Still a little green but footgolf has come a fair way in no time

FootGolf is gaining traction as a popular alternative to some of the country’s more dominant traditional sports. We spoke to UK FootGolf Association Head of UK Development Gareth May to discover how they are driving participation in the right direction and to find out more about this new leisure activity, which is helping to reduce inactivity levels by getting people off their sofas and into the great outdoors.

Lucky for us as a nation of sport lovers, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the number of recreational and competitive leisure activities we have at our fingertips.

If the more mainstream sports aren’t of interest to you, or you just feel like mixing up your routine, then there is a mindboggling array of alternative sports just waiting to be discovered.

Ever tried kite surfing, walking football or netball, paintballing, dodgeball, bike polo, Frisbee golf, indoor skydiving? What about zorbing? For those partial to getting down and dirty, you might like to take the plunge and give bog snorkelling a try.

Whatever ‘alternative’ route participants decide to take in veering from the traditional, competition-driven pathway offered by the dominant sport forms, there exists a cornucopia of inventive new pastimes.

Footgolf is a fantastic example of one such sporting newcomer that encourages engagement in physical activity, and which is fun, fashionable and flourishing.

Facts and figures

Since being brought to the UK by Michael O’Connor in 2012 – the president of the UK FootGolf Association – participation figures have risen year on year.

In the summer of 2016, just under 50,000 people were playing every week.

UK FootGolf now has 100,000 member players, and the association receives around three million hits a year on its website.

‘There are now just under 200 certified footgolf courses in the UK,’ says Gareth, who is rightly proud of the progress the association has made in such a short space of time.

‘We are a lot bigger, in terms of participation figures, than some of the mainstream sports that have been going for quite a few years,’ he adds.

This, perhaps, should not be too surprising, considering the concept is a blend of two of the most popular sports in the world.

When you factor in too that us Brits like nothing better than combining our obsessions – tea and biscuits, fish and chips – it is a wonder footgolf hasn’t graced these shores for considerably longer.

Just roll up and play

Action shot: From the FootGolf UK International Open

In terms of footgolf’s demographic, the main bulk of players are adult males aged between 18 and 45, however, as the number of golf courses offering the sport continues to rise, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of older people and women giving footgolf a shot.

‘We see people aged from four right up to 84 playing,’ says Gareth.

‘It’s huge for the family market, as mums and dads can play with their kids. They don’t have to sit in the clubhouse having a coffee, they can all get out in the fresh air and play it. You don’t need to be particularly good, it’s about getting your bum off the sofa, getting outside and having some fun.

‘There’s a run-up to each shot and, if you’re playing a full 18-hole round, you may be walking three or four miles, which, depending on the course, can be over undulating or hilly terrain.’

Footgolf is an attractive alternative for those who view golf as a tad too technical for their tastes, while there is no membership fee and no expensive price tags when it comes to equipment, with start-up costs consisting simply of a pair of trainers and a football.

It has time on its side too. The helter-skelter pace of modern lifestyles mean time has become a precious commodity.

‘I don’t have the time’, is a favourite excuse for sedentary behaviour. And with a round of footgolf taking around 40 minutes on a short 9-hole course, and less than two hours on a long 18-hole course, having a game does not have to swallow up your weekend.

Joining forces

While footgolf has no link to the governing bodies of football or golf, Gareth says talks are ongoing with the English Golf Union (EGU), the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and Football Association (FA), who are interested in forging closer ties.

Certainly footgolf and golf already enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. And it is easy to understand why.

In its current fledgling stage of development, UK FootGolf relies on established golf clubs offering the hybrid activity on their course.

This benefits the club in bringing more people through its doors, at a time when participation numbers in golf have been declining.

Executives have had to rethink promotional strategies and experiment with new ways of making golf faster and more appealing. Hence the need for collaboration.

‘Ideally, and especially with competitive footgolf, it has to be played on an established golf course,’ says Gareth, who explains how the partnership works. ‘You want to use the undulations and as many features of the course as possible.

‘In terms of the hole positions, they are best put on the collars of the greens, as the grass length of golf course greens is too short. However, it is all dependent on what the course will allow us to do.

‘When a golf club has come to us saying its wants to offer footgolf, I will visit and make recommendations on the best places to put a footgolf hole position. If they’ve got a busy golf course, the last place they want a hole location is on the collar of a green, so they may then have a location off the back of a bunker or set off the edge of a fairway, or perhaps a new green.

‘There are some facilities that have set up on some spare land and created a bespoke course, and, once set up, they have created bunkers and other hazards but ultimately we want it to go on an established and mature golf course and for the players to experience the fun and the enjoyment of the course, but by kicking a football along the course instead of hitting a golf ball.’

Is there not a danger, I ask Gareth, of premature hole-in-one celebrations from the dimpled-ball brigade, who see their tee-shots land sublimely on the green before disappearing from view – only to realise on arrival at the flag that their ball had, in fact, rolled into the larger of the two holes.

No chance of that, as there are lids on the holes to prevent such an occurrence – although junior golfers are sometimes allowed to putt into the footgolf hole to make the game more attractive to them, and help stimulate grass-roots participation.

Official stamp of approval

Footgolf (and the UK FootGolf Association) is still going through the protracted accreditation phase, so is not yet formally recognised as a sport (or a governing body) by Sport England and the other home nation sports councils.

And while Gareth says this is ‘100% what we are aiming for’, adding that it has already hit all the criteria, he does not want to rush the process.

‘It is just a matter of getting it over the line, which is a complicated procedure. But as soon as that’s done, it then opens the door to significant funding for golf courses, players and obviously us as a governing body.’

A coaching manual has already been produced, but there is no logic in rolling this out and forging ahead with building a coaching workforce if there are not enough courses for the coaches to operate in.

‘We can offer coaching qualifications now if we wanted to, as we have had that signed off for the last 18 months, but we want to ensure we have a sufficient player base and enough interest first before people take their coaching qualifications.’

And when that moment arrives, it will be a whole new ball game for the British coaching industry. Quite literally.

Did you know? Some more interesting footgolf facts:

  • Footgolf president Michael O’Connor thought he had come up with the initial concept of the game, but when trying to licence it, found out footgolf was already played in a number of countries across the world.
  • The official rules in their current format were laid down in the Netherlands in 2008.
  • Competitive footgolf is still relatively new to the UK, with the first tournament held in 2013.
  • Forty member nations make up the international association.
  • USA won the 2016 Footgolf World Cup.
  • Tune in to FootGolf TV on YouTube – featuring the top weekly shots from around the world.

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