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FootGolf steps from "winter rule" shadow

Jo Shriver Reid, of Alaska, takes part in a FootGolf tournament at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., in November 2017. (Photo: U.S. FootGolf National Championship)

The days of the foot wedge joke may be over. 

The move (think Judge Elihu Smails nudging his ball into a more favorable position in Caddyshack), a cardinal sin among the sacrosanct Rules of Golf, is giving way to another sport that actually encourages kicking a ball to a player’s delight. FootGolf, a 7-year-old crossover sport, combines the golf’s nuances with soccer’s raw athleticism. 

FootGolf follows the same premise as golf, just without the clubs. Feet serve as all 14 clubs. The purpose is to strategically prod a soccer ball into a hole in as few kicks (or strokes) as possible. Holes are adjusted to a yawning 21 inches from a standard 4 ½-inch golf cup. Besides needing a regulation $30 No. 5 soccer ball, proper golf attire and shoes (no cleats are allowed), there’s little investment. 

Nine holes can be played in roughly two hours. Bunkers, hazards and trees are in play. And, yep, the Rules of Golf apply. One of the most appealing factors is that FootGolf can be integrated on existing courses. 

“The fun factor? It’s definitely there,” said general manager Otto Kanny, 69, of River Ridge Golf Club in Oxnard, Calif. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who went out, played and said it wasn’t fun.”

Flinging for attention

Since incorporating the American FootGolf League as the governing body in Palm Springs, Calif., in November 2011, the tireless husband-and-wife team of Roberto, 55, and Laura Balestrini, 56, spend their waking hours hawking the sport in the U.S. FootGolf has taken gradual footing, pun intended. More than 500 courses in all 50 states, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, offer it. Last year, North Dakota was the last state to sign on. 

“Roberto is the truss and Laura’s the rudder,” said Kanny.

Laura Balestrini, president of the AFGL, said the league's beginning was comparable to the chicken and egg analogy. Should they approach potential players or throw the energy toward attracting courses? The AFGL targeted an 18-year-old to 35-year-old demographic, but making contacts with courses ultimately came first.

Now courses — from the mom-and-pops to municipals and resorts — have bought in. In March, Disney World added an 18-hole FootGolf layout to its Oak Trail Course, and a FootGolf tournament is set for September on Disney World’s Palm Course.

“What better publicity could you get than Mickey Mouse playing FootGolf?” Laura Balestrini asked.

There are two competing theories as to how FootGolf took root. The first is that former professional soccer player Willem Korsten and his London-based Tottenham Hotspur teammates reveled in a competition where they would kick a soccer ball from a practice field to the locker room, while aiming at targets, in as little time as possible. The second is the sport took off in Europe after Michael Jansen, a Dutchman, held the first FootGolf competition in The Netherlands in 2008. 

The Argentinian-born Roberto Balestrini grew up a soccer aficionado and had been watching a match on television when a show, This is FootGolf, came on. Professional soccer players were being interviewed while they played three holes of FootGolf. In a strange coincidence, Roberto Balestrini recognized the show producer’s name and contacted him. He learned what he could about the sport and was sold. He and his wife felt there was a market here in the U.S.

With more than 15,000 private and public golf courses already operating in the U.S., there wasn’t a need to build new costly venues. The Balestrinis painstakingly looked at course routings. They were convinced the sport could work with golfers, too. 

“We’re not trying to take money away from golf,” Roberto Balestrini said. “That isn’t why we developed FootGolf.”

A kicked ball doesn’t carry as far as a golf ball, so holes needed to be shorter. In Europe, some courses featured 500-yard, par-16 holes. Roberto Balestrini said that was simply too long, too convoluted. 

With that in mind, the AFGL developed a system on how to seamlessly integrate FootGolf on courses via Google Maps. Course officials, utilizing an iPad, are first asked to drop flags near existing golf holes to represent where preliminary FootGolf cups could go. Then the AFGL works on finalizing layouts using 3-D mapping. 

River Ridge, which will host the first FootGolf U.S. Open April 26-29, became the first course in California and fourth in the U.S. to adopt the sport. The operators saw an opportunity after the 2008 recession obliterated the golf industry.

The 36-hole River Ridge facility had idle capacity needing to be filled. So, in 2013 it went full bore and assimilated a FootGolf layout. Kanny, for instance, took one 500-yard hole and built three FootGolf holes within it. In order to limit foot traffic, alternate FootGolf holes are constructed off golf greens and on makeshift greens.

“I was told from people, ‘You’re going to get resistance on two fronts. The first front will be your employees,’” said Kanny, 69. “The employees were going, ‘This is golf; we shouldn’t be doing this.’ So, I said, ‘OK, let’s all go out and play. We’re going to give it a try ourselves’ and they bought in.

“The other front was our existing customers. They said, ‘You can’t do this. It’s terrible.’ So, I said, ‘Listen boys, it’s like this: because I have FootGolf now, I don’t have to raise greens fees, and they’re not displacing you. You have 27 other holes to play.’”

Since 2015, River Ridge has averaged a little more than 5,000 FootGolf rounds per year. It’s $12 for 18 holes and $5 toward a ball rental, if needed. Revenues have been holding steady at about $50,000 per year, said Kanny. Some days he’ll see a FootGolf foursome go off, followed by a golf foursome. 

“My total investment was $8,000 for the cups, pins, scorecards, and maintenance is almost nil because we built on the existing course,” added Kanny. “Marshals take hole covers off, add flags and then put covers back on. It’s chump change. It’s really nothing extra for the maintenance crew.”

That’s what the Balestrinis continue to evangelize. There’s not much upkeep. But they continue to pound the pavement, so to speak. 

“Because we have 500-some [FootGolf] courses around the country, we have other countries looking at us and going, ‘You guys are so big,’” Laura Balestrini said. “But we have to bring them back to reality and tell them, ‘You have to remember, we are bigger than all of Europe and we have more courses. When you look at a place like Hungary, it has eight golf courses and six of them have FootGolf. We’re barely tapping in when you consider the U.S. has more than 15,000 courses.”

When the Balestrinis started, the hope was that one day the sport would mushroom into a professional league. The type of league that tours around the country with a television contract. Roberto Balestrini intimated the Golf Channel recently expressed interest in televising the sport, adding “it’s in internal review with them.”

Until a TV deal happens, the husband-wife tandem will just keep pushing. 

“The ones who have really have grabbed hold of the concept and stayed close with us, and engaged with the community of FootGolf have done really well,” Laura Balestrini said. “But there’s a lot of work left.”

That said, if the sport does blossom, who knows, maybe the old foot wedge won’t carry such a negative connotation anymore. 

Location: Courses across the U.S. 
Website: https://www.footgolf.us  
Twitter: @FootGolfUSA
Instagram: @footgolfusa
Facebook: @footgolfusa

Ken Klavon served as the U.S. Golf Association’s online editor for 12 years and previously covered golf for Sports Illustrated. 

Email:  ken_klavon@yahoo.com
Twitter: @Ken_Klavon