Footgolf, as the name suggests, is a sport combining elements of football and golf. “The easiest way to explain it,” says Steve Senyard, captain of the Australian national footgolf team, “is that it’s an offshoot of golf using a soccer ball. We’re basically kicking the ball, instead of using the club. The holes are larger, so the ball can fit. But otherwise it’s played using golf rules.”
This week, Senyard and a 12-strong national team arrived in Orlando, Florida, for the 2023 Footgolf World Cup. Following a weekend of practice, the tournament will begin on Monday and run for over a week. The event is the fourth edition of the Footgolf World Cup; the first tournament was held in Hungary just over a decade ago.
Australia has never won a World Cup medal, and face tough competition in Orlando. The travelling squad is one of the smaller delegations, with 1,000 players from across 40 nations expected. But having won the Asian Cup in 2019, upsetting the likes of heavyweights Japan, the Australians believe anything is possible.
“Australia is definitely coming in as an underdog, people aren’t talking about us too much,” says Brisbane-based Senyard. “But I’ve seen interviews lately with people saying Japan [are a contender] – and we beat them to take out the Asian Cup. So we definitely have a chance to finish in the top 10, maybe even the podium.”
One of the team’s star players, Josh Ackland, is more emphatic. “While we’re up against the best in the world, my goal is always to win,” he says. “And my goal for the World Cup is no different.”
Footgolf is a sport on the rise. While it remains a niche activity in Australia, footgolf has been experiencing an uptick in participation – and is booming in a number of other countries. There is even talk of the sport being added to the Olympics schedule at a future Games.
“In countries like the United States and Europe, the sport is progressing massively,” says Senyard. While the Australian team is largely self-funded (some players have sponsors), money is also pouring into the sport internationally. “We recently had an event in the United Arab Emirates with a US$40,000 prize pool,” says Senyard. “So the sport is progressing outside Australia at an exponential rate – we just need to build the growth within Australia to match that.”
For members of the national team, the journey into footgolf seems similar: a chance encounter sparking a lifelong passion. “A friend of mine played it socially at a buck’s party,” says Ackland. “And I had the reaction of, ‘what the hell is that?’ Being a football player all my life, I was fairly intrigued – so I went for a tournament to try it out and got hooked from here.” Most of the national team have football backgrounds; a few come from rugby.
Ackland, a Sydney-based lawyer and football coach, has been playing since 2017. He says the mental side of the game has kept him engaged. “I’ve always played football, my whole life,” he says. “So I have pretty decent skills when it comes to kicking a football, but combining the two sports has been really interesting for me because I’ve learned how important it is to play the mental side of the game on the golf course and really manage the golf course to end up with a good round.”
It was a similar story for Senyard. “I used to play futsal in the UK – and I was visiting some friends who had a footgolf course nearby,” he says. When Senyard returned to Australia, an internet search suggested there was a competition in Sydney, and the team captain has been playing ever since. “It’s just an extremely fun game to play,” he says. “Every single person I know who has had a kick has gone back for a second kick.”
The slower pace of footgolf offers a transition as footballers age. “With actual football you slow down,” says Ackland. “You often need to get smarter as you become older, with your playing style changing to compensate for your fitness, or limitations with injuries and so on. But with footgolf there’s an opportunity to play longer, deeper into your sporting life. It’s a lot easier on the body, and it allows a lot more flexibility with training. All you need is a ball and a park.”
There is one constraint, for competition if not for training – the need for golf courses. Since footgolf took off in Australia a decade ago, dozens of courses across the country have added footgolf-specific holes. They are often covered, or off-fairway, to minimise disruption to golfers. But since the pandemic, which saw a surge of interest in golf itself, Australia’s footgolfers have found it harder to get game time.
“That has been an issue we’re still dealing with – because the courses were so busy with golf, they weren’t putting footgolf players on the course,” says Senyard. The captain says he is optimistic that growth in golf might now stabilise and allow a resurgence in footgolf.
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“It’s really just about getting it out there and getting people to realise that the sport exists, and that it is here – there are competitions, there are leagues,” he says. “It’s kind of a chicken and egg type scenario – we want more players playing so that courses will put holes on their course, and then at the same time, we need courses to be able to play.”
Senyard says the sport has received a broadly positive reception from golfers. “They ask us lots of questions about it when they see us playing – the reaction is pretty good.” There are a few exceptions. “You tend to get some of the old school golfers who say: ‘this is our golf course and we don’t want anyone else coming on’,” Senyard adds.
The team hope their participation at the World Cup, and even a potential medal, might spark interest back home. Their message for potential footgolf enthusiasts is simple: “Give it a try,” Ackland says.
“The reaction I often get from people is – ‘what is this?’ and often there’s a bit of a giggle at the same time,” he says. “I had that exact same reaction, but then I tried it out. And it’s now given me the opportunity to continue sport in a way I enjoy, but also travel the world with a bunch of great teammates and play in really professional tournaments. That’s the competitive side, and then socially, it’s just always fun to be out in nature with your mates having a kick and a laugh.”