Disc Golfer — Fall 2011
KEVIN DONNELLY: DISC GOLF
Ten years before the first disc golf course was installed at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena, California, in 1975, a Newport Beach recreation supervisor organized the world’s first Frisbee golf tournament with more than 100 participants— all juniors. In doing so he created the first Frisbee golf rules and tournament director rules. He also taught the first college course in 1966 using his Frisbee golf game as part of his Recreation Activities class at Fresno State College. This article documents the historical contributions of Dr. Kevin Donnelly that until recently were unknown.
In the fall of 1959, 21-year-old Kevin Donnelly bought his first Frisbee at a toy store in Portland, Oregon, and was soon hooked on throwing Frisbee. He became bored throwing back and forth with his friends and invented a game called Street Frisbee Golf that became very popular in his Costa Mesa, California, neighborhood. They played the game on a typical residential street and their objective was to throw the Frisbee around the block in as few throws as possible. The rules were simple: only the street was in bounds and landing on a neighbor’s yard or sidewalk was out of bounds and incurred a one-throw penalty. Also, you had to place your foot wherever the Frisbee landed for your next shot, even if it meant stretching your leg under a parked car in the street.
In January 1961, Newport Beach Parks and Recreation hired Kevin as a recreation leader. First he organized after-school and weekend recreational activities at the 38th Street Park on Balboa Boulevard to increase the park’s attendance. Soon his supervisor gave the OK for Kevin to set up a six-hole course, and in February 1961, Kevin set up the first official Frisbee golf course in the park. The course had flagged tee-off areas, and players threw to trees and light poles. Frisbee golf became a weekly scheduled activity at the park. Later Kevin had to split divisions by gender and age so that everyone could play. He started a monthly tournament that year with the top three players in each division receiving a City of Newport Beach gold, silver, or bronze ribbon. Kevin estimates that these early disc golfers played more than 2000 rounds that first year.
Due to the popularity of Frisbee golf, the 38th Street Park’s attendance went from the lowest of the nine city parks to the highest. In January 1962, the city asked Kevin to expand his Frisbee golf program to two other city parks to increase attendance: Newport Heights Elementary School Park and the Corona del Mar Youth Center Park. Over the next year attendance skyrocketed at the parks.
In January 1963, he graduated from Orange Coast Junior College and obtained his B.S. in Recreation Management from Los Angeles State College. Kevin went on to earn his M.S. degree from San Francisco State College in May 1965. Upon graduation, the city of Newport Beach hired him as the recreation supervisor. He managed a staff of 20 recreation leaders and was in charge of recreational activities for nine city parks. He taught the recreation leaders the Frisbee golf game and incorporated these activities into the weekly recreation activities at all nine parks.
In October 1965, with the popularity of Frisbee golf growing, Kevin wanted to organize the world’s first big Frisbee golf tournament. Kevin drove to San Gabriel, California, to visit the headquarters of Wham-O, the manufacturer of Frisbees. He asked if the company would sponsor the historic event. Wham-O was impressed with his proposal and agreed to sponsor the event. They generously donated 100 Pro Model Frisbees, 72 Super Balls, 24 Hula Hoops, and six Air Blasters. While at Wham-O, Kevin met Fred Morrison, the inventor of the Pluto Platter and the man who sold the licensing rights to Wham-O. Fred agreed to attend the Newport Beach event and to give a demonstration at the start of the tournament. Kevin took on the role of the first tournament director and created an original list of Frisbee golf rules (figure 1) as well as a list of tournament responsibilities he assigned to various recreation leaders and volunteers. He also created a press release and flyer (figure 2).
