E.A. Sports Today

Bend it like … Bubba?

Anniston becomes first in state to fully embrace FootGolf, sport debuts at McClellan Saturday

Anniston city golf director Kenny Szuch (L) and Jackson Johnson display the containers that will serve as holes for the introductory FootGolf course being set up adjacent to the soccer complex at McClellan.

Anniston city golf director Kenny Szuch (L) and Jackson Johnson display the containers that will serve as holes for the introductory FootGolf course being set up adjacent to the soccer complex at McClellan.

Here is the American FootGolf League logo. In the cover photo, a player hits his "drive" in a FootGolf event (notice the golf tee next to his plant foot).

Here is the American FootGolf League logo. In the cover photo, a player hits his “drive” in a FootGolf event (notice the golf tee next to his plant foot).

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

A strategically applied foot wedge from the trees might be the object of scorn among serious players on a traditional golf course, but it promises to be celebrated grandly in a new sport being introduced by city recreation officials this weekend.

Actually, improving your position with your foot is the preferred way in FootGolf, an activity golf organizations hope generates interest in their game – especially in the 18-35 demographic where it’s losing ground – and could spark use of the city’s municipal golf course.

When the city introduces the sport Saturday with a three-hole test course near the soccer complex at McClellan, Anniston will become the first market in Alabama to fully invest in FootGolf. The sport is a hybrid of soccer and golf — played under the rules of golf on a traditional golf course — that’s growing in popularity nationwide.

“The more I find out about it the more excited I get about it,” city recreation director Steven Folks said. “This thing is booming and we want to be the first in the state to do this. It’ll be something new. Everybody likes something new.”

The sport came to the United States from Europe and South America and, with the formal certification of Anniston last week, is now in 40 states domestically. It’s big in Florida and California, played on some of the most revered and well manicured courses in the country – even PGA of America president Ted Bishop is introducing it on his private course in Indiana.

Anniston officials plan to unveil the sport in conjunction with the opening day of their fall youth soccer season that is expected to draw nearly 400 participants. The test course will have a par-3, a par-4 and a par-5 hole between 65 and 160 yards and is expected to remain open throughout the fall with designated times of operation. While officials won’t comment on future plans, a venue like Anniston Municipal Golf Course would seem a perfect fit for its permanent home.

“We’re very happy every time we get to add in a new state,” American FootGolf League president Laura Balestrini said in a phone interview from her office in Palm Springs, Cal. “We’d like to have a course in every state in the U.S.

“Alabama is a great golf state and it seems FootGolf follows with states heavy into golf. We’re getting people in and up and running faster than we thought. We’ve seen some of it (start) slow and we have to introduce it into the community and it is actually to the point where they’ve got people waiting out their door.”

While formal numbers weren’t immediately available, Balestrini is “pretty confident” upwards of 20,000 are playing the sport on a regular basis at the 200 certified courses nationwide every month. She said there are courses in the Kansas City area that do 1,600 rounds in a month, four in California that each do more than 1,000, and one in Washington that did 1,200 in its first month of operation.

Those type numbers appeal to golf operators everywhere and to Anniston officials who for years have been wrestling with ways to make The Hill more profitable – or at least less of a strain on the city budget.

The 80-year-old course has a small but passionately loyal base of golfers, but it struggles to generate revenue in a community with seven public access golf courses. Officials anticipate some resistance at first, but are confident over time the two activities can co-exist.

FootGolf is played just like golf, with the same rules, only with a soccer ball and oversized cups. Players can ride carts or walk. FootGolf holes will not be positioned on the greens, rather in a designated closely mown area in the rough.

The two activities would not be played on the course at the same time and FootGolf likely would be offered at the least active times for the traditional game. But on larger facilities both styles can be played on opposite sides of the course and it has been envisioned, given the proper pace of play, alternating groups would share the same side.

“FootGolf was designed and built to be like golf and played with obstacles,” Balestrini said, noting there are no free-standing FootGolf courses in the system. “It needs the bunkers, undulations, water hazards to make the game interesting and show the skill. We don’t ever want to see it go into the parks. We want to see it on the golf courses and be good for both.

“I’ve only twice in the three years I’ve been doing this had an angry golfer say I don’t like this stuff. Even with the older core golfer, when they first hear it, it scares them because they think it’s on the greens. When they learn nobody’s running on them in cleats and players are adhering to the dress code, it eases their mind. Then they watch it … and think it’s something I can play with my grandkids.”

The sport will be introduced here to juniors, but Anniston’s director of golf operations Kenny Szuch envisions being “inundated” with adults, particularly soccer teams looking for a fun alternative to team bonding and practice.

Anniston golfer Jake Goggans recently watched a FootGolf video from California on YouTube. He thought the sport was “pretty cool” and had a chance to resonate with youth. “It seems to fill a need,” he said. “Anything for kids has a chance to take off. I’d try it out, sure.”

Chet Hallman, the pro at the Silver Wings Golf Course at Fort Rucker, set up a three-hole FootGolf course on his grounds in June and had more than 100 children participate. He still receives inquiries about the progress of a permanent course and is hopeful of introducing it in the spring, but the logistics of his facility has prevented it from beating out Anniston for the initial in-state market.

“It will explode, because it’s starting to explode nationwide,” Szuch predicted. “These places are packed. I’m looking at a picture right now of a tournament with a 144-man shotgun start all dressed in Tam O’ Shanters and knickers — and everyone is sitting in the cart with a soccer ball.”

And that, in turn, they hope inspires more rounds of golf and increased revenue. The Washington course distributed tickets to its FootGolf players for a free golf seminar and its PGA instructor reported one of six who came for the lessons were from FootGolf.

“If it creates one more golfer in our community, it’s one more than we had,” Szuch said.

Al Muskewitz is Content Editor/Senior Writer of East Alabama Sports Today. To comment on this story or pitch a story idea, reach him at musky@wrightmediacorp.com and follow him on Twitter @easportstoday1.

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