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.