Peter Anderson was tantalizingly close to getting a hole-in-one on the par 3 seventh hole at Hyland Greens Golf Course. So he walked up to his ball and gave it a tap with his toe, knocking it into the hole.
The rest of his foursome — sister Amy and parents Mark and Lee Anne — didn’t complain. Instead, they complimented him. “Nice birdie,” his dad said.
Until this summer, kicking your ball was a major no-no on a golf course. Then Minnesotans met footgolf, a unique blend of kickball and golf.
Now kicking is common, as is the sight of people running down the fairways decked in argyle socks and long shorts that replicate the knickers of the 1930s.
Bloomington’s Hyland Greens opened the metro area’s first footgolf course in the spring. Since then, five other courses are either open or in the works in the Twin Cities, with additional courses in St. Cloud and Brainerd.
“Through the end of June, we had 540 rounds of footgolf played,” said Rick Sitek, Bloomington’s golf manager. “Then we had 600 in the first two weeks of July alone.”
And the numbers are still mushrooming. On a recent weekday, Hyland Greens supervisor Jerry Marick sent out a dozen foursomes of footgolfers in a little over two hours.
“We’re getting birthday parties, we’re getting soccer teams, we’re getting companies that are organizing outings for their employees,” he said. “We’re getting kids, and we’re getting seniors.”
In an era when the golfing population is getting smaller and skewing older, the opposite demographics of footgolf offer a lifeline to financially struggling courses.
“The idea behind this was to see if we could get more young people on the course,” said Sitek.
In fact, it’s working so well that Maciek Gralinski, the founder of the promotional organization FootGolf Minnesota (www.footgolfminnesota.com) has been scrambling to keep up. And he believes that he’s going to get even busier.
“This could get really, really big,” said Gralinski, who has consulted on all eight courses in the state. “I’m predicting that within five years, there will be 75 to 80 courses in Minnesota.”
Fans of the game give several reasons for the rapid growth. The basics are easy to pick up, it doesn’t require expensive equipment (if you don’t have a ball, you can rent one at the course for $3), fees tend to be less than for regular golf (Hyland Greens charges $9 for footgolf compared with $14 for green fees) and it doesn’t require a major time commitment; the average nine-hole round takes about an hour if you walk, although some soccer teams run the course.
“Soccer players have an advantage” in controlling their shots, Gralinksi said of newcomers. “But you don’t have to have any experience. All you have to know is how to kick a ball — and who doesn’t know how to do that?”
Besides, soccer players face their own learning curve, he said. They’re used to playing on a flat, uniformly manicured field. It’s a new experience to factor in hills that make the ball roll sideways and to deal with sand traps and the rough — and, yes, even water hazards — that can ensnare an errant shot.
“The good news,” Mark Anderson quipped, “is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for your ball.”
Trying the sport for the first time with their parents, Peter Anderson, 26, in town from Orlando, and his sister, Amy, 23, a first-grade teacher at Poplar Bridge Elementary School in Bloomington, admitted that after getting the hang of it, their competitive juices started flowing. Soon, they were analyzing how they could play better.
But their mother was intent on just enjoying the outing.
“We’re not very athletic,” she said, quickly drawing protests from the rest of the family. “OK,” she amended her statement, “I’m not very athletic.”
Still in its infancy
Exactly who first kicked a soccer ball down a fairway and into an oversized hole is hotly contested, but the sport most likely started in Europe in 2008. Dutch players came up with the first formal set of rules in 2009, and in 2011 the sport made its U.S. debut in Palm Springs, Calif.
Players use a No. 5 soccer ball — the size used by adult soccer players — and the holes are 21 inches in diameter. Beyond that, the rules are mostly the same as those used in regular golf. The person who finishes a round with the fewest total shots wins. Penalties for going out of bonds or into a water hazard are assessed the same as in golf.
Some golf clubs lay out their footgolf courses in practice areas away from the regular holes, but most incorporate the footgolf course into their existing layouts. The two courses share fairways, but there typically are separate tee boxes. The footgolf holes, which are marked by different flags than the golf holes, are set 40 to 50 yards from the greens to protect them.
Soccer cleats are not allowed, but players can wear indoor soccer shoes. That’s just one of footgolf’s rules about clothing. T-shirts and shorts are OK, especially for young soccer players. But serious footgolfers also take their outfits seriously.
In fact, for tournaments — and, yes, there are tournaments, including an annual world championship held in Germany the first weekend of August — there’s a dress code that includes argyle socks and flat caps (also known by a variety of other names, including driving caps and Paddy caps).
“I’m organizing a tournament for late summer, and if people don’t wear argyle socks, they can’t play,” Gralinski warned. “It’s our way of honoring the history of golf.”
As for technique, a traditional soccer kick tends to produce the most distance and control. Players can stand still, take a step or two up to the ball or even run at it from several yards back. When shooting out of a sand trap, many players use their toe to pop the ball up and out. “Putting” typically is done by pushing the ball with the bottom of the foot.
Most footgolf courses consist of nine holes, although there is an 18-hole layout under construction at Columbia Golf Course in Minneapolis, with plans for it to open before summer’s end.
Sharing the space
For the most part, traditional golfers and footgolfers have been getting along just fine, said Hyland’s Marick. Golfers tend to be more amused than irritated by the new visitors.
The footgolfers “are going so fast that the golfers step aside to let them play through, but that happens with regular golf, too,” he said. Sometimes the footgolfers don’t know golf etiquette — such as being quiet while nearby golfers are hitting their shots — “but it usually takes only a couple of suggestions” for them to get the idea, Marick added.
Gralinski, who’s also an avid regular golfer, said that even golfers who don’t like sharing the course with footgolfers have come to realize that it’s a necessary sacrifice to keep the golf courses economically viable.
“Footgolf is a valuable source of revenue,” he said. In addition to paying fees to the course, “the players stay in the clubhouse afterward and order drinks and food.”
Currently, there are footgolf courses in 36 states. The goal of the American FootGolf League (with which FootGolf Minnesota is associated) is to have them in all 50 states within the next couple of years.
After that? Well, Gralinski has some pretty high hopes.
“You know how we have the Golf Channel [on cable TV]?” he said. “In five years, we’re going to have the Footgolf Channel, too.”