FootGolf: a mash-up of golf and soccer born of necessity and convenience

At a FootGolf fund-raiser hosted by the Casa Soccer League, a player lifts the pin flag as a soccer ball lands in the oversized cup at Juniata Golf Club. FootGolf is gaining fans and offers another revenue stream for golf courses.

The sun was shining and the beer was flowing.

And then, with a shotgun start, about 200 twenty- and thirtysomethings standing on a golf course in Juniata Park simultaneously kicked soccer balls with the goal of an oversize hole 50 to 100 yards away.

This is FootGolf, a mash-up of golf and soccer born of necessity and convenience: The game offers quicker play and is less expensive than golf, and it tends to attract a younger audience. The popularity of golf also is on the decline - losing 1.3 percent of its participants a year, according to American FootGolf League founder Roberto Balestrini - while soccer is gaining fans.

"There are 25 million soccer players in the U.S.," he said, "growing at 8 percent annually."

At the Juniata Golf Club, Veronica Stickelman, 34, of Fishtown, played alongside seven friends, most of whom had never tried the sport before.

"Each of us has our different strengths in terms of who's a better driver, who is better at reading the field of play - there are many different skills," she said.

Stickelman's Bloody Mary breakfast and beers throughout the day added to the allure of the game, she said, "but anybody can do it. The sport is challenging in a way similar to soccer because you're using your kicks, but it's also a mental challenge." And it's nowhere near as frustrating as golf can be, she said. "It's a lot more relaxing to be out there with a soccer ball, not having to think about which clubs to use."

Games marrying soccer and golf have been around for a long time, said Balestrini, of Palm Desert, Calif., but today's version started in the Netherlands in the early 2000s, and arrived in the United States in 2011.

Different from older versions called footballgolf, footer, and soccer-golf played in parks or on farms aiming for trees and other obstacles, FootGolf is played on established golf courses. Often alongside traditional golfers, though set off the fairways and greens, the game is offered on more than 500 golf courses in every U.S. state but North Dakota. Unlike regular golf's 100- to more than 600-yard distances, FootGolf's 18 holes (21-inch cups) are set on either the front or back nine, about 50 to 100 yards from the tee, using a No. 5 soccer ball.

Golf courses spend a lot of money on upkeep and maintenance regardless of how much business they have, so the $3,000 to $5,000 investment to add a FootGolf course can be an inexpensive way to invite a new revenue stream: $15 a round taking an hour and a half vs. four hours at about $40 for golf at a public course.

Plus, it helps introduce a younger demographic to the golf course.

"We thought we were going to get the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, but we come to find out that we're getting kids as young as 6," said Joe Slater, greenskeeper at Kresson Golf Course in Voorhees, which added FootGolf in summer 2015. The course averages 50 to 75 footgolfers a week when weather permits, as much as 20 percent of the overall clientele.

"Sometimes, grandparents will bring their grandkids out, and the grandparents can play golf and the grandchildren play FootGolf and they play together," he said. "For the most part, everybody commingles very well."

Edward Walto, 42, coach of a U15 girls' soccer team in Williamstown, N.J., uses FootGolf as a training technique.

"It's a unique concept that's able to incorporate exercise, team bonding, and soccer skills all in one session," he said. The golf course provides challenges that require foot skills and the ability to judge distances on different terrains - woods, rough grass, flat fairways.

"The best part is the bonding aspect," he said. "We're able to train in a noncompetitive environment. ... We compete three, four, or five days a week, so, to be able to not compete but still train is unique."

Juniata Golf Club added FootGolf late last summer. "We're doing it mainly to generate more money," said general manager Robert Wheeler. "We're a nonprofit organization on a tight budget, and it's another opportunity to gain more income."

His concerns about potential damage, especially to the greens, have been unfounded. Sunday's event with Northeast Philly's Casa Soccer League - which also functioned as a fund-raiser to provide scholarships for the Shane Kelly Memorial Fund - was just the second it has had, but Wheeler has been coordinating with other groups and may even host its own league someday.

Unlike other courses, though, when FootGolf tournaments are held, the course is closed to regular golfers, said Wheeler.

"The golf balls," he said, "would be all over the place."