Take golf and subtract the clubs, the golf balls and much of the aggravation. Keep the lush fairways, the friendly competition and the post-round clubhouse drink. What do you have? FootGolf. Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s taking off, capitalizing on America’s love of outdoor recreation and growing interest in soccer.
The 16 Washington golf courses offering FootGolf range from municipal outfits to upscale resorts. For most, 2014 was their first year. Bremerton’s Gold Mountain Golf Club started offering FootGolf in July and saw 300 players during that first month, general manager Daryl Matheny told me as we played recently. “You don’t need to have athletic ability. Anybody who can kick a ball can play it.”
Michael and Katy Forster played a casual round at Gold Mountain during a trip to visit her parents in Bremerton from their current home in Sydney, Australia. Katy Forster played soccer in high school, though she couldn’t tell how much that was helping her kick a soccer ball toward an orange-flagged hole. As for her husband: “I’m making more birdies than I do in a regular golf game, that’s for sure.”
Rules of the game
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Some aspects are similar to golf, starting with the basic rules: You begin by kicking from behind a tee marker; after that, the player farthest from the hole kicks first. The number of kicks needed to reach the hole is your score on that hole. FootGolf scores tend to be similar to golf scores, with pars of 3 to 5 per hole.
But in other ways, FootGolf is different — and more approachable. It uses regular soccer balls. Players don’t have to kick them 200 yards to send them halfway down the fairway. At Gold Mountain, for example, FootGolf tee-to-hole distances range from 65 to 240 yards (the local semipro soccer team, the Kitsap Pumas, helped design the course).
The holes are a generous 21 inches in diameter. FootGolf games usually take less than two hours and are cheaper than golf, typically less than $20 a round. Unlike golf, you can take a turn with a beer in your hand — at least theoretically.
“It’s immediately attractive for the soccer players because it’s played with a soccer ball, but golfers can be better at it because they know how to read the greens,” said Laura Balestrini, president of the American FootGolf League (yes, there’s a nationwide league).
I’m not much of a golfer, and it turns out I’m not much of a FootGolfer, either. On my very first tee-off kick, I slipped on dewy grass and fell on my behind. But neither I nor those around me cared much, and we had a good time chatting as we dribbled from one hole to the next (you definitely can’t dribble in regular golf).
I barely worried about my lack of prowess as I wandered along bright green fairways where I’m usually mulling which club to use or feeling pressure to hit a decent shot. If golf is a good walk spoiled, as the saying goes, then FootGolf is more of a leisurely stroll barely impeded.
The idea of kicking a soccer ball toward a target is nothing new. But organized FootGolf started in Europe about five years ago and soon spread. Balestrini and her husband, Roberto, originally heard about it in Argentina and founded the American FootGolf League, holding the first U.S. tournament in 2012.
The number of courses offering FootGolf is growing fast, with 35 across the country at the end of last year and 262 now. The AFGL just held its first pro-am tournaments in September, giving out $25,000 in prize money to golfers from 10 countries. It expects to expand that next year.
As serious as AFGL players can be, the game includes an element of goofy fun the likes of which you hear at golf’s other laid-back offshoot, miniature golf.
Brett Eaton, the golf director Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club and Loomis Trail courses in Blaine, said some club members were a bit suspicious until they saw FootGolf’s multigenerational appeal. “It’s great for families — kids, aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas,” said Eaton, who is planning to expand the number of FootGolf holes next summer.
For the courses that incorporate it, FootGolf is a low-cost, low-pressure way to introduce new people to golf — an activity whose learning curve and cost can both be steep. “It’s opened up a whole new demographic for the facility, people who’ve never been out here,” Matheny said.
Courses take great care not to disturb the regular golfers’ experience. FootGolf lanes zigzag across fairways, avoiding greens. The dress code is about the same as for regular golf, although players can wear regular turf or athletic shoes. The AFGL encourages players to dress in old-school golf garb including flat caps and argyle socks.
FootGolf kickoff times are usually in the evenings, after the last golf group has teed off. This is one of the genius elements of FootGolf: Because a regular golf game takes so long, there are still hours of daylight left after the last group’s tee time. FootGolf brings in revenue during those previously quiet hours.
And who knows? FootGolf might encourage some of its players to pick up a club and take a swing at the original.
Seattle-based freelancer Christy Karras is a regular contributor to Seattle Times outdoors coverage.