It’s unlikely soccer balls, larger holes and green-lighted use of mulligans entered into the thinking of golf’s founding fathers.
Throughout the past 10 to 15 years, a sport known to lean heavily on tradition has lost players turned off by one of any number of factors, such as cost, time, rules and the diligence required to master it.
The creative methods some golf courses are using in order to recoup some of the sport’s lost popularity run — OK, sprint — against the grain of generations of conventional golf thinking.
One such attempt at making the game more enjoyable is the use of 15-inch holes as opposed to the traditional 4¼-inch cups.
In April, PGA of America President Ted Bishop played such an exhibition event with PGA Tour professionals Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose at the Reynolds Plantation resort in Greensboro, Georgia.
“Just the visual of the 15-inch hole was very appealing,” said Bishop, general manager and director of golf at The Legends Golf Club in Franklin.
The Legends is using 15-inch holes for today’s installment of its weekly 18-hole Men’s Club gathering and last weekend utilized its par-3 layout for a FootGolf event.
A golf-soccer hybrid, FootGolf requires individuals to boot a soccer ball into a 21-inch hole in as few kicks as possible.
“I’m kind of excited from a business standpoint because I have seven FootGolf events booked. In the bigger picture I feel any time you can get people to the golf course in a pleasing environment that there will be a percentage of those people who say, ‘I would like to try golf,’” Bishop said.
“But if you’re a (course) operator introducing people to golf, you have to be careful not to alienate the traditional golfers. Eighteen uninhibited championship holes of golf. That’s my bread and butter, and I can’t lose that.”
Therein lies the tightrope Bishop and other course operators potentially must walk: Promoting the golf experience while at the same time eschewing some of the game’s traditional concepts.
FootGolf’s exact origins aren’t known, though it is believed to have originated in Spain in 2008. Its basic rules parallel those of golf, in that tee boxes and greens are bridged by fairway grass and any number of potential water or sand hazards.
Bishop is so sold on FootGolf’s potential that he is working with former Carmel High School boys soccer coach Dan Kapsalis to make it among the options at The Legends.
“At first I didn’t know Ted. A mutual friend introduced us, and Ted mentioned he wanted to bring FootGolf to Indiana and to his golf course. When he showed me the (FootGolf) video and the concept, I was like, ‘Where do I sign?’” said Kapsalis, who coached the Greyhounds for 14 years (1993-2006), winning a state championship his final season.
“Ted sees massive potential in this, and so do I. Anyone can play it, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s so much fun and has so many possible layers to it. Individual. Best ball. Match play. Scramble. You don’t lose your ball, and you can play 18 holes in two hours or under.”
Traditional golf can take from four to six hours for an 18-hole round depending on course activity and the skill level of those playing. A more difficult sell in today’s fast-paced world.
Kicking a soccer ball from tee to oversized hole requires markedly different skills than traditional golf. FootGolf’s format can also be loosened to permit mulligans and throwing the ball out of a sand bunker one or two times per round.
Potential fallout of FootGolf, enlarged putting targets and so forth is the desire for people to look forward to their next visit to a golf course without the intimidation of the traditional game.
Among the first-time FootGolf players at The Legends last weekend were Mike Daggett and his 12-year-old daughter, Megan.
“I do golf. I’m one of those guys who tries to have a good time out there even though I’m not very good,” said Daggett, a Carmel resident who is recruiting and retention superintendent for the Indiana Air National Guard.
“Playing FootGolf was a complete joy. To me, it takes the frustration right out of the game because you can always find the ball and a missed kick is a lot easier to recover from. We found ourselves running around the course almost like a soccer match.
“What I think it does is get you more familiar with golf rules and golf etiquette. I can see myself making a transition into doing a little bit of both.”
Sticking with tradition
Unlike most golf courses, The Legends, home to 27 championship holes and 18 holes devoted to par-3 play, can attempt something not considered the norm.
For traditional nine- and 18-hole courses, integrating newness is more challenging.
“We have no plans to do anything outside the box. Golf is still a great game, and the challenge is part of what brings people back. I just don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button,” Hillview Country Club pro Paul Resner said.
“I don’t see (FootGolf) as something we would do. I almost see it promoting soccer more than golf. You have to have a golf club in your hand to be promoting the game of golf.”
Hickory Stick Golf Club pro Amber Pasel said her course also will continue to focus on the traditional form of golf.
“We’re pretty busy with just the traditional golf aspects,” she said. “But if that’s the way the golf market is going, we would obviously have to adapt to it.”
At Valle Vista, fourth-year pro Brandon Bezy used this season to target the college-aged crowd for the first time.
“One new thing we did is a student discount,” Bezy said, adding a student ID permits golfers to play 18 holes with cart for $18. “We didn’t have any college kids playing, and we’ve seen a good turnout. It’s just trying to get new blood.
“I don’t think FootGolf is for us, but I do love the 15-inch cup. It’s something we’re looking into at least for a one-day tournament. We have a pretty big men’s club here, so it’s an idea we’re going to toss around.”