Affordable, accessible, sustainable — three words that go a long way in explaining the rapidly growing appeal of disc golf.
“It’s been like a rocket ship,” said Shaun Welch.
Welch, along with business partner Eddie Wooters, plans on capitalizing on that popularity.
According to the Professional Disc Golfers Association, the sport’s national governing body, membership has grown from slightly more than 6,500 a decade ago to nearly 25,000 today. And those numbers don’t account for the thousands of casual players without an association affiliation who pick up the game each year.
Welch and Wooters opened Throw Colorado’s retail component in Palmer Lake this summer, but the business was started by Wooters in 2013 to create and promote disc golf events throughout the state. Throw Colorado, in addition to its retail and organizational duties, has also created a nonprofit arm, Throw Colorado Community. It obtained 501(c)3 status in March and has since raised funds for other nonprofits, maintained public parks and is creating a physical education component to place disc golf curriculum in schools.
“We want to get kids outdoors and invested in their community as best they can,” Welch said. “Disc golf is the perfect recreational sport for that.”
Affordability a draw
Welch, for much of his professional life, had been involved in the “ball golf” industry. He worked as the director of player services at a private country club in Kansas for 13 years. He said, as traditional golf courses close around the country, disc golf courses (one of which sits across the street from their shop on State Highway 105), are opening at an exceptional rate.
“Disc golf is more affordable and attainable. It speaks to the next generation,” Welch said. “Since the financial crisis [in 2009], ball golf is shrinking and that will probably continue with large water shortages and drought. And the prices can be astronomical. People are spending thousands on clubs and green fees and lost balls.”
Wooters said, for between $15-$30, a person can get started in disc golf and, since most courses can be played for free, the drain on finances stops there.
“If you don’t ever want to pay to play, you never have to pay to play,” Welch said. “You don’t have to play sanctioned events or play at private courses. You can have a great time and spend very little money doing it.”
In addition, Wooters and Welch said while disc golf is more affordable than traditional golf, it is also more approachable.
“You will never whiff a disc,” Welch said. “You can always get a disc moving forward.”
And Wooters said it doesn’t “take your entire day away. You can play a round in about one-and-a-half or two hours.”
The disc golf concept was hatched in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Wooters said, “by surfers and beach bums in California. They didn’t have baskets or even discs like today. They had regular Frisbees and they’d throw them at trees or posts or trash cans.”
In the sport, participants throw discs into baskets at each “hole” of an 18-basket course. Palmer Lake’s course takes players around the lake.
The PDGA began organizing the sport in the 1980s, setting rules and guidelines, especially for tournament play. There are professional events that can pay several thousand dollars in winnings. Paul McBeth, the “Tiger Woods of disc golf,” according to Welch, made more than $70,000 in tournament winnings last year.
The majority of players, however, are amateurs just looking to have fun within a tight-knit community of fellow golfers. That demographic is the target of Throw Colorado, Welch and Wooters said. Events make enough money to put on additional events, they said, while the retail element is what pays their bills.
“It’s a circle,” Welch said. “Events generate interest and bring people into our store. … We may not make a lot of money at an event specifically, but the interest is generated there.”
“If you don’t ever want to pay to play, you never have to pay to play.”
– Shaun Welch
While only open for less than half a year, the retail component is exceeding expectations, Welch said.
“It’s going really well,” he said. “This is a small community, but we’re in a great zone for bigger markets, being between Colorado Springs and Denver. We have an online store as well. I think we will surpass our initial projections for the year. It’s been good, but we’re trying to keep that excitement with our events.”
Throw Colorado just hosted one such event — the Second Annual Shawn Dawson Memorial disc golf tournament at Palmer Lake in August. The tournament drew 140 players during two days and raised more than $6,000 for Awake Palmer Lake, a nonprofit focused on restoring the town’s namesake, as well as Urban Peak and Throw Colorado Community.
Welch also said that, as golf goes, disc golf is more environmentally friendly than its clubbed counterpart.
“Disc golf courses are minimally invasive. We don’t spend money on growing grass and we don’t have to use pesticides,” Welch said. “The only thing we do is, every once in awhile, use a gas-powered machine to trim some limbs and cut back growth.
“The footprint is very small. Colorado has a progressive culture that considers those things — ‘What’s the overall impact of my recreational time and dollars?’”
Growing the sport
Wooters said he would like to organize about 10 tournaments in the state in 2016, three that could be played in Palmer Lake.
Both Wooters and Welch said, within the next five years, the growth of the sport could mean mainstream sponsorships and television coverage. To prepare for that growth, the duo has plans to expand operations outside the state, although they aren’t saying when or where that will happen.
For the time being, they will focus on organizing Colorado events during the winter and spreading their enthusiasm for the sport.
“We want [Colorado Springs] and the county and local disc golf clubs to have as much support as we can give them to help move this along,” Welch said.
“In a few years, we’d like to see a major tournament come to the region.”
Established: 2013 (event organizing); 2015 (retail)
Location: 11 Primrose St., Palmer Lake