Louise Ramsay finds out more from UK FootGolf Association president Mike O’Connor
At first, footgolf sounds slightly daft. Combining football and golf into one sport, instead of golf clubs and a golf ball, small groups of players use their feet to propel a football around a golf course, landing it in a series of appropriately sized holes – the one who does it in the least amount of shots being the winner.
Involving a flat cap, long shorts and knee-high Argyle socks, the footgolf look is also a tad eccentric. Sort of Great Expectations crossed with 1930’s golf pro, it’s kind of fun and stylish too and, a bit like easy-to-wear dressing up, would certainly get one in the mood to have a game.
Most importantly, footgolf sounds playable. After all, anyone can kick a ball, can’t they? Which is indeed a huge part of footgolf’s appeal.
“I’d been thinking about a version of footgolf for about 10 years,” UK FootGolf Association president Mike O’Connor says. “I’d always played amateur football and very bad amateur golf. It seemed to make more sense to me to kick a football around a golf course than try and hit a golf ball with a golf club. But it’s one thing to have an idea, another to turn it into a viable sport.”
A Dutchman called Michael Jansen is the man credited with that accomplishment. Jansen, now a Federation for International FootGolf ambassador, heard about a game his friend and former professional footballer Willem Korsten used to play. When Korsten played for Tottenham Hotspur, he and his teammates would kick a football back to the changing rooms after training, competing with each other to do it in as little time as possible.
Inspired, Jansen organised the first footgolf competition in the Netherlands in 2008. The idea spread, with the first footgolf tournament taking place in the United States in 2012 – by which time O’Connor had heard about it and got himself invited along.
“It was on the Chula Vista golf course in Wisconsin Dells,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience. I was completely jet lagged from a long flight with lots of changes and I flew in from a sunny 18C in the UK to 28C in the US. The Americans said it was warm. There weren’t any courses in the UK then, but I managed to persuade a local golf club to let me do a bit of practice and ended up coming third.”
Fired with inspiration, O’Connor came back to the UK to set up the UK FootGolf Association. “We’re here to help grow and develop the sport,” he says. “To help golf courses and schools offer it as a sport. We want every major town and city in the UK to have the access to facilities.”
Things, though, were slow getting off the ground. “It took a while to get courses in the UK on board,” O’Connor says. “The first one was a nine-hole course in Sewerby in East Yorkshire. They allowed us to play a one-off competition in September 2012, in which 104 people played. We took photos and sent them out to golf courses. A month later we ran a couple of competitions at Prestwich, then a couple of courses down south took us on and it just mushroomed. You can now play footgolf at 80 courses in the UK and by the summer it’ll be 100.”
Worldwide, the sport is also growing in popularity. “In 2012 it was in six countries, now it’s in 28,” O’Connor says. “It’s taking off all over the world and really building some pace.”
The benefit for golf courses is increased numbers of people through their doors, with new income streams not just from additional green fees, but increased spend in the golf club bar and restaurant too.
Importantly, footgolf customers are new customers. “70 per cent of footgolf players are footballers,” O’Connor says. “There are some golfers who get into it. But this is a new way to attract those retiring from football into golf. It’s a new way for footballers to use their existing skills. It also increases other golf related spend. Footgolf players are often tempted to have a go on a driving range, particularly the juniors, so it’s likely to get more people into actual golf too.”
Despite it being a popular game with footballers, anyone can play. “That’s part of the reason the public have embraced it,” O’Connor says. “Retirees, kids, three generations of a family at a time, groups, stag dos, birthdays – it reaches a wide spectrum of people, which golf just doesn’t do.”
But it’s not just a recreational game. “Some courses are more taxing,” O’Connor says. “There are elite players attracting sponsorship and competitions offering prize money. It’s all still at quite a low level, but this will become a professional game. We’re talking to the FA about using footgolf as a way to get people into football. Ex-professional players are playing it. We’re talking to TV companies about following competitions. For footgolf, the only way it can go is up.”
What’s in it for retailers?
Targeting footballers is a good start. As Mike O’Connor, president of the UK FootGolf Association, says, the majority of footgolf players are footballers who either play it because they’re playing less football as they get older or as a new sport to play alongside it.
Currently UK FootGolf is sponsored by Mitre and players use a size five football.
Rather than football boots or golf shoes, participants wear trainers. The dress code matches that of golfers using the same course, which can mean anything apart from jeans.
Golf clubs are, however, starting to stock polo shirts featuring the name of the golf club and the UK FootGolf logo, offering potential for sports shops that provide an embroidery service.