Growing footgolf seeks harmony with golf

By Brandon TuckerOctober 4, 2015, 7:30 pm

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.


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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."


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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."

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Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 20, 2018, 2:00 am

By RYAN GRIFFITHS

Some stories stick with you longer than others. First time you get to do a feature. First time you meet a sports legend (it was Allen Iverson for me). Seeing a championship isn’t bad, either. Been there, done that. Lawnmower museum on the east coast of England, tsunami survivors in California, re-connecting Al Geiberger with his lost 59 tape, all good, but no story or environment has stuck with me like going to Attica Correctional Facility in 2013 to tell the story of Valentino Dixon.

For starters, I’d never been searched before setting up for an interview. Not just me, everyone - all three cameramen, Jimmy Roberts, the guy escorting us in who worked there. Everyone. Attica trusts no one. Can’t blame them after 1971, when inmates protesting living conditions took members of the prison staff hostage. The ensuing police response left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead.

Attica has a "shank wall," a collection of homemade weapons seized from inmates and displayed like baseball cards in a plastic case on the wall outside the guards' lunchroom. Prison interior decorating at its finest. Nice touch.

We went to do a story on an inmate who was introduced to the world in a Golf Digest article by Max Adler in 2012. "The golf artist who had never stepped foot on a golf course - Valentino Dixon.: He was in for murder. Second degree. You know, your standard golf story.


Wrongfully imprisoned man freed after nearly three decades


Dixon, a former aspiring artist before getting caught up in the Buffalo drug-dealing scene, started sketching photos from Golf Digest for the warden. I’ve never been to prison, but from what I have gathered from watching The Shawshank Redemption some 8,000 times, getting in the warden’s good graces is a smart habit to pick up if you’re doing serious time.

Dixon's art was insanely good. Even more so because he did it all with colored pencils. No paintbrushes allowed (see shank wall above). Jimmy, the crew and I stopped for a good 10-15 minutes to marvel at his creations before continuing with the interview.

We spent a solid 40 minutes talking to the man who supposedly killed a man 20-something years prior. In that time, he pleaded his innocence to us over and over again. He spoke like a man who had rehearsed every angle of his story over and over and over again. I give him credit - there were no holes in his story. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, and he didn’t look like a killer, didn’t sound like one. either. But what did I know? I’d never met one - that I know of. And if you were stuck in prison for 20-plus years and all of a sudden had a camera in front of you and a platform to plead your innocence, wouldn’t you do your best to try to get out of there?

Since the guards wouldn’t allow any food, the crew and I stopped at the first deli we saw on the ride back into Buffalo. After we were done eating, we all looked at each other, knowing what we all were thinking: "Do you think he did it?”

Didn’t matter what we thought, we were just there to tell the story. On Wednesday, however, people whose opinions mattered made a decision and allowed someone who loves the game of golf, but has never stepped foot on a golf course, to do just that if he so chooses. That's a story that will stick with him for the rest of his life.

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Wrongfully convicted inmate who turned to golf artistry freed

By Associated PressSeptember 20, 2018, 12:35 am

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A New York prison artist who never played golf but became known for drawings of lush courses he could only imagine was set free Wednesday after authorities agreed that another man committed the murder that put him behind bars for nearly three decades.

Valentino Dixon walked out of Erie County Court into bright sunshine and hugs from his mother, daughter and a crowd of other relatives and friends, ready for a meal at Red Lobster and vowing to fight on behalf of others who are wrongly convicted.

"I love y'all," Dixon shouted after trading the green prison uniform he wore in court for jeans and a T-shirt. "It feels great."

Earlier Wednesday, a judge agreed to set aside Dixon's conviction in the 1991 shooting death of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a Buffalo street corner and accepted a guilty plea from another man who had confessed to the killing two days after it happened.

"There was a fight. Shots were fired. I grabbed the gun from under the bench, switched it to automatic, all the bullets shot out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying," Lamarr Scott, who has been in prison for 25 years for an unrelated attempted murder, told the court. "I dropped the gun and ran and it was over and done with."

Scott said he had gotten the gun, a Tec-9 semi-automatic, from Dixon and the two men had driven together to the crowded corner where the fighting broke out. Scott was given a sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, concurrent with his current term.

