Heinold: We have a lot of good courses here that our team has helped develop. Obviously the main thing is we have really good courses and we have very supportive parks and cities who allow us to continue to build these courses, in terms of the Morton Park District or the city of Eureka, Kennel Lake, Sunset Hills in Pekin, McNaughton Park, Bradley Park, Wildlife Prairie Park. They've all kind of allowed their venues to be an open canvas for us, and we go out and we paint our picture and create these awesome venues that people just love playing.

Are these venues permanent courses, or are they just temporary sites specifically arranged for the Ledgestone Open?

Heinold: Yeah, they are all permanent courses, except for the course that we build temporarily around Lake Eureka. So with nine-hole courses, we probably have 25 permanent disc golf courses here. Wildlife Prairie Park, that has a permanent course. Sunset Hills has a permanent course. Washington Park in Washington has a permanent course. Bradley Park has had a permanent course since the 80s. McNaughton Park has been there for a long time. Washington Park has been there for 25-26 years.

So disc golf is not a new sport by any means. Disc golf is a very fast-growing sport, and even with the with COVID happening last year, the sport of disc golf, essentially, the industry doubled in a very short period of time, and that growth has not fallen off.

So you have a lot of new players playing disc golf, and their drive for competition is getting higher and higher. And so even a place like Northwood Park in Morton, we have two courses there now that are permanent. Just down the road at Kennel Lake we have a course, and just down the road, two miles the other way we have Westwood Park that has a permanent course.

What is it about disc golf that has developed this level of appeal? Why is interest in the sport growing?

Heinold: Really, it's several things. You know, 1) it's good exercise. So you can get outdoors, enjoy the outdoors, and get exercise; B) it's a lot easier to learn than, you know, ball golf or tennis or other sports like that, where all you do is go out and throw a disc in the woods or throw a disc in a park. So it’s pretty easy to learn (and) it's pretty cheap to pick up. You know, in golf you have to spend green fees and expensive equipment. Disc golf is a very cheap way to enjoy sports and competition. Specifically with COVID, that was a sport that is individual in nature and you didn't really have to be in a competition indoors, and so it was something that people could pick up safely during the pandemic.

Is there a specific proper term for the sport? I've heard some people call it “frisbee golf” or even “frolf” – is that not preferred?

Heinold: We definitely frown upon that. Frisbee golf is kind of the, I won't say the hippie term, but it's kind of the old school term when people maybe weren't taking it as seriously, and maybe you threw a frisbee. But we definitely call it disc golf because we're not really throwing frisbees. Frisbees are bigger and do not have the same weight; these are smaller discs that can travel – some of them can throw up to 650 feet basically, so over two football fields.

Do the competitors bring their own discs? Am I correct in assuming they have different discs for various situations?

Heinold: That is correct, yeah. I mean some people – I personally own 600-700 discs, and a lot of people probably own that level or higher. They carry anywhere from 20 to 30 discs during a round, in a cart or a bag. Obviously, some people carry less, but the professionals usually go on tour (and) they'll have a couple hundred discs that they cycle in and out.

You have discs that are designed to go 200 feet, and some that are designed to go 500 feet, and you have putters and mid-ranges and fairway drivers and drivers that have different flight paths, obviously when thrown correctly. So it's very similar in golf that way, in that you can pull out the mid-range, which could be like the 7-iron, or pull out the driver in disc golf which is similar to the driver and in ball golf.

So also like golf does each hole and each course have a par score that the players are trying to beat?

Heinold: Yep, each hole has par. So for instance, our premier course that's permanent in the area is the Northwood Black course – that's par 68, 10,500 feet. Then we have a course like Washington Park, which is par 55 and it's probably 5,600 feet. We have par-3s mostly, some par-4s, and then some of our courses have par-5s, but not too many of them.

How is this tournament structured? How many divisions? How many rounds? How many days?

Heinold: The amateurs play three rounds over three days; the professionals play four rounds over four days. All the course schedule is available at LedgestoneOpen.com. So that's kind of the round breakdown.

Who are some of the notable players to watch are the defending champions returning?

Heinold: Yeah, I would say every returning champion is coming back; we have very high retention for the best players in the world. So we have Paige Pierce on the women's side (and) Catrina Allen, who's defending champion and she's won the event five times; Paige is a five-time world champion. Essentially, all of the top female competitors will be there.

On the men's side, it’s pretty much the same thing. Ricky Wysocki is the defending champion, he'll be there. Paul McBeth has won the event twice; he’s a five-time world champion, he will be there. Nikko Locastro has won the event twice, he’ll be there. Pretty much every top competitor on the male side will be there, just like the same with the female side.

Is there an admission charge for spectators just like typical sporting events?

Heinold: Yep, there is an admission charge. We have weekly parking passes, which are almost sold out. We have VIP passes, which have been sold out for five months. Then we do have some daily options at Eureka and at Sunset, and those are available – you can find it by going to LedgestoneOpen.com and just click “spectators.”

What about prizes for the competitors, what will they get?

Heinold: Yeah, the amateurs play for merchandise, so that they do not play for cash because that defeats the definition of an amateur. But on the pro side, they're playing with pretty big money: The total purse this year will approach $125,000, actually.

You mentioned that some of the proceeds will go to charity. Can you tell us more about which charities and how much you're expecting to raise?

Heinold: Yeah, we've worked with St. Jude the last several years, probably the last six years. We've raised over $180,000 for them. We've stepped up our efforts this year, and we're working with Easter Seals, we are working with the South Side Mission of Peoria, and then a couple of disc golf nonprofits. We hope to raise over $150,000 this year alone.

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