As the flowers started to bloom in 2011, a young insurance professional in Central Illinois spawned an idea for increased business visibility.
That insurance expert was Nate Heinold of the Ledgestone Insurance Group, and his idea was a disc golf tournament.
Mere months later, Heinold had successfully pulled together a location and an event, kicking off the first ever Ledgestone Insurance Open in August 2011.
Over a decade later, with a rebrand, new courses, and an influx of thousands of players, the Ledgestone Open is in a league of its own as the biggest disc golf tournament in the world.
The inaugural event was run as an unsanctioned tournament, but by 2012, with a whole year to plan out details and market the experience, Heinold had a full blown PDGA A-tier. Names like Catrina Allen, Sarah Hokom, and Nikko Locastro all found the top of the podium early on as several stars made the Ledgestone Insurance Open part of their annual tour schedule.
Even with the influx of high-level pros attending on a yearly basis, the tournament wasn’t yet recognized on a national level as a popular event.
But the PDGA changed that in 2015.
The PDGA National Tour, which had been successfully moving around the country for over a decade, invited the Ledgestone Insurance Open to be a stop on its Elite Series. The NT designation shot the event to the top of the list of must-play tournaments.
Building on the hype created by the PDGA around his tournament, Heinold decided to go even bigger to cement Ledgestone as a can’t-miss tour stop.
The 2015 event posted a massive pro purse that had never before been seen in disc golf. It totalled $117,453, becoming the largest payout in the sport’s history. The few pros that hadn’t already signed up based on the NT status and the tournament’s reputation quickly flocked to add their name to the registration list.
Simon Lizotte edged out Paul McBeth in the final round to claim a $6,600 paycheck, while Catrina Allen notched another win in her Ledgestone belt with a thrilling playoff victory over Paige Pierce.
But the National Tour experience only lasted one year because, in 2016, Heinold jumped on board to support Steve Dodge’s vision of the Disc Golf Pro Tour. The Ledgestone Insurance Open became part of the inaugural, 6-event DGPT, joining the likes of the Vibram Open (now the MVP Open at Maple Hill), the Silver Cup, the Majestic, the Green Mountain Championship and the Tour Championship at Smuggler’s Notch.
The arrival of the DGPT coincided with another tournament change. Stroke-and-distance rules, which were used sparingly during the initial launch of the tournament, featured heavily during the 2015 event.
With stroke-and-distance, instead of taking a penalty stroke after an out-of-bounds throw and proceeding to either the disc’s last in-bounds location or the drop zone, players are required to re-throw from their previous lie with a penalty. This takes any progression up the fairway out of play for an OB throw. It changed the approach and risks involved with an aggressive playing style and became a frustration for many pros attending the tournament, specifically on a course like Eureka Temp where tight OB is in play on virtually every hole.
Player feedback spurred the decision to scale back the stroke-and-distance rules. By 2018, the format was completely eliminated from the annual event.
Since the record-breaking purse in 2015, Heinold and the Ledgestone team have continued to produce massive payout after massive payout, besting their mark multiple times. This is due in large part to Ledgestone’s annual fundraisers through a tight-knit partnership with Discraft.
The Ledgestone-Edition disc releases began in 2015 to raise money for that sport-defining edition of the tournament. It set the tone and the releases have continued to grow each year, cresting the 1 million mark for discs produced early in 2024.
Through the Ledgestone-Edition runs, unique plastic combinations have emerged to give fans something special to throw and collect. Special production Buzzzes and Zones have led the way molds-wise, but the program has opened the door to brief reappearances of old, out-of-production Discraft discs like the Nebula, Flash, and Rattler.
Recognizing the growth of the tournament and greater impact it could provide beyond disc golf, Heinold began partnering with various charity organizations in 2014. Since then, Ledgestone has raised over $634,000 for charity, highlighted by a massive $200,000 donation in 2021. Partners include organizations like the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Paul McBeth Foundation, Educational Disc Golf Experience (EDGE), Easterseals, and South Side Mission.
In-person sales have been a big part of Ledgestone’s ability to generate huge payouts and support the large donations to charity. But the biggest impact has been the generation of online sales.
In January 2020, at the suggestion of Discraft’s marketing manager at the time, Jon Richardson, Shopledgestone.com was launched. The initial disc drop sold out quickly and Heinold began to plan for some restocks. Just weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, but as new players around the globe found disc golf for the first time, through social distancing and a need to be active outdoors, business boomed.
Just like the greater sport of disc golf, despite the faces of the event belonging to the top MPO and FPO players, the rise of Ledgestone continues to be driven by the amateurs and the new players at the grassroots level. In 2014, the tournament drew an impressive 222 players across all divisions. But the 2015 event set the tone for the next decade as Ledgestone registered 682 players. By 2020, the 2015 mark had been doubled as Ledgestone welcomed 1,337 players.
That number has continued to grow each year since, further expanding the largest disc golf event in the world.
In 2022 the tournament topped 2,000 players for the first time and set another record in 2023 with 2,195 competitors. Non-MPO and FPO players have accounted for 85% of Ledgestone participants since 2015, totalling about 12,000 players.
Fitting all of those players has meant the installation of numerous area courses. In 2023, Ledgestone used 14 total courses across the greater Peoria region. Only one of those locations has been featured since the beginning: Northwood Park.
Though Northwood has undergone a series of changes over the last decade, the Morton property was the location of the inaugural Ledgestone event in 2011. In 2012, Pekin’s McNaughton Park was added to the mix. Those two became the featured locations for MPO and FPO through the 2014 tournament.
In 2015, after two rounds at Northwood and one at McNaughton, Eureka Temp was introduced to the world for Round 4 and the Final 9. Eureka Temp became a permanent focal point in 2016, pairing with Northwood on the MPO side, and McNaughton and Westwood on the FPO side.
Ledgestone changed FPO disc golf forever in 2017 with the introduction of Sunset Hills as the first FPO-specific course on tour. Since then, Northwood, Eureka Temp, and Sunset Hills have become the event’s professional courses with Eureka Temp specifically for MPO and Sunset Hills specifically for FPO.
The redesign of Northwood Park into the Gold course added difficulty to Ledgestone in time for the 2020 event, but was made significantly harder one year later with the introduction of Northwood Black. which is renowned as the hardest course on tour.
The pro side of Ledgestone will take a brief hiatus from Northwood Black in 2024 to feature both Sunset Hills and Eureka Temp for the FPO and MPO divisions, respectively. Northwood will instead be used for the 2024 Champions Cup in April because of a relocation from the original site in Appling, Georgia after a beetle infestation disrupted the International Disc Golf Complex course layouts.