Every four years, the World Cup stirs up a special brand of latent soccer enthusiasm among sports fans, thanks to its flag-waving patriotism, spectacular pageantry, pretense of global unity, enjoyment of inevitable English failure and reason to leave work early and day drink.
The planet’s biggest sporting event also is a quadrennial opportunity to grow soccer in the United States – even when, nauseatingly, the American team doesn’t qualify – and gain new lovers of the beautiful game.
This summer, if after watching the matches you feel inspired to get outside and kick the ball around, we’ve got a great way to do it – especially if you’ve been sitting at the pub for a few hours already and actual running/dribbling/passing/understanding soccer isn’t really your jam.
FootGolf – a game that is exactly what it sounds like – is the perfect activity during the World Cup, whether you’re a casual or diehard fan.
A cross between soccer and golf, the objective is to advance a regulation size 4 or 5 ball from the tee box into a 21-inch-diameter hole cut into the rough of the course in the fewest number of kicks. FootGolf is great for people of all ages, abilities and attention spans.
Milwaukee County first introduced FootGolf at Lincoln Park four years ago, just before the 2014 World Cup, after being approached about the idea by interested soccer chaps from Three Lions Pub. The County did some research, finding that Sacramento had successfully implemented FootGolf and attracted new people to its parks and golf courses.
Chet Hendrickson, the golf services manager for Milwaukee County Parks, says adding FootGolf was a no-brainer.
"It was a minimal investment and there was little risk," he says. "The maintenance is almost negligible, and it’s all revenue-positive. It’s not taking any money away from golf; it’s all supplemental."
The County now operates FootGolf courses at Lincoln, Doyne, Noyes and Zablocki parks.
Beyond initially buying orange flags and tee markers – orange is the recognized color of FootGolf – and installing the larger, plastic holes for the soccer balls, there are almost no structural or upkeep costs, which keeps it affordable. At Lincoln Park, the most challenging FootGolf course, the 18-hole Green Fee is $15, while Doyne, Noyes and Zablocki cost just $5 for nine holes (it’s $5 to rent a ball, but you can bring your own). Hendrickson says the County also offers a deal for families.
"At the Parks Department, we’re always trying to find cool new family activities," he says.
FootGolf is especially appealing for families – or groups of friends – that can’t always agree on what to do. At Doyne Park, for instance, it's played right alongside regular golf – from different tees and to different holes, of course – so a sport-divided group can play the two games simultaneously and together.
Hendrickson says the response from the community has been "overwhelmingly positive" – except for the requisite few traditional golfers grumbling to get off their lawn/course. However, FootGolf hasn’t gained the traction the County had hoped. "A lot of people are still like, what is this?" Hendrickson says.
Recently, I wanted to try my foot at the game, so my sister and I went to kick a round at Doyne Park. She hasn’t played organized soccer in more than a decade and I’m in the midst of a grueling recovery after gruesomely tearing my Achilles’ tendon playing indoor soccer in January, so we felt we were pretty reasonably representative of the range of talent levels FootGolf can attract.
It was a beautiful evening to play, warm and clear, with a competitive girls soccer game going on at the nearby field and several groups of golfers watching us with amused curiosity. Maybe it was the simple and novel fun of the game, or the fact that I hadn’t gotten to do anything remotely athletic outside of physical therapy in months, or both, but from the very first kick-drive I was hooked.
So much of soccer is jogging around waiting to get the ball, and then when you do get it, you take a few touches and pass somewhere else. So little of the game is unleashing a satisfyingly venomous blast, but in FootGolf, you start every hole by crushing a long ball a couple hundred feet toward the pin.
Once you’ve teed off, depending on the hole and your ability, the gameplay resembles golf – midrange chip shots, short putt passes, some on the fairway, some in the rough.
The allure of FootGolf is the speed, or lack thereof. It’s wonderfully slow-paced and easy, but still requires skill and focus; laid-back, leisurely strolling with (semi-) athletic movement and purpose. It seems an ideal game for a group of mildly sports-inclined friends, or an unconventional first date or a relaxed family outing – competitive enough to be interesting, but not obnoxiously intense.
My sister and I played it 100-percent recreationally; we didn’t even keep score, though there are scorecards for those who want to. We added little twists and bets and made-up rules; after all, it’s a hybrid game that combines two existing sports – who cares if we play it our own way?
My sister, who has some movement impairments, noted, "It’s great for people who like soccer but aren’t able to do the really physical parts, or don’t want to run."
I enjoyed it for probably the same reason many people are drawn to golf – the skill and competitiveness of sports without the contact or speed. Alcohol is prohibited in County Parks and you aren’t allowed to bring in food or beverages – and we did not – but FootGolf is the kind of game you could play while literally holding a beer.
It’s definitely the kind of game you should play during the World Cup this summer.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.