I have read dozens of theories about where this bola tossing game originated, including such far-out guesses as tossing snakes against a barbed wire fence, and hunting with rocks tied to a rope. I am 100% confident that we will never know the true origins of the game, so in this post I’m not referring to the myths surrounding this general type of tossing game, I am specifically talking about the brand name game called Ladder Golf.
It was way back in the summer of 2003 at a campground next to the San Diego Bay where my friends and I got our first glimpse of a bola tossing type of game.
It was way back in the summer of 2003 at a campground next to the San Diego Bay where my friends and I got our first glimpse of a bola tossing type of game. The details are blurry after almost 15 fun-filled years, but a group of my friends got together for a weekend camping trip, before we had kids. It was one of those camping trips where one person reserves the campground spot and then 17 other people suddenly appear to crash in a tent for the weekend. My wife and I were some of those crashers in the tent. Late night card games, storytelling, horseshoes, bike rides and a lot of beer ensued until we fell asleep the first night.
The next morning, an RV rolled into the campsite right next to us. A family unloaded and set up their camp with the normal camping chairs, firewood, tables, etc. Nothing unusual to start with. When they were done setting up, we noticed one of them setting up an elaborate structure with PVC sprinkler pipes. For the life of me I cannot remember this guys name. Maybe Steve or Mike or something like that... Anyway, the pipes were all different sizes with all sorts of fittings to piece them together, MacGyver style. When he finished setting up, he started tossing tennis balls connected with a piece of rope at the pipe structures. The tennis balls had holes all the way through them and the rope had large knots on each end to keep the balls from coming off, making what is called a bola.
Our campground neighbor family played this game in the bright morning light while we watched from a distance in our hazy, hung over state. We talked to them throughout that day and they asked us a few times if we wanted to play this awkward-looking game. We declined so we could focus on hydrating and recovering from the long night before.
As our collective hangover started to fade, my friends and I headed over to the campground’s horseshoe pits for a while, with the required ice chest full of cold beverages. When we returned to our campsite we decided to play this sprinkler pipe concoction that our camping neighbor so graciously offered to teach us. I was instantly hooked, possibly because of a serious case of beginner’s luck that made up for my embarrassing loss in horseshoes. Over the next few hours everyone at camp got into this game, making up new scoring options and accompanying drinking rules, of course. This game went on into the night, and not quietly, either. I don’t think they were too happy about loaning us this homemade game when they were trying to sleep a few feet away.
I staggered out of my tent the next morning to find our newfound friends packing up camp. I walked over and helped him break down the game, packing the PVC pipes into one large bag and the pipe fittings and balls into another bag. I asked him where he came up with this game. He said he had been traveling in his RV for a month and would stop at campgrounds for a day or so before moving on to the next destination. At one of the campgrounds on his journey he had parked next to someone who introduced him to this game. After that, he visited the local hardware store to purchase the necessary PVC pipe and rope, then he stopped by a sporting goods store to buy the balls to build his own game. He told me how his game was a little bit different than the one he saw. The game seemed to be evolving as it made its way across the Country.
After he finished his story, he left the campground and my friends and I went through our daily camping routine of bike rides to get breakfast burritos, horseshoes … pretty much the same things we did the day before. Except now we didn’t have the PVC pipe game to play. This was a problem.
I hopped in the car and headed to the hardware store to buy PVC pipes and rope, then went to the sporting goods store to get balls. I opted for golf balls instead of tennis balls, since they seemed nicer, maybe easier to keep clean. I stopped by my house and got my cordless drill to drill holes in the golf balls. My friends and I cut the pipes and built something that resembled the game’s ladder structures we saw the previous day. Then came the extra fun part: drilling holes into golf balls. This is not something that I would recommend, but we managed to drill the holes with only our hands and the cordless drill, surprisingly without drilling holes through any hands. After a couple hours of work, we had a game to play again and we started throwing these roped balls just like the night before.
