Beat the champ to be the champ.
March 4, 2022 by Andrew Fish in Analysis with 0 comments
As disc golf fans, we are always on the hunt for the answers to timeless questions: Who is the best disc golfer? Who had the best year? Was that year better than another player’s historical performance? Who is the GOAT? Who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of disc golf? Many well-informed (and many more poorly-informed) players and fans have shared their opinions on these topics without being swayed by compelling counterarguments.
This is not one of those articles.
In this article, every PDGA-sanctioned tournament counts the same. There is no algorithm, ranking committee, or time frame of “one season” or “calendar year.” The title is earned simply by winning. Or, more specifically, by claiming it head-to-head from the reigning champion. The current reigning champion claimed it from the previous reigning champion, and so on, turtles all the way down to the winner from a selected tournament (“genesis event”) in the PDGA’s event archives, the 1982 PDGA Disc Golf World Championships for MPO, and the 1983 PDGA Disc Golf World Championships for FPO1.
These genesis events were selected because they’re big events (e.g. anyone who thought they were any good was there) and although PDGA staff and interns have busily transcribed old paper copies of tournament reports to digital formats, going back to the very first PDGA-sanctioned event appeared to result in some spotty data thereafter.2
And thus, we crown the One True Champion.
The current One True Champion3, as determined by StatMando, who researched the PDGA’s tournament archives for this project, is Paul McBeth in MPO (from his win at 2021 USDGC) and Heidi Laine in FPO (from her win at the 2021 Heinola) as of March 4, 2022. McBeth’s title is on the line at this weekend’s Memorial Championship, but he’s off to a good start to his title defense after shooting a 16-under 1108-rated first round.
The criteria, a word for the normal-person way of explaining a computer script, that StatMando explored to reach these conclusions involved:
- Singles stroke play tournaments only; no leagues, doubles, match play, skins, distance or putting competitions, etc. Events with cuts (where all first-round entrants have the opportunity to advance to subsequent rounds) count, but events with byes (like DGPT Tour Championship) don’t.
- Only MPO and FPO count. Without more reliable data to query, it’s uncertain whether other divisions may have played the same layouts.
- Begin at the 1982 or 1983 PDGA Disc Golf World Championships and find the winners in each Open division. Let’s say player A won in FPO, becoming the One True Champion.
- Look at the next PDGA-sanctioned tournament that player A entered. If player A won, the One True Champion title was defended, so again look at the next event player A entered. If player B won, then player B becomes the One True Champion, so look at the next event player B entered.
- A reigning OTC must defend their title by entering another PDGA-sanctioned tournament within one calendar year. If player B essentially retired, then the most recent second-place finisher (say, player C) to the reigning OTC becomes a placeholder for the One True Champion. Then look at the next PDGA-sanctioned tournament that player C entered. As far as we can tell, a 1-year forfeit has never happened in MPO, but has occurred 7 times in FPO, most recently when Tuffi Dolan beat Michelle Wilson 4 in the 2004 Terrace Creek Open but didn’t play another event within the next year.
- If two players tie for first place, but a tiebreaker goes unresolved (as may be policy for weather-shortened events or one-round flex start events in vogue in some regions), then refer to their previous mutual event. The higher place among them in that previous mutual event becomes the OTC for the event in which they tied.
The idea for this exercise loosely comes from the idea of a Transitive National Championship, a futile exercise popular in college football fandom when fans of a team make a spurious claim that because their team of choice beat another team that beat the national champion, they should have a share of the national championship. I had a strong suspicion that by now with elite players focusing most of their touring efforts around Majors and the Disc Golf Pro Tour, the tournaments involved would be concentrated, although I had a sneaking hope that there would be pockets where a player like Christian Dietrich5 would take it to an isolated region and basically sit on it, or that an elite international player like Birgitta Lagerholm, Markus Källström, or Manabu Kajiyama brought it overseas.
MPO One True Champions
As it turns out, many of those things have happened, though not necessarily with those players – Kajiyama, despite a dominant career and well-loved mechanics, has never been a One True Champion. Ditto, surprisingly, KJ Nybo. By and large, the MPO One True Champion title has resided mostly in North America. Jesper Lundmark (by now, a forgotten great?) winning the 2008 Stockholm Open, then his next five tournaments until Markus Källström’s win at the 2009 Stockholm Open, is the only significant long-term run by a non-North American player, with Tomas Ekström (1997) and Källström (2007, 2009) each having 1-event runs as the One True Champion. Simon Lizotte has had just four OTC claims (including while his PDGA profile location was in Germany), but all were won and later lost in the US.6
There have been 694 total One True Champions, among 145 unique players, in MPO.
