Japan and Foot Golf score major victory at ANA Inspiration Foot Golf contest

March 31, 2016

By Matt McKay

Japan smoked the USA in the first ANA Inspiration Footgolf Faceoff, a six-hole footgolf exhibition match, during Tuesday of ANA Inspiration week at Mission Hills CC’s Palmer Course.

Japan’s runway 4 and 2 win - they even covered the USA’s two-hole “press” - was matched only by the success of the event. The rambunctious, jovial scene made it abundantly clear that footgolf, the hybrid golf/soccer sport featuring soccer balls, small greens and giant holes, was an equally big winner on the day.

Team Japan - which came out smartly dressed in “official” Foot Golf attire - consisted of 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup MVP goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori and midfielder Yayoi Kobayashi, who appeared in two Women’s World Cups and one Olympics for Japan. They teamed with LPGA stars Ayako Uehara and Shiho Oyama, who together have six career top 10 finishes on the tour.

The USA countered with its own soccer legends. Two-time Olympic gold medalists and World Cup champions Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy, representing U.S. Soccer, teamed with the LPGA’s Paula Creamer and Jessica Korda to comprise Team USA. The soccer players handled the “tee shots” and “approach shots,” or the long-distance kicks, while the golfers for each country took over when it came to “pitching” and “putting,” the shots around and on the greens.

The Japanese easily won the first four holes, prompting Wambach to press the match winners over the last two holes. Even then, the USA came up short, as each hole was halved. The Japanese soccer players seemed to have grasped the concept of fairway slope, playing their shots exactly like good golf shots, using the terrain to avoid hazards and rough to consistently leave themselves in good shape for their next shot.

The USA, on the other hand - perhaps used to playing on the best-conditioned soccer surfaces available - couldn’t seem to get their heads around the notion of a pitch that wasn’t completely flat. As a result, they found themselves in compromised positions as their shots rolled away from the intended landing zones, or even into the water, when they failed to compensate for slanted surfaces both in the fairway and on the greens.

However, one only had to witness the opening tee shots to realize what a boon the international friendly was for footgolf, and also for the tournament’s attempt to market itself as “the place to be” during ANA Inspiration week. A throng estimated at 700 to 1,000 fans and supporters crowded the tee as the players took their positions and immediately struck up competitive banter. The gallery included current footgolfers, young soccer fans, long-time golf fans, two-time ANA Inspiration winner Karrie Webb and LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. The entire procession was accompanied by a golf cart rigged with a sound system blasting throbbing dance music, enhancing the party atmosphere.

As the players were approaching the tee to begin the competition, Wambach ran into USA coach Roberto Balestrini, the Palm Springs-based Argentinian who founded the American FootGolf League, and the two were introduced. Wambach promptly expressed her long-held desire to give the game a go, and Balestrini responded in his typical fashion - he enveloped Wambach in a bear hug. Afterward, Wambach gave her verdict.

“Oh, man, clearly I need to get better at it,” Wambach said. “It’s difficult, with the elevation, and the up and downs, the rolls, the fairways…it’s really tough. But at the end of the day, it’s all about practice. I think if I’d had some cleats on, it would be a different story. And if I’d had a Nike ball, it would have been a completely different story.”

The gallery also got a first-hand, up-close look at the social aspects of the footgolf culture, many of which it shares with the actual game. Players generally walked together, as their tee shots were generally in the same location or distance. There was close interaction on the small greens, where the needling bordered on gamesmanship.

And, there was unadulterated camaraderie. The Japanese were able to reveal their personalities to the gallery at close range. Meanwhile, the U.S. soccer players shouted and laughed, and Creamer turned in a handful of shots good enough to coax her into flashing her million-dollar smile. After the match, she expressed her appreciation for footgolf’s many benefits, not only to the game of golf, but the entirety of the sports landscape.

“Anytime you can do something differently in the game of golf, it’s fun,” Creamer said. “I think we’ll probably be out there (playing footgolf) a little bit more now.”

Afterward Balestrini said he was not surprised at the outcome or the proficiency of the Japanese. “They were training at my house last night!” he said, before letting out a hearty laugh.

“I’m really excited, because now that we’re getting national attention, we can bring all those kids and families into the game that have never been on a golf course before,” said Balestrini, a tireless ambassador for both sports. “We can bring them to a golf course with all that attention, and we can introduce all those people to the great game of golf. So, that we can use footgolf, which is an international sport, to help grow golf…it’s fantastic.”

During the match, Wambach made several references to the actual game of golf, including her insistence to press. She said she’s falling for footgolf, but has been a golf fan all her life, and is looking forward to its’ inclusion in the Summer Olympics this year.

“I’m a huge golfer and I watched a lot of golf with my father growing up,” said Wambach. “I’m just excited that golf is in the Olympics. That’s so amazing. The next step is footgolf, but right now we can focus on golf.”

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Handicap Index: 11.1
Monday, April 04, 2016

Interesting. Would like to have seen it.