FootGolf may sound like a concoction from the warped minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but after one round of the hybrid sport, it's clear to see why the UK is falling in love with exchanging 9-irons for a sweep of their luckiest size nines on the fairway.
I was lucky enough to be invited for a trial run at the newly opened FootGolf course in Gillingham, Kent. Upon accepting the offer, I entered a world of fascinating addiction that allows any player to exert their own style from the very first drive.
Accessibility is key to this—if you've ever kicked a football and know how golf works, you can play—but as with all successful sports, FootGolf clutches at the heartstrings from the off.
It's an emotional game. One where every missed shot will feel like you should have done better. Like a misplaced pass in football, simple putts can easily trickle agonisingly wide, even if you've made that shot a million times before. Newcomers will likely power their way down the first hole (I sure did), before realising delicacy is key.
After making the obvious mistakes, it quickly became apparent this is a thinking player's game. Subtle bumps must be weighed up, as should the weather, which has the potential to wreak havoc if the wind sets in. There are no gimmes in FootGolf; if your ball lands in the trees, among a rubble of sticks, you've still got to play the shot.
This is where the trusty scoop would come in handy, but alas, it is one of the game's illegal shots. Chips must be dinked in a short and sharp manner, not flicked into the air with a soft movement. Alongside this, the “sole roll” isn't permitted, meaning the bottom of your foot cannot be used on the top of the ball to ease home putts.
My front nine was played under relaxed conditions, in the company of my brother Mike, our friend Tom and FootGolf regional development manager Richard Brown. While we provided gentle encouragement and ribbed each other after most shots, this isn't a sport for the BASEketball enthusiast. You won't get away with telling competitors their “Mom's going out with SQUEAK,” nor will a two-man sack race settle any tied scores.
While the "happy dance" may be deployed after a fine putt, FootGolf has already developed its own etiquette. There's an air of respect around the course, whether players rifle home an excellent shot or take on the role of lumberjack with a tree-snapping miscue.
Individual style is encouraged, meaning early adopters have the chance to shape exactly what it means to be a FootGolfer. My attempt at unearthing the "Fosbury Flop" of FootGolf came with a straight, bouncing drive down the fairway. I was immediately branded “Knuckleball” after accidentally appearing to have a measured technique from the tee. Further habits were also picked up on, adding to both the camaraderie and personality of the game.
My brother—who caressed the ball like Mother Swan coaxing her cygnets to water for the first time—became known as "Delicate Delicious" after stroking in a smooth putt from the edge of the green. Our friend left the course with the ironic tag of "Tommy Tekkers," such was the tactfulness behind his tee shot technique which can only be described as "beef foot."
Importantly, no matter the approach, our scores all remained extremely close throughout. We all took the lead, landed surprisingly well-placed shots, and screwed up the simplest of opportunities. The fact I entered the final hole in first position and finished last on the overall scoreboard highlighted what an entertaining and excruciating challenge FootGolf offers.
At no point did victory or the wooden spoon become out of reach for any of us. Even when shots travelled wildly out of bounds, there was always the chance to make up for it by nailing the next opportunity.
Holes range from a tight 74 yards to 154 yards at the Gillingham course, meaning your foot will need to morph into a full kitbag of clubs. Precise players will revel across shorter distances, while those who grew up watching Julian Dicks will thrive when thwacking down longer trials. If you can wallop the ball a solid 50 yards from the tee, you're ready to compete.
One of FootGolf's most impressive aspects is how naturally the game fits together. Holes are challenging, fair and require concentration until the very last (as I found out).
Most importantly, once the final scorecards are in, an immediate yearning to go again appears. Just a few rounds are needed to improve your game and weigh up the opportunity to join the UK's competitive rankings.
FootGolf is a truly international sport, however, with 20 associations currently highlighted on the UK site. This year's No. 1 player will fly to United States to compete in the 2014 US Pro-Am FootGolf Tour. The rankings close in October, meaning you've got a couple of months to practice before taking to local events in preparation for the next season's play.
The competitive scene, like everything else in FootGolf, is developing rapidly. It's easy to see why new courses and players are popping up all over the UK. This is an immediately entertaining, rewarding and addictive sport, especially if you've got a score to settle next time you head onto the course.
A huge thank you to Richard for showing me the ropes, as well as Mike and Tom for taking time to provide the competition. Be sure to follow Kent FootGolf, UK FootGolf and take a peek at the official website for more information.
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