The MPO lineage of the One True Champion title is less concentrated than in FPO, but as you might expect, the dominant decade-long peak of Ken Climo results in his becoming or defending the OTC title the most of any MPO player. The Champ has the five longest title defense streaks, of 11, 9, 8, 7, and 6 (thrice) total events, with Jesper Lundmark the only other player to win 6 or more consecutively. Barry Schultz (twice), Paul McBeth, Ricky Wysocki (twice), and Joe Rovere have all held the title for five consecutive events. Climo’s typically southeast-based tournament schedule, compounded with Florida Triple Crown series events and a bountiful winter/spring calendar tended to result in a disproportionate number of events trading in Florida (100 of 694), with California (75) and Texas (43) the next-highest states represented by One True Champion tournaments in MPO.
Barry Schultz, Steve Rico, early-career Ricky Wysocki, and more recently Chris Dickerson have had several runs where they became the One True Champion and then returned to their home region for a bunch of B- and C-tiers and left the title with an underdog regional pro.
FPO One True Champions
The FPO title got passed around fairly slowly to begin with – from 1983 through 1996, the maximum number of OTC exchanges was 10, including 6 years with only 1 or 2 events. There have been a total of 493 One True Champion (53 unique players) in FPO, with the number of events where a One True Champion is crowned approximately 25-30 times over the last decade, excluding 2020 and 2021.
Birgitta Lagerholm’s 2004 Pro Worlds win and subsequent schedule saw the FPO One True Champion pass among 5 other players in Sweden, Belgium, and Finland over the next two years until Des Reading reclaimed the title at 2006 Pro Worlds. Several excellent Japanese FPO players, including Rika Tsukamoto, Yuki Fukuhara, and Mayu Iwasaki spent nearly all of 2012-2014 trading the OTC title in tournaments held in Japan, after Chia-Fan Chen claimed it from Valarie Jenkins at the 2011 Asia Open in Taiwan.
If you’re relatively new to disc golf fandom, Juliana Korver might be fresh in your consciousness as an improbable 2021 DGPT Rookie of the Year. Most of the early-mid 1990s World titles, and plenty of other tournament wins, were hoarded by Elaine King. But beginning in about 1997, Korver unleashed a reign of terror on the rest of the division: over 5 years, she won 125 of 137 FPO singles events entered, including an astonishing 28 of 29 in 1999, 29 of 31 in 2000, and 28 of 29 in 2001. From the 1998 Kansas City Wide Open (June 1998) through the 2002 3rd Gentlemen’s Club Challenge (February 2002), in 105 OTC events, Korver held the One True Champion title for 98 of them, with King claiming it in the other seven over four stints.
Korver’s was a short run, but other multi-time World Champions, even those whose careers didn’t overlap significantly with Juliana’s, don’t come particularly close to matching her peak. Des Reading had an excellent sustained run in the early 2000s. Valarie Jenkins-Doss, Sarahs Hokom and Cunningham and, as noted earlier, a couple years in Japan bridged the generational gap until Paige Pierce and Catrina Allen began their own peaks – between Pierce’s first One True Champion claim at the 32nd Kansas City Wide Open in June 2014 until Eveliina Salonen’s first OTC claim at the 2018 Skellefteå Open, Pierce (45) and Allen (25) won the vast majority7 of the 95 events with the title on the line.
More recently, European FPO players have had a stranglehold on the title, beginning with Eveliina Salonen’s win at the 2018 Skellefteå Open. Paige Shue’s 2019 Las Vegas Challenge claim to the title was quickly erased by Salonen’s Memorial Championship win just a week later, after which Salonen returned to Europe. Paige Pierce reclaimed the title at the 2019 European Open and kept it for four events (2 Majors and 2 DGPTs) until Kristin Tattar won at the Canadian National DGC, ceded it for a week to Sarah Hokom at the Green Mountain Championships, then claimed it back at the 2019 USWDGC. Since then, disc golf has boomed while a global pandemic limited overseas travel, and the FPO OTC title has remained in Europe, with Tattar, Salonen, Henna Blomroos, and currently Heidi Laine trading the title around.
The Top All-Time One True Champions
The One True Champion method certainly shouldn’t be conflated with a “best player” declaration. It doesn’t say who wins the most, or performs best on big stages, because a forward-running simulation whose next step is largely dependent on the current holder’s self-selected schedule is subject to a lot of chaos when it gets claimed in an off-tour event, then kicks around rather than returning quickly to the elite series. That said, it might provide a credible proxy for dominance in an era. To wit, see the names at the top of the all-time One True Champion wins lists:
|MPO Player||One True Champion Claims||% Total OTC Claims||Days Held||% Total Days Held|
|2 Tied||9 Each||1.3% Each|
|3 Tied||8 Each||1.15% Each|
|3 Tied||7 Each||1.01% Each|
|7 Tied||6 Each||0.86% Each|
|5 Tied||5 Each||0.72% Each|
|12 Tied||4 Each||0.58% Each|
|10 Tied||3 Each||0.43% Each|
|21 Tied||2 Each||0.29% Each|
|138 Tied||1 Each||0.14% Each|
|FPO Player||One True Champion Claims||% Total OTC Claims||Days Held||% Total Days Held|
|Valarie Jenkins Doss||35||7.10%||639||4.49%|
|2 Tied||7 Each||1.42% Each|
|6 Tied||6 Each||1.22% Each|
|5 Tied||4 Each||0.81% Each|
|4 Tied||3 Each||0.61% Each|
|9 Tied||2 Each||0.41% Each|
|16 Tied||1 Each||0.2% Each|
The cumulative percentage of each One True Champion’s reign of total days since the simulations began (until the current holders’ next scheduled events) was also included above. Bear in mind that winning and sitting on the OTC title for 364 days before competing again is theoretically allowed in the criteria, so some players who played well but infrequently may have a relatively high percentage in that column, even if they have only a few claims as One True Champion.