Saturday, December 4, 1965, at Mariners Park in Newport Beach at 9:30 a.m., the world’s first modern Frisbee golf tournament teed off. More than 100 kids aged 8-13 participated with separate groups competing in divisions by age and gender. Because Mariner Park was a giant lawn area with only a few trees to use as targets, Kevin used the Hula Hoops donated by Wham-O as targets by elevating the hoops about two feet off the ground with two wooden stakes. Players could throw through either side of the hoop to complete the hole. He used a chalk marking machine to mark OB on both sides of the fairways and built water and sand hazards near the targets using small plastic wading pools and large cardboard boxes filled with sand. The first Frisbee golf scorecard used for the tournament showed a par 27. It included two par 2s and two par 4s with OB on every hole.
In September 1966, Kevin accepted the position of department coordinator in the recreation and parks program at Fresno State College where he taught a recreational activities course from 1966 to 1970. This class included Kevin’s Frisbee golf game and rules and was the first college course that incorporated the teaching of throwing a Frisbee, playing the Frisbee Golf game, and learning the rules of Frisbee golf.
Kevin estimates that more than 300 students took this course during this time. One of his students was George Sappenfield, who took the class in 1966. George was later hired as the recreation supervisor for the Conejo recreation and parks district and is sometimes credited with conducting the first modern Frisbee golf tournament in 1968. George also used Hula Hoops as targets for his 1968 tournament.
In April 1970, Kevin completed his Ph.D in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation from the University of Utah and was hired by the Walt Disney Company as manager of recreation at Disney World in Florida. He later started his own company opening and operating theme parks and resorts around the world, which he still does today. Kevin, now 73, still carries his Frisbees with him and introduces disc golf to children in the various countries that he visits.
—Don Altmyer #5606 teaches Business at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. He was the 2005 PDGA Advanced Grandmaster World Champion. Until recently, he had never met Kevin but simply wanted to tell his story. Don wrote an article for Parks & Recreation magazine. “Steady” Ed read the article and sent Don a mini basket and suggested that he apply for the PDGA College Matching Basket Grant. Don applied and his college received the first baskets in 1997. Don notes, “The course has really caught on with the bookstore selling more than 4000 discs. We are now in the process of putting a second course in Spearfish.”
Kevin can be reached at email@example.com
“Here I am with my Frisbee in hand, deep in the jungles of Borneo (plane, jeep, long boat and trekking) standing next to the chief of a tribe of former head hunters,” writes Kevin. “Each of the tattoos on his body represent a head that he had taken up until the tribe decided to end such activities.”
Learning Something New Every Day
One of the coolest things about editing DiscGolfer is reading stories that members send in. When I read Don’s this summer, it blew me away. I love disc golf history and I had never heard of Kevin Donnelly. I immediately contacted Jim Palmeri and Dan “Stork” Roddick, my co-authors on a book we are writing on disc golf’s history. They had never heard of him either. Fortunately, Don presented plenty of solid documentation to support Kevin’s place in history as the first person to seriously promote disc golf in the plastic-disc era. Jim correctly points out several others had also promoted golflike games with round flying objects years before the invention of the plastic disc.
Kevin Donnelly has earned his place in disc golf’s history as the first serious gung-ho promoter of our favorite game in the modern era and the first to teach disc golf as a college course. Also, one thin thread links Kevin to disc golf’s birth: his student, George Sappenfield, fell in love with the game and worked as a paid helper on the big 1975 World Frisbee Championships when disc golf belatedly joined the other competitive Frisbee events. For sure Kevin did not invent disc golf. The notion that someone somewhere invented it is a popular myth. Our book will clearly show disc golf “spontaneously combusted” in various locations rather than any one person dreaming it up.
I wonder: was “Steady” Ed Headrick at that historic meeting back in 1965 when a nervous young Kevin Donnelly remembers meeting the famous Fred Morrison and Wham- O co-founder Spud Melin? He might well have been in that room because Ed was then a Wham-O executive and had just invented the iconic Pro Model Frisbee, the first serious sport disc. I’d like to think Ed was there listening to young Kevin’s spiel, and I imagine him leaning back in his chair and pondering, “Hmmm, golf with a Frisbee? What a concept.” If that did happen, it took almost a decade for the idea to germinate.