NOTE: This article, originally published in December of 2020, has been updated to include 2020 year-end data and corresponding analysis. There is also more data from the early years of disc golf. Part 2 and Part 3 have also been updated.
It’s an age-old discussion in sports: who is the Greatest Of All Time, the GOAT? Jordan, Lebron, or Kareem? Montana or Brady? No matter how great a player of their generation may be, GOAT status is up for debate: how do you rank players from different generations, playing against different levels of competition, with different strategies and rules?
In disc golf, the GOAT debate has focused squarely on Ken Climo, winner of 20 majors including 12 world championships, vs. Paul McBeth, winner of 15 majors including 5 world championships. As in the Jordan v. Lebron debate in basketball, comparing Climo and McBeth is very difficult as they played in distinct eras with different equipment, against a different depth of field, and with a very different tournament schedule. Climo’s competitive playing days are over, but McBeth is near the peak of his powers.
This article is not here to settle the Climo vs. McBeth debate, but it will give readers an idea of how they compared to their contemporaries. The focus of this article is to put competitive disc golf history into context through data visualizations. For those of you that haven’t followed the game before the Jomez years (like me), I want you to learn how great Elaine King and Barry Schultz were (and still are). I want you to see how the careers of Val Jenkins, Juliana Korver, and Des Reading compared and intersected as well as how Paige Pierce is surpassing them. I want you to marvel at the amazing late-career start of Ron Russell, Anni Kreml, and Carrie Berlogar. I want you to find out about the early stars of the game like Geoff Lissaman, John Ahart, Vanessa Chambers, and Michele Marini. I want you to gain an understanding of where the younger players stand in history as well as touring veterans. I will provide some written analysis, but these insights and more can be seen in the visualizations themselves.
I want to clarify a few points:
- All of the graphics in this series have been updated to include data from the Ultiworld Disc Golf 2020 World Rankings. The PDGA did not publish player rankings for 2020 due to how the pandemic affected the European tour and the ability of Europeans to tour in the US. I believe the Ultiworld rankings are a good substitute even though they do not use the same ranking criteria as the PDGA.
- I have been working with Dan “Stork” Roddick and the PDGA’s Brian Hoeniger on a project to find and digitize tournament results from the early days of disc golf. Those efforts have dug up more details on the World Frisbee Championships. In this update, more early players will receive recognition through rankings than in the initial version of this series.
- I wasn’t able to find any of this data in excel/csv form, so I had to enter every data point by hand. That means that there are almost certainly small errors here and there. If you find any, please let me know.
- The data visualizations in this series are often interactive. For example in the animated chart below you can click replay if you want to see it again. You can also click on multiple players’ photos to isolate or compare their graph lines.
MPO and FPO Ranking Animation
Let’s begin by looking at the “top” MPO players in each season from 1975 to 2019. (See below for how each year’s ranking was determined).
Here is the data visualization for MPO and FPO:
Comparing Majors to Rankings
The number of PDGA Majors in a given year has varied a lot, as seen in this spreadsheet created by Nathan Miske. This makes the number of majors that a player has won a very flawed metric for determining the ranking of the top players of all time. Plus, it doesn’t credit players who didn’t win but were consistently near the top of the leaderboard.
I have created the below graphs to compare PDGA Major victories to yearly ranking accomplishments. The number of 1st place finishes is a good indicator of how long a player was dominant in the open division. The number of top 20 finishes is a good indicator of how long a player was a relevant competitor in professional disc golf.
Here are the MPO and FPO charts:
Climo vs. the Field?
Ken Climo dominated his contemporaries like no other player in the history of disc golf. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of any male athlete in any sport that so thoroughly dominated for such a long period of time. (Serena Williams comes to mind for female athletes). From 1990 to 2002, Climo was the top-ranked player for 13 years in a row, and then in 2007 he achieved a 14th #1 ranking at the age of 39. The other nine top ten players of all-time combined ranked #1 a total of 16 times. McBeth, as of 2020, has the top ranking in six out of the past eight years. The Ultiworld Disc Golf rankings placed McBeth at #2 in 2020, with the competition at the top fierce with no clear #1 player. Could this be a signal that McBeth’s reign of dominance is coming to an end?
Women Pass the Torch
The FPO division has had a visible pattern of top-ranked streaks. From 1991-1997, Elaine King ranked #1 five times with one year unranked when she skipped Worlds due to injury. From 1998 to 2003, Juliana Korver ranked in 1st place six years in a row. Des Reading was the top-ranked woman for three years in a row starting in 2005. From 2008 to 2013, Valerie Jenkins was #1 six years in a row. From 2014 to 2020, Paige Pierce has been top-ranked in six out of the past seven years.
Paige Pierce is either going to enter uncharted dominance in 2021 or her competition is going to catch her sooner than we might think, if the division’s pattern remains similar. I imagine Evelliina Salonen, Henna Blomroos, Hailey King, Catrina Allen, Kristin Tattar, and others think they have a chance to grab the torch.
To create the yearly rankings, I used the following metrics.
As stated before, in 2020 I used the Ultiworld Disc Golf World Rankings. I will switch back over to the PDGA World Rankings in 2021 assuming they resume publishing their rankings.
From 2005 to 2019, I used player ranking, which can be found on the PDGA website here. This, to me, is a very well balanced metric to weigh how the competition stacked up in any given season.
From 1998 to 2004, I used player rating, the best metric of its time, as player ranking had not yet been developed. These can be found here.
Due to the lack of a better option, all of the pre-1998 annual rankings are based on a player’s success at a single tournament. From 1975 to 1981 for men, and 1976 to 1982 for women, I used the World Frisbee Championship finishing order. You can find most of my sources here. From 1982 to 1997 for men, and 1983 to 1997 for women, I used the PDGA World Championships’ finishing order.
In part three of this series, I will explain my next project which will be to create a retrospective player ranking for pre-2005 years and then revise this entire study with the updated data.
While I would love to honor as many players as possible with these data visualizations, too much information makes them difficult to digest. Due to the size of the fields and depth of competition, I used different qualification standards for MPO and FPO.
In order for an MPO player to be included in the rankings, they must have finished in the top 10 in yearly rankings at least once. In order for an FPO player to be included in the rankings, they must have finished in the top three in yearly rankings at least once. For both MPO and FPO, I have included all of the qualifying players’ top 20 ranking seasons.
In the next installment of the GOAT series, we establish a “career points” system that synthesizes results over players’ careers to establish a way of ranking them across eras as well as discuss methods for era-adjusting these numbers.
Ultiworld Disc Golf subscribers can explore the full animated player ranking timelines below.
Bonus Content for The GOATs of Disc Golf: Player Ranking [Pt. 1] is only available to Ultiworld Subscribers
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