May 7, 2014

What a kick: Game that mixes soccer, golf invades Valley (video)

Footgolf, a hybrid sport combining soccer and golf that was first organized in Europe in 2008, has come to the area with a course in Madera and another in the planning stages in Visalia.

Soccer players kicking balls on a golf course usually would be a major nuisance for golfers. But because of a new sport, they have become a familiar sight at Madera Municipal Golf Course.

The reason is footgolf, a hybrid sport combining soccer and golf that was first organized in Europe in 2008. Six years later, the sport has gone global with courses in 22 countries.

The sports governing body -- the Federational for International FootGolf -- held the first World Cup of FootGolf in 2012 in Hungary, with Bela Lengyel of the host nation taking the championship.

The sport became official in the United States in 2011 and now footgolf courses are popping up across the country, with two in the central San Joaquin Valley.

In Madera, the 18-hole footgolf course was installed in January. In Visalia, a course is being planned at Valley Oaks Golf Course. With eight more opening by July, there will be 23 footgolf courses throughout California.

Eddie Gonzalez along with Fresno Fuego teammates Trevor Spurgeon, Gustavo Silva and Beau Diaz all played footgolf for the first time last week at Madera Municipal.

"This is really cool. I've never even thought of playing a sport like this," Gonzalez said. "The golf course brings you the relaxed, laid-back environment and soccer is a game you only need your feet and a ball to play."

For Silva, of Rio De Janeiro, it was his first time even stepping foot on a golf course: "It's easy to learn and it gets pretty fun once you get used to it. It's definitely something I'd like to try again."

The game follows the golf basics -- get the ball into the hole in the least amount of shots -- but instead of a driver and golf ball, you use your feet and a standard size-5 soccer ball.

All holes at Madera range from par-3's to par-5's, with lengths of 75 to 225 yards, and a par round is 72. Black-and-yellow striped pegs mark the tee box for each hole that are identified by matching checkered flags.

The footgolf course at Madera Municipal is on the golf course's front nine. Holes are 21 inches in diameter but don't share green space with the original golf course, though sometimes both golfers and foot golfers do see each other on the links.

Last week, one golfer approached the Fuego players and questioned why they would choose to play soccer at the golf club. "Let us old-timers have our fun in peace and quiet."

Course director Ron Goering said that initial response is typical at any course that's added the new sport.

"Any golfers will be hesitant to it -- it's something new and a lot of them don't like to see the course change," Goering said. "Recently, it's been more of a mixed bag with golfers. The majority of players are seniors, and a lot of them don't like the change. But the younger ones are all for it."

Nonetheless, footgolfers must be respectful of other players on the course, minding the rate of play with golfers. A round of the hybrid sport can take anywhere from an hour and 30 minutes to two hours to complete, while a round of golf is normally double that.

Footgolf has adopted a lot of rules from golf, even following the dress code (golf cap and collared shirt) though soccer apparel (jersey and soccer shorts) is welcome at Madera Municipal. Indoor soccer or turf shoes work best, but running shoes will also work. Cleats are not allowed.

A round of footgolf at Madera Municipal costs $12 to walk, $20 with a cart. Junior rounds are $8. You can bring your own ball or rent one out of the pro shop for $3.

Gonzalez scored the best among the Fuego players, setting a course record at 10 under that included eight birdies.

Said Gonzalez: "Bring out a few beers, make some friendly wagers and this easily turns into a really fun time with your buddies."

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