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Growth of disc golf in Greater Peoria helps land major event

A competitor takes a shot during the Ledgestone Open disc golf tournament last August in Peoria.
Rob Banden
Courtesy Ledgestone Open/Nate Heinold
A competitor takes a shot during the Ledgestone Open disc golf tournament last August.

Greater Peoria has become a hotbed for the growing sport of disc golf in recent years, and one mark of validation comes later this month with the arrival of a major professional disc golf tournament.

Avid disc golfer Jack Ressler said his dad tried to get him into the sport when he was in junior high, but it took a while for his passion to take hold.

“I didn’t really get hooked until my senior year of high school, when I was sort of going with buddies and stuff like that,” said Ressler. “Throughout senior year of high school, go to college, that kind of kept my group of friends from high school together. It was, everybody’s back in town from school, we go play disc golf for an hour or two every weekend or so.”

Ressler tries to hit the courses whenever the weather's nice, particularly during the summer — typically, that's at least three or four times each week. The appeal of disc golf is that it's a pretty straightforward sport, he said.

“You throw from one place and you try to end up in a different place, and whoever does it the best wins,” he said. “So it's scratches the competitive itch; it scratches the personal development itch as well. You want to do better every single time you go out there, and when you don't do as good as you can, it just drives you to work at it more and more.”

Last year, Ressler joined the operations team at the Ledgestone Disc Golf facility in Washington. The company sells discs, apparel and other accessories for both pro and casual players, and also sponsors the annual Ledgestone Open in Greater Peoria each August.

“The sport of disc golf has been on a hockey stick level of growth since 2010,” said Ledgestone president Nate Heinold, who also serves as president of the Professional Disc Golf Association [PDGA]. “Basically, the PDGA — which is the governing body of the sport of disc golf—– they have about 400% more members compared to 15 years ago, so the sport has really grown dramatically.

“Then COVID happened and it doubled within 18 months. Our warehouse here in Washington, we sell stuff online [and] we were sold out of the most popular products for a very long time.”

Heinold said there’s a variety of factors contributing to disc golf’s growing popularity.

“It's cheap to play. There's a ton of easy access here in the area,” he said. “Most of the properties in the area are free; you just walk up and play. You can play quickly; you can get the equipment for pretty cheap, the discs. So disc golf has caught on not just for younger people, but for all ages, and it's been fascinating to be in the business and to see it grow.”

Heinold said the Ledgestone Open, which began in 2011, continues to breed success in the area, adding the Peoria area continues to develop new courses that in turn gives more people the opportunity to play.

“We have a new course coming online here at Brady Park in East Peoria; we put in Kennel Lake a few years ago in Morton,” he said. “We've added Sunset Hills several years ago in Pekin. We've added the second course to Northwood. The Morton Park District is wonderful to work with, and so are our all of our partners. We have easy access to put courses in the ground here.

“Even the nine hole courses, the nine hole courses at Northwoods Church or Creve Coeur or El Paso, Roanoke, all those things — just getting more courses in the ground gets more people playing, and more people playing is more people watching, and more people buying and therefore the attention continues to ratchet up and then all of a sudden the PDGA says Peoria is a disc golf destination.”

That budding reputation, he said, helped land one of this season's majors: the PDGA Champions Cup, April 25-28 at Morton's Northwood Park.

“That's the hardest course in the world, and so some of these players they're going to be well over par on this course,” said Heinold. “That course has the hardest hole in the world as well: No. 12 — 1,050-foot par-5, up the hill, through the woods ‘to grandmother's house we go.’

“It is such a hard course and this course is specifically the U.S. Open of disc golf. It is brutal, and it’s challenging — and it’s fun to challenge the players in that way. It brings out the best; the cream of the crop will rise to the top for this event. You cannot hide on this course at all.”

Heinold said disc golf can offer a different appeal to spectators as well as players.

“It's not as slow as golf; we play faster [and] the rounds take less time,” he said. “Watching a white golf ball through the air, it's tough to see sometimes. It is really fascinating to watch people throw a Frisbee 500 feet through the woods at 70 miles an hour with a bright colored disc sometimes. It is fascinating to hear the snap of their wrist and to see it fly in the air.”

The PDGA Champions Cup had been held in Georgia the last two years, but needed a new home after that course was destroyed by a Southern Pine beetle infestation. Heinold said the top 20 men’s and women’s players in the world will participate, and organizers are expecting around 7,000 attendees throughout the week. Discover Peoria [the region’s convention and visitor’s bureau] estimates the tournament will generate more than $500,000 in direct spending with a total economic impact of close to $850,000.

Ressler said having a major tournament in the Peoria area showcases the region's disc golf community and increases people's familiarity with the sport.

“When I started, if I told people I was about to go play a round of disc golf, I’d get maybe some interesting looks and questions about what that is exactly,” he said. “But fast forward to today, in the last couple of years it seems like if I mention it, somebody else says, ‘Oh yeah. I love playing disc golf,’ or ‘I enjoy you know going out with friends and trying it out once in a while.’ People have at least tried it nowadays, and have a concept of what it is and can see how big it has become.”

Ressler said he's seeing players young and old picking up the sport now, and quickly getting hooked.

“All it takes is one good throw where you see the disc do exactly what you wanted to do and land exactly where it needs to be, and you're just like, ‘Ahh, that’s just so satisfying.’”

More information on the four-day PDGA Champions Cup tournament is available on the tournament's website.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.