Eric Atherton: Willow Creek offers hybrid of golf, soccer
It was a putt of at least 60 feet, with a big ridge between my ball and the cup. I lined it up, played three feet of left-to-right break, kept my head down, made clean contact and watched the ball curl toward the hole. It hung for a half-second on the right lip, then disappeared into the cup for a hard-earned par as my playing partners whooped and hollered.
The ball was a soccer ball, and I'd kicked it into a "cup" that was a couple feet in diameter. That shot was definitely the highlight of my first round of foot golf, played at Willow Creek Golf Course in southwest Rochester.
Scott Rindahl, head golf pro and general manager at Willow Creek, told me that a few years ago, when someone first suggested that he add foot golf to Willow's offerings, he dismissed the idea — but that changed last year.
"I was at a PGA fall meeting up in the cities, and our district director from Nebraska said, 'If you have space to put in foot golf, you should think very seriously about doing it,'" Rindahl recalled. "We are trying to find ways to get more people onto the golf course, and we've got a big soccer community in Rochester, so we decided to give foot golf a shot."
The sport combines soccer skills with golf scoring. Players kick soccer balls from the regular tee boxes for Little Willow Golf Course, a nine-hole executive par-29 golf layout, and target smaller "greens" and giant cups that are off to the side of the regular golf greens.
A few weeks into the experiment, Rindahl said the response has been positive. "We've had a good mix of kids, adults and families," he said. "The weather's been tough, but once it gets nicer and the word gets out, I think foot golf is really going to take off."
Harder than it looks
I have to admit that I was slightly skeptical. I wondered whether foot golf is just a novelty sport, something that people will play once, enjoy it, but not feel compelled to play again.
Secondly, I wondered, "How hard can it be to kick a soccer ball down a golf fairway?"
To test both of those concerns, I played the course with my 13-year-old son, Parker, and recruited Ryan Tye, who coaches soccer in Byron, to join us with his 9-year-old-son, Aydan.
The boys got hooked instantly. Aydan, who plays for his dad's Byron Youth Soccer Association U10 traveling team, had this to say: "I loved it. I'd play foot golf every day if I could."
And really, what's not to like? It took the four of us less than 90 minutes to play 18 holes. We got some great exercise, ribbed each other after bad shots and probably made more noise than we should have on a golf course.
As for foot golf being too easy — well, I discovered that those beautiful, soaring goal kicks and corner kicks we see in soccer matches on TV aren't easy. I never played soccer, and I had trouble elevating the ball, while Ryan sent shots soaring down the fairway. On several occasions I kicked twice and was still behind his tee shot.
"It's tough to drive the ball that far down the fairway," Ryan said after carding a very respectable 11-over-par 75 that included two birdies and five pars. "The putting is challenging, too. Soccer players certainly could use foot golf as a way to work on close, precision passing."
Focus on families
Nationwide, Rindahl said there's a growing interest in foot golf, which has a magazine and several major tournaments. Will it be a lifeline for the struggling golf industry? Rindahl isn't sure, but he likes anything that will get more people out to the golf course.
"There are a lot of families with kids who don't think they have time for golf, because they're hustling their kids to this sport and that sport," he said. "Well, if they've got kids in soccer, here's a chance to get them out here, get them reacquainted with the golf course or just let them know we're here. There still are people in Rochester who don't know about Willow Creek Golf Course."
I live about three minutes from Willow Creek, and twice this year I've dropped my son and his best friend off to play golf at Little Willow. Next time they ask to go there, I have a sneaking suspicion that they'll want to bring soccer balls, not golf clubs. As long as the boys are outside, rather than sitting in someone's basement playing video games, that'll be fine with me.