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Golf: Soccer craze has reached manicured greens

On the golf course, hearing the sweet ping of a golf club connecting with a small dimpled ball is common. Something not so common? Hearing a hearty thud, the sound of a foot connecting with a soccer ball.

Both of these sounds will be on display Thursday at Emerald Hill Golf Course in Sterling. The club has decided to introduce a new sport to its course with an introductory session of FootGolf.

FootGolf is the newest craze to hit the United States, and Emerald Hill is the first course in the area to test the market of this newly developed sport.

"We did a lot of research and it's a very popular sport that is making its way out here," said C.J. Wade, the golf operations manager at Emerald Hill.

The game is a cross between golf and soccer and follows traditional golf rules. But instead of using golf clubs and golf balls, the game is played with feet and a soccer ball.

Wade said the course did extensive research on the sport over the winter – in hopes to find new avenues to spice up their course – before making the ultimate decision to host their own session Thursday evening. The game is quite popular in Europe and, recently, has been making its way into the United States.

The American FootGolf League was founded in 2011, and has accredited courses in 37 states. While Emerald Hill is not yet accredited and the decision to do so hasn't been brought up, the course wanted to jump in front of the growing sport and gauge its success in the Sauk Valley.

Part of the decision to hold the event was made with a monetary goal in mind, though Wade believes it is important to tap into a group of people interested in soccer, as well as golf, and give them an opportunity to use the course as an avenue for those interests.

"I think we're trying to be ahead of the curve here," Wade said. "Like any course, we would like to see a little extra revenue, and we're trying to get out ahead of the curve in that aspect.

"There also hasn't been anything new to the game of golf in the last 10 years or so, and if this is something that is good for the golf course, then we want to explore that and bring new players to the course, and the game."

Like golf, the object is to put the ball into the cup in the fewest amount of strokes. For FootGolf, the cups have been increased from their regulation size used for golf, to 21 inches in diameter in order to accommodate the size of a soccer ball.

But for Thursday's introductory trial session, Emerald Hill will not dig new holes and will instead spray paint 21-inch circles. The course doesn't yet have the equipment to construct the wider holes and will wait to see if this is something people will enjoy before purchasing the equipment.

In order to keep the course in prime condition, no soccer cleats or spiked shoes are allowed, and golf shoes or tennis shoes are preferred in order to not destroy the course and keep it playable for the remainder of the summer. Players will tee off in front of the tee boxes, and the pins will be painted just off the green as to not ruin the fine grass from the wear and tear of kicking.

"We're not too worried about it," Wade said of the condition of the course. "Everything should be fine. Most of the play will be on the fairways, and the holes won't interact with the greens."

Pre-registration for the introductory trial session ended Monday, and the course is up to 70 participants that have called and shown interest. The course will call participants with their tee-times today. The first tee time begins at 5:15 p.m. Thursday, with the final one starting at 7:30 p.m. It takes around 1 hour to play nine holes, so sunlight shouldn't be an issue.

The cost is free during this one-time introductory session, with the main goal to simply gauge interest. Carts will be made available for $20.

"We'll do a little research out there," Wade said. "Ask general questions, like if it's too hard or too easy, and get a gauge and see what people want.

"I don't know what people expect. We're new to it, too. We don't want to make it too hard or too easy and we want to see what changes we can make."

Some traditional golfers might have worries about soccer balls flying into their play, but Wade assures that there will not be any interference. The FootGolf play will be sectioned off to the back nine holes, and those that wish to play traditional golf will play the front nine, twice if playing 18 holes.

Depending on the success of this introductory experiment, regular Footgolf leagues and tournaments may be established in the future beginning at the course next spring. Wade plans on sifting through feedback in the following days in order to determine if this is something that can be a permant fixture at the course.

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