Hole new ballgame?

More than ever, superintendents have a hand in grow-the-game initiatives. Some have already arrived, and some may be coming soon to a course near you.

Howard Richman

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

The lengths to which golf has gone to grow the game sometimes could be viewed as extreme. Chicken wire might be classified as extreme.

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Kurt Austin and his daughter, Mariella, enjoy a day of FootGolf at
Heart of America Golf Academy in Kansas City.
Photos By Andy Lundberg

Then again, as golf organizations ranging from GCSAA to PGA of America and USGA seek to fuel a golf surge coming off years of economic hardships that affected everything from golf to groceries, perhaps chicken wire isn’t such a zany idea.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” says GCSAA Class A superintendent Kevin Fateley. Like Fateley, superintendents nationwide have emerged as vital cogs in growing the game. At Fateley’s Wildcat Creek Golf and Fitness, where strategically placed chicken wire fencing prevents balls from plummeting into the facility’s namesake creek, this is so much more than a golf course.

Approximately 80 miles west of GCSAA headquarters, in the heartlandesque city of Manhattan, Kan., where legendary coach Bill Snyder put Kansas State University football on the map, there is a new game in town. The craze appears to be sweeping across the country.

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FootGolf on a weekend in Kansas City at Heart of America Golf Academy.

It is called FootGolf. You may have read about it. Seen it. In fact, “NBC Nightly News” had a segment on it in late May. In late spring, HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” was at Haggin Oaks in Sacramento to do a story. In case you are unfamiliar with it, FootGolf is played on a golf course, but you use a No. 5 size soccer ball instead of a Titleist. The cups are about 21 inches in diameter. No cleats or spikes allowed.

You tee off the same as golfers (not at the same time of course, but you do reserve tee times the same as you would in golf) to holes that usually are located off the greens. Yes, you even can kick out of a bunker.

FootGolf seems to have gained quite a foothold in America. According to American FootGolf League co-founder Roberto Balestrini, more than 130 golf courses in the U.S. had FootGolf as of June 1. He projects that number to be 500 by year’s end. “I am a big fan of the golf industry. This puts people on golf courses. Some of them are just using their leg instead of a club,” Balestrini says. One course that has FootGolf also happens to be the home course of PGA of America President Ted Bishop.

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PGA of America president Ted Bishop has a FootGolf course at his Indiana facility.
Photo courtesy of PGA of America

“Since we put in FootGolf May 3, we’ve had more rounds of FootGolf than golf,” says Bishop, a five-year member of GCSAA, from The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind. “It’s incumbent upon us to embrace some of these ideas.”

Since Wildcat Creek decided to include FootGolf as one of its options for members and patrons, interest continues to escalate. “We opened March 18,” says Fateley, a 24-year GCSAA member, noting his FootGolf course measures approximately, 1,930 yards, including a par-5 that is 242 yards. “We’re up to 125 people playing. It’s taking off.”

The key for the golf course industry, including superintendents, is whether FootGolf players have an interest in playing golf, too. If enough of them do, that certainly would classify as a grow-the-game option at a time when growth arguably is a problem.

Early this year, National Golf Foundation (NGF) President Joe Beditz stated that about 5 million golfers have left the game in the last 10 years. According to the NGF, rounds of golf that were played in 2013 dropped nearly 5 percent from the previous year, and for the eighth year in a row, more courses closed than opened in the U.S.

GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans understands the challenges that the golf industry has encountered in recent years. He, though, prefers to look forward rather than back — and Foot- Golf’s ascension is a positive development. Superintendents are at the heart of ensuring the development continues.

“I think that everyone that works in this industry — superintendents, PGA professionals and general managers — knows that it is important to embrace new ideas to help the game grow and flourish,” says Evans, whose organization supports multiple grow-the-game initiatives such as Golf 20/20, We Are Golf and Get Golf Ready. “If something draws traffic, we’re supportive of any initiative that makes a facility successful. If FootGolf is one of those, good.”

Fateley has no doubt that FootGolf will benefit more than simply course owners and operators. In fact, he is convinced it unequivocally will grow the game of golf.

“In a few years, you’ll see people who started out in FootGolf, then at some point pick up a golf club, and eventually play both,” he says. “I see FootGolf as the only grow-the-game initiative out there that will work. Superintendents need to find ways to be involve ed. This is one they should get behind.”

