FootGolf merges golf, soccer at Ridgecrest in Nampa

Four times a year, staff members from MarkMonitor in Boise hold a team-building exercise at recreation venues around the Treasure Valley.

On Friday, they decided to try the latest twist on golf: FootGolf, an international sport that has seen its popularity spike in just four full years on American soil.

Ridgecrest Golf Club in Nampa added 21-inch FootGolf cups to each of the nine holes on the Wee Nine executive course this season, a first in the Valley.

“It’s a lot less stressful than hitting a golf ball,” Josh Hopping of Boise said. “Most anybody can hit a soccer ball, even if you don’t go that far.”

That’s the key to success for FootGolf, which will be played at more than 400 courses this year. It appeals to people who otherwise wouldn’t spend time at a golf course, filling gaps on the tee sheet and providing a new stream of revenue for an industry that was hit hard by the economic downturn.

“Most of the courses are saying this is just wonderful,” said Harvey Silverman, the editor of This Is FootGolf Magazine and director of media relations for the American FootGolf League. “They’re all consistent in telling us that they’re getting a new customer demographic, people who had never been a customer at the golf course before. ... They eat and drink just like real golfers.”

Ridgecrest was well-positioned to experiment with FootGolf because it has the Wee Nine in addition to its championship 18. FootGolf holes are much shorter than golf holes anyway, so the smaller course is a good fit. And Ridgecrest can offer the sport without losing any tee times on the 18-hole course.

The only other accredited course in Idaho is at Teton Lakes Golf Course in Rexburg.

“It’s just been phenomenal,” Ridgecrest head pro Scott Nicholes said. “... It’s definitely brought in a whole different clientele.”

FootGolf at Ridgecrest costs $10 for adults and $5 for juniors (17 and younger). Ball rentals are $3. It’s allowed anytime Monday-Friday and after 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

The sport generally follows golf rules (use a No. 5 soccer ball). Golfers and footgolfers share tee boxes, but the holes at Ridgecrest are placed in the rough well short of the actual greens.

Ridgecrest’s FootGolf holes range from an 82-yard par-3 to a 225-yard par-5 from the back tees. That’s a little shorter than championship requirements for FootGolf, which have minimums of 98 yards for par-3s, 187 yards for par-4s and 267 yards for par-5s.

The AFGL estimates recreational players average 35-40 yards per kick, average soccer players get 65 yards and pros average 90-100 yards.

The MarkMonitor group found par difficult to attain.

“I think that’s the World Cup athletes,” Hopping said.

Added Stefanie Ellis: “You can’t even see where the hole is (from the tee). I don’t understand how people can do that — especially kicking it, I don’t know how you can be that precise.”

The world’s best footgolfers, Silverman said, are former soccer pros in places like Argentina, Holland and Italy.

The sport will hold its second World Cup in 2016 and is starting to get some big-purse events in the U.S. The Tacoma (Wash.) FootGolf Open, played near the site of golf’s U.S. Open, will carry a $50,000 purse this year.

“These (pros) are guys that have picked up the sport because it utilizes many of the same skills they had and used on the soccer pitch but they can’t play that as competitively as they used to,” Silverman said.

But like golf, the heart of FootGolf is the recreational player.

At Ridgecrest, FootGolf draws families, teenagers and soccer clubs. One club has visited four times and told the pro shop to expect a huge turnout this summer.

“What we’re looking to do is develop this as a national sport,” Silverman said.

And along the way, FootGolf may actually help golf. The AFGL won’t accredit a course that isn’t on a golf course. City parks have been denied, Silverman said.

The AFGL wants FootGolf to be played under similar conditions to golf and sees its sport as a complement to its elder. Silverman encourages courses to offer footgolfers a bucket of range balls and a club to borrow to experiment.

“If this works as a way that it grows golfers out of the FootGolf community, that’s great,” Silverman said.

For now, the golfers and footgolfers generally are separate groups — and part of the first-year FootGolf experience is teaching them how to co-exist.

Nicholes expected to spend most of his education time informing golfers about the new sport and why it won’t hurt the course — players aren’t allowed to wear soccer cleats, and holes are kept away from the putting greens — but instead has focused his efforts on teaching etiquette to the footgolfers.

The MarkMonitor group, a ninesome, was allowed to play through by a threesome of golfers.

“A couple people came by, and they were really intrigued by it because they have not seen it before,” Hopping said. “It was actually nice — all the golfers were real respectful.”