Let’s talk about revenue streams and the cold hard reality: With a golf course, you’ve got 150-200 acres of space, and while a good day might bring 150-200 players, that’s really not a very efficient use of that space. It makes perfect sense for golf course operators to seek out alternative uses for that space — uses that produce alternative/additional revenue streams without adversely affecting the traditional golf revenue stream.
Pardon the pun, but we’re seeing one stream in particular, footgolf, gaining a real foothold in this regard. We’re working with three different golf properties (two of them operated by municipalities) that have done considerably more than dip their toes in these waters. Okay, that was two puns, but hear me out.
Footgolf is an alternative form of the game where you kick a regulation soccer ball down a “fairway” and putt out, using one’s feet, into a cup measuring 21 inches across. It’s a lot like disc golf in that no clubs are required, and multiple footgolf holes can be fit into a single, regulation par-4. Indeed, you can comfortably route 18 holes in the space of 9 regulation golf holes.
To varying degrees we’ve been involved in helping lay out these footgolf tracks. It’s really more integration than design, because the golf holes need no substantial alterations — just clever/practical use of the terrain. Footgolf putting surfaces/cups are easily positioned off to the side of fairways and greens, meaning outside the traditional paths of play. This reduces traffic on or around a golf course’s most expensive, traffic-sensitive asset: traditional golf greens.
However, our clients confirm what others have found — namely, that traditional golfers and footgolfers can basically alternate off the first tee without any sort of log jamming. Footgolfers rarely lose their balls; they take way fewer practice swings (!), and so far they seem committed to upholding the traditions of golf etiquette, including attire — indeed, some are partial to knee-high argyle socks. Yikes.
“It’s a mix. Some courses alternate footgolfers and golfers off the first tee, but there are courses that devote specific times for footgolf, mainly at twilight, 2-7 p.m.,” said Carlos Stremi of the Illinois Footgolf Association. “It works out well. Footgolf is mostly for soccer players and they play Saturday mornings, so their weekday and weekend afternoons are perfect for footgolf.”
Our clients at Tipton (Indiana) Golf Course are pretty far along in this experiment. Our firm did an asset management plan (AMP) for this facility, working up a series of course-related renovation work over the next few years. But it turns out Director of Golf Rusty Ripberger had more diverse plans for Tipton.
“A friend of mine told me about footgolf last fall,” Ripberger said, in late April. “So I got in touch with American Footgolf League [www.footgolf.net]. There were 6 facilities in the country at that time. Now there are 100!
“We haven’t done any advertising, just a few things on our Facebook site and a listing on the American Footgolf site. Our first customers came from Ft. Wayne and Terre Haute, which are 2-3 hour drives from here! Right now, we’re the only course around. There’s one south of Indianapolis and another just southeast of Chicago, but right now, we’re in a good spot. Since our first customers, we have had more customers drive from Ft. Wayne. Right now, we definitely feel we have a competitive advantage.”
Ripberger says he charges footgolfers the normal 9-hole green fee: $12 on weekdays, $13 on weekends.
Mike Sprouse is golf course superintendent at the park district-owned Randall Oaks and Bonnie Dundee golf clubs in Dundee Township, Illinois, on the other side of Chicago. Our firm, Lohmann Golf Designs (www.lohmanncompanies.com), worked with Sprouse and Stremi to lay out 18 holes on one nine at the Bonnie Dundee facility. After a demo day May 17, they opened the footgolf course on May 31. The plan was to continue offering footgolf exclusively on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a traditionally slow time at the course.
As a super, does Sprouse see a maintenance impact from footgolf?
“There is no agronomic impact whatsoever,” he says. “In fact, we have some former fairway bunkers that have been grassed over, in the rough, and these are going to make fantastic footgolf greens. Fantastic!
“This is exactly what golf needs: an outside-the-box, creative opportunity to bring non-traditional people to the course. We’re not growing new golfers that fast, if at all, so this is a good thing.”
Stremi said that Sprouse and Bonnie Dundee were typical of the process: Sprouse reached out to the American Footgolf League (AFL), which referred him to Stremi and his state footgolf organization. Our firm was included for the routing process and, I have to say, it was a mutually beneficial experience. I learned a lot about how footgolf works, as Stremi (not a golfer) essentially test-drove the course as we created it. By the same token, it was the architect in me that identified those former bunkers as primo footgolf putting complexes. They are fantastic.
There were a dozen little things a good, open-minded golf course architect can/should bring to this process, most of them centered around the realization of golf strategies and challenges. For example, we stretched the proposed par-3 13th at Bonnie Dundee because it played markedly downhill. We moved the tee on 14 to take advantage of a natural valley that provided the perfect “lane” for a tee shot. We also suggested that Bonnie Dundee not worry too much about achieving a par of 36 for each nine. Why should footgolfers care about that?
Long story short, a good footgolf course definitely needs to be as strategic as a regular golf course. That strategy can be blunt — like positioning a green or tee in a copse of trees, requiring players to thread the needle — or it can be subtle, like placing a putting surface just behind a small mound, requiring approaches from one side of the fairway or another, in order to get it close.
Sprouse indicated the all-in financial commitment at Bonnie Dundee has been some $5,000, and that was mainly to buy (from the AFL) those special 21-inch cups, which are installed by shovel (no cup-cutters that size; not yet). He indicated that reserving footgolf play to Saturday and Sunday afternoons is the start-out plan, and because the footgolf 18 fits onto a single nine, he can reserve one side for golf and the other for footgolf. He has not experienced the sifting in of traditional and foot golfers, but he doesn’t see why that wouldn’t work, too.
