By Jerry Roth
If there is a sentiment that encompasses a disc golf event such as the Ledgestone Insurance Open presented by Discraft, "tradition" is word that easily comes to mind. Coming from humble beginnings, the Ledgestone has stood at the center of innovation while leading the country in tournament payouts. Tournament director and creator, Nate Heinold refused to allow the potential of the Ledgestone to decline for even one year. His excitement is evident when Nate comments, "I feel like we raised the bar in 2015 with $65,000 added cash. I think that has shocked the disc golf world. In a few years we can make the next step up to $75,000 and more," says Nate. His exuberance is the vital reason why the Ledgestone has grown by leaps and bounds. When asked why he returns year after year as the tournament director, Nate remarks reverently, "I think that at this point in time the tournament has become just become a part of my life. I would feel like I was getting a divorce if I ever walked away from it. At the end of the day, it feels really good to build something from nothing." With this passion, Nate Heinold has turned a small tournament of 105 players into a field of over 1000 players and growing.
In order for an event to rise in the hearts and minds of the public, it must also change with the times to meet the needs of the competitors and their generation's style of play. In order for the sport of disc golf to evolve, great tournaments must follow suit, and the Ledgestone Insurance Open is no exception. In 2011 Nate Heinold, drew 105 contestants to his first tournament, a respectable turnout in its initial debut. Unfortunately, Nate also witnessed Al Hermosillo make easy work of the Northwood Park course shooting a sizzling course record 17 under par 47 followed by a 55 during round 2, to collect $600 and win the first ever Ledgestone Insurance Open by 6 strokes. Understanding the need to evolve, the course was redesigned the very next year. Nate strives for an amazing course experience with his signature touches such as narrow fairways, intimating ropes, and out-of-bounds lurking at every turn.
When asked what change to the 2017 event Nate was most excited about, he gave an answer that could only be described as honest as he speaks of his sacrifice, "To say I am excited about changes wouldn't be a fair statement. I liked having "stroke and distance" at the Ledgestone and thought it was unique." Making necessary changes to the OB rules and improving the Wildlife Prairie course layout is a testament to Nate Heinold's dedication to the betterment of the tournament. Understanding the need for adjustment and adaptation is what sets the Ledgestone apart from many other tournaments and has elevated the event to the premier stop and a must-attend destination every year.
For a tournament to grow to the enormity that the Ledgestone has, many ingredients must come together to ensure success. Nate concedes that, "The most uplifting thing we see is the interaction between our volunteers and the players. The volunteers love seeing these top professionals as much as I do, and that's very rewarding for them, so it's rewarding for me." The mutual respect of the players and volunteers is a crucial component that keeps the event running in perfect harmony. Where else can a volunteer or fan stand mere feet away from the likes of Nate Doss, Michael Johanson, or Ricky Wysocki and observe skills that often defy belief. When asked what he hopes visitors of the tournament will take away from the Ledgestone experience, Nate Remarks that, "I want them to have a great time...and feel like they got their money's worth. I want the spectators to be in awe of the great play and want them to become players themselves!" It is this aspiration that brings the crowds back each year, following the pros with every heartbreaking misstep or thrilling victory.
When compared to other disc golf tournaments, the tournament is rising to the top of most professional player's calendar and nearly all amateur's destination wish list. When asked to compare the Ledgestone to other tournaments across the country, Nate offers up an astute parallel by saying that, "On the pro side, some people compare this to the USDGC. Both courses use extensive ropes, both have used stroke and distance in the past and both have open air courses." Nate's comparison is justified as the prestige of the Ledgestone continues to eclipse the mark left the year before. If you are an avid disc golfer, have a love for the sport, or relish the chance to witness professional disc golf at its finest, there is an event in Central Illinois that is calling your name. The future looks bright at the Ledgestone Insurance Open presented by Discraft.