Then the weekend was over and it was time for all of us to get back to work, but I just couldn’t get this game out my head. I searched the Internet for any mention of this game, without any luck, and spent hours building different versions of it in my garage. I took the 5th or 6th iteration of the game to my parents’ house.
The next morning, we woke up, packed up camp, and headed home. We needed some proper rest to prepare for my good friend Brian’s birthday beach party. When I woke up, I decided to fine-tune my newfound game and bring it to the beach party. The game needed a bag, so I used the bag from my camping chair to hold all the pipes and rope/balls. It fit pretty well. After a few more trips to the hardware store and another couple hours in the garage, my new and improved game was ready to head out to the birthday party at the beach. Coincidentally, I had forgotten to get Brian a birthday gift, so I gave him my homemade game. Everyone played it at the party, it was an instant hit just like at the campground.
Then the weekend was over and it was time for all of us to get back to work, but I just couldn’t get this game out my head. I searched the Internet for any mention of this game, without any luck, and spent hours building different versions of it in my garage. I took the 5th or 6th iteration of the game to my parents’ house. I explained what I was trying to accomplish with the design of the game and showed them what I had. My dad took an immediate liking to it. I think he liked the challenge of designing and building more than he liked playing the game. My dad is the type of person who can build anything and he has a tool for everything in his garage. We spent several hours there over the next couple of weeks, trying different designs and digging deeper into what I was really looking to accomplish with the game.
My parents were only 15 minutes away, so my wife and I would head there for dinner every week or two. The next time we stopped by, you could tell from the minute I walked in that my dad had something to show me. He looked like a child trying to hide a smile.
Dad showed me what must have been the 12th prototype, and it was perfect. He had solved the problems we had talked about and the game looked amazing. The ladder structure was made from wood with metal hardware to hold it together. It definitely did not look like something anyone could build by just visiting a hardware store. It was a far stretch of the imagination to even call this the same game that we saw at the campground. The game still consisted of balls on a string and a ladder-type structure of rungs, so it only seems fitting to pay it homage by naming this game Ladder Golf, referring to the golf balls used in the early designs.
He said, “If you don’t want to do anything with it right now, do you mind if Darryl and I run with it?” I was taken by surprise by my gut reaction. I couldn’t let Ladder Golf go. I instantly said, “Yes, let’s do something together.”
Later that week, my wife’s sister and my soon-to-be brother-in-law were hanging out with us in our house. It was raining and I was knee-deep in finalizing the rules for the Ladder Golf game in our hallway. My almost brother-in-law gladly joined in and we must have played at least 50 games of Ladder Golf that night. We went over every possible scenario for scoring and by the time he left, the official rules for Ladder Golf were scribbled down on several pieces of paper.
With the help of my father, I built several sets of Ladder Golf games and gave them to everyone who had loved it at the campground. The games I gave away were a big hit and people started requesting that I make more game sets and sell them. I made a few more, and then got busy at my job so I put the game on the shelf for a while.
A few weeks later I got a call from my friend Matt who had been at that first campground with us, and who was also one of the people who owned one of the prototype games. He asked me point blank, “Are you going to do anything with that Ladder Golf game?” I hesitated a bit, and replied that I had thought about it and had registered the LadderGolf.com domain name, but that I was not sure if the timing was right for starting this. He said, “If you don’t want to do anything with it right now, do you mind if Darryl and I run with it?” I was taken by surprise by my gut reaction. I couldn’t let Ladder Golf go. I instantly said, “Yes, let’s do something together.”
Matt, Darryl, and I started an LLC, refined the game again, launched LadderGolf.com, and put $2,000 each into a new bank account, all within the next few weeks. It was a whirlwind, but we were up and running, making and selling the game of Ladder Golf in that same summer of 2003. A lot more went into starting the business, but that is a post for another day. It took me almost 15 years to write down the history of Ladder Golf, and hopefully it will not take that long to write about how that evolved into the early days of Tosso.com, building and selling outdoor games online.