Disc Golf
Evan Qualls of Bettendorf throws his fairway disc May 8 during a disc golf tournament at Richmond Hill Park in Geneseo. (John Schultz / Quad-City Times) John Schultz

Pinpointing the catalyst of popularity is next to impossible.

But Chase Roberts remembers a time when things weren't so clear cut.

In one instance, he looked on as a couple guys, in an egregious case of mistaken identity, poured a bag of charcoal into a metal disc golf basket. Roberts watched the target become a makeshift grill and knew his sport had a long way to go.

Today, disc golf - the sport that exchanges clubs and balls for Frisbee-like discs and trades holes for metal baskets - no longer retains a stigma as the activity of perceived weirdoes on society's fringe.

These days, kids learn the game in gym class, and touring professionals earn their living with the brightly colored, plastic saucers. This year, it's even a part of the Quad-Cities Senior Olympics.

Baskets that dot courses at the 25 parks in the Quad-Cities region are met with a steady stream of discs rather than bewildered stares.

"People never used to know what to think of them," Roberts said. "Now people know. General people know that's a disc golf target, and that's a pretty cool thing."

Progress is rapid enough that Roberts is in his fifth year as co-owner of Iron Lion Disc Golf Supply in Moline. The customer base has steadily grown out of a niche movement started at the end of the 20th century.

A bit of background

Many area disc golfers got their start while attending the University of Northern Iowa.

Founded in 1976, the course at Cedar Falls' Tourist Park is one of the country's first layouts. Only a year before, Ed Headrick patented the Disc Pole Hole target, which paired perfectly with the Frisbee, which he registered eight years earlier.

The first Quad-City course came in 1988 at Rock Island's Longview Park. Ten years later, a small group of players formed the Quad-City Disc Golf Club.

Bettendorf native Jay Reading and his wife, Des, are two of the founding members.

Like most of the originals, they no longer live in the area. But before the pioneers ventured off in different directions, they put together a grassroots effort to grow the sport in the Quad-Cities.

In 2000, the area's second course went in at Milan's Camden Park.

"One of the great things about Quad-Cities is because we have four cities right next to each other, they are very competitive in keeping those in their own community happy," Jay Reading said. "The sport just exploded from there."

Numbers boom

During the past decade, the number of disc golf courses in Scott and Rock Island counties has ballooned to 12, with a fresh 18-hole layout at Credit Island anticipated this summer.

Coast to coast, there are more than 3,600 courses. In 2000, that total barely topped 1,100.

Membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association has more than doubled over the same period, reaching 14,326 last year.

"It has been evolving," Bettendorf's Evan Qualls said. "It's really something that anybody can play, anybody. From 7 years old to 80, you can come out here and have a good time.

"You're outdoors, you're enjoying the good weather. How can you go wrong?"

In Iowa, you apparently can't.

With 162 courses, the Hawkeye State is second only to California nationwide. Per capita, Iowa jumps to the top of the heap with one course for every 18,567 people.

Illinois ranks fifth in course numbers with 154, but why does Iowa - a state with less than 1 percent of the U.S. population - account for 6.3 percent of the disc golf courses?

"A lot of our parks are pretty big and expansive, so we've got the room for it," Davenport's Ron Rasmussen said. "I can't imagine how California does it, when in most of those cities, a park could be an empty lot.

"I just think we have a lot of great disc golfers that really push for it in their towns."

Going pro

Des Reading became a touring disc golf professional nine years ago, with little expectation that it would turn into a sustainable career.

Tournament purses have grown along with player sponsorships, and Reading is one of what she estimates are a dozen players worldwide earning a living wage flinging discs.

She has become the world's second-ranked female player with multiple world championships on her résumé.

Jay Reading first gained athletic attention as an all-state lineman who won two Iowa state titles with the Bettendorf football team in 1987 and 1988. He picked up disc golf while at UNI to play football. He turned pro the same year as his wife and won the world putting title in 2008.

The Quad-Cities joined forces with the professional circuit late last summer, hosting the United States Women's Disc Golf Championships. Des Reading tied for fifth.

"I'm hoping when I'm 60, I can look back and say, ‘Look at all those kids making a living playing disc golf,'" she said. "But the thing with disc golf is that it doesn't have any sort of demographic limitations. I can go play professionally and with my family before Thanksgiving."

Selling the sport

Chase Roberts was fed up with his work history - cook, manual laborer. Miserable.

"I couldn't find a job I liked or wanted to stay employed at long enough," he said. "We took a shot in the dark."

Laughed at by banks, Roberts and fianceé Jessica Argyle opened Iron Lion on credit in 2006. They're still going, sponsoring a summer tournament tour around the area.

Like a traditional golf shop, business dries up for the most part in the winter, but when the warm weather comes, discs and bags move quickly.

After building a corps of traveling, tournament-level players in the area, the client base is stable. But Iron Lion still does the bulk of its business at big events, with participants perusing tubs of discs between rounds.

It's hard to get a firm grasp on the number of true disc golf pro shops around the country, but it's a small one. Basic economics - discs cost as little as $8, greens fees almost non-existent - have Roberts sold on the longevity of the sport and his venture.

"As affordable a hobby as it is, I really can't see anything stopping its growth," he said. "It's not even a group anymore. It's a movement."

Nice addition

Never satisfied, the Quad-City Disc Golf Club is on the cusp of another victory.

This July, the City of Davenport expects to have money allocated in its capital improvement for a new course at Credit Island.

The planned 18-hole layout will make use of the native grasses, meaning less mowing and more scenery. It will replace the old nine-hole setup washed out by the 2008 floods.

Eight years ago, Davenport added its first course at Eastern Avenue Park. A year after creating a 24-hole setup at West Lake Park in 2007, the city responded to the request of residents near North Park Mall and installed a six-hole course at Slattery Park.

"Our relationship with the disc golf club worked out really well," senior parks manager Paul Eickhoff said. "At first neighbors at Eastern Avenue weren't too sure about this, but they found out right away that it's really a good thing. It's a quiet sport, not disruptive in any way.

"By putting in a course at Credit Island, I think we'll really bring a lot of people down there."

And with the ever-expanding public awareness, they'll shower the new baskets with putting discs rather than lighter fluid.