Months ago, a group of people clutching soccer balls on the well-manicured links of Haggin Oaks golf course in Sacramento, Calif., would have turned heads — and perhaps even sent a few caddies scrambling for security.
Not so much anymore.
The fans of Tiger Woods have been getting to know the followers of Landon Donovan.
Haggin Oaks is one of the latest courses to open to FootGolf, a hybrid of soccer and golf that developed in Europe and is sweeping the U.S. The first World Cup of FootGolf was held in Hungary in 2012, and tournaments in Northern California are drawing increasing numbers.
"It's golf, it's soccer, it's the best game ever," said Rachel Bennett on a sunny afternoon at Haggin Oaks, where, clad in long pink socks and a wedge cap, she was playing with four friends. "My daughter and I are out here every other weekend."
Think of FootGolf as something like soccer — without the sprinting or sweating. Each player uses a standard size 5 soccer ball and takes turns kicking through a golf course, aiming for a FootGolf hole that's 21 inches in diameter. The FootGolf holes at Haggin Oaks are permanent fixtures, with orange flags marking them and blue flags for standard golf holes.
Like other golfers enjoying an afternoon on the links, FootGolf players can cruise to each hole in golf carts, with tall cans of Heineken sometimes occupying the drink holders. Also similar to golf: All 18 FootGolf holes have a par, which at Haggin Oaks range from 3 to 5. The course record is 63.
"The numbers of players are growing steadily," said Karl Van Dessel, recently hired as Haggin Oaks' FootGolf manager. "On Labor Day we had 90 players, which set a record for a single nontournament day."
Locally, the word about FootGolf has spread primarily through players in recreational soccer leagues. That's how Sal Concilla, who plays on an outdoor soccer team, first heard about the game. However, the notion of splicing soccer and golf into a sport confused him at first.
"What do you mean we're going to play soccer on a golf course?" said Concilla, remembering his introduction to the game. "Do I need shinguards?"
Many FootGolfers have quickly become hooked. They've found the game to be good way to hone kicking skills, from long-range blasts meant to drive toward a hole 58 to 204 yards away to delicate "putts" that need to be navigated around slopes and trees.
Accomplishing all this with golf carts instead of soccer's usual wind sprints adds to the appeal for many.
"You don't have to be in shape and dribble past somebody," Concilla said. "You just have to kick the ball around. It's like target shooting, and you get to enjoy a nice day."
Little in the way of specialized FootGolf gear has reached the market so far, save for the official AFGL ball made by Senda that features small dimples — like a golf ball — and is made of lightweight material for longer driving kicks.
More customized equipment seems destined to come soon. In just four years since being created in the Netherlands, FootGolf has spread to 30 countries.
FootGolf requires expert leg-eye coordination for one to excel. Launching the ball perfectly down the fairway, all while avoiding trees and sand traps, is no easy task. Putting the ball from a short distance seems to frustrate players the most, especially when an incline is involved. (In defiance of conventional wisdom from youth soccer coaches, toe-poke kicks are recommended for short-distance FootGolf shots.)
Despite increased familiarity, many golfers and their kicking cousins are still in the "getting-to-know-you" phase at Haggin Oaks.
Recently, the sight of Bennett and Concilla's group, with their long socks and multicolored soccer balls, drew a wrinkled brow from Earl Schoen. He was lining up a putt on an adjacent hole, but paused as the players whooped it up nearby.
FootGolfers tend to be an animated bunch. Well-aimed kicks and successful eagle shots tend to elicit quick shouts of "woooo!" Plus, the long-range punt of a soccer ball adds a formidable "thump" sound.
That's exactly what Schoen doesn't want to hear as he's lining up a shot.
"I think you could play this game anywhere — except the golf course," Schoen said. "It's a distraction. Soccer is more of a fun, loud sport. Golf is quieter."
FootGolfers are encouraged to learn golf course etiquette. Golf traditionally has a very low tolerance for disturbances, distractions and tomfoolery on the putting green.
"Golfers are golfers, and they can be very protective," Van Dessel said. "But all types play and not all are upset that others are intervening (on their turf)."
Wear appropriate clothing — golf cap, collared shirt and argyle socks are preferred.
Your ball must be easy to identify.
Review the scorecard and wait for your turn. Make sure your kick will not interfere with other players.
Kick off your ball from a position up to 61/2 feet behind the tee markers.
The ball must be played in a single movement. You are not allowed to push the ball with the top or bottom of your foot. Your foot should be separate from the ball, clearly behind, before each kick.
Wait to play the ball until it has come to rest. (It is illegal to stop the ball from rolling with the wind.)
Play the ball from where it lies: You can't move the ball or remove jammed objects. Exception: You may mark the spot and lift the ball when it may obstruct the other player's kick or ball in any way.
The player farthest from the hole kicks first.
Order of play is based on the score of the previous hole. The player with the best score will kick off first on the next hole followed by the second, etc.
If the ball lands in a water hazard, retrieve or replace it within 2 steps of the land point closest to where the ball entered the hazard (annotated by red line), receiving a one-stroke penalty — or place the ball at the position of the previous kick and receive a one-stroke penalty.
Out-of-bounds markers are annotated with white stakes. Place the ball within 2 steps of where the ball crossed the white stakes, receiving a one-stroke penalty.