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Could FootGolf save the next generation of golf?

Friday - 7/25/2014, 6:53am  ET

FootGolf
A hybrid of soccer and golf, many courses are betting on FootGolf's potential popularity. (WTOP/Ralph Frank)
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WOODBRIDGE, Va. -- Golf has a problem.

As the baby boomer generation ages, fewer and fewer young players are taking up the game. Courses are being turned into more profitable developments. With revenues in jeopardy, some are exploring new ways of attracting the next generation of golfers to the course.

Enter, FootGolf. Specifically, the D.C. FootGolf Open held last Saturday morning at LakeRidge Golf Course in Woodbridge, Virginia.

It sounds silly. At first glance, it even looks silly, with the high socks, the "Newsies" hats and the singing.

"Ole, ole, ole, ole…FootGolf, FootGolf," goes a chant from the unique sport.

As I arrive and register, the tournament organizers hand me an official hat. I ask if I can use my own regular baseball cap. They tell me they'd prefer if I didn't.

Fashion aside, the sport's pretty fun. That's what a group of intrepid FootGolf players discovered playing this past Saturday.

Lest you think FootGolf is not a real sport, it was also featured this week on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, giving it further credibility. For a quick primer on the sport, check out WTOP's Michelle Basch's report from the first Montgomery County course to adopt the sport.

There are veterans and rookies here. Nearly everyone is sporting the argyle high knee socks except me, as I forgot them in my haste to make a 9 a.m. Saturday tee time in Woodbridge.

LakeRidge is one of nearly 200 courses in 37 states across the U.S. that has accommodated their grounds in the past two years to include the developing game, and the first in the D.C. area. Greens fees are just $10, compared with $14 for weekdays and $16 for weekends for traditional golf.

Played on a regulation course, all FootGolf requires is for holes 21" in diameter to be installed, not on the greens, but out of the way of the regular golfers, either in the rough or behind the putting surfaces.

FootGolf players tee off from the normal tee box and aren't allowed to use cleats. If their ball ends up on the greens, they are not allowed to play off of them. Essentially, players do no damage to the course, but provide an additional revenue stream and bring a new generation of young people out who otherwise may never be there.

A 2012 U.S. Census report on the game showed that 61 percent of the nation's 29 million golfers (defined as having played at least one round in the last calendar year) were 50 or older. A full 73 percent were over 40-years-old.

With less young people taking up the game, courses have been trying to find new ways to attract young athletes to the course, and many are breaking down traditional barriers and turning to FootGolf. Of course, soccer's rise in popularity in the states doesn't hurt.

"This is like a dream come true -- we're kicking a soccer ball on a golf course!" exclaims Roberto Balestrini, founder of the American FootGolf League, who is on hand to mark the occasion.

Balestrini has spent half his life in Argentina and half in California. With his soccer background, he has been the driving force behind the growing movement, playing the first American tournament in July 2012. Since then, he has helped organize roughly 20 more events, and helped convert all the courses.

"The course operators are excited," Balestrini says. "Most people, kids, they play soccer. They play basketball. They don't play golf. It's a good way to bring them here."

He toasts with us all, thanking us for joining him, with sparkling cider in a champagne flute. The county-owned LakeRidge course does not allow alcohol.

Balestrini then asks for someone to toss him a soccer ball to demonstrate proper technique before we begin, and three balls come flying in at him from different directions.

No using the sole of our foot, we're told, and no taking relief. Water hazards are one-stroke penalties with a drop. You can take up to a 10-yard run at the ball, except in sand traps, which you have to chip out of without scooping the ball. Rake your footprints, just like regular golf. Good? Good. And we're off.

We have a shotgun start, and I am assigned to the ninth of the nine holes we will be playing. My playing partner is a fellow first-time FootGolfer, a University of Maryland particle astrophysics Ph.D student named John Felde.

Originally from Northern California, Felde had heard about the sport shortly before moving to the D.C. area a year ago, then saw the ad for the tournament in the paper the day before. He tried to recruit a couple friends to join him, but both were out of town, so he gets stuck with me.

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