As Wayne Holloman nosed through a golf trade publication, a stat he came across jarred him. More than that, it terrified the owner of Northgreen Country Club. What Holloman read was staggering: In the calendar year 2013, more than 300 golf courses in the United States closed for business. Four opened.
Given that market, Holloman knew it was time to infuse some creativity in the family business.
“Absolutely, it has been tough (financially). I won’t sugarcoat that at all,” Holloman said. “The numbers aren’t good. Honestly, to survive, we had to think of what we can do to make more money.”
When his father, Ed, read about footgolf – a soccer/golf hybrid that fits into already existing golf courses – the Hollomans believed they had found an answer to combat a shrinking consumer base.
Northgreen went to work on designing, adjusting and re-adjusting a footgolf course, and in short order, it was certified by the American Footgolf League. Northgreen opened earlier this month and became only the second 18-hole footgolf course in North Carolina. (The other is Keith Hills Country Club, the course at Campbell University.)
Golf, while it has its devotees and purists, doesn’t exactly reach everyone. For starters, it’s expensive – Nike’s top-end putter, one of 14 clubs in a golf bag, costs $299 – and lessons for a one-on-one session can be upwards of $100 per hour. In an economy that has seen the middle class’ disposable income dwindle, golf is one of the luxuries that has been fazed out of many Americans’ lives.
Further, an 18-hole golf outing takes about four hours to complete, and the nature of the game is such that many kids just aren’t big or coordinated enough to play, especially as part of a group.
In footgolf, the Hollomans believe they have something that puts them ahead of their competitors in terms of livening an otherwise-stagnant business.
“It really opens up to a whole new market,” said Rachel Holloman, Wayne’s wife. “With golf, you mostly appeal to older gentleman, but with footgolf, you’ve got grandparents that want to play with their grandkids. Soccer players – we had a whole league of them out here Sunday – and they had a blast. They loved it.”
The game itself is wildly addicting. All the rules of golf apply to footgolf, except it is played with a soccer ball and 22-inch holes. Players try to beat par, to avoid obstacles and, in some cases, try their best to correct that godawful slice that plagues both their golf and footgolf tee shots.
The game itself has been a registered entity in the United States only since 2011, and the first country to create a national organization, Spain, did so in 2008.
The diehards of the game dress in traditional golf attire, down to golf hats, argyle socks and knickers, except they wear indoor soccer shoes in lieu of cleats. Imagine Payne Stewart, only if an airline had lost part of his luggage and he had to make the best of a picked-over sporting goods store.
To people who never have seen footgolf – which is to say, most Americans – the reaction has been ‘What in the world is that?’
The newness of the sport was responsible for most of Holloman’s apprehension.
“At first, I kind of had some reservations because your first thought is, ‘Are golfers going to revolt against this?’” Holloman said. “It’s important for people to realize there aren’t 22-inch footgolf holes cut out of the greens. The holes for the footgolf course do not get anywhere near the golf green. It really has no impact on the golfers.”
Holloman has dealt with strange questions. No, there is no running. Or slide tackling. Or goalkeepers.
There have been no flares thrown onto the course after good shots. (At least not yet.)
The game itself is entirely contained in Northgreen’s front nine. There are three footgolf holes on the first golf hole, and none of the 18 holes interfere with golfers. In the event golfers and footgolfers cross paths, the footgolfers always cede to golfers.
Northgreen’s footgolf course spans 2,558 yards. In footgolf, a typical par 3 is between 50 and 100 yards, while the longest of par 5s go about 230 yards. So far, the record holder for Northgreen’s course is 9-under.
Whether a person plays soccer or golf, or whether a person wants to play competitively or for fun, or whether someone is 7 or 70 years old, the Hollomans believe footgolf can be for just about everybody.
The price to play is $12, with charges of $8 to rent a cart and $3 to rent a ball.
Not once has someone played footgolf at Northgreen and been disappointed, Rachel Holloman said.
“The feedback has always been positive,” she said. “I think it’s always scary to start something new and try to do something new, … but once you come out and try and see that it’s a good time, it makes a big difference.”
Being that footgolf is so new in North Carolina – the state does not yet have its own footgolf association – Northgreen has been receiving interest throughout the region. The club welcomed a Raleigh-area soccer team, invited N.C. Wesleyan soccer players and has taken tee times from Fayetteville, Greenville, Wilmington and Richmond, Va.
“That people are willing to travel such a distance shows you it’s so fun,” Wayne Holloman said. “If people are willing to come from Richmond, Virginia, to make a day trip to play this, people from around here ought to come out, see what it is and see why it’s so addicting.”
Beyond providing a possible solution to the ‘Is Lionel Messi the Tiger Woods of soccer, or is Woods the Messi of golf?’ question, the game itself presents a risk to the Hollomans. They want to welcome new groups of people to the golf course without alienating their current base and believe they have the game to appease both sides.
Of the 18,000-plus golf courses in the United States, Northgreen is one of fewer than 130 footgolf courses in the country. The game has a growing national base and a broad appeal, and they hope it will become a point of local pride that Rocky Mount was on the bandwagon in its early stages.
The footgolf model is simple. The game is inexpensive. Everybody can do it. And it’s really, really fun.
On those strengths, Northgreen has tied its wagon to a new idea, something the club believes is the right call in the long run.
“Even if you have never kicked a soccer ball before or played soccer, (footgolf) is something you can get out here and do, and absolutely love doing,” Holloman said. “We think the potential for it is unlimited, really. We think it’s really going to take off.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org