The Frisbee family: GoPro Mountain Games disc golf tournament organizer passes the baton
Steve Klehfoth is handing the director position over to his longtime friend, Leonard Siegel, but the unique draw of the GoPro Mountain Games is staying put
If Steve Klehfoth could pick one place for Eagle County to have a permanent disc golf venue, it would be Maloit Park.
“It’s got everything you want from a Colorado mountain course — the vistas, the trees, the tunnel fairways, the elevation, a little bit of water in play,” the former event director of the GoPro Mountain Games disc golf tournament said.
“It’s just kind of one of those chef-kiss pieces of property.”
The 2023 tournament will return to the venue by VSSA June 10-11, and so will Klehfoth, albeit in consulting role. The regional disc golf leader is passing the organizational baton to his close friend, Eagle County local, and Flying Eagle Disc Society (FEDS) board member Leonard Siegel.
“Just happy to kind of carry the torch,” Siegel stated. “Steve and (his wife) Jessie are at this point fairly legendary as far as their aptitude when it comes to organizing and leading.”
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Klehfoth moved to Colorado from Wisconsin in 2006 and picked up the game a couple years later, while Siegel arrived from Michigan, where he started playing in college, a little over a decade ago. Around that time, they connected on a disc golf course review internet forum and became friends meeting up for Tuesday-morning doubles games at Beaver Creek.
“We both kind of realized we had that passion for kind of forming something tangible together,” Klehfoth said, referring to how FEDS, an organization that promotes the sport in the region, came to fruition.
“Just kind of one of those random connections that created something a lot more fruitful,” Siegel added. “The game brought us together, in some level.”
A little history lesson
Steve Dodge, the founder of the Disc Golf Pro Tour — the official pro tour of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) — was the original brainchild of the Mountain Games disc golf tournament, according to Klehfoth.
“He brought the idea to the VVF after having disc golf as an exhibition in previous years,” he said.
After winning an online Facebook poll against other competition proposals, Dodge ran the first three years of the competition before passing the torch to Steve and Jessie. What began as “random skills challenges in downtown Vail” and a nine-hole temporary course starting on the Ford Amphitheatre stage grew into a 300-person event with four simultaneous competitions venues.
“It was kind of (a) janky, thrown-together thing, but people loved it because that was truly unlike anything else anyone had ever played,” Klehfoth said of the early years. He recalled athletes hucking discs from the road above the bridge in front of the amphitheater down into the entrance canopy.
“You can imagine how much cross-traffic goes on there; it was awesome, but it was a mess,” he continued. “Over the years, it has evolved.”
As the relatively new sport itself has blossomed in popularity, the tournament’s status as one of the most notoriously distinct in the country has remained.
The $9,000 prize purse, along with the long drive, accuracy, speed and skills challenges in downtown Vail, have all traditionally lured athletes away from the PDGA circuit, even though the weekend in the mountains does nothing for PDGA point-chasing purposes. Even with another long-standing tournament taking place in Colorado at the same time, this year’s event is at max capacity, with 146 athletes competing in groups of four or five on each hole of the two 18-hole courses. Each competitor will participate in three stroke-play rounds with a cumulative score to determine final places.
Klehfoth — whose recent move to Dillon and arrival of a newborn precipitated his passing of the baton to Siegel — doesn’t expect the reputation of uniqueness to dissipate, even as those unique downtown ancillary events take a one-year hiatus.
“We decided to scale back a little bit this year from what we did last year, just to kind of have a little bit of a deep breath to allow Lenny to get his feet under him,” Klehfoth explained, adding that the quadruple-venue/event setup required him and his wife to develop a supremely efficient management system.
“It was a difficult decision to not go forward with what we had done in the past, but it just made sense just so we didn’t somehow accidentally lose that momentum and kill the whole thing by trying to do too much too soon,” he continued. “When we have those skills challenges in, there’s no other disc golf event on the planet that matches what the Mountain Games disc golf competition does.”
Both Siegel and Klehfoth hope to bring those features back down the road. For now, they’re happy simply keeping the director role local, a unique feature across the Mountain Games’ 30-plus events.
“We understand the community, we understand the culture, we’re able to connect more directly to our participants,” Klehfoth said, struggling to find a name on the startlist he hasn’t played a casual round with or recognizes from another competition.
“I’m just excited that the club has something to latch onto and get excited for year after year,” Siegel added.
“We’re always accepting someone that has never come out to a club event — we’d love to see them. If they feel like volunteering and checking out this course, this is a great way to get involved.”
VVF’s marketing and multi-media manager Ross Leonhart said the organization is grateful for all of the event specialists who work to put on “safe, professionally curated, high-level competitions.”
“The Mountain Games wouldn’t be what they are today without the dedication and expertise of all of our event specialists raising the bar each and every year,” he stated.
Who to watch and how to do it
While past competitions have been held at 4 Eagle Ranch, EagleVail Golf Course and — when a wildfire once caused a literal last-minute move — Cross Creek disc golf course outside of Gypsum, the current home is the two-course “Gilman Greens” and “Tigiwon Trail” arrangement at Maloit Park. Compared to courses on the world tour, Maloit Park’s are shorter, hillier and more technical. Current world No. 19-ranked Aaron Gossage, the headliner at this year’s tournament, said those dynamics bring him back to the pack.
“My biggest thing is that I’ll probably be the biggest thrower at the event, and that’s not going to be of use,” he explained of the equalizing effect. “So, it actually makes it pretty competitive because anyone can kind of pop off and shoot really well.”
Siegel agreed, saying Maloit Park’s wooded, “picturesque setting” is appealing and approachable for a wide-range of players.
“It doesn’t rely on big power; it’s more about accuracy and putting,” he said. Apparently, the punchy Nordic ski course hills are about as fun for summer disc golf as they are for winter skinny ski use.
“The elevation really adds to it; if you can imagine how much fun it would be to throw a frisbee down a hill rather than just on the flats the whole time,” Siegel said. “It’s a bit of a hike, but disk golfers are pretty hardy and a lot of those guys appreciate things like that.”
Seigel’s recommendation to fans is to find a final-round, final-hole perch on the grandstands midmorning on Sunday. Hearty hikers can also follow groups on course or stand at advantageous viewpoints to catch long drives or short putts from one spot.
Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, California and Colorado are all represented in the field, with the directors estimating roughly one-third being attendees since the tournament’s inception. Fun traditions — one Michigan group always shaves their mustaches and gets matching uniforms — bring them back to Vail for a weekend with buddies.
“(And) they get to do something they don’t get to do at any other event,” commented Klehfoth.
There will be a robust local presence, including longtime Eagle local Chris Brubeck, the production manager for Discmania, the industry sponsor for the event.
“It’s huge for us to have their support; it’s kind of one of those, ‘couldn’t-do-it-without -you kind of scenarios,” Klehfoth stated.
Siegel’s social life since moving to Colorado a decade ago has been greatly influenced by his involvement in FEDS and disc golf in general. Thus, he’s a bit partial to those faces and names on the registration that he recognizes. The thing is, that’s pretty much everyone at this point.
“As you stand in front of the group and give the player meeting, these are all people that we know personally and have known for a long time, and they keep coming back,” added Siegel.
“It’s what they like to call the frisbee family and it likes getting together for this event.”