Paul Oliver is director of golf at the Addington Court Golf Centre (part of Crown Golf) near Croydon. He is now a pioneer and strong advocate of ‘footgolf’ both as a sport in its own right and as a way of promoting greater interest in golf. Glyn Pritchard spoke to Paul about his passion for footgolf and what it can do for golf course operators.
Paul Oliver has been a PGA pro since 1996 and has wide experience of golf management which includes opening the Taba Heights golf resort on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. He and his team at Addington Court have tried hard to promote participation in the game, working with 35 local schools to stimulate interest in golf. “When I arrived in 2008 we had hardly any juniors, but we built a section up to about 100 working with local schools. That’s fallen to about 65 now, because while we have new joiners, so many kids drop out when the reach their exam years.”
Oliver has come to a stark realisation. “I believe that proprietary golf clubs, which are not resort or prestige type venues can only prosper by becoming multi-sport centres offering a range of activities and facilities. Golf venues that just offer golf to members and visitors can do little more than survive. That’s why I think footgolf represents such a terrific opportunity for many struggling clubs.”
In 2013 Addington Court opened the first 18 hole footgolf course in London. “I designed the 2,000 yard course with our head green-keeper and it fits into our nine hole academy golf course. Frankly the academy course is underutilised, whereas the footgolf course has been an enormous success.”
At the moment the footgolf course is open after 11.00am on weekends. “We will open the course at anytime for group bookings of twelve or more. Last year we had over 4,000 rounds of footgolf played here.” In terms of revenue generation Oliver says, “We are generating enormous year on year growth and it’s not just in green fees. Last August we sold nearly 4,000 cans of lager to lads playing footgolf!”
As a result Crown Golf has opened further footgolf courses at its South Essex and Sunbury venues. “If you can tie your shoelaces, you can play football. That’s the beauty of the game. We have had players ranging from a six year old girl to an 84 year old granddad. Unlike golf it’s not difficult to play and there are none of the perceived barriers of dress codes, complicated rules and etiquette.”
Oliver claims footgolf is the fastest growing sport in the country. While the appeal of the game is that anybody can have a go, there is already an elite group of players, league structures and a national organising body, the UK Footgolf Association. Oliver is a self-confessed footgolf enthusiast and is sixth in the UK rankings for the sport. “There are ranking events for an Order of Merit and last year I took part in eleven competitions, winning six and coming runner-up in three more. Of course I’m best on my home course”, Oliver confirms.
The game can be played by teams or individuals. “We have groups turn up on stag do’s or for birthdays, but also dads with a couple of kids. There are more serious regular players as well. For casual play there’s no limit on group size but obviously groups bigger than five start to get messy. Dress is completely informal as is footwear, but we don’t allow football boots with studs because they churn up the course too much. It takes about 90 minutes to play 18 holes in a small group and we charge £15 a round for adults and half that for under 18s.”
As an elite player himself Oliver has a few tips to offer. “I wear Nike Lunar 2 golf shoes to play. The ball makes a huge difference. I use a Nike Seitiro football which I find carries ten to 15 yards further through the air than a cheap regulation ball. But I use it slightly deflated at 7.4PSI so it lands soft and doesn’t bounce wildly.” In terms of playing Oliver explains, “Reading the slope is critical, which is where it is more like golf than football. That’s where my experience as a professional golfer really comes into its own – I can read the slope and know how the ball will move across it. Like golf, keeping the ball in the fairway and avoiding hazards improves scores, so course knowledge is important and I have written my own yardage books for courses.”
While the rapid growth and increasing professionalism of footgolf may be good news for the emergent game, does it help promote participation in conventional golf? “There is crossover both ways, but the important thing is that it draws people to the venue. They may come for footgolf, but they see the golf courses and the driving range. When they go to the bar, they realise that it’s a relaxed atmosphere and nothing like their preconceptions of what a golf club is like. Some of the footgolfers will ask me about going to the range and hitting golf balls.”
Oliver believes it needs a champion to make a success of footgolf. “You need someone to manage it as a project. The course has to be in good condition so that players have a positive experience and want to return. That means getting the greens staff on your side, ensuring the footgolf course doesn’t get sidelined for maintenance.”
Footgolf really took off as a sport in the UK last year. “There are 55 courses currently, but I would expect that to rise to over 100 during 2015.” In fact Britain is a relatively late starter for footgolf. “It’s very big on the continent and in the States, where they have 300 plus courses. It’s also very popular in Argentina who are arguably the best in the world.”
With golf participation in decline, Oliver makes the point that footgolf is in its infancy so the only way is up. “The potential market for footgolf is infinite at this stage, whereas with proper golf we’re all competing for a share of a declining market. Footgolf is already making a significant contribution to our revenues and it draws people into the venue. This is a public facility and when people in the Croydon area think about golf we want them to think ‘Addington Court’. Footgolf is helping us achieve that.”