Ralf Vandaam has always been a good athlete but he was nervous when his friends took him to play Buffalo’s newest hybrid sport.
He’s a competitive person who wanted to win and by the last hole, he had a chance. Then he blew it. He kicked his short putt, and the ball rolled past the hole and down a hill. He had lost and he knew it.
Welcome to footgolf, the soccer-golf blend that arrived on the Delaware Park golf course two years ago.
The course, managed by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, now has an 18-hole footgolf game integrated into it, complete with 21-inch holes to fit soccer balls.
Footgolf attracted 2,200 players in its first year and accounted for 11 percent of the course’s total revenue, beating estimates, according to Dave Hoover, manager of the golf course. The course is on track to hit the same numbers this season, Hoover said, and next year, advertising will increase.
"I feel like footgolf would be the perfect place for a date," said Max Hawkes, an employee of the golf course. "I mean, every girl has been mini golfing, but footgolf is a cool new activity that not as many people have done."
Footgolf is attractive because it’s outdoors, active and anyone can play. Families, couples, grandparents and groups of teens have made memories while playing it.
Footgolf is like golf, except you kick a soccer ball. The goal is to get the ball in the holes, which the soccer balls fit into, using the fewest shots over the 18-hole course.
The game hit the United States in 2011, but its popularity exploded after Ted Bishop, 38th president of the PGA of America, spoke in January 2014 about footgolf and how it could be a revenue driver for golf courses.
There were 22 footgolf courses in February 2014. Just eight months later, the number had jumped to 300, according to the United States Footgolf Association.
Athletic ability is not even required to have fun. "Anyone can play footgolf because all you need to do is kick a ball," Bishop said. "Most people have learned that skill playing kickball or by being in a PE class when they were young."
The genius behind footgolf is its accessibility and simplicity. Footgolf doesn’t require drivers, irons, putters or any other expensive golf equipment. All that players need are sneakers, enthusiasm and a bit of money.
Footgolf is not a simple game, though. Long shots are prone to taking bounces, diversions and going off course as a result of wind and uneven terrain, while close shots require precision and accuracy. One misjudgment can mean the difference between winning and losing, as Vandaam learned.
Footgolf does have its detractors, however. Some golfers are irritated by footgolfers and feel they have invaded their space. "They just get in the way," said a golfer who only wished to be identified as Ed.
The majority of golfers don’t mind footgolf, though, according to Hawkes, the golf course employee.
In fact, Frank Gonzalez, who has golfed at the course for five years, has watched the footgolfers with interest.
"I see a lot of families having fun," he said. "I’d even consider playing myself. My son’s a soccer player and has been asking me to play."
The idea is that footgolfers and golfers take turns hitting if they are playing on the same hole.
However, some people don’t follow these rules or don’t know about them. "It’s also a bit dangerous," said Vandaam. "Golfers and footgolfers sometimes play at the same time. I was walking through the course when a ball whizzed passed my ear. It’s part of the adventure, I guess."
While not as expensive as golf, footgolf is still not cheap. One game, which lasts anywhere from one to two-and-a-half hours, costs $12-$15 for city residents. Renting a ball is an extra $3.
Compare that to playing soccer or basketball at the park, which is free, or going to a movie, which is close to the same price. Without the popcorn and candy, that is.
But for Jack Kinsman, a freshman at Orchard Park High School, the fun is well worth the cost.
"Footgolf was a unique outdoor activity that I would definitely recommend to my other friends," he said.
Kinsman plays both golf and soccer and got a birdie, one shot under par, from more than 30 yards away on his first outing.
"It’s not like a movie where you don’t talk to each other,’ he said. "In footgolf, you’re always interacting and having fun."
Leo Biehl is a freshman at City Honors School.