Disc golf's 'The Man' opens with 63

Ken Climo makes a putt Wednesday at the U.S. Disc Golf Championship at Winthrop.
Ken Climo makes a putt Wednesday at the U.S. Disc Golf Championship at Winthrop.

Ken Climo is 'The Man' in professional disc golf. It's been that way since the late 1980s.

He's Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods wrapped up in a 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame.

His record and accomplishments on and off the golf course speak for his talent and dominance of the game. He is, as his nickname states, 'The Champ.'

Climo, who has 202 professional wins in his 19-year-career, has a tremendous resume.

• He's a 12-time Professional Disc Golf Association World Champion.

• He won nine straight world titles, starting in 1990.

• He's a four-time U.S. champion.

• He's a seven-time PDGA Player of the Year.

• He was elected to the PDGA Hall of Fame in 1995.

It's easy to see why the 39-year-old Climo is simply known as "The Champ" in the disc golf community. There was a time when competitors entered a tournament with an "I'm playing for second" mindset.

Times have changed. Like Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods, Climo has seen the sport improve and become more competitive. Woods is still the man to beat, but wins are not givens anymore.

"The talent pool is 100 percent better than when I started," said Climo, who won 23 of 25 events in 1995. "It gets better every year. Kids are coming out every year and they can throw the daylights out of it. And, the plastic we're using is so much better."

Technology and state-of-the art equipment has made more people competitive, just like regular golf. The kind of plastic used today is as different as wood and metal drivers.

That's why Climo said he had to bring his "A" game to each and every tournament.

"I don't think my game has fallen off that much. My rating is still high," he said. "There's just a lot more people out here capable of winning than there was in the '90s."

Climo sees disc golf as one of the fastest growing sports around.

"It's mushrooming and only going to get better," he said. "It's unbelievable how many new courses we're seeing. There's so many new players. The only way the sport can go is up."

Climo, in town for the U.S. Disc Golf Championship at the Winthrop course, said he can remember when he'd win by 12 to 15 shots. Now it's a dogfight every time out.

"I really relish the competition we have now," Climo said.

Climo, who won at Winthrop in 2000, opened with a five-under 63 Wednesday.

"I don't think that will be leading, but it's going to be in the top-five and have me in good shape," said Climo, who is trying to hold off 167 other golfers competing for the $15,000 winner's check.

Climo, who grew up in what he called a ball-golfing family, played a variety of sports growing up. He still plays regular golf and said Tuesday that if he can round up some clubs, he'd probably play a few holes at the Winthrop Golf Course.

One thing he loved to do as a youngster was throw a Frisbee around with friends at his Clearwater, Fla., home.

In May 1987, he made his first trip to the disc course in Clearwater.

"They had posts in the ground with red paint at the top," Climo said. "When you hit the red paint you were in the hole."

The following year, Climo, the sport's all-time leading money winner, turned professional and he's been winning ever since.

Climo said he looks forward to coming to Rock Hill and playing the Gold Course at Winthrop, a testy layout that has been called the Augusta National of disc golf.

"It's a wonderful layout," Climo said. "Some of the places we play are like pitch-and-putt ball golf courses. But here you have par 3s, par 4s and par 5s. It challenges every part of your game. It's a course you have to think your way around."

In addition to his play, there's another facet of disc golf that Climo is very passionate about -- introducing the sport to children.

That's why he's very active in the Educational Disc Golf Experience that promotes the sport at schools during every tournament. According to tournament officials, most of the schools in Rock Hill have a disc course.

"The future of our sport is with the youth," Climo said. "I was out at Rock Hill High School last week and conducted two clinics. We had a great time."