There are two distinct areas involved in the investigation into the origin of disc golf. One, just who first played disc golf and when? The other, how and when did the organized sport of disc golf get started?
So, Who First Played Disc Golf? Sorry, but this turns out to be impossible to answer. There are many historical accounts of people playing golf with a flying disc, some of which pre-date the advent of the plastic flying discs by many years. Each account was an isolated instance of recreational disc golf play, and none of the participants knew of anyone else playing disc golf. Indeed, most of these instances were isolated not only geographically, but in time also, so they couldn't have known about each other.
The first known instance of anyone playing golf with a flying disc occurred in Vancouver BC in 1926. A group of school age kids played a game with tin lids, which they dubbed Tin Lid Golf. They played on a fairly regular basis on a disc golf course they laid out on their school grounds.
As they got older and into the more standard school sports, the Tin Lid Golf play faded out of the picture, only to be remembered many years later by one of the participants when they heard of the organized disc golf play of today.
Other similar accounts, both pre and post the advent of plastic flying discs, occurred in the 1930's, 40's 50's, and 60's, each ending in a similar way. One 1960 instance of disc golf was even a commercial attempt to market a packaged game of Sky Golf by the Copar Plastics company in Chicago. However, the Frisbee culture was just in its infancy at that time and the Copar game just didn't catch on.
The most interesting discovery of disc golf that fizzed out came right at the point when the modern day Frisbee culture started to mushroom into its current state of being. It is somewhat of a mystery why it didn't catch on at that time, especially when you learn of the people involved in that account.
In 1965 George Sappenfeld was a recreation counselor during summer break from college. While playing golf one afternoon, he realized that the kids on his playground could play the golf game with Frisbee discs. He remembered his idea when in 1968 he finished college and became the Parks and Recreation supervisor for the Thousand Oaks, CA Parks and Recreation Department.
George contacted the Wham-O MFG Company about his idea and asked if they could help out with his plan to hold a Frisbee golf contest for his recreation program. They sent Frisbees and Hula Hoops to use as targets. The next year, he talked Ed Headrick of Wham-O into including a Frisbee golf event in the big All Comers Frisbee meet that Ed Headrick and Wham-O was planning to hold at Pasadena's Rose Bowl fields. But that was the last that Frisbee golf was heard of from Wham-O for seven years. Even Goldy Norton's Official Frisbee Handbook of 1972, in which is listed all the activities and events that could be played with a Frisbee, there is not one iota of information or acknowledgment about disc or Frisbee golf throughout the entire book! It was if the concept didn't even exist!
Apparently disc golf didn't fit into the promotional plans that Wham-O had for its Frisbee brand flying discs at that time.
But the game of disc golf did indeed exist. A small group of people from Rochester, NY who had never heard of the IFA or Goldy Norton's Handbook of Frisbee had been playing disc golf as a competitive sport on a regular basis; tournaments, league play and all. They had started in August of 1970, and by 1972 had promoted the Second Annual City of Rochester Disc Golf Championship.
In 1973, this group of avid disc golfers found out about the IFA newsletter, and was amazed to hear of the Frisbee culture that existed beyond their little sphere of disc golf activity. They decided to make their annual City of Rochester Disc Golf Championship a big national tournament to see just how many other people were playing disc golf or would be interested in trying the game. They called the event the American Flying Disc Open put up a brand new 1974 Automobile to be awarded to the winner so as to attract the attention of the Frisbee community.
The same Ed Headrick took another look at disc golf as he assessed the burgeoning interest in the game as it was played at 1974 American Flying Disc Open. After observing the explosive growth in disc golf for about 9 months after that, Ed Headrick hired the winner of that 1974 AFDO, Dan Roddick, to head up Wham-O's new Sports Promotion Department. Upon Dan Roddick's urging, and feedback from the fledgling but rapidly growing disc golf community, Ed Headrick decided to include Disc Golf as an event in his upcoming 1975 World Frisbee Championships.
Ed became so convinced that disc golf could be big, resigned from his position at the Wham-O MFG Company and start up his Disc Golf Association Company in 1976.
One of Dan Roddick's first moves as director of the IFA Sports Promotion Department of Wham-O was to incorporate disc golf as an event in the national tour of qualifying tournaments for the big World Frisbee Championship event that Wham-O was continuing to sponsor on a yearly basis. This move introduced the concept of disc golf to thousands of Frisbee players all in one fell swoop. It also opened up many big markets for Ed Headrick's Disc Golf Association to sell disc golf courses all over the country.
The popularity of disc golf grew with unparalleled rapidity. Each new course spawned more courses in nearby towns and cities.
Many players shared the dream of national tournaments and organized play. They got together and formed the PDGA to help oversee and guide the rapid growth of the sport. The game grew too fast to call it evolution; it was a revolution! The PDGA is now a worldwide force and is growing faster than ever. The sport of disc golf is becoming every bit as professional as its older brother the PGA and its traditional ball and club golf.
— Jim Palmeri, PDGA #23 (Jim Palmeri is Disc Golf Hall of Famer and a Frisbee Historian and resides in Rochester, New York and was a big part of the early disc scene in Toronto attending many events on Toronto Island as part of past Canadian Opens and played all the sports and games)