Months ago, a group of people clutching soccer balls on the well-manicured links of Sacramento’s Haggin Oaks golf course would have turned heads — and perhaps even sent a few caddies scrambling for security.
Not so much any more.
The fans of Tiger Woods have been getting to know the followers of Landon Donovan.
Haggin Oaks is one of the latest courses to open to FootGolf, a hybrid of soccer and golf that developed in Europe and is sweeping the United States. The first World Cup of FootGolf was held in Hungary in 2012 (Bela Lengyel of the host nation emerged victorious) and tournaments in Northern California are drawing increasing numbers.
Haggin Oaks hosted 144 participants in July’s Northern California FootGolf Open. The game is also offered at courses in Modesto and Sonoma. The Sacramento FootGolf Open will also come to Bing Maloney Golf Course on the south side of Sacramento in November.
That’s to say, soccer balls are becoming as common on some putting greens as Titleist golf caps.
“It’s golf, it’s soccer, it’s the best game ever,” said Rachel Bennett on a recent sunny afternoon at Haggin Oaks, where, clad in long pink socks and a wedge cap, she was playing with four friends. “My daughter and I are out here every other weekend.”
Think of FootGolf as something like soccer — without the sprinting or sweating. Each player uses a standard size 5 soccer ball and takes turns kicking through a golf course, aiming for a FootGolf hole that’s 21 inches in diameter. The FootGolf holes at Haggin Oaks are permanent fixtures, with orange flags marking them and blue flags for standard golf holes.
Like other golfers enjoying an afternoon on the links, FootGolf players cruise to each hole in golf carts, with tall cans of Heineken sometimes occupying the drink holders. Also similar to golf: all 18 FootGolf holes have a par, which at Haggin Oaks range from three to five. The current course record stands at 63.
“The numbers of players are growing steadily,” said Karl Van Dessel, recently hired as Haggin Oaks’ FootGolf manager. “On Labor Day we had 90 players, which set a record for a single non-tournament day.”
Locally, the word about FootGolf has spread primarily through players in recreational soccer leagues. That’s how Sal Concilla, who plays on an outdoor soccer team in Roseville, first heard about the game. However, the notion of splicing soccer and golf into a sport confused him at first.
“What do you mean we’re going to play soccer on a golf course?” said Concilla, remembering his introduction to the game. “Do I need shin guards?”
Many FootGolfers have quickly become hooked. They’ve found the game to be good way to hone kicking skills, from long-range blasts meant to drive toward a hole 58 to 204 yards away, to delicate “putts” that need to be navigated around slopes and trees.
Accomplishing all this with golf carts instead of soccer’s usual wind sprints adds to the appeal for many.
“You don’t have to be in shape and dribble past somebody,” Concilla said. “You just have to kick the ball around. It’s like target shooting, and you get to enjoy a nice day.”
Getting to know you
Despite increased familiarity, many golfers and their kicking cousins are still in the “getting-to-know-you” phase at Haggin Oaks.
On a recent September day, the sight of Bennett and Concilla’s group, with their long socks and multicolored soccer balls, drew a wrinkled brow from Earl Schoen. He was lining up a putt on an adjacent hole, but paused as the players whooped it up nearby.
FootGolfers tend to be an animated bunch. Well-aimed kicks and successful eagle shots tend to elicit quick shouts of “woooo!” from this bunch. Plus, the long-range punt of a soccer ball adds a formidible “thump!” sound.
That’s exactly what Schoen doesn’t want to hear as he’s lining up a shot.
“I think you could play this game anywhere — except the golf course,” Schoen said. “It’s a distraction. Soccer is more of a fun, loud sport. Golf is quieter.”
FootGolfers are encouraged to learn golf course etiquette. Golf traditionally has a very low tolerance for disturbances, distractions and tomfoolery on the putting green.
Other common courtesies include keeping up with the pace of play and dressing appropriately with a collared shirt — not like some hooligan in a tank-top and sweatpants.
In fact, the first basic rule for FootGolf at Haggin Oaks is for players to adopt appropriate course attire, and the FootGolf masses seem to relish the opportunity to play the part.
Most of the quintet playing on this day had never stepped onto a course before playing FootGolf. Their background comes from the soccer field and its regalia of shinguards and shiny shorts. Van Dessel prefers to shadow newbie FootGolfers on their first couple holes, offering practical course advice and reminders about etiquette.
Roberto Balestrini of Palm Springs, founder of the American FootGolf League (AFGL), acted as a consultant for the Haggin Oaks FootGolf course, which opened in July.
The FootGolf course at Haggin Oaks is designed to run in close proximity to the standard golf greens, but not to get in the way. The 18-hole FootGolf course is played over the front nine of Haggin Oaks’ Arcade Creek course, but with dedicated greens for each sport. The players of the two sports will sometimes see each other but not compete for space.
The AFGL takes the sport seriously, not like a soccer-based scene from “Caddyshack.” Its list of rules emphasizes discipline and sportsmanship, plus proper scoring and game play.
For the most part, the FootGolfers and traditional golfers have co-existed fairly well on this course.
“Golfers are golfers, and they can be very protective,” Van Dessel said. “But all types play and not all are upset that others are intervening (on their turf).”
Bennett spots the orange flag 126 yards away, takes four running steps and gives her soccer ball a power kick.
Bennett’s so stoked on FootGolf that she and Concilla once played four rounds in a single day.
Each game of FootGolf takes about two hours and 15 minutes, about half the time of a typical 18-hole golf game. While first-time golfers usually score in the triple digits, most FootGolfers tend to land in the mid-80s for their first game.
A round of FootGolf costs $15 for 18 holes walking, $23 if you ride in a cart. Juniors walking costs $7. The game is offered seven days a week. Reservations can be made by calling the pro shop (916) 808-2525.
Little in the way of specialized FootGolf gear has reached the market so far, save for the official AFGL ball made by Senda that features small dimples — like a a golf ball — and is made of lightweight material for longer driving kicks.
More customized equipment seems destined to come soon. In just four years since being created in the Netherlands, FootGolf has spread to 30 countries.
FootGolf requires expert leg-eye coordination for one to excel. Launching the ball perfectly down the fairway, all while avoiding trees and sand traps, might even challenge World Cup soccer stars.
Putting the ball from a short distance seems to frustrate players the most, especially when an incline is involved. In defiance of conventional wisdom from youth soccer coaches, toe-poke kicks are recommended for short-distance FootGolf shots.
The five-person game winds down after two hours, marked by a ball getting stuck in a tree and a little good-natured trash talk. Carlo Ammatuna, who has played FootGolf only twice before, finds the game a perfect fit.
“As far as golf goes, I might get to the driving range, but I’ve been too shy about going to a course,” Ammatuna said. “I wonder, ‘Am I holding people up?’ But I loved soccer and this was a lot of fun.”
Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias