Hole 5 at the Balboa Park Golf Course is a sloping nightmare. Option one is to drive your ball a bit to your left where it will (hopefully) come to a rest on the edge of a steep hillside. Option two is a bit hairier but is likely the better choice: drill the ball straight into the wooded area that is past the crest of the hill. It’s flatter terrain, but the wild card is all the natural obstacles (trees/bushes/brush) that you will have to avoid hitting on your second shot.
I opted for the flat, wooded area but failed miserably at even reaching that. I watched my ball accelerate down the grassy hillside, and I mourned the failure of my plan. I was now at the bottom of the hill and still probably a good 100 yards from the hole. Another hard shot proved inadequate in getting my ball over the edge of the hillside where the hole awaited. It got about 10 feet from freedom before it nose-dived another 50 yards or so back down the hill. The third shot finally did it. I sent that damn ball to a location over the hillside, where it would finally stay put. A couple putts later and that baby was in the hole. My leg was sore but the hill had been conquered. The battle was over.
“Leg?” you ask. Forgive me for not mentioning that I was playing footgolf, a hybrid sport that combines the gameplay of golf with the use of a traditional size five soccer ball. In this sport your kicking leg gets a monstrous workout. And hills are footgolfers’ arch-nemeses. Friction will cause a 1.6-ounce golf ball to stop rolling even on inclined grass, but a one-pound soccer ball will keep rolling downhill.
I first learned about footgolf in 2014, when it was mentioned in a segment on HBO’s Real Sports. The news report was on the future of golf in the United States, and the outlook was bleak. The golf industry enjoyed massive growth during the pre-recession/Tiger Woods era. But like the economy, and Tiger’s golf game, the industry has deteriorated. The HBO segment offered some alarming statistics: 130 American golf courses had closed every year for the past eight years, a golf course closes somewhere in America every 48 hours, retail was off by double digits for each of the past three years, and TV ratings for some of the game’s biggest tournaments had been in steady decline since 2012.
The root of the issue: dwindling numbers of young golfers. Mark King, president of the TaylorMade golf company, stated that the participation of 18–30-year-olds was “down 35 percent in the last 10 years.” He followed that with the rather grim assessment “that it’s shrinking to the point where you’re only going to have traditional people play, and it’s going to become an elite game again.”
So, with the hope of staying operational, golf courses nationwide began to ponder how to generate revenue with their properties. One of the ideas was incorporating footgolf courses into the general fabric of their playgrounds. On Real Sports, footgolf was treated as a concept unlikely to catch fire — but not everybody shares this opinion.
Ariel Fajerman first learned about footgolf when he was visiting his family in Argentina circa 2012. He’s a lifelong soccer player with a master’s in Sports Business from San Diego State. Initially the sport intrigued him, but when he returned to San Diego he noticed that no courses had opened in the area yet. He returned to his daily work routine as a marketing and web consultant. One year later, though, the Welk Resort, Tecolote Canyon Golf Course, and National City Golf Course suddenly opened footgolf courses to the public. The sport had arrived in San Diego, and Fajerman decided the time was right to strike. He set-up the website FootgolfSanDiego.com and got a new business running.
“Basically my goal is to grow the game of footgolf and to help the courses to implement the sport,” Fajerman explained. “Whether it’s selling equipment, helping to design the course, or helping them to market and manage it. It’s also reaching out to the footgolf community and growing the community here via social media and PR. It’s also taking on soccer teams and corporate outings, and putting on charity fundraiser tournaments.”
I met up with Fajerman on a pleasant Friday afternoon at Mission Bay Golf Course to take my first stab at the sport. He instructed me to find him at a footgolf canopy he had temporarily set up near the course’s pro shop. The location for the footgolf canopy in such a visible spot was no accident.
I arrived wearing shorts, a polo, vans, and an arguably silly-looking bucket hat to reduce the sun’s wear and tear on my face. Fajerman and his colleagues looked like soccer players who had stumbled upon a golf course. Somehow I had unlocked the fashion formula to becoming the world’s first footgolf poseur. Things got worse for me when we started kicking the balls.
The course was crowded so we began at an empty hole 17. Fajerman and his buddies had some juice behind their drives that easily exceeded 50 yards, while my initial kick was more along the lines of a friendly pass to a fellow fourth-grader. In my defense, these motions and mechanics hadn’t been utilized by my body since around 1988.
“A good drive is 60 to 70 yards in the air, and then it’s all about the roll,” Fajerman explained to me. “You can reach a hundred-yard par three. I’ve seen at least a handful of holes-in-one, wherein with golf I’ve only ever seen one. It’s definitely more possible.”
