- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - The Whispering Pines golf course introduced a new feature earlier this month designed to lower the barrier of entry to the sport: FootGolf.

The course is Mississippi’s first and the world’s 400th, according to course manager Pam Wickham. It is open to all Columbus Air Force Base personnel and their families.

The game is gloriously simple. “The Best Game Ever Invented” its website (footgolf.net) claims.

The founder of the American FootGolf League, Roberto Balestrini, said the sport succinctly in an introduction video.

“It’s like the game of golf, but, uh, played with a soccer ball,” Balestrini said.



That’s it. The scorecards look the same. The rules are the same. And there’s even goofy apparel mandated for FootGolf players similar to that of golfers.

In a four-minute video explaining the sport participants had to watch before they could play on the Whispering Pines course, the first section of the video just panned up and down a young, fit FootGolfer and reiterated the dress code.

“For your apparel, you will wear argyle knee-high socks, golf shorts, and a polo, as well as a flat golf cap,” the video commands.

Argyle, knee-high socks. That’s in the rules.

At that point in the Whispering Pines waiting room, prospective FootGolfers started raising eyebrows. Carmine Muscarella, a civilian employee who brought his three daughters to play on the course, was firm.

“I’m not wearing those,” he said. “That’s the line.”

Lucky for Muscarella and his daughters - who also did not appear to have brought knee-high diamond-adorned socks - the Whispering Pines course does not enforce the official dress code of the American FootGolf League.

“You pretty much just have to be wearing a shirt and shoes at all times,” Wickham said.

You wouldn’t know from looking at her, though. Wickham proudly sported blue argyle socks and a matching golf cap for the club’s opening day.

FootGolf is a new phenomenon.

It officially became a sport in the U.S. in 2011, though European FootGolfers have been playing since 2009. In 2012, the first ever FootGolf World Cup was held in Hungary.

Now, there are over 400 courses in 48 states, according to the sport’s website. FootGolf has been embraced by the golf community as a way to save a sport that is declining in popularity.

Golf sales have been declining steadily since 2006, according to The Economist. In total, the number of rounds played by golfers in 2013 was the fewest number since 1995.

And while many theories have been presented to explain golf’s decline, especially with the younger generation, there isn’t a consensus. The game takes a long time to play, which is antithetical to an increasingly fast-paced world. It’s a hard game to learn and an even harder one to master, which doesn’t lend itself to a generation that expects instant gratification.

Whatever the reason for the dip, professionals turned to FootGolf. In March of 2014, PGA of America President Ted Bishop announced that a Task Force was forming to grow the game through ‘non-traditional means’ - like encouraging FootGolf.

Wickham said that for Whispering Pines, it made sense to dual-purpose the course.

“Most golf courses in our industry are struggling just to make ends meet,” she said. “And this is a perfect opportunity to offer another program.”

The sport is advertised on CAFB’s webpage as “low-cost and fun for all ages.”

Stephen Duran, a commander who was appointed “FootGolf master” by a group of airmen standing around the course, agreed that the family aspect was a draw for the sport.

“I saw potential to take my kids, so I could play regular golf and my son could come with me and play FootGolf,” he said.

Duran was still glowing from his success - or perhaps from the rainbow argyle socks he wore during the game - underscoring another of FootGolf’s benefits: It is easier than golf and has a much smaller learning curve.

“I got like four pars in the day,” Duran said. “That’s more than I get in regular golf, I’ll tell you that.”

___

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, https://www.cdispatch.com

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