Footgolf: Happiness is being on the course
I’m on the footgolf course.
I bend down and place my ball. I take four steps back, inhale the piney Sintra air, tilt my neck sideways till I hear a cracking sound like a whip, adjust my cap and exhale deeply.
There’s no tee for my ball to rest on and no club in my hand. Instead, there’s a somewhat weathered Adidas Jabulani ball two metres in front of my feet and the only weapon at my disposal is my size 43 right boot. This isn’t golf, this isn’t football. This is footgolf.
I’m standing on the tee of the 18th green at the Penha Longa Golf club in the leafy, oxygen-rich town of Sintra, Portugal.
The challenge of the 18th
It’s a 236 metre Par 5, the longest on the course. From where you’re standing it’s all downhill for the first 150 metres or so, then it flattens out. The course’s natural contours mean that eventually all the balls will end up in a similar spot, at about the 2 o’clock position on a watch from where you stand on the tee; let’s call it position X. The flag is at about 11 o’clock from where you take your first shot.
It’s about 25 metres between position X and where it will rest for good. When it lands in the hole, your round is complete.
The pin is halfway up a slope. The good news is you get two bites of the cherry when you go at it. When it goes up the slope. And then again when it rolls down it, should you miss it on the outbound flight.
The bad news is that if it misses it at the second time of asking, you risk going all the way down the slope and into the sort of vegetation you’d normally be trawling through in Wellington boots. It’s the dangerous downtown of the course.
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In that vegetation you’ll find thick grass, rocks the size of a lamb joint served as Sunday roast, thistles and all sorts of other horrible stuff that could very quickly spoil your whole round. You don’t want to be down there, mate. But that’s all to worry about in about five minutes’ time.
Your tee shot will keep on rolling down the hill after you strike it. That’s just gravity taking over. But about 100 metres into it, there’s a little mound that needs to be overcome. If you pass it, the ball will keep travelling for another 40 metres or so, will rest just before a bunker at position X and you have an outside chance of making an Albatross with your second shot. Tough, not impossible. I’ve seen it done.
If you miss out on passing the mound, it’s just a tap of the boot and the downward slope will take you to X in the time it takes you to put sugar in your Espresso and down the thing.
There’s a Plan B that involves going left and making use of a little tarmacked pathway that will make the ball accelerate and give it every chance of passing the mound; but that’s just too risky for comfort. Miss the pathway and you’re in the rubbish.
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The adrenaline flowing though my body tells me to shoot and shoot hard. I’ve just made par on the treacherous 17th hole five minutes ago and I’m feeling pumped. I glance at the scorecard resting in my side pocket.
I’m on -7 with one playing partner on -8. Now or never, boy.
Except that putting my foot as hard as I can through the middle of the ball is missing the point. It’s not the power that’s the key here in this footgolf shot, it’s the route. Pass the mound and Albatross and Eagle are on. Fall short and birdie is probably, as per that great Jack Nicholson movie, ‘as good as it gets’.
There’s a little stretch of grass where the grass is shorter. The ball will accelerate if it goes there and have enough momentum to pass the mound. After that, it’s game on.
So I aim for that strip with the inside of my foot, a Bend it like Beckham but without the vicious whip. It hits the spot, increases in speed like a sprinter in his last 50 metres of the dash and passes the mound easily.
Ending on a high
I can’t resist a little grin as I make my way down the hill. The first part of the job is done. Course knowledge is a valuable part of the footgolf game. And experience counts for a lot here, just like in any walk of life. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this game is about.
You’ll need to assess the conditions– the role of the wind or how damp the grass, is for example.
You need to weigh up risk and reward. When to go for the flag in search of glory and when to reel in your aggression and play it safe. Sometimes par will do it for you.
You need to decide which part of the boot you’re going to use for your next stroke, no different to selecting your golf club for your next shot. An instep drive for power, a side-footed jab for accuracy, an outside of the boot swerve to avoid a tree or malicious bunker.
And then you’ll have to keep your cool. Channel your frustration when the ball lips out of the hole like it has a personal vendetta with you. Or when you get a bad bounce and your playing partner gets a good one, despite the ball seeming to land in the exact spot. Will your blood boil like McEnroe after a bad line call at Wimbledon? Or will it stay ice-cool like Ronnie potting frame ball for the Snooker World Championship under the utmost pressure?
And then of course there’s the execution. Knowing the course like Mickelson knows Augusta will only get you so far. You need to make the ball talk in mid-air, weigh the strength of those approach shots, hit the right blade of grass to sink those putts.
I miss my unlikely attempt at albatross but tap in for eagle. My playing partner makes birdie. We both finish on -9. There’s the traditional removal of the cap, the handshake, the knowing smile. For today our work is done and we’ll head off to the 19th hole for a cool beer as we discuss the highlights and missed chances of today’s round.
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Marrakech, here I come. I hope…
At the end of the year the Footgolf World Cup will be held in Marrakech, Morocco. It’s a chance to represent my country in the ultimate test against the world’s best players. Ben Clarke, Nicolas Garcia, Jamie Cullum (no not this one), David Mancino. They’ll all be there looking to add the ultimate trophy to an already full cabinet.
In addition to the pressure of the situation and the fear of that sinking feeling when you’ve let your team-mates down, there’s also the Moroccan heat and stamina to deal with. It’s a long old week of footgolf.
But I’m desperate to be there and to do so I’ll have to qualify as one of the top 10 players in Portugal over the course of the season. Will I make it?
I don’t know but I’m sure as hell going to find out.
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