Judge Susan Eagan let stand a count of criminal possession of a weapon against Dixon, and its 5- to 15-year sentence, which she said he had satisfied.


Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon


"You are eligible for release today," the judge said, igniting applause and shouts from courtroom supporters.

"Mr. Dixon is not an innocent man. Don't be misguided in that at all," Erie County District Attorney John Flynn told reporters after the hearing. He described Dixon as "an up-and-coming drug dealer in the city of Buffalo" at the time of the shooting and said Scott was Dixon's bodyguard.

"Mr. Dixon is innocent of the shooting and of the murder for what he was found guilty of," he said, "but Mr. Dixon brought the gun to the fight. It was Mr. Dixon's gun."

While behind bars, Dixon rekindled his childhood passion for drawing, often spending 10 hours a day creating vivid colored pencil landscapes, including of golf courses, while imagining freedom. Articles in Golf Digest and elsewhere have drawn public attention to Dixon's case. NBC Sports' Jimmy Roberts spotlighted Dixon in a 2013 segment for his "In Play" series on Golf Channel.

“I’ve worked in this business for close to 40 years, and this is the most consequential thing I’ve ever been a part of," Roberts said after learning of Dixon's release. "I’m a sports reporter, but we helped get a man out of prison. I’m humbled and dumbstruck.”

Georgetown University students made a documentary as part of a prison reform course last spring. The class worked with Dixon's attorney, Donald Thompson, to have the conviction overturned.

"It went so far beyond reasonable doubt that it's pretty outrageous that he would have been convicted and it would have been upheld," said Marc Howard, director of the university's Prisons and Justice Initiative. Howard taught the course with childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who also spent years wrongfully imprisoned.

Dixon said he will keep drawing, while working on behalf of other prisoners.

"If you don't have any money in this system, it's hard to get justice because the system is not equipped or designed to give a poor person a fair trial," he said. "So we have a lot of work ahead of us."

His daughter, Valentina Dixon, was a baby when her father went to prison. She brought her 14-month-old twins, Ava and Levi, to court from their Columbus, Ohio, home.

"We're definitely going to go shopping and go explore life," she said. "I can't wait to get him a cellphone and teach him how to Snapchat."

Dixon's mother, Barbara Dixon, said she was in shock after relying on her faith while fighting for his release.

"We're going to Red Lobster," she said when asked what was next. "And everybody's invited."

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Thomas donating to hurricane relief at East Lake

By Jason CrookSeptember 19, 2018, 9:20 pm

Much like in years past, Justin Thomas is using his golf game to help with relief of a natural disaster.

The world No. 4 announced on Twitter Wednesday that he’d be donating $1,000 per birdie and $5,000 per eagle at the Tour Championship to a charity benefiting the victims of Hurricane Florence, which ravaged the Carolinas last week.

At a fan's suggestion, Thomas, who has averaged 4.35 birdies per round this season, also pledged to donate $10,000 for a hole-in-one.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday just south of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and has left much of the area flooded and without power. At least 37 people have died in storm-related incidents.

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Rose realizes his No. 1 ranking is precarious

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:18 pm

ATLANTA – Asked how he would like to be identified when he was finished playing golf, Justin Rose didn’t hesitate – “major champion, Olympic gold medalist, world No. 1.”

He’s had only a week to enjoy the last accomplishment, but the Englishman is aware of what it means to his career to have finally moved into the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“It's a moment in your career that you always remember and cherish,” said Rose, who overtook Dustin Johnson with his runner-up finish two weeks ago at the BMW Championship.


Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


Rose said he took some time last weekend with family and friends to relish the accomplishment and will play his first event this week at the Tour Championship as the world’s best, but he also understands how tenuous his position atop the ranking is at the moment.

“I accept it's really tight up top. It could easily switch this week,” he said. “I just feel that if I go to [No.] 2 or 3 this week, if Dustin and Brooks [Koepka] both play well, I have an opportunity the week after and British Masters, and going to China and Turkey, there's going to be opportunities to get back there.”

Johnson, Koepka and Justin Thomas could unseat Rose atop the ranking this week depending on their finishes at the Tour Championship.