Growing-the-game options galore

Tee it Forward. The First Tee. SNAG. Golf 2.0.

The list of potential growing-the-game initiatives is, well, growing. Besides those listed above, others have come along such as Hack Golf, Time for Nine and now FootGolf. Enlarging cups to as large as 15 inches has been tried.

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Superintendent Kevin Fateley is pleased with the results since adding FootGolf to his Kansas course.
Photo courtesy of Roger Hammerschmidt

Some may consider a cup that is the size of a steering wheel to be radical. Yet almost any initiative that potentially could grow the game is worth a look, says Mike Hughes, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association.

“Each facility has to understand it’s part of their mission to do it,” Hughes says. “I think there are some superintendents that see that and do contribute.”

Countless superintendents have taken the initiative to help grow the game, and one example of a superintendent taking charge and hoping to make a difference is the “Learn Golf” initiative at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo, Calif. Tom Elliott, CGCS, and PGA professional Jim Delaby launched the program almost exactly one year ago.

“We have a 12-hole par-3 that just wasn’t busy. It was driving us nuts,” Elliott says. “I was trying to keep the course in good shape but nobody was playing it. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ We even dropped the price, but it wasn’t a beginner’s haven like it was meant to be. I met with Jim and we put this together. You’ve got a big (8-inch) cup on every hole, and we give them a little golf bag with a wedge and putter to use. For $10, you play.” Their program is paying dividends.

“Our play probably has tripled,” says Elliott, a 27-year member of GCSAA. “We have got a lot of stories of people completely hooked who had never wanted to be on a golf course.”

Elliott gains satisfaction that he is able to make a difference.

“If we as superintendents can’t do it, the industry is in trouble,” he says.

Based on numbers, grow-the-game initiatives make a solid impact.

  • More than 9 million youngsters have participated in The First Tee since its inception in 1997. Recently, it started an after-school program in partnership with other youth-serving organizations.
  • Get Golf Ready, which consists of a five-lesson plan with golf clubs included for $99, reached more than 86,000 participants last year; that’s a 13 percent increase from 2012. • PGA Junior League Golf witnessed a whopping 490 percent growth from 2012 (1,500 youths) to 2013 (8,900). Already this year, the number of participants has grown to 18,000.
  • Drive, Chip and Putt competition expanded from 11 PGA sections and 19 states in 2013 to 41 sections and all 50 states this year.
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Youths at Val Halla Golf and Recreation Center in Maine are part of a grow-the-game program.
Photo courtesy of Toby Young

In Florida, The Breakers Palm Beach has partnered with The First Tee The Palm Beaches to support its program that teaches life skills and leadership through golf to children, adults with disabilities and area veterans. The luxury oceanfront resort oversees the agronomics of The First Tee program, built on a site at Dyer Park that previously was a dump.

Director of golf and grounds Mark Reid and his team at The Breakers each contributes an annual allocation of 16 hours of volunteer time off for the organization, using their skills to perform tasks ranging from general maintenance to aerification, sod preparation and installation.

“We are delighted to have such an amazing relationship with The First Tee The Palm Beaches,” says Reid, a 19-year GCSAA member. “While they are technically the beneficiaries of our volunteer work, it has been so rewarding for us to participate. We’re not just helping grow golf; the kids are learning core values and how to be good citizens. If we don’t get involved with youth golf in ways such as this, where is our industry going to be? We’ve all got to look outside the box a little bit to find unique but important ways to get involved in our communities.”

At Val Halla Golf and Recreation Center in Cumberland, Maine, more than 600 youths and adults annually participate in grow-thegame programs, including Wine and Nine for the adults. Val Halla GCSAA Class A superintendent Toby Young and his crew are “totally involved,” he says. They have to be at certain times when the course is packed.

“It can look like Disneyland sometimes,” Young says, “but there is something to be said about seeing 5-year-olds carrying a bag taller than them and seeing them enjoy it.”

In the Pacific Northwest, the 17-year-old First Green Foundation has introduced thousands of children to golf course settings by using the facility as an environmental learning lab. Jeff Gullikson, CGCS at Spokane Country Club, along with Bill Meyer, Ph.D., started the program in Washington in 1997.

