This piece was originally published in the42.ie, 17th January 2016. Full story here.
THE POST-CELTIC Tiger era was difficult for many Irish people, and Ronan Cunningham was no exception.
While in his 20s, Cunningham struggled for a couple of years with unemployment and decided to go back to college.
The Dubliner enrolled in a course in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCD Innovation Academy, where the idea of bringing FootGolf to Ireland came about.
“It was just meant to be a college project,” he tells The42. “I’d seen just a clip or something (of FootGolf) a couple of years ago on Facebook. So it turned out to be my end-of-year project and the more I worked on it, the more I realised that FootGolf could actually be a successful sport in Ireland, and I think it actually proved to be the case.”
Indeed, having brought FootGolf to Ireland in 2013, opening up the first course, ‘Footee,’ in Tallaght, there are now over 20 courses in Ireland either existing or in the process of being built, in locations including Cork, Mayo, Galway and Kilkenny.
The sport itself is relatively new. Holland are widely credited with creating it in the mid-late 00s, while it only became an official sport in 2012. It is popular in other places too, with 85 courses in Britain and over 300 in the US, while it is also believed to have helped save many golf courses that were struggling financially – both the the PGA of America and World Golf Foundation acknowledge its importance in helping to generate income.
Meanwhile, according to its official website, the Irish FootGolf Association (IFGA), which was established in 2014, hopes to have 30 affiliated FootGolf courses (on both existing and disused golf courses) by 2017.
As its name suggests, the sport is a combination of football and golf, with rules loosely based on the latter. Players must therefore try to kick a standard size football from tee to green in as few shots as possible. Each hole carries a par and players must attempt to get the ball into a hole of football-appropriate size.
Despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon, FootGolf is one of the fastest growing sports in Ireland. As President of the IFGA, Cunningham has already had some “really positive” talks with the Sports Council, and the association hope to become a National Governing Body by the end of 2017.
“(The Sports Council) see the benefits of getting young kids outdoors and active, and that’s what’s happening — we’re getting a lot of young kids playing this game,” Cunningham explains. “Anything that gets kids playing sport is positive.”
And while participation numbers are high, Cunningham’s next big challenge is convincing some of the casual majority to develop a passion for the sport in order to raise the playing standard in Ireland.
“It’s a bit of recreational fun and it’s getting out and getting active. But there is a core, and right now it’s only a small core, of individuals that want to take the sport seriously.
“The IFGA is trying to develop the competitive side of the game and trying to bring it to the same level as places like Argentina, France and Britain. They get consistent numbers of 100-200 players and that’s the side of the game I want to develop.
“FootGolf is a brilliant game to play competitively. It’s the same challenges as golf and any sport. It can get in your head and you can have a mini meltdown on a hole. It’s a really mental and skilful game.”
“I think in the next 10 or 15 years, it could become a really serious sport and start to be taken really seriously.”
One significant step in the right direction has been Ireland’s participation in just the second-ever FootGolf World Cup in Buenos Aires earlier this month.
35-year-old Cunningham and 12 other Irish players travelled to Argentina to compete. The individuals chosen to represent their country were a combination of wildcard entries and players who had performed well in Ireland’s burgeoning FootGolf domestic league. Team sponsors Carzone.ie and kit sponsors O’Neills Sportswear helped with finances, as did money raised through domestic competitions, though players also had to contribute part of the funds.
And while Cunningham acknowledges that taking two weeks off work in January “wasn’t ideal” for the majority of competitors, it wasn’t an issue ultimately.
The team were delighted with their subsequent performance in Argentina. Irish number one, Gary Mullin, impressed in particular. The Galway native came joint 14th, while Cunningham was tied in 46th along with another Irish player, Ronan Lynagh. Stephen Sawyer (T42) and James Barry (T80) also made it into the top 100 of the final individual competition.
Meanwhile, Argentine Christian Otero ultimately triumphed out of the 230 players from 26 countries participating.
“Of the team that went out to the World Cup, we’ve only been playing FootGolf competitively for a year,” Cunningham explains.
“We’re all very new to it and that’s why I was so proud of our performances. We hadn’t made a name for ourselves on the international stage, but I think we did this week. Gary Mullin, our national champion, came 14th. He’s effectively the 14th best player in the world, which is unbelievable.”
“It says a lot about our potential. It says to me that our domestic competitions are pretty bang on. We’re finding really good players, and the really good players want to win and compete.”
The achievement was even more impressive given the difficult conditions that the Irish players had to put up with. Despite Cunningham describing the course in Pilar as “the best I’ve ever played on” and the Argentine equivalent of the K Club, factors such as heat and fatigue had a big impact on players’ performances.
“The game changes when you’re playing on loads of short fairways and greens. You have to get used to the speed of greens.
“We were also playing in 30-degree heat. We were in the middle of the Argentine summer. I think we struggled, particularly on day one, with the heat. We got sunburnt – it was shades of Steve Staunton at the 1994 World Cup.”
“The other thing was that when you play FootGolf for six days solid, it takes its toll. You’re talking about playing competitively for six straight days. By the end of it, two of our players had to pull out. They couldn’t actually compete on the last day. Their groins, quads, hamstrings… It was just a clash of injuries and build up of the game just taking its toll on the body. It’s something that we’ll have to look at going forward — strength and conditioning for big tournaments.
“I know people’s opinion of FootGolf is that it’s ‘just a bit of fun,’ but when you’re taking it to this level, you’re talking about pushing your body to the max and obviously, your legs in particular. You’re kicking over really long distances — power and everything associated with the muscles in your leg (come into it). So I think that was probably the biggest challenge.”
But having returned back to Dublin on Thursday, Cunningham says he will only have positive memories from this “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” while already leaving the team excited about the next World Cup, rumoured to be set to take place in China, in two years’ time.
“When you stand in front of the Irish flag and Amhrán na bhFiann is blasted out, it’s a pretty special occasion. You kind of see it in the faces of the other guys. I think that’s when the whole thing became really real — the opening ceremony. And I think it’s a memory that’s going to stay with us for the rest of our lives. There really was something special about it. It was unbelievable.”