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Who is Ken Climo? The Unmatched Legacy of Ken “The Champ” Climo: A Disc Golf Legend

By Nick Quargnenti
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Who is Ken Climo?

The Unmatched Legacy of Ken “The Champ” Climo: A Disc Golf Legend

Article Written By: Nick Quargnenti – DGPT Marketing Coordinator

In the world of disc golf, one name echoes through the ages with the resonance of a well-thrown putt – Ken Climo (PDGA# 4297), known as “The Champ.” Hailing from Clearwater, Florida, Climo’s journey from a carpenter framing homes to a 12-time PDGA World Champion is a testament to his unmatched skill, dedication, and impact on the sport.

Ken Climo Lines Up His Putt. Photo: DGPT

The Early Days: Origins of the Champ

Born in 1968, Climo was an outdoorsy guy who loved getting his hands dirty. From the tender age of 6 or 7, he dabbled in everything from baseball to BMX, before ultimately immersing himself in traditional ball golf and becoming a passionate player.

After high school, Climo jumped into a mix of jobs and hobbies to keep himself busy. From construction and framing houses to installing pools and laying down carpets, he was always hands-on and hustling.

“It was like going to the gym and getting paid for it, I got really strong doing that and it was around the same time when I started my disc golf journey.”

Introduction to Disc Golf

The financial hurdles of traditional ball golf were just one of the factors that eventually steered Climo towards disc golf. In May of 1987, he stumbled upon his newfound passion by casually throwing frisbees with friends at Cliff Stephens Park, a mere three miles from his residence and conveniently close to his buddies in the neighborhood. It didn’t take long for Climo to catch the frisbee bug, realizing the passion and fun it brought him.

“There was a light in the parking lot and we would be able to play into the wee hours of the morning. We would try to see how many catches we can get in a row and stuff like that. I threw probably thousands of frisbee shots in Cliff Stephens Park before there was ever even a disc golf course.”

Ken Climo Stares Down the Basket. Photo: PDGA

Right around then, Climo’s brother tipped him off about a fresh disc golf course getting put in at Cliff Stephens Park. Clueless about disc golf, it intrigued him. Crafted by Alan Roth, the course transformed the familiar park into a disc golf playground, using wooden posts as targets. Roth’s design was the game-changer, and without it, Climo might have missed out on disc golf altogether. The course, without baskets for about eight months, eventually saw their installation, aligning with Climo’s introduction to the game.

When Climo began playing, the competitive scene wasn’t exactly buzzing, and finding the right disc was a bit of a scavenger hunt. According to Climo, snagging a proper disc meant relying on someone who’d show up at the park with a box of them.

“Everyone knew his car. If you weren’t standing at his trunk, you didn’t get a disc because they were gone (snaps his fingers) instantly.”

Luckily, Climo eventually acquired his first disc, the Innova Coup, and he stuck with this single disc for four months before expanding his collection. Accustomed to the Wham-O style of frisbee (similar to ultimate frisbee), adapting to the Innova Coup posed a learning curve in terms of throwing technique. Nevertheless, Climo managed to propel it an impressive 200-300 feet.

“I put in a lot of hours, a lot of time. If I wasn’t working, if I wasn’t sleeping, I was playing disc golf.”

Climo’s precision throwing skills quickly became evident. Opting for a self-taught approach, Climo meticulously honed his skills by closely watching and emulating others. This included watching fellow players navigate the local course, picking up the intricacies of the game.

A significant influence on Climo was Bob Blair, a renowned disc golfer known for launching discs over 400 feet with a distinctive snap, as recounted by Climo. This learning process involved keen observation, absorbing subtle nuances, and embracing a continuous journey of skill enhancement.

Photo: Running It Podcast

In their pursuit of skill progression, Climo and a buddy engaged in various practices. They frequented the field, tossing a disc back and forth, with a friendly challenge to continually push each other to throw farther and outdo one another.