My initial drive probably went about 25 yards and then rolled another 15 or so. A hole-in-one wasn’t gonna happen, but a hole-in-four did. The distance from the tee box to the cup was 120 yards, and I had hit par on my first footgolf hole.
The footgolf holes at Mission Bay —$18 for 18 holes, $10 for 9 holes — tend to follow the general path of the golf-course holes, but they certainly don’t adhere strictly to their blueprint.
The 18 footgolf holes here share tee boxes with the 18 golf holes, which isn’t always the case. At the Balboa Park Golf Course, for example, there are 18 footgolf holes that are scattered among the course’s front nine holes. When you play there you sort of zig-zag in and out of fairways. The idea behind the deviation seems to be to keep the golfers and footgolfers separated, but perhaps primarily to keep the footgolfers off the golfers’ greens. The greens are strictly off-limits to footgolfers — as is wearing soccer cleats, which could potentially damage the terrain.
The next hole at Mission Bay wasn’t quite as forgiving as the first. Hole 18 is a 262-yard monster, the first real leg workout of the day. It was a par five that I knocked out in six shots, four of which required some monster boots. One trick I figured-out on this hole was that I could kick the ball better when it was lifted a bit off the ground by longer grass — this created an artificial tee. Actual tees are forbidden in the sport. One of Fajerman’s buddies, Hugo, a rail-thin gentleman who plays goalie on a local soccer squad, told me that he always looks for a patch of raised grass in the tee area to give his drives some extra boost. I lamented the fact that he chose to tell me this on hole 9, the final hole we would play that day.
And speaking of hole 9, it displayed one of the more annoying traits associated with the relative newness of the sport — a general lack of care to maintain some of the holes. The typical footgolf cup is 21 inches in diameter. This gives you plenty of space to drop a soccer ball — a little more than 8.5 inches in diameter — into it. The issue is that a handful of these cups are not flush with the surface of the grass. On hole 9 at Mission Bay, the cup seemed to be a good two to three inches above the surface of the grass on one side, since the hole itself was on a hill. It was most angering because I hit what was easily my best shot of the day on this hole (a bending chip shot from a good 40 yards away) that arrived perfectly, dead-on at its destination — and then proceeded to launch over the hole when the ball collided with the raised lip of the cup.
Most of us had such a tough time with this hole that Fajerman actually ended up lifting the cup out of the ground a bit and slanting it toward the shooter so that it could serve the same purpose as a backboard does in basketball. I doubt this is accepted practice at Torrey Pines during the Farmers Insurance Open. It ended up taking me seven shots to sink the ball into that hole, four of these were most likely due to poor course maintenance. What was somewhat surprising about these faulty holes is that keeping the cups flush with the surface of the ground is one of the few tasks associated with the maintenance of a footgolf course — an obvious draw for courses considering a move to host the sport.
I asked Fajerman how he pitched footgolf to golf courses and he said it goes something like this:
“Here’s a sport that’s a very low investment. You buy the equipment and you don’t have to maintain a golf green — which is the most expensive part of golfing. For footgolf you don’t need a fancy green. Our hole is typically in the rough. For a soccer ball to roll it doesn’t have to be like it does for a golf ball. There’s almost no maintenance. All you need is to make sure the cups are in the ground the right way. You don’t have to move the holes like you do in golf. So, it’s low-investment and it’s a whole new audience. They’re bringing in kids, families, and soccer players that would never come to a golf course.”
According to a written statement from Tim Graham, a public Information officer for the City of San Diego, footgolf was introduced at both Mission Bay and Balboa Park ($14 a round, $18 on weekends) on August 15, 2015. The Park and Recreation Department had been looking for ways to increase play at both courses, to promote fun, family activities in City park facilities and introduce younger people to the game of golf in a fun and non-intimidating way. The city decided to install the footgolf cups, flags, and tees at a minimal cost to see if it would help drive additional traffic to the courses. To date, the investment has apparently been well worth the cost and the course is seeing new customers and families coming out to play footgolf or a combination of both sports.
He added that both courses average 350–400 rounds of footgolf combined per month, and that while the vast majority of revenue generated is still via golf, the installation has already paid for itself and continues to grow as more people learn about it.
“The city is very happy with the increased revenue at very little expense and maintenance,” he said.
Now if only they did a tiny bit more maintenance and worked harder to keep those cups flush with the earth....
But I digress. Returning to the notion of “introducing younger people to the game of golf in a fun and non-intimidating way,” the first day I observed anyone playing footgolf was when I tagged along with a group of local recreation center kids competing against one another at Balboa Park. Seven recreation centers are involved in the program that took place this summer on Wednesday afternoons. The kids all get to play nine holes for five bucks a head… a deal practically unimaginable for a round of traditional golf.
