Let’s cut straight to the point: Golf is dying. Last year 400,000 players left the sport. Fourteen courses opened, 157 shut down. Golf rounds bottomed out at the lowest number since 1995. Callaway and Dick’s (Golf Galaxy) earnings are down, and Forbes and Bloomberg are on the case like vultures circling a corpse. It’s dire. It’s tragic. And it’s been an ongoing trend for the past decade. What will reverse golf’s course? How about a size 5 soccer ball and pair of indoor cleats.
Footgolf is as it sounds. It’s golf, played with a soccer ball. Haggin Oaks, the first course in Northern California to adopt the sport, added 10,000 rounds of it last year. This year, they’re looking to double that. And the cost to the course, as Lisa Buster of San Francisco’s Glen Eagles reports, is nil. “We had to buy a bigger excavator”, Buster says. “That’s it.” With low start-up costs and high revenue yield, the sport may be golf’s golden goal.
Footgolf rose out of the zeitgeist of man’s two primary proclivities — to turn everything into a competition and to kick things. “In Switzerland”, Roberto Balestrini, the Founder and CEO of the American FootGolf League (AFGL), says, “they were playing in public parks using trees.” You take a ball and kick it at a standing target — an ancient game. Put it on a golf course, and you’ve birthed the sport of footgolf.
“One day, she came to me and said, ‘I registered it.’” That was 2011. “For the last three years”, Balestrini says, “our life has been FootGolf.”
Balestrini, an Argentinian, remembers his introduction to the sport. He was watching a fútbol match between Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate in 2011. At a break, a commercial announced, “Esto es FootGolf”, and a journalist interviewed a famous soccer player about the game. Balestrini’s interest was piqued. Later, he told his wife Laura about it, triggering a year-long discussion about bringing the sport to the states. Footgolf had already caught on in Holland, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, and Argentina, and the governing body, the Federation for International Footgolf (FIFG), was looking for new members. Roberto had a soccer background, and Laura came from a golf family. They seemed a qualified match. “One day, she came to me and said, ‘I registered it.’” That was 2011. “For the last three years”, Balestrini says, “our life has been footgolf.”
Balestrini has helped register 230 footgolf courses in 39 states, and he’s also introduced the sport to Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. So far, footgolf’s taken some significant strides. At the 2014 MLS All-Star game, players participated in the FootGolf Challenge, playing a round of 18. Footgolf also launched the US Pro-Am FootGolf Tour, and the first tournament boasts an Adidas sponsorship and a $25,000 purse. “The plan is”, Balestrini says, “to create a professional league like the MLS.”
The sport works because footgolf and golf are civil bedmates. An 18-hole footgolf course fits on a standard 9 holes of golf, and the time of play is roughly equivalent (about 2 hours). Footgolf holes aren’t punched on golf greens (they have their own small greens), and they’re deliberately placed away from typical lines of golf play. There’s no running, and footgolfers follow the same etiquette rules as golf. But beyond golf compliance, there’s also footgolf perks.
Footgolf appeals primarily to the soccer-types, younger generations, and those who are looking for fun over fussiness.
Footgolfing is cheaper than golf, for one — all you need is sneakers and a soccer ball (most courses rent them for under $5) — and speed of play is faster, so you’re not investing in four hours on the course like you would for a full round of golf. As for play, Karl Van Dessel, the head of footgolf at Haggin Oaks, notes that most footgolfers shoot lower faster. With a par of 72, you’d be hard pressed to double your score the first time out, and with a shorter acclimation period, you’ll be shooting near par far before your golf handicap would see single digits. (FootGolf, naturally, is working on their own handicap system.)
The Beginner’s Guide to FootGolf
WHAT TO WEAR
For daily play, follow the course’s dress code. But at official tournaments, proper attire is:
– Indoor soccer shoes (no soccer cleats)
– Argyle knee-high socks
– Golf Shorts
– Polo Shirt
– Flat Cap
HOW TO PLAY
It’s like golf, with a soccer ball, so:
1. Tee off. Kick the ball from behind the tee box markers.
2. Don’t run. Walk to your ball, approach the shot, and kick.
3. Shoot low. It’s scored just like golf, with a set “par” score for each hole.
There’s still a marshall on the course, so do as he says:
– If your ball goes into the water, don’t worry — it floats. Wait for it to come to the edge, then pick it up.
– There’s no running start in the bunker (and once you’re done with your shot, rake it).
– Don’t use the sole of the foot. Kicking and toe-punting are all good, but rolling with the sole of the foot is a no-go.
Of course, the game’s still got challenge, and even a few downsides. A soccer ball on a fairway rolls a hell of a lot farther than a golf ball (larger circumference, longer roll), and if you head down an errant downslope, plan on a long make-up shot. Putting can be frustrating; dropping a soccer ball into an oversized cup takes almost as much accuracy as a golf ball. And for some players, there’ll be something missing from FootGolf. The charm of golf’s rhythmic elegance — the beauty of a clean swing and strike — is gone. In footgolf, the brute force of a kick is king, and for better or worse, footgolf drops some of the refinement of golf.
Most players aren’t concerned with that loss. Footgolf appeals primarily to soccer-types, younger generations, and those who are looking for fun over fussiness. And, the courses — most of them public courses that are looking for any way possible to get people to the links — see the sport driving in more revenue and introducing people to both golf and the golf course. Van Dessel says that footgolf has the wonderful power of “demystifying the aura” of golf. It makes it approachable. And, with shorter round times and an easy entry level experience, footgolf’s being chosen over golf by corporations and large parties, Van Dessel says (if you’ve ever been stuck in a six hour scramble, you understand).
It’s still a small community, but German Maldonado, the president of the San Francisco FootGolf Club (the first club in North America), says he’s seeing growth. He’s another Argentinian expat (a friend of Balestrini’s) and he grew up digging holes in the sandy beaches along the coast of Buenos Aires. He would bring his friends down to the beach, and they’d practice precision by kicking soccer balls into the dug out targets. Today, he still brings people to the course, trying to grow the sport organically, one convert at a time. “I play two times a week”, he says. “And I always bring a new footgolfer.” It’s a small tap to help the sport’s development, but fortunately for footgolf, the sport tends to get the benefit of the long roll.