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This New Sport Is Golf Without the Clubs

4 minute read

Before playing a round of golf last summer just outside of Columbus, Ohio, Bob Clanin noticed something strange: dozens of soccer balls sitting in the clubhouse. Turns out that the course also offered a game called footgolf, an emerging soccer-golf hybrid in which players boot a ball over a course and into a nearly 2-ft.-wide cup with as few kicks as possible. Clanin thought little of it until the fourth hole, when he looked around the course. “Every footgolfer–the parents, kids, everyone–was having fun,” says Clanin. “Every golfer looked miserable. I thought, What are we doing here?”

As anyone who’s sliced a drive or shanked a putt knows, golf can be an especially frustrating sport. The game is a good walk spoiled, according to the line apocryphally credited to Mark Twain, and indeed weather, physics and nerves have a way of conspiring against even the most seasoned duffers. Just learning how to strike a ball cleanly and on the fairway can require years of practice. But most everyone can kick a soccer ball–and it takes a lot less pricey gear. That realization prompted Michael Jansen, an ad executive in the Netherlands, to develop a version of the game that became footgolf in 2009. The idea took off in soccer-mad countries, and soon there were tournaments in Europe and South America. And after years on the margins, the game is increasingly being embraced in the U.S., which now has a national tournament and a fast-growing list of courses.

The timing is no accident. Behind stars like Jordan Spieth, professional golf may finally be waking up from its post-Tiger slump. But the recreational game is mired in a long decline. Golf has lost some 5 million players over the past decade, according to the National Golf Foundation, as younger people turn away from a sport they consider hard to learn, expensive, time-consuming and boring to play. As a result, more courses are looking to footgolf for a swift kick to the bottom line.

In 2012, four U.S. courses offered footgolf in addition to standard tee times. Today, 433 courses allow the game, according to the American FootGolf League. Clanin, the frustrated golfer, has converted to the game and plans to open a footgolf-only course next year. Even the military is on board: of the 64 Air Force bases with golf courses, 17 now offer footgolf. One course in Greenfield, Ind., east of Indianapolis, reconfigured itself as a footgolf-only facility for the 2015 season. Revenues are already up 143% over last year.

While traditional golfers may sneer at the soccer balls, much as skiers looked down on snowboarders when they first had to share a mountain with the X Games crowd, the golf industry has largely embraced the game. Its hope is that footgolf will create new revenue streams for courses with excess inventory (too many tee times, not enough golfers to fill them) and attract a younger and more diverse crowd.

While no studies have quantified how many footgolfers have subsequently picked up actual golf, some early indicators are promising. According to preliminary research commissioned by the World Golf Foundation, 36% of footgolfers say they’re now more interested in playing golf. “I would never ever have thought of playing golf,” says Troy Haynie, a contractor in Sacramento, “if footgolf didn’t get me on the course.”

Footgolf may be cheaper, easier and faster than its storied forefather, but that doesn’t make it a cakewalk. During my first-ever hole, a 150-yd. par 4 at Crystal Springs outside New York City, I stuck my putt for an eagle. Later, however, a chip for birdie turned into a quadruple bogey as a nasty slope kept sending my shots rolling backward. I cursed–and cursed, and cursed–just like in any traditional round. Turns out that golf is golf. No matter what you swing with.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com