Finding Out About FootGolf Firsthand
March 4, 2015
FootGolf is quite the polarizing topic these days.
It reminds me of the whole coaching and scouting vs. analytics debate in sports. Pick a side and dig in.
For golf, similar lines have been drawn. There’s the get-off-my-lawn crowd, those who want the same experience they’ve always enjoyed on the golf course, uninterrupted by stray soccer balls, ill-timed celebrations and less-civilized FootGolfers. They don’t believe FootGolf has anything to do with finding and developing golfers, so it doesn’t belong on a golf course.
Then there are the operators, who are desperately trying to rope in younger generations and families, and make their facilities relevant to them. That means catering to today’s needs: a faster-paced, attention-deficit society searching for a welcoming social experience. That means latching onto a sport (soccer) that is actually growing in the U.S. to reenergize a facility that serves a game (golf) that is shrinking in participation.
The solution, as you will always find, is somewhere in the middle. For the sports debate, numbers don’t measure everything, but more information is always better than less. And in the golf industry, as the oversaturated golf course market struggles to fill its tee sheets, there is an urgency to appeal to a wider range of customers. So if that means looking at the golf courses that these facilities own, and figuring out the most creative ways to utilize all that green grass and space they have, then FootGolf might make a lot of sense. Particularly if you look at these facilities through the lens of a recreational area, instead of strictly as a golf course.
FootGolf courses are designed along the edges of existing holes, and its groups are dovetailed into the existing golf tee times. The trick is introducing the game without alienating your core customers — golfers.
Haggin Oaks in Sacramento was the first course in California to adapt FootGolf two years ago. It has been a tremendous success for the facility, according to Haggin Oaks’ Tom Morton.
“There are some people who despise it because it’s not a traditionalist thing, but we’re doing thousands of rounds of FootGolf that bring people to the golf course who never would have come before. We’re starting to hear stories and see folks that never touched a club before that started with FootGolf that are now starting to play golf. That’s awesome and that’s what the industry needs more of, to be more open-minded.”
There are now more than 50 FootGolf courses living on regular golf courses in California. (The American FootGolf League’s directory is a fantastic reference to find a course near you.)
As someone who played soccer into high school, I was certainly curious about the hybrid game. I finally got the chance to try it out at Sea Pines Golf Resort, along the Highway 1 Discovery Route in San Luis Obispo County.
The nine-hole executive course has a corner office view of Morro Bay. It’s a cozy layout that expanded from five holes to nine, but now it also features FootGolf and Disc Golf courses, plus the ability to host weekly concerts throughout the summer (the practice putting green is even converted to a dance floor). The accompanying resort is also a great launching point for trips geared around any of 20 courses in the area, or for those simply wanting to escape to the quaint seaside town of Los Osos.
“Last summer, we had to get the word out there,” said assistant pro James Hartnett, who runs the FootGolf program. “People weren’t really sure that what they were hearing was correct. FootGolf? Yes, this game exists, and we are going to have it here. Word of mouth spread, and we’re looking forward to a really big spring and summer. We have tournaments set up for all ages, male, female. We are going to have tournaments with some of the Cal Poly and Cuesta students against Hancock College, too.”
The junior-friendly Sea Pines is the perfect fit for FootGolf. (Sea Pines also hosts PGA Junior League events.) A scene that wonderfully illustrated the appeal of the new sport unfolded in front of us, just after we finished our round. An American Youth Soccer Organization all-star team was hosting its end-of-the-season party, and took its kids FootGolfing. A gaggle of kids scrambled up to the first tee before launching their drives, chasing their shots down the hill and laughing the whole way.
Welcomed sights and sounds you don’t see every day at a golf course.
“Our owner is huge into AYSO,” Hartnett said. “Both of his kids played for the high school team in Atascadero. They are avid FootGolfers and avid soccer players. They kind of pushed their dad into looking into it.”
But FootGolf doesn’t just appeal to kids. Maybe it appealed a little to my inner-kid — some of my fondest memories are playing back-to-back-to-back games in all-day soccer tournaments. This is a way to make soccer an individual sport (or at least break it down into smaller teams). But as I prepared to hit my first FootGolf shot ever, I felt no nerves, and no fear of embarrassment. I simply surveyed the hole, picked out what looked like the best angle into the fortified green, and gave it a boot, with my foot connecting to deliver a solid Thump!
I don’t know if I was a particularly skilled first-time FootGolfer. It had been 12 years since the last time I kicked a soccer ball. But I could score right away. I made a tap-in 4 on the first hole — a first-time golfer has never said that. The intimidation factor was zero.
It felt like I had some good holes, and there were others where I missed short putts that probably cost me. A tournament would be fun — it took us 90 minutes on a busy course, and the rules are basically play it as it lies. But even if we had to wait on tees, the round never felt long. The group camaraderie is a similar dynamic to golf — hanging out on the tee, walking up the fairway together. It’s a casual flowing conversation — and the act of kicking a ball doesn’t require the reverential silence that the golf swing does.
Maybe the other golfers on the course have been acclimated to FootGolf, but we didn’t get any dirty looks, or end up in their line of play. There was plenty of room and oxygen for the both of us.
I hit some nice high tee shots, some low runners, and I tried to play the slopes to squeeze out a few extra yards. I remember being able to kick the ball a lot farther back in the day, but you lose quite a bit of perspective playing on a 300-yard hole. It’s tough to even figure out how far a corner kick would be.
The most important skill I picked up during my first round was to pay attention to any sloping fairway. A soccer ball doesn’t have dimples, and won’t stop on a sidehill until it reaches the rough. Sometimes it was better to play it into the rough, just so the ball would catch in the higher grass.
But in the end, I was the same skill level as my wife (also a soccer player growing up). I would have loved to have this game around as a kid — a way to play soccer by myself, or with three friends. I would love to have this option on a slow Saturday afternoon where I had two hours to kill, and I wouldn’t be afraid to bring anyone out. It’s something couples, families and athletes can all enjoy.
“The start-up cost for a family that has narrow means and wants their kids to do something fun is a soccer ball,” Hartnett said. “You don’t have to buy 14 clubs, a bag, balls and shoes. Economically it’s a good thing for them.”
And it’s not the end of the world for golf courses, either.
Want to see FootGolf in action? Here’s a tutorial on the rules: