Footgolf: A New Way to Get Your Kicks in Florida
By Jon Silman
It’s just like golf, but played with your feet, and a soccer ball.
It’s called footgolf, and it’s experiencing unprecedented growth, and providing new revenue streams for golf courses across the state.
What better place than Florida -- golf capital of the United States -- to showcase an unusual new sport?
The rules are simple, just like traditional golf: Take a regulation soccer ball and kick it, one stroke at a time, into a large cup near the putting green on a regular golf hole. (Footgolf holes often are built into an existing golf course.)
The player who gets the fewest strokes over the course of the game wins. You can usually play nine or 18 holes.
Where and when footgolf originated is unclear. Some say the hybrid sport has existed as long as soccer and golf. Others, though, say the game was born as recently as the mid-2000s in the Netherlands.
Roberto Balestrini, a member of the American Footgolf League (AFL), was instrumental in bringing the sport to the United States.
“I was in Argentina surfing around the TV looking for soccer games, because I am a huge soccer fan,” he said. “I noticed two people playing footgolf. I was very interested, so much so that I called the producers of the show.”
Balestrini, a lifetime soccer fan with a background in sales and marketing, was eventually put in touch with the Argentinian Footgolf Association, and after some back and forth, they asked if he wanted to introduce the sport to the United States. He said yes.
With his help, the game made its way stateside around 2011. Within a year, the U.S. took a team to the first Footgolf World Cup in Hungary.
Balestrini said he’s seen the game explode in popularity in the past few years. His job now is to educate golf course owners across the United States to its possibilities.
Marcelo Landau, a 57-year-old American citizen originally from Argentina, represented the U.S. in the Footgolf World Cup. He’s the executive director of Footgolf Florida, and plays at Florida’s first-ever course, at the Melreese Country Club in Miami. He said he’s proof that anyone can play the game.
“I was playing against young 20 and 30 year olds,” he said. “I did really good. Out of 104 players I came in the 60s.”
“This is a sport that mom, with dad and kids, can all come out and play together,” he said. “I have 17 and 18-year-old kids, and I can’t play soccer with them, but I can play footgolf with them, and I can beat them.”
Playing the Game
I played my first game of footgolf at the Claw at USF, a beautiful and scenic golf course in Tampa. It was easy to sign up – I just went on the website and booked a tee time.
The rates are generally cheaper than golf, starting at $15 per player at this particular course. It’s extra for a golf cart, but it’s actually easier to just walk. We were told to not wear T-shirts or tank tops, and to obey golf course etiquette.
We played at 5 p.m., and the sun was still bright and heavy. A full game is 18 holes, and the holes range from 42 yards (par 3) to 195 yards (par 5).
I made the mistake of kicking the ball as hard as I could every time, and the next day I could barely lift my leg. Landau said the trick is to kick with less than full leg power because you’re going to be kicking the ball more than 72 times.
“You never kick with 100 percent of your power with every single kick,” he said. “Use 80 percent of your power to keep your leg fresh, and never kick too high. Try to kick low so it’ll travel more.”
The hardest part was the putting. The kick needs to be soft, and even though the cup is significantly larger than the ball, concentration and dexterity still are required.
The game is fun, though. There’s something about kicking a soccer ball on a quiet green, while birds fly overhead and trees dip into nearby water.
At first, I felt I had the hang of it. My kicks were clean and the ball sailed easily. I was making par and less. But, it wasn’t meant to be. I started slicing the ball heavily, and even lost one in the rough. The good news is it’s much easier to retrieve a soccer ball than a golf ball from the water.
The game is a concert of soft pops and bounces on short green grass, and by the time the sun went down, we were all tired, but energized. This is definitely a game that is easy to learn and, like golf, difficult to master.
Building a Course
Charlie Green is the manager of the Claw course. He said they brought footgolf to the course because there’s been a general decline of participation at golf courses in recent years, something he attributed to a couple factors.
Golf seemed to peak in popularity during the Tiger Woods era, he said, and there was a boom in course building. Florida alone has hundreds.
Green added that many perceive golf as a sport for the upper class, lacking in general accessibility, so people find cheaper, and less time-consuming entertainment. (A golf game can take more than four hours).
The management group that Green works with did some demographic studies and found that footgolf is appealing to new, younger customers.
The startup costs, he said, were minimal, and after the course was installed, he saw lots of new and young faces at the course.
“The return on investment has been great.”
Where to play
The sport’s growing rapidly, with tournaments and specials going on at courses all over. For a comprehensive list of officially sanctioned courses all over the U.S., check the AFGL “find a course” page.