I have former world-champion disc-golfer, Frisbee pioneer, Carlsbad resident John Kirkland on the phone. Kirkland, 67, says, “I was there at the very beginning and I’m still doing it seven days a week.
“When I came on the scene there was no scene. Now, every college has an Ultimate team and there’s 2500 disc-golf courses around the planet. It’s growing like crazy. I won the world championships in disc golf in ’76. I’m a multi-time champion in many sports. Set world records in distance, maximum time aloft, won the overall...
“...Floridian who went to MIT. I started the MIT [Frisbee] team. I was doing half times for the basketball team and did some Celtics halftimes. I thought, This is the perfect venue, I get to show off, I’m indoor, there’s no wind. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do this all the time? Then, I thought, The Globetrotters, wow, that would be perfect. So, I pitched them, flew my partner and myself into Chicago, gave them a demo, and they said, ‘Man, we’ve got to have you guys.’ So we did 200 cities in 180 days.
I break in, “You must have been a big deal at MIT.”
Kirkland laughs. “I was the only athlete. I’m sitting here looking at my MIT Athletic Association special achievement award, national Frisbee champion 1974. They only had two athletes when I was there. Me and a wrestler named Erland van Lidth de Jeude.
“I toured with the Globetrotters and played Frisbee all over the world. Then, in ’76, when I graduated, I moved to California. That’s where all the best Frisbee players were. Wham-O was in California.
“Frisbee really took off in the mid-’70s. The Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) was formed in ’76, ’77. I lived in Del Mar for a couple years, went to Santa Barbara for ten years, moved around playing Frisbee. My wife and I played Frisbee. Then we had kids and now they play Frisbee.”
Hmm... I notice the crack in my coffee cup has gotten bigger. When did that happen? I move the cup away from my computer monitor with one hand, go to PDGA.com with the other. It’s a pro, very PGA kind of website. Screams “Corporate” at you. There are World Championships, Tour Majors, the National Tour. There are A-tier events, B-tier events. C-tier events, and X-tier events. Not forgetting PDGA women’s disc golf. We have Hall of Fame. We have PDGA shirts, headwear, birdie bags, PDGA patches, playing cards, stickers, not forgetting 200-plus golf-disc options ranging from 140g to 200g in weight, and a large selection of colors to brighten four types of discs (long-range driver, fairway driver, mid-range, putt, and approach). There are complete player stats, records, and history. Everything is slick, smooth, and the prize money is minuscule.
I say, “I’m looking at the Avery Jenkins [2009 world champion] profile. His 2013 winnings are $7000 plus. This year he’s won $1072. I know he’s running endorsements and clinics on the side, but to be a world champion and make seven grand is a little thin.”
Kirkland says, “Disc golf is sort of like what ball golf was in the late ’30s and early ’40s. You were doing it because you liked doing it.”
“Can you make a living at it?”
Kirkland says, “There’s some money to be had. The best player is a guy named Paul McBeth. They call him ‘McBeast.’ He’s won the last two world championships. He’s the highest-rated player ever. He’s a prototype of the new breed.”
I click over to McBeth’s page. “He’s played five tournaments so far, made $6582, on track to earn $20,000 for the year.”
Kirkland says, “Find the figures from last year. [McBeth earned $42,303 in 2013.] What that doesn’t count is how much Innova [a disc manufacturer] is paying him.”
“How many players are making $50,000 to $100,000, in total, off of everything they do? Just give me a guess.”
“Two or three.” Kirkland says, “You can’t make money at this sport, that’s not why you do it.... There is a tour, you play different golf courses, extremely good athletes are playing at a very high level.”
“How big is the disc-golf tour?”
“There’s probably 50 to 100 guys. There are a whole lot of competitive Frisbee players both amateur and professional, but when you’re talking about a tour, there’s probably a cadre of 50 people who go around and make it to every single tournament.
“I swear Frisbee golf follows ball golf in all respects. They’re really hoping it will follow in terms of remuneration.”