“We’re going to introduce footgolf in these weekend slots and build from there. If we get requests for it, we’ll expand,” Sprouse says. “But we plan to reach out to soccer groups about this. I think they’re going to love it. We have approximately 1,000 soccer names in the Dundee Park District database. There are soccer clubs all around us. They’ll be hearing from us.”
While Sprouse consulted Stremi and the experts at Illinois FootGolf Association, Ripberger went about creating his course pretty much alone. He got the yardage distance from the AFL website, which included several good suggestions, he said: Make sure it’s long enough for better players (who can kick it 70-90 yards), but make it enjoyable for average players (who generally whack it 40-50). I kidded him that he’s starting to sound just like a golf course architect.
“Exactly!” he said with a laugh. “I grabbed a couple high school soccer players to test it out, get their thoughts. You definitely want the holes off to the side, along the tree lines, which makes it more of a challenge and doesn’t disturb the flow of traditional golfers so much. I also read about some challenges via obstacles. We have a small tree nursery, and we run the course through there. This past weekend we had four players show up — they’re all former soccer players from the University of St. Francis. That was their favorite hole.”
Ripberger said it was their first time footgolfing, “but they showed up in golf shirts and khaki shorts. On the AFL site, they’re pretty adamant about wearing proper golf attire… I gave them a course map (we’ll print up scorecards at some point), told them about pace of play (2 hours or so), told them to play from the orange tees to the orange flags, and off they went. One of the guys was a golfer, so he knew how to handle himself and there was no issue with other golfers.
“On Sunday, a dad and his kid came out. They weren’t golfers or soccer players. They came up on a twosome and just played behind them. I asked afterward and the golfers said they just went about their business — which, personally, I found a bit surprising. I think if you take your die-hard golfers, the reaction might be different. Just my opinion. But they all seem to get along.”
Sprouse agreed there is potential for a conflict of cultures but has yet to see it: “We’re pretty conservative, but I can’t see why it’s not going to work. At a club in Florida I talked to, some of the elderly clients who play traditional golf were concerned how this might impact their experience. The fear of the unknown. But it had no impact on their experience, and now they’re accepting and comfortable with it. We get a lot of senior play here also, but I do not foresee any problems.
“In addition to creating an additional revenue source, what we’re trying to do here with footgolf is bring people to the golf course who may never have been on a golf course before — in hopes that they may also be interested in trying conventional golf. We want to introduce the experience of being on a golf course to multiple demographics.
“I mean, there is not a game you can play in traditional golf that you can’t play in footgolf: medal, match, scramble, Stableford, alternate shot, best ball… Think of the scramble: A novice doesn’t have to worry about a bad shot. You could do outings.”
In fact, Bonnie Dundee will host its first footgolf outing June 22.
There is genuine excitement about footgolf out there, among the right sort of golf facility. It feels pretty real. You can tell Ripberger feels he’s onto something big.
“We have a Facebook page. We don’t post a lot, maybe pictures or an event that’s going on,” Ripberger explains. “That Saturday the guys from St. Francis played here, we posted it on Facebook afterward. Since then we’ve had 1,085 views [that was the figure as of May 19; the item continues to draw interest], which makes it the no. 2 most-viewed item on our Facebook page. No. 1 was a major flood we had here last spring, worst flood in county history.
“Again, I haven’t promoted or marketed this. We’re still busy with high school golf in the evenings and I’m a bit worried that they might get in the way of each other. When you have the no. 1 sport in the world, and you have more players in the world than any other sport, why wouldn’t you want to bring them to your golf course? I think it’s going to take off.
“I think snow boarders are a good analogy. Yes, there is some cost to putting the cups in, but it’s like installing a half-pipe on your ski slope. We’re already maintaining the property. We provide free ball rentals to grow the game, but they can bring their own. We can sell them eventually. They’re into argyle socks, so there’s another thing we can sell.”
At Columbus Park Golf Course in Chicago, they’ve done something even more canny. According to Stremi, the city built a new soccer field right next to the 6th hole on the footgolf course there. “So, they are exposing the game to this natural niche market, which is mainly Hispanic,” Stremi said. “That is what’s most impressive about working with golf courses. Most have done their homework. They don’t call me to fill out their tee times for them. They have a business plan. They have soccer clubs in their area, and this is a target audience they have studied. And they have been active here because they see the revenue stream behind it.”
If there are naysayers, they are the traditionalists. I’ve heard skeptical golf architects ask whether this will bring non-traditional players to the real game of golf. In a way, this misses the point: This is an alternative revenue stream… But why wouldn’t a footgolfer be more inclined to try real golf, once he’s been out on a dual-purpose course a dozen times, seen real golf being played all around him/her, and recognized how the strategies/challenges are so similar?
Stremi’s comments about doing our homework are well taken, and I believe they extend to the design of these facilities. If we’ve learned nothing in the last 20 years, we understand there’s little truth in “If you build it, they will come.” Proper footgolf courses are just like traditional courses: They must be designed, with all the golf strategies, to reflect the terrain and vegetation at individual properties. Ten years from now, when this is an established sport, what else will keep people coming back, or keep them from choosing the footgolf course down the street?