Could financially troubled municipal golf courses be saved by soccer?
Bloomington's golf manager, Rick Sitek, thinks it is worth a try. This year, the city will modify Hyland Greens Golf Course to make room for "footgolf," where players kick soccer balls from hole to hole. The player who completes the course with the fewest kicks wins.
It may sound goofy and look odd — the cups for the soccer balls are 20 to 22 inches in diameter — but the game has become a hit in Europe, where in 2012 a footgolf World Cup was played. There is an International FootGolf Association, and the United States now has an American FootGolf League (http://www.footgolf.net/).
"With the amount of kids that love to play soccer, and 30-somethings who still like kicking around a ball, it's a natural," Sitek said last week. "If we can get more kids out there doing it, and get revenue up for us, that's what it's all about."
Golf has faded in popularity, and city-owned golf courses are under financial pressure. St. Paul has agreed to let a private company run two of its golf courses, and Edina is considering closing Fred Richards, the smaller of its two municipal courses. Sitek said that at Bloomington's Hyland and Dwan golf courses, the number of rounds played has dropped by about one-third from peak years.
Last year at Hyland, Bloomington replaced the shorter half of its 18 holes to create a large practice facility. "That outside 9, the play just wasn't there," Sitek said. But he was looking for broader change, and liked what he heard about footgolf from a sales representative who told him that the sport had been a money-maker at a golf course in Madison, Wis.
Sitek believes Hyland would be the second Minnesota golf course to try footgolf. At the end of summer, footgolf was added at Gem Lake Hills Golf Course in White Bear Lake, a course run by Wilson Golf Group.
"It's a little early to call it a success, but there was definitely interest in it," said Pat Renner, operations manager for Wilson.
"We're not necessarily competing for golf dollars so much as for recreation dollars. It made a lot of sense to us, to bring new people to the golf course."
Many of Hyland's golfers are league players, and Sitek said that this season their playing times will be blocked off so they can enjoy the course without footgolf. At other times, he said, footgolf will be allowed between regular golfers. "We would not force them to play together," he said.
But Renner said that at Gem Lake last year, the two sports didn't mix easily. Though footgolf cups are placed in the rough and players are prohibited from wearing soccer shoes or spikes to avoid damaging greens, he said the two games have different cultures.
"The big challenge we had is that it's a different game, with a different market, and it plays faster than golf does," he said. "With the footgolfers being primarily soccer players, they come dressed as soccer players, and they ... hustle between holes. It's not quite as formal as golf.
"People kind of make the rules as they go. There are formal rules in other states, but we didn't emphasize those because we weren't interested in creating new barriers."
Last year, Gem Lake advertised footgolf in its marketing emails to regular golfers. This year, Renner said, the course is going to define times for footgolf so it doesn't interfere with golf, aiming to attract soccer teams or birthday parties that can use the course just for footgolf.
Renner said he doesn't know if it's realistic to consider footgolf a potential savior for beleaguered golf courses. Maintenance costs for golf courses are high, he said.
"But it's a good way to bring new bodies to the course and introduce people to our facilities," he said. "We're still in the golf business primarily. ... We're looking at this as a way to bring some fun to the golf course."
Sitek said he hopes footgolf will bring more young people to Hyland. Last year, the course offered a $99 season pass for youth 17 and under, but sold only 103 passes.
"With 85,000 people in Bloomington, I thought we would have done better than that," he said.
Hyland's financial investment in adding footgolf "is almost nil," Sitek said — nine flags, and 20- or 22-inch cups for the soccer balls.
He is hopeful about footgolf. When he mentioned the Hyland experiment to some city employees, "they went gaga over it," he said. "They thought it was the greatest thing they've heard of.
"These are guys in their 40s. They love to be around soccer, but they can't run anymore. They were quite excited."