“What’s FootGolf?” is the first question the air stewardess asks when the UK FootGolf team step on the plane destined for Los Angeles, California.
It’s a fair question, since I had already found myself explaining to a friend earlier that day that it isn’t kicking a golf ball around a course, but rather a full, size 5 football into a
specially created 21-inch hole.
Since its inception in 2007, FootGolf has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with its simplistic appeal (kick this football into that hole roughly 200 yards away) attracting football fans and golfers alike.
Dream Team travelled with the UK team for the inaugural Jansen Cup in Palm Desert, California, to see a band of 24 players take on Team USA in the sport’s version of the Ryder Cup.
As a sport still in its infancy, creating an international tournament looks like an ambitious task – but from the outside, you would struggle to see the dedication and desire every player of the sport has to see the game grow.
There’s a community spirit within the group of players, something which has grown in the past couple of years as they have got to know each other through playing regional and national tournaments.
The timescale is an important point here – virtually all the players representing the UK have only been playing the sport for under three years. There wouldn’t be many sports, if any, that you could go from your first try to playing for your country in the space of two years, but many playing for Team UK in California are still relative newbies.
It’s no surprise to have such fresh players in the sport – after all, the first ever FootGolf event only happened in 2009, a creation of Dutch advertising gurus Michael Jansen and Bas Korsten.
The sport is strictly BYOB, that is, bring your own ball, and if you think all it would take is rocking up to a course and leathering a football around, you’d be hugely mistaken.
On the practice day, the Team UK players agonised over things you might think were completely insignificant – but small details such as the pressure of the ball is critical for the game, with players discussing whether or not the course is more suited to 7 psi or 9 psi.
The sport is also much more than just a novelty kickabout on a golf course, as I discovered on the first day when I was given the opportunity to play the competition’s course.
Entering the clubhouse with what I thought was a respectable +15 scorecard, it was sobering to realise some players had posted rounds over 20 shots better… and that was them practising, not going full tilt.
I blamed the hire ball, and the heat, and the inexperience, and anything other than my dreadful putting.
There’s a mixture of players, young, old, male and female, with the Jansen Cup format requiring 16 male players, four ‘senior’ over-45 players as well as four females, and the backgrounds of each FootGolfer also varies, with a common thread of each having played at a reasonable level of football before transitioning into FootGolf.
For others, the sport has provided a new lease of life – Team UK’s Clinton Moore and Team USA’s Julian Nash both played professionally in their respective countries, Team UK’s Natalie Richardson and Sophie Brown played for Watford Ladies and QPR Ladies respectively, while the UK’s Paul Oliver has gone the ‘opposite’ route, playing the sport alongside his career as a PGA golf professional, by simply swapping golf clubs for feet.
To further underline the dedication of each player that has made the midweek trip to California, players have not just surrendered a week of holiday from their jobs, but also paid their own way to represent their country.
Some have had help through private sponsors, but a return flight to Los Angeles and four nights hotel stay is not cheap.
Throw in the fact most players opt to play with the now out-of-production Adidas Jabulani or Speedcell balls (which can cost up £300 such is their rarity), FootGolf at the international stage requires only the most dedicated and devoted.
The Desert Willow course is utterly breathtaking in its beauty, with impossibly green fairways set on a backdrop of barren mountains. The first day of competition saw temperatures reach 40 celsius, the second day the sun blazed at a relatively meagre 38.
Regular water stops, ice towels and midday showers assisted Team UK’s march to victory over the course of the two days, with the punishing, still heat a far cry from the overcast and blustery conditions many of the players are more familiar with.
The sweat soon turned to tears of joy as Team UK were named the first ever victors of the Jansen Cup, winning the competition 29 ½ – 18 ½ following the three rounds consisting of foursomes, doubles and the final day singles.
Captain Mark Scotchford was the proud recipient of the trophy, handed to him from the aforementioned Michael Jansen, who had come from Holland to watch the competition unfold.
But perhaps what was most symbolic of FootGolf wasn’t the fierce battles happening across the course over the 48-hour competition, but what came after the event was completed.
The mutual respect, the exchanging of gifts, the congratulatory beers shared in the evening was the greatest sign of the players acknowledging that, while they are competitors on the course, they remain collectively dedicated to furthering the sport’s appeal and reputation around the world.
With the United Kingdom and USA as the standard bearers for the sport, there was a recognition and commitment that in order for the sport to thrive, more events such as the Jansen Cup need to take place, in full knowledge that it will take great time and sacrifice to ensure the sport’s continual growth.
And what next for the players? For most, the journey hadn’t ended as I returned from California, with the Las Vegas FootGolf Open taking place in the days following the Jansen Cup.
With a prize pot of $25,000 and a chance to recoup some of the expenditure of the past week, a trip to Vegas is an opportunity taken with both hands by the majority of players from Team UK and Team USA.
The team mentality will take a temporary backseat as the individuals compete against each other to come out on top, with the first prize of $5,000 a big enough motivation to ensure the players retain steely focus.
Following that, a return to normality. Team UK’s players will return to workplaces with the satisfaction of telling anyone and everyone they represented their country to a successful Jansen Cup victory, while the opposition will be plotting their revenge when they visit the UK in 2019.
But one thing is certain – the Jansen Cup has become a representation that while sport depends on competitiveness and passion to become victorious, the togetherness shown between both Team UK and Team USA is vital to ensure the progress of FootGolf into the mainstream sporting consciousness.