By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — The number of golfers keeps declining and the sport’s gatekeepers haven’t been able to find an answer for more than a decade.
So the board at the Tipton Municipal Golf Course is embarking on an experiment, hoping the brand new sport called “footgolf” will bring twentysomethings out to the city’s links.
Tipton director of golf Rusty Ripberger has ordered 18 oversized cups, to be installed as soon as they arrive, in hopes of having 18 holes of footgolf ready to go by early April.
“Tipton Municipal Golf Course, where a foot wedge is not only allowed, but required,” Ripberger joked about his new recreational offering.
“It’s something people who have played soccer might like, who don’t want to learn how to play golf,” Ripberger said. “We think it will be people from 15 to 35 years old, predominately.”
The concept of footgolf is about what you’d expect: golf played with soccer balls. There’s match play and stroke (er, kick) play, and some courses are even erecting barricades, or setting holes in hard to approach areas, to make it a tad more difficult.
According to the sport’s sanctioning body, the American Footgolf League, there are now about 60 golf courses around the country offering the sport this spring, up from just a handful last year. The world sanctioning body, the Federation for International Footgolf (www.fifg.org), has been around since mid-2012.
For golf course operators seeking extra revenue, footgolf may be a godsend.
The number of golf courses in the country has been steadily decreasing as golf has failed to attract enough young people to grow the sport.
Much of that has to do with the cost, which lost its way in a haze of greed in the 1990s.
In the 1960s, when Arnold Palmer was the blue collar golf hero of the nation, the sport’s popularity exploded and more than 3,000 golf courses were built, most of them municipally-owned.
Somehow Tipton’s course avoided the wave of privatization which raised greens fees exponentially in the 1990s, the same decade another wave of golf-course building took place.
Most of the courses in the 90s were expensive layouts, privately-owned, and in exclusive communities, according to the National Golf Foundation, which predicted back in 2009 that golf would lose 500 to 1,000 courses over the next decade and that golf participation would basically flatline over that same period.
The reality has been much, much worse. Golf has now been on a downward trend in participation for more than a decade, from 29.8 million active participants in 2001 to about 24.1 million last year, according to golf consultant Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp., as quoted in a recent article in the greenskeeper trade website, turfnet.com.
The Tipton course costs the city of Tipton about $100,000 a year to operate, once costs and revenues are reckoned, and Tipton Mayor Don Havens, a golf course supporter, said he sees the course as a solid recreational offering for the city.
“Every city makes a real effort to provide a minimum level of parks and recreation choices for the community,” Havens said. “We’re trying to use [the course] as a community attraction factor.”
Ripberger’s plan is to offer 18 holes of footgolf for $12 weekdays, and $13 on weekends.
The players can’t wear soccer cleats (soccer turf shoes are OK) and they’ll have to observe course etiquette, and respect the regular golfers. A round probably won’t take as long and the holes will be set away from the regular greens.
Players will use a regulation soccer ball and try to kick it into holes which are just under 21 inches in diameter and around a foot deep.
“We think it will be a good thing to get younger people out to the golf course, and to provide a new revenue stream,” Ripberger said. “Hopefully as they get older, they’ll get interested in golf.
“It’s like the skiing industry, where they realized they needed something to bring more people out, so they introduced snowboarding. We’re just trying something new.”
Scott Smith is on Twitter, @JasonSSmith1, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.