Climo’s journey into disc golf began with late-night frisbee sessions at Cliff Stephens Park, discovering a transformative disc golf course crafted by Alan Roth. Overcoming challenges like the scarcity of discs, Climo’s dedication was evident as he honed his skills with his first disc, the Innova Coup. Influenced by players like Bob Blair, Climo’s precision throwing and self-taught approach set the stage for his legendary status. The friendly competitions, fueled by a relentless pursuit of improvement, encapsulate the spirit of Climo’s early disc golf years, highlighting the foundation of his remarkable legacy.

Early Career

In the early days of Climo’s disc golf career, CR Willey, also known as “Claw Nail Jackson” for his stellar disc-catching skills in Ultimate Frisbee, guided his entry into competitive play. Hailing from the University of Florida’s Ultimate scene, Willey played a crucial role in fueling the growth of disc golf in Climo’s local area.

Around five months into the game (May 1987), Climo took the leap into competitive play. Seeking tournament information, he relied on Disc Golfer Magazine’s concise 20-30-page pamphlet and word of mouth as his go-to source despite the limited events at the time.

Photo: UDisc

The pivotal moment arrived in 1987 when Climo secured victory in the Amateur Advanced division at the PDGA-sanctioned “Cross Town Classic.” Transitioning to the professional circuit in 1988 marked a transformative phase, laying the foundation for Climo’s historic impact on disc golf.

The next chapter of Climo’s journey unfolded beyond state lines with his inaugural out-of-state tournament in Laurel Springs, NC. The course’s diverse features, including par 4s, par 5s, and undulating elevations, marked a departure from Florida’s familiar terrain. Captivated by the experience, Climo’s newfound determination to explore out-of-state tournaments played a pivotal role in shaping his illustrious career, eventually leading him to one of the world’s most prestigious disc golf tournaments.

First World Tournament

In 1988, despite being invited to the World Championship, Climo felt unprepared for the challenge. Fast forward a year, with added experience under his belt, he committed to the 1989 World Championship. In August of that year, Climo, accompanied by his friend CR Willey, drove his Ford EXP to Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Iowa, ready to take on the ultimate challenge.

Entering the tournament, Climo, with a relatively high PDGA number compared to other participants, noticed the misconception that he and his team would be easy opponents.

“They looked at the PDGA numbers on our discs and they were like ‘oh we’re going to wax these guys, they’re brand new… I said ‘We’re the kids from Florida who came to kick some butt.’ looked them straight in the face. We won (the doubles tournament) in a 2-hole playoff (against Steve Valencia and John Ahart).”

Their doubles victory, leading with a remarkable 15 down in the first round, defied expectations, especially against competitors like John Ahart, the 1988 World Champion. Celebrating the unexpected doubles victory, Climo and Willey set the stage for Climo’s debut in the 1989 World Championship.

Confident after the doubles success, Climo entered the first round feeling he could compete with the best. Despite setbacks in the second-to-last round, he ended the tournament in 5th place, a significant achievement for someone with little experience outside local Florida events. While disc golf wasn’t yet a career consideration, Climo recognized his passion and hunger for more.

A Rivalry for the Ages

The rivalry between professional disc golf legends Barry Schultz (PDGA# 6840) and Ken Climo is legendary in the disc golf community, spanning a significant period of time throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both players, known for their exceptional skills and competitive spirit, engaged in intense battles, creating a narrative of thrilling matchups that captivated fans worldwide.

Their clashes not only reflected the evolution of disc golf but also added depth to its history. The pinnacle came in the 2003 United States Disc Golf Championship, renowned for hosting one of the most intense playoffs ever, aptly named “The Battle.” Ken Climo and Barry Schultz, disc golf titans, battled through 10 extra holes to determine a victor.

In an extraordinary display, both players birdied 9 consecutive holes, showcasing exceptional driving, approaching, and putting skills on the grandest stage, including an ace run. The climax arrived at Hole 18, where Schultz’s impeccable drive set up an effortless approach, while Climo’s fell just short and left. Astonishingly, after 11 holes, The Champ missed a birdie putt, allowing Schultz to secure his 2nd USDGC title and conclude a phenomenal season.

What left a lasting impression on fans was the genuine camaraderie displayed by both players, culminating in a heartfelt congratulatory hug at the end. The Schultz-Climo rivalry remains etched in the disc golf annals, a testament to the enduring competitive spirit propelling the sport forward.

