On a misty gray morning in San Francisco, J. Ramon Estevez crouched on his hams on the grass, brown and scruffy from years of drought. He narrows his eyes, lining up a putt on the Gleneagles golf course, and in an instant he’s standing up, taking a step back and shooting his best shot. He kicks and a soccer ball rolls on the grass and falls into hole number 1.
Estevez and his playing partner Tighe O’Sullivan are just starting a game of footgolf, an unprecedented fusion of one of the simplest ball games in the world and one of the most exclusive. The game, which is only a few years old, combines the etiquette, rules and hills of golf with the basic ball and footwork of soccer.
“It’s 99% golf minus the equipment,” says O’Sullivan, who has been playing football since he started elementary school and played his first game of footgolf in October 2012, around the time. where he and Estevez co-founded the California FootGolf Association.
Estevez, also a longtime soccer player and the organization’s general manager, claims that footgolf originated in the Netherlands in 2008 or 2009. It then spread to Argentina, where the game attracted huge participant base of the football loving population of the country. In 2012, footgolf made its appearance in the United States. At the end of that year, there were two footgolf courses in the United States, each set on the existing green of a traditional golf course.
Then the sport exploded. At the end of 2013, Estevez said there were 50 soccer fields in the United States, and at the end of last year, 300. This year, Estevez, who is also a member of the board of trustees of the United States. The US FootGolf Association estimates there will be at least 750. footgolf fields, and possibly as many as 1,000. It is now perhaps the fastest growing sport in the world.
The objective of footgolf is simple: players try to hit a regulation size 5 soccer ball (just over 8.5 inches in diameter) into a 21 inch wide hole with as few strokes as possible. Since a person can’t hit a soccer ball as far as a golf ball can hit – even amateur players can travel hundreds of yards – footgolf fields are smaller than traditional golf courses. Eighteen holes of footgolf, for example, can be played on the same expanse that covers a nine-hole golf course. This means that the game is generally played about twice as fast as a round of golf.
While the rules of footgolf are virtually identical to those of golf, the unique physics of propelling a soccer ball requires special playing strategies. For example, a soccer ball will hurtle down a slope much more easily than a golf ball, which can stop on the side of a hill and settle down even in the finest grass. So, says Estevez, the footballer must pay special attention to the contours of the course. The physics of a soccer ball works to the advantage of the soccer player in other ways; it rolls over sand traps with more buoyancy than a golf ball, and when thrown into a pond, a soccer ball will not only float but will usually blow toward shore in just a few minutes (although always involving a penalty stroke on the player with the stray kick.)
This also means that there is no need to wade through the water in your spikeless golf shoes and diamond socks, two normal footgolf garments. Golf shorts and polo shirts are also standard in league play, although Estevez says the dress code for a given golf course always has the final say over what is worn during a game.
The par of an 18-hole footgolf course is generally slightly lower than that of a golf course – in the 60s rather than 72s. Requiring a little less finesse and specialist skills than golf, since it does is not necessary to swing a club, an average the player can get roughly at par, an excellent footballer 15 below. It’s this simplicity that makes footgolf so accessible: the game can be easily played by anyone who knows the bounce of a soccer ball – and who on this planet isn’t?
While rumors circulate of conflicts arising between golfers and footgolfers, the two sports mostly seem to coexist in peace. Nancy Bunton, director of golf for the city of Fort Worth, says conflicts rarely arise at its golf courses, where footgolf facilities have recently been set up. Part of that, she says, is because golfers know their game can actually depend on the presence of footballers.
“Our golfers understand that we are trying to generate income to support the existence of the golf course itself,” said Bunton.
Indeed, golf is struggling to stay afloat. Five million golfers have given up on the sport in the past decade, according to the New York Times, and of the 25 million golfers who still play in America, another 5 million are likely to quit in the years to come.
The main problem with golf, according to Tony Martinez, golf director at Keeton Park Golf Course in Dallas, is the changing demographics of the country. Most people today, he says, cannot afford to spend a day playing golf. For many, the game takes too long, costs too much, and requires a considerable amount of equipment. Worse yet, there is a glaring lack of interest among young people, which leaves the iconic game of golf clubs for men and members only on the verge of being forgotten as the golf demographics age.
This is why footgolf, with its faster games and minimal equipment costs, is becoming a valuable new source of income where green fees have become scarce. Martinez says attendance at his golf courses has declined as the football fields just outside the entrance to Grover Keeton Park are regularly filled with people, all watching and playing the world’s most sustainable sport.
“I see footgolf as a way to get these people to my doorstep,” says Martinez.
In Fort Worth, golf courses were crowded ten years ago, says Bunton, the town’s golf director. Today, however, golf course managers crave attendance. Seeing an opportunity last fall, the city set up a 9-hole footgolf course on a 6-hole practice golf course.
“We wanted to generate extra play in some form on a golf course,” Bunton explains. The demand to play has been so high that the city recently placed 18 holes of footgolf on the grass at the 9 hole Sycamore Creek golf course. Bunton says youth and adult soccer leagues, church and school groups, and private birthday parties regularly set aside time to play footgolf.
Most footballers appear to be football players who, before the advent of footgolf, had little reason to go to a golf course. Some may have football-related injuries and are looking for a less impactful way to keep hitting their favorite ball, says O’Sullivan, who himself recently suffered from a painful knee injury. While some newer footballers are using the sport as a stepping stone to golf, many (perhaps most) are not, and it is clear that footgolf has become a viable game in and of itself. Footgolf associations and leagues have been formed around the world. There are championships, star players and televised matches.
Even Martinez, a dedicated golfer and vice-president of the Northern Texas PGA, isn’t worried about foot golfers switching to traditional golf; he just wants more people to use the golf courses. Today, after seeing its clientele decline over the years, footgolf brings people, including women and children who might never have visited a golf course otherwise, back onto the grass.
Estevez thinks it’s only a matter of time before foot golfers on a golf course are as commonplace as snowboarders are on a ski slope today.
“A lot of these golf course managers have seen the explosion of snowboarding,” says Estevez. “Now they remember it and say, ‘I’m not going to be the guy on the sidelines because I haven’t tried footgolf.'”
In San Francisco, the sun has pierced the hazy fog of summer. O’Sullivan places his ball on the grass about 150 feet from an orange flag on a post marking the number 10 hole. He takes several steps back and, with concentration, advances and kicks. Two passers-by carrying golf clubs sharply turn their heads to the left, watching a soccer ball fly over the fairway.