It's a beautiful, albeit windy, April day, and I'm about to kick a soccer ball into a hole to the left of the green. I'm only about 20 feet away, but I can't do it. My first shot sails embarrassingly wide right. My second does the same. My third is dead on, but it strikes the flagstick in the center of the hole and bounces back onto the grass a few inches away. I tap in my fourth attempt and slowly turn around to see if anyone is guffawing at my incompetent display. No one has seemed to notice. I'm safe.
This is FootGolf, apparently a new soccer/golf hybrid that's harder than it looks. You start by booting a soccer ball from the tee box. From there, you keep kicking it until the ball drops into a 21-inch-diameter hole, located to the left or right of the green. The player with the fewest number of kicks wins.
Dutch soccer players invented FootGolf in 2009 as a way to unwind after soccer practice. The American FootGolf League was founded in November of 2011.
The sport has since gained popularity, expanding from 40 accredited courses (regular golf courses that have added the aforementioned larger cup) a few months ago to 92 courses in 29 states today, according to Robb Schulze, Cleveland Metroparks golf administrator. The Cleveland Metroparks have two of the aforementioned accredited courses, Mastick Woods and Shawnee Hills, the former of which was the scene of my futility as a footgolf newbie.
"It's easier and it's much less expensive than golf," Schulze said. "If you can roll a ball in front of you, you can play this game. You don't have to worry about whiffing it like you do in golf."
FootGolf differs from regular golf in other ways besides the size of the ball. The official uniform required at AFGL tournaments includes knee-high argyle socks and Hogan hats. Don't worry though. If you're playing a weekend round with friends, that outfit is merely "suggested."
Strategy differs too. In golf, the accuracy of your tee shot can be the difference between making birdie and hacking your way to a triple bogey. In FootGolf, as long as you don't rail your tee shot out of bounds (incurring a one-kick penalty), location doesn't matter as much. Distance is the difference maker.
"Off the tee you have a little leeway left and right, because you can save yourself with that second shot," said Tom Beck, striker for the AFC Cleveland Royals, a minor league professional soccer team, who was out at Mastick Woods playing FootGolf for the first time.
Beck admitted that even for a pro soccer player, the game is not easy, which made me feel slightly better about my dismal performance. It does raise questions though: since golf and soccer are frustrating enough individually, doesn't combining them double the frustration? Why subject yourself to it?
For starters, if you have legs, you can kick a ball.
"You get people who maybe have a bad back and can't play golf, or they've never played golf in their life, but they can kick a ball," Schulze said. "It increases activity level with people, gets them up and moving. I think it's easy to get everyone involved."
Roberto Balestrini, founder of the AFGL, says FootGolf can be addicting: "You can go into it just wanting to have fun and get a tan for a few hours, but then you start playing and say, 'Hey, I want to get good at this!'"
Each accredited golf course is expected to sponsor the formation of its own local FootGolf league, combining tournaments with casual play, according to Balestrini. For those eager to get serious about FootGolf, the first AFGL Pro-Am tournament takes place this September in New Jersey. I need about six months of serious practice before I would ever consider playing the sport competitively, but as a Saturday afternoon recreational activity? I'm all for it.
If you find yourself launching your golf clubs into the air more often than you hit the green, or grow tired of playing to an all-nil tie with your buddies in a pickup soccer match, FootGolf might be what you're looking for. You can find more info on the sport at the American FootGolf League's website.
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