The match-up I checked-out was Southcrest Rec versus Martin Luther King Jr. Rec. I was lucky to get acquainted with Mitch Anderson Sr., the recreation leader for Southcrest, who walked me through the competition. There were three kids on each team and, at first, I was completely confused because two of the kids on each of the teams picked up their balls after their initial drives. Anderson cleared things up by explaining that only the ball that landed closest to the hole counts for each team. The kids then line up and each shoot from that spot. This process continues to repeat itself until someone sinks a putt. The team dynamic was in full effect as some of the kids strength lied in driving, while others excelled in the finesse of putting.
At first the ringer of the afternoon appeared to be a lanky teen playing for MLK who had the toe-kick from hell. Not the most powerful boot, but his drives always went straight and seemed to roll for an eternity. Anderson pointed him out to me in the same sort of fashion that a basketball coach would point out the other team’s Lebron-hopeful. He also chimed in with how, in footgolf, kicking with the toe can be a much more valuable asset than it is in soccer. He had a ringer of his own, though, in Juan, a solid brick of a youngster who looked like a linebacker in the making. His nickname was “Bulldog” and his drives were almost comically powerful for his age. They were often off the mark, but they always went far.
Bulldog pulled it together about five holes in, and set the plate for Southcrest to eventually get a birdie on hole 6 (a short, downhill drive with serious hole-in-one potential). He graduated to dragon-slayer mode for hole 7. The drive was a wretched uphill, but he managed to finagle one of his cannon blasts to land the ball practically next to the cup. The hole was a par five that Southcrest Rec annihilated with two shots — a double eagle. Even when I played with Fajerman, none of the soccer studs managed that feat.
Southcrest ended up winning the nine-hole battle 25 to 30. While heading back toward the pro shop, Anderson warned the kids to stay next to the fence that hugged the street alongside the course. Some of the kids ignored his advice and walked straight into the line of fire of a group of golfers preparing to tee off on hole 2. The golfers raised their hands in frustration, as the kids were oblivious to the fact that they were in danger of getting drilled by a golf ball. Anderson later explained to me that this was likely the kids’ first exposure to being on a golf course and they had no idea what was going on.
Once the group had safely crossed the fairway, a couple of them posted up next to the golfers. After one of the players cracked a nice drive a kid chimed in with amazement, “Wow, that was like a home run!”
This exchange demonstrated both the major pro and the major con for footgolf as it relates to golf — it exposes kids to traditional golf (which needs them to survive), but it may drive golfers away from courses that offer footgolf. At public golf courses, such as Balboa and Mission Bay, the two factions seem to get along well, but it’s tough to imagine country clubs ever embracing the activity.
“With the private courses, I think the biggest roadblock is golf culture,” Fajerman explained to me. “By nature it’s old-school and reserved. I always thought of the skiing and snowboarding analogy. The golfers are the skiers, and in the 80s skiing was an elitist sport. Then the snowboarders came in and the skiers didn’t like it since they had to share the same slopes. We’re not on the scale of snowboarders yet, but we’re coming in and not all of us are golfers. Footgolfers have to learn golf etiquette, because golfers have to learn to accept footgolfers on the course. A lot of the courses say, ‘Hey, if footgolfers aren’t here, then I’m gonna have to raise the green fees,’ and then the golfers don’t like that either.”
So far there are 8 footgolf courses in San Diego County and about 500 nationwide. That’s not too bad for a sport that arrived in the U.S. about five years ago. If footgolf is going to break out in San Diego, the key is most likely two groups, soccer players and millennials. The latter are already providing great business for Mission Bay.
“Month after month they double their footgolf revenue,” Fajerman said. “Because of their location and because they have lights, at night, when it’s ten bucks to play, the PB crowd comes out. They have a beer, they socialize. It’s a super-social, friendly sport. It’s really easy to play. You don’t need to be a soccer player to kick a ball.”
But being a soccer player doesn’t hurt, and soccers players are certainly the local demographic that could drive footgolf to the next level. It’s a fitting activity for players, like Fajerman, to drift into as their competitive soccer days draw to a close. He still plays indoor but says that he “gets beat up and can’t walk the next day.”
He added, “I’m seeing that audience of former soccer players that can’t keep it up but still want to touch the ball. Footgolf allows them to get out there and knock it around without getting hurt.”
If the skiing/snowboard analogy follows the same path as it did for those two sports, it might not be too many years before golf culture starts to take cues from footgolf culture.
“In the U.S.,” Fajerman said, “particularly Southern California, you have a ton of golf courses…basically too many. You’ve got golf on the decline in popularity, especially among youth. It’s still pretty much an old and elitist white-man sport. Soccer is on the rise. In San Diego soccer is king.”