Think of this sport as golf...but with a soccer ball, no clubs and your foot

They did not wear the flat caps or knee-high argyle socks preferred for formal play. They were not fully conversant with the game’s relatively simple rules. Nor did they bring their own balls to the Occoneechee Golf Club near Hillsborough, where their respective scores over 18 holes wandered into triple digits.

Yet late on a hot afternoon in July, the married couple from Burlington were clearly pleased after spending 90 minutes kicking their way across 2.7 miles of roughs, fairways, cart paths, and water and sand hazards. “I like the fast pace of it,” said Nathan Lambe. “This is fun. I’ll definitely come back over here.”

The game commanding the Lambes’ time and enthusiasm was FootGolf, which involves kicking a soccer ball around a segment of golf course, aiming for specially installed holes about the diameter of a garbage can lid (21 inches). As in golf, the fewer the strokes, the better the score.

“It was just an extension, a better service we could provide without having an impact on the existing business,” explains Scott Ray, general manager at Occoneechee, a family enterprise for 52 years. “Hopefully it will encourage younger people, and we have seen that, to come to the facility and participate.”

Officially launched in The Netherlands in 2008, FootGolf was introduced on American soil in 2011. Sanctioned FootGolf is conducted solely on golf courses, allowing two sports to coexist in the same general area through judicious hole placement and staggered start times.

FootGolf has spread to more than 250 courses in 48 states, including 15 in North Carolina, according to the American FootGolf League. The AFGL will host four pro-am tournaments in the United States this year, with prize money and other rewards offered.

FootGolf is embraced not only for its own sake, but as a tool for revitalizing traditional golf, which has seen a decline nationally in the number of courses and participants. States like North Carolina have seen development pressure intensify competition for land in urbanized areas, a fate currently causing course closings in Wake Forest and Fuquay-Varina, as reported in The N&O.

That commercial landscape makes attracting couples like the Lambes, both 29, and those considerably younger, a key to both sports’ future health.

“If you’re farming you can get into doing some kind of agritourism, or you can change crops or you might put in a solar farm and do other things, and still be able to use your property and what you’ve got committed,” Rays says of diversifying his course’s offerings. “But in the golf business it’s difficult to do that.”

A sport without stars

So far, at least in the Triangle, interest in FootGolf has advanced more by word of mouth and happenstance than by aggressive advertising. Nathan Lambe, for instance, discovered FootGolf while watching MTV several years ago. A postal carrier, he plays golf weekly.

But Chloe Lambe, an employee of a sports supplement company, hadn’t played since she was a member of her high school golf team. FootGolf brought her back to the golf course. “It’s something like a couples activity,” she says of FootGolf, portrayed by boosters as a family pursuit. “And it’s not very common, so it’s something we can tell our friends that they haven’t done.”

Sensitive to course etiquette, the Lambes kept a decidedly low profile as others played golf nearby at Occoneechee. But that didn’t prevent the athletic pair from approaching FootGolf with the passion of inveterate competitors. “He’s competitive with the grass,” Chloe Lambe says of her husband.

In fact, the couple compete in a variety of sports including volleyball and ping pong. Kicking soccer balls supplied by the golf course, both Lambes started from the men’s yellow tee marker even though there is a shorter, women’s alternative. Nathan Lambe’s booming tee shots traveled far, but as often as not in unpredictable fashion. Cloe Lambe tried for less power but greater control.

Happily, and with no manipulation, the Lambes finished with identical scores on their first FootGolf foray.

“Sometimes golf moves a little bit too slow for me,” Nathan Lambe says. “This is more active.” By all accounts he speaks for many his age and younger who prefer an alternative to what The Economist, in dissecting golf’s business woes, politely called its “calm pace” that “may no longer fit in with modern lifestyles.”

Many factors beyond pace are cited as possibly undermining golf’s appeal. The sport lacks a popular star to command the attention once riveted by Tiger Woods’ masterful play. The recent recession, limiting disposable income, depleted the ranks of casual golfers. The increasing difficulty of newer courses also supposedly deter converts to the game.

Soccer ties

FootGolf, in contrast, is viewed as appealing to those not ordinarily drawn to golf. Players’ equipment needs are modest – cleatless soccer shoes and a regulation No. 5 soccer ball. (The infrastructure costs to append the sport to a golf course are similarly minimal.) FootGolf requires a low level of technical skill, unlike golf; almost any person with healthy limbs and joints and good balance can kick a ball. Courses in Hillsborough and Raleigh charge as little as $10 per person without use of a cart, far less than a conventional golf game.

FootGolf also has the virtue of tapping into soccer’s strong grassroots popularity.

“The interest that I’m already getting from the soccer community on the sport is unbelievable,” Ted Bishop, president of PGA of America, said last year. “I think the thing that excites me is that you’ve got the chance here to bring people in who are soccer-crazy and to give them the opportunity to go to the golf course, experience some things on the course. And I think it would be ludicrous to think there won’t be a percentage of those people that might say, ‘Hey, you know what? I think I’d like to try and play golf.’”

That hopeful prospect led Bishop and the PGA to launch a “Growth of the Game” task force, since disbanded, to explore widening golf’s reach through nontraditional means, FootGolf prominent among them. Sharing an interest in broadening the game’s market options, Occoneechee Golf Club and The Raleigh Golf Association (RGA), a course near downtown, introduced FootGolf this past spring. Both were prodded in part by local soccer aficionados.

“We want to be sure that we give both parties that come here a good experience,” Ray said the other day as about three dozen FootGolf players descended on his course. More commonly, Occoneechee attracts about two dozen FootGolfers per week. When the Lambes played, they were the only non-golfers present.

RGA intends to bolster promotion of FootGolf when N.C. State students return to school a month from now. “We’re pretty confident that once State gets back in session, and the normal summer league for CASL (Capital Area Soccer League) and all those things slow down, that we’ll get a pretty good crowd to come out and play FootGolf,” says Wayne Ackley, RGA’s operations chairperson.

Ackely anticipates the establishment of local FootGolf teams, leagues and tournaments. “I think it’s going to be a very popular sport, something different and new,” he says. “It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the golf industry.”