Dominance Defined: The Stats

Climo’s dominance in disc golf is truly remarkable. He reigned supreme in the MPO division for over a decade, nearly winning every World Championship in the 1990s. His dominance is underscored by an impressive 50% win percentage in 479 events, securing victory in 240 of them. His crowning achievements include an astounding 12 World Championships titles, won with an average margin of victory exceeding 7 strokes. Notably, he clinched an unprecedented nine consecutive titles from 1990 to 1998, followed by three more in 2000, 2002, and 2006.

Photo: PDGA

In the realm of World Championships, Climo holds the record for the most consecutive top-2 finishes from 1990 to 2000. Although Paul McBeth approached this streak with an impressive run of 10 consecutive top-2 finishes between 2012 and 2022, it concluded in 2023.

From 1990 to 2002, Climo maintained the top-ranked position for 13 consecutive years, and at the age of 39 in 2007, he reclaimed the #1 ranking for the 14th time. Notably, the other top ten players of all time combined achieved the #1 ranking a total of 16 times.

In 2002, Climo reached the highest rating of all time at 1044, showcasing his enduring skill in an era with less advanced disc technology. The PDGA honored him with the “Player of the Year” title seven times, and he earned induction into the PDGA Hall of Fame at just 27 years old.

Photo: Kevin Huver / DGPT

Climo’s career highlights feature three years with multiple Major wins: 2000 (2/2 majors), 2002 (2/3 majors), and 2007 (2/4 majors). In 2000, Climo attained his own version of a PDGA Major sweep with the Majors going on in that time.

Distinguishing himself further, Climo is one of only six players who won their first two Majors within 365 days, joining an elite group that includes Isaac Robinson, Nikko Locastro, Paul McBeth, and Dave Feldberg.

As of November 2023, Climo stands among three players with more than 15 PDGA Pro Major titles in their career, boasting an impressive 18 titles. In the MPO Majors and Elite events category, Climo holds the third most wins at 32, trailing behind Paul McBeth and Ricky Wysocki.

Climo’s legacy is indelibly etched in disc golf history, his enduring excellence and remarkable achievements solidifying his status as one of the sport’s greatest legends.

The Game Changer: Impact on Disc Golf

Climo not only dominated on the course but also left an indelible mark off it. Recognizing the lack of strategic elements in disc golf, he advocated for longer holes, par 4’s, and par 5’s. His influence is most apparent at the United States Disc Golf Championship (USDGC) in Winthrop, SC, a course that challenges players with intricate shots and strategic decision-making.

A Jump Putt from the Champ, Ken Climo. Photo: PDGA

His dedication to the sport extended beyond the course as Climo became a pioneer of the road warriors of disc golf. The first to gain monetary sponsorship from Innova Champion Discs, he paved the way for professional disc golfers to make a living solely from the sport. His legacy also includes being the first to have a signature line of discs, earning royalties and setting a precedent for the current generation of players.

In 2021, the DGPT went on to name one of our End of Season Awards after Ken Climo – the MPO Ken Climo Player of the Year Award.

“I am truly honored for this award to bear my name. I send my thanks for the recognition of my career accomplishments in this distinguished manner” said Ken Climo.

Also worth mentioning, we were all blessed to witness The Champ himself behind the broadcast booth during the 2023 PDGA United States Disc Golf Championship! Would you enjoy seeing more of Climo behind the booth?

The Enduring Legacy: Beyond the Numbers

Climo’s impact on disc golf goes beyond statistics. His humility and graciousness in victory, coupled with his dedication to growing the sport, make him a true ambassador. Despite dominating for over a decade, he remained down-to-earth, embodying the spirit of a champion both on and off the course.

As disc golf evolves, and new champions emerge, Ken Climo’s legacy stands tall as a symbol of what one man’s dedication and passion can achieve. Whether you’re carving lines with a Champion Eagle or navigating a challenging course, remember, it was “The Champ” who blazed the trail, leaving an enduring legacy in the annals of disc golf history.

Watch DGN's Exclusive Interview with Ken Climo

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