Growing footgolf seeks harmony with golf

Julian Nash, center, is one of many former soccer players who have found a new passion in footgolf.

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CHICAGO – Footgolfers don't act all that different from golfers.

They throw up a tuft of grass to check the wind, take practice swings and mark their ball.

They have their own colorful regalia and curse errant shots as their ball sails into the trees.

They form clubs and compete against one another, shake hands on the 18th green, then head to the clubhouse for drinks.

But many traditional golfers look at footgolfers - clad in argyle socks, kicking soccer balls into 21-inch holes on the sides of fairways - and don't quite know what to make of this new game. Some are curious about it. Others are downright hostile to it.

But there's ample evidence that the sport has legs. The Netherlands hosted the first footgolf tournament, in 2008, and this past weekend, the American FootGolf League hosted its first national championship in Chicago at Sydney Maravitz Golf Course, a nine-hole muni on the shores of Lake Michigan. More than 100 players competed, coming from 22 states and at least one foreign country. Christian Otero, regarded as this infant game's most decorated player (a recent article posed the question, Is Otero unbeatable?), made the trip from Argentina.

"You see on Facebook every week new tournaments in Europe," Otero said. "In the last two years, the sport has really exploded."

The American FootGolf League is the largest member of the Federation of International FootGolf, which has 30 registered countries. Otero laments a lack of footgolf facilities back home, and is helping to design the first purpose-built footgolf course. It would be located near his hometown, Mar Del Plata.

Footgolf is hampered in many countries by a lack of facilities, as organizers struggle to find makeshift places to play. 

That's where the United States has a clear advantage: an oversupply of golf courses desperate for extra revenue. AFGL founder Roberto Balestrini, who is from Argentina but lives in the U.S., has assisted in the setup of footgolf at 440 golf courses in the States (there is a separate association in the U.S., the USFGA, which touts another 50-plus facilities).

"It's an international activity," said Balestrini. "Thanks to the way we present it, it can be used by course operators as an activity that generates extra money and requires no extra maintenance."

The AFGL estimates that it costs golf course operators $3,000-6,000 to set up an approved course. Fees, which usually cover 18 holes, laid out on the back nine of a regulation golf course, range from $10-$20.

Golf course operator Billy Casper Golf is on board. It offers footgolf at 30 facilities. AFGL says of all the courses that have signed up, only three facilities ended up dropping footgolf. The National Golf Course Association of America has endorsed the game as a "proven revenue generator" and a way to introduce millennials, women and families to golf facilities.

So really all that's left is for golfers is to roll out the red carpet and share their fairways.

If they're willing.


Argentina's Christian Otero tees off at Sydney Marovitz Golf Course, a historic municipal course near downtown Chicago. 


Culture shock

The majority of the players at the U.S. National Championship have strong soccer backgrounds. Julian Nash, 32, retired from pro soccer at 24 because of injuries. He, along with many other older soccer players, have found a second pastime in footgolf.

"Soccer is more in the moment," said Nash. "Golf is more mentally taxing. There's more time to think about messing up.

"I practice putting almost every day."

The AFGL estimates 80 percent of footgolfers are 15-35 years old and 60 percent are Hispanic. For many, the first time they ever stepped foot on a golf course was with a soccer ball. That's where cultures can clash. Soccer players might show up to a course for the first time wearing cleats and head out in one big group, as if it were an afternoon at Wembley Stadium.

This can lead to golfers, already dubious about the footgolf greens and big cups off their fairways, and the fact that they likely paid more to be on the course than the footgolfers, complaining to management – or to rant on Golf Advisor.

"I want to make sure when people are bringing a soccer ball to the course," said Balestrini. "They do it right."

The AFGL has worked to foster understanding between golf course operators and footgolfers. It has encouraged a footgolf dress code (argyle socks and collared shirts and flatcaps), no running between shots, no soccer cleats, keeping up the pace and no yelling. The goal is to blend in despite playing an entirely different game and having little to no golf background.

"We have to protect integrity of game of golf," said Balestrini. "If we design a course, we make sure we don't put a hole in landing areas for golf."

Rachel Bennett, a soccer player-turned footgolfer who plays around Sacramento, admits that during her first footgolf rounds, participants were loud and would run around. But as she and her friends became more serious about the game and more acclimated to the environment, she says, they began to act accordingly.

"[Golfers] are now more accepting to it," Bennett said. "Because we're more respectful. We're getting more serious. We're intermingling much better."


Footgolfers line up their putts in the final round of the AFGL U.S. National Championship. 


The missing link?

At Miami's Melreese Golf Course, the First Tee Facility is introducing youngsters to the Rules of Golf with footgolf before putting a club in their hands. The AFGL, in fact, will only set up footgolf courses at existing golf facilities. 

So why are soccer players courting this dinosaur that is the golf business when they could simply carve out holes in the woods like disc golfers, or set up courses at soccer facilities?

The answer might be best explained by the example of a footgolfer named Arturo Barragan, from California. Barragan is one of five siblings, raised by an illegal immigrant father who managed to put them all in college. A former pro soccer player, Arturo put a golf club in his son Zacharias' hand at a very early age. Now 6 years old, his son is a proficient golfer and plays on the U.S. Kids Tour. Arturo takes Zacharias to the course and plays footgolf while his son plays golf.

"We always want [our kids] to do better than their parents," said Barragan. "Schooling and golf is the way to go."

Footgolf wants the golf lifestyle, while golf is eying the footgolf demographic. AFGL estimates more than 80,000 rounds per month are being played on their courses in the U.S. Now it's just a matter of golfers and footgolfers getting along.

For some common ground, look no further than why both parties are showing up in the first place.

"I love being on golf courses," Bennett said. "No matter where you go, they're so beautiful."