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A fivesome getting their kicks. FootGolf co-founder Roberto Balestrini says by year’s end there may be 500 courses in America
that offer FootGolf.
Photo by Andy Lundberg

“We don’t teach golf. We just break down barriers and perceptions they may have about being at a golf course,” says Gullikson, who received GCSAA’s President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship a decade ago. “I would hope superintendents see the value in doing something like this. It does take time, and time is the most limiting factor in all our lives.”

Time, though, should never be an excuse for superintendents not to get involved, says GCSAA Class A superintendent Todd Bohn of Wolf Creek Golf Links in Olathe, Kan. “I think superintendents need to be part of things but sometimes may have a hard time figuring out what that entails,” says Bohn, who has helped raise more than $25,000 the last two years for equipment used in the SNAG (Starting New At Golf) program in the Kansas City area. “We have to find ways to help in our industry. If we don’t, we’re not going to have jobs.”

Since some grow-the-game initiatives are relatively new (Hack Golf, which hopes to increase the fun factor of the game, or Time for Nine, initiated by Golf Digest to promote the idea that playing just nine holes is fine), estimating their full impact on how many players have chosen to enter the game of golf may not be determined for years.

That’s OK with World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona, who is willing to take a look at any initiative that doesn’t violate or denigrate the tradition of the game.

“We have a lot of programs out there that are doing well and having an impact right now,” Mona says. “Something such as Foot- Golf cannot hurt. No way you can argue that it’s bad for golf.”

Kicking around a new idea

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The Breakers Palm Beach maintenance crew works
on a First Tee facility in their area.
Photo courtesy of The Breakers Palm Beach

GCSAA Class A superintendent Stacy Baker didn’t say a word when he first learned that Haggin Oaks Golf Course would consider FootGolf for their menu of member choices.

Baker did, however, respond.

“I just laughed,” he says.

Not anymore. Baker, a 10-year GCSAA member, now is all-in with the FootGolf phenomenon. After it started in July 2013 at Haggin Oaks’ Arcade Creek Course, 6,500 rounds of FootGolf were played through the end of the year. From January until June of this year, they totaled 3,612 rounds and forecast 10,000 overall for all of 2014.

“This thing has exploded. It’s amazing,” Baker says.

How invested is Haggin Oaks in FootGolf? In April they created a new position for Karl Van Dessel, who is their FootGolf operator.

“I think this goes deeper than just seeing FootGolf players wanting to also give golf a try,” Baker says. “It’s growing our industry. My budget was increased this year because of it (FootGolf), but I wasn’t asked to spend the addition to my budget on FootGolf. I’m going to be able to get a new tee mower because of it.” In a way, FootGolf has re-energized Baker.

“It’s fun seeing people use the property in a new way,” he says.

In Michigan, assistant superintendent Jeff LeBlanc has his own way of supporting FootGolf, besides helping prepare his course for it in Canton, Mich., called Fellows Creek Golf Club.

“I’m starting a league and will play in it,” says LeBlanc, 30. “I love the idea.”

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At River Ridge GC, Oxnard, Calif., FootGolf players dressed
in knickers for the event.
Photo courtesy of Roberto Balestrini

At Wildcat Creek in Kansas, the agronomic side of FootGolf creates minimal challenges, according to Fateley, who had three members quit but insists it didn’t have to do with their feeling inconvenienced by sharing the course with FootGolf players.

“I have to jump off the sprayer and remove a flag or tee post. We have to tweak the mowing pattern a little around the cup, but that’s about it,” says Fateley, whose $4,000 investment in cups, flags, soccer balls and other materials was recouped in two months from revenues generated by FootGolf. “No practice swings with this, and we’re not replacing divots.”

Sixty-seven-year-old Les Depew, a member at Wildcat Creek, isn’t convinced that Foot- Golf will prompt large numbers to also use the facility to play golf.

“Most kids want success right away. It’s easier to kick a soccer ball than hit a golf ball,” Depew says.

Whether FootGolf is a fad or a fixture remains to be seen. Fateley serves as an example of a superintendent willing to take a risk, which Bishop applauds.

“Superintendents can be traditionalists, resistant to change,” Bishop says. “We’ve got to have superintendents understand these things are critical. They have to play a vital role in these initiatives because these are their courses.” Fateley is certain it was worth it to take a chance.

“You always have to be looking for revenue streams, things to bring people to your course,” Fateley says. “You can come out here, be among nature, unwind. That seems pretty cool to me.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.