Notable OTC Stats
Some other odds and ends that don’t really fit elsewhere:
- Highest PDGA Numbers among OTCs: Kyle Klein (#85132) and Kristin Tattar (#73986)
- Lowest PDGA Numbers among OTCs: Steve Slasor (#55) and Tita Ugalde (#83)
- Robert Jerez (#4662), Michael Sayre (#4665), Steve Rico (#4666), and Bamba Rico (#4667) have all been One True Champions.
- Countries where a One True Champion (MPO or FPO) has ever been crowned, in descending order of total (1187 to date): United States (1058), Finland (34), Japan (29), Sweden (26), Canada (24), Czechia (3), Estonia (3), Switzerland (2), and 1 each for Australia, Belgium, Taiwan, Croatia, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
- Countries where FPO has had a tournament to decide the One True Champion, but MPO never has: Australia, Belgium, Taiwan, Croatia, Denmark, Norway (1 each)
- Countries where MPO has had a tournament to decide the One True Champion, but FPO never has: Germany, United Kingdom (1 each)
- U.S. States that have never hosted a tournament that decided the One True Champion: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Wyoming.
You may ultimately decide that this is meaningless, arbitrary, and stupid. I refer you back to the first paragraph. Disc golf itself is a contrivance. A system where we can semi-credibly claim that Ronnie Huffman is or was objectively and transitively better than any living World, U.S., European, or other Major champion is deeply flawed but also deeply amusing.8
Perhaps if you’re really industrious, traveling trophies for the One True Champion should be made and passed along to subsequent OTCs9 to commemorate the achievement and maximize bragging rights.
Since StatMando has done the hard work of tracking the last forty years, they will be tracking and awarding future One True Champions on their website. They also plan to develop tools allowing users to determine their own “genesis event,” or the first event at which a One True Champion title would be awarded (and see where it might converge to other iterations) or limit other inputs like event location (who is the One True Champion of your state or country?) or event tier.
the first year I’m aware of with an FPO division at Worlds ↩
And the thing is… it probably doesn’t matter what your genesis event is; the eventual result in MPO starts being the same around, oh, say, 1990. As StatMando’s Dion Arlyn (himself a one-time OTC) put it, “Nothing is getting past the Climo convergence.” We could easily make a corollary to the Climo Convergence Theorem that any credible challengers to being the OTC in FPO couldn’t possibly escape the Korver-King Vortex between the early 1990s and early 2000s. ↩
if you’re feeling particularly pedantic, two, one for each Open division ↩
This is Michelle Wilson’s only recorded OTC claim. As an example of why this criterion was used, if we omitted the one-year window for title defense and instead used Tuffi Dolan’s next FPO event four years later, the 2008 Lakewood Open, to continue the simulation, Dolan went on to win her next 7 events in FPO, losing it to Melody King at the 2010 Cool Shoez Invitational. King then won her next event, then lost at the 2010 Carolina Clash, where the alternate running converges with the 1983 Worlds genesis event and Valarie Jenkins-Doss became the One True Champion. The four-year gap, then playing out the Dolan simulation would exclude the OTC passing through 95 tournaments, including events in 25 U.S. States, 8 in Sweden, 3 in Finland, and 1 each in Belgium and Canada.These two ways of running the simulation ultimately lead to the same One True Champion today but a) chaos is great and b) the One True Champion title is worth defending. ↩
Who twice has gone more than a year without losing while winning 6 or more events in each period. However, Dietrich’s 2010 Beaver State Fling NT win for his sole One True Champion claim was lost just a week later to Dave Feldberg at The Ultra Glide in Kamloops, BC, Canada. ↩
and he now is listed in Massachusetts ↩
14 of the other 25 events were spurred by Hannah Leatherman’s upset win at the 2015 USWDGC, which resulted in the title deviating from the tour and Elaine King’s most recent 8 wins–the last of which came 24 years and 1 month after her first One True Champion title. Ken Climo (20 years, 5 months), Barry Schultz (19 years, 4 months), and Cameron Todd (16 years) appear to be the longest spans (after King) between first and most recent OTC wins. ↩
As of March 2, 2022, Huffman hasn’t been current since 2017 and rarely plays competitive rounds, but every year at Virginia Team Invitational he wins a bunch of 1-seed matches, rips immaculate thumbers, and talks trash the whole time, so maybe his actual greatness isn’t so far-fetched. ↩