- Ben Clarke recently won his third straight FootGolf World Tour title
- The Englishman didn’t even know the sport existed in 2014
- He competes against ex-footballers including Roberto Ayala
“My first ever shot went straight into a tree,” Ben Clarke, fresh from beating 3,698 competitors to conquer his third consecutive FootGolf World Tour title, told FIFA.com, chuckling.
That, remarkably, was only five years ago. “I was a P.E. teacher at a school,” said Clarke. “I didn’t even know FootGolf existed."
FootGolf – a portmanteau of football and golf – is effectively played under the regulations of the latter, but with football shoes and size-five footballs substituting clubs and dinky, dimpled golf balls. Its governing body, the Federation for International FootGolf (FIFG), has organised three FootGolf World Cups, while its annual World Tour comprised events across 34 countries this year.
Clarke finished at 20 under par to conquer its final leg, the Argentinian Open, by five shots earlier this month. Overall, he won 11 tournaments to claim the World Tour title – the 28-year-old also won the UK and European Tours this year – by a staggering margin from runner-up Matias Perrone and third-placed Nico Garcia.
Evgeniy Levchenko, who played alongside Sergiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko for Ukraine, and was the romantic lead on the Russian version of The Bachelor reality series, came seventh.
“Some footballers come into FootGolf,” said Clarke. “Levchenko, Sergio Vazquez, Camel Meriem, Tom Williams, Adel Chedli, Kevin Kyle all played international football. Ricardo Esteves plays. Pierre van Hooijdonk, Paolo Di Canio and Stan Collymore have played occasionally. Alan Smith played at the US Open this year.
“Roberto Ayala is the biggest name. He played at the [FootGolf] World Cup and came third. He’s very, very good.
“Speaking to him you’d never know he’d been as successful as he has. Such a nice, genuine guy who doesn’t want to talk about his success. He just wants to enjoy FootGolf.”
The Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire native could never have imagined back in 2014 that he’d be getting the better of Ayala, just like another Englishman famously did at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™.
“Someone messaged me on social media,” Clarke explained. “I ignored the message for a few days, because I was a little bit confused as to what it was. But I was curious, so I replied, went down to the local course and fell in love with it.”
Clarke’s first shot may have crashed into a tree, but he got to grips with the sport well enough during that first session to plant the seeds to stardom.
“I was quite fortunate with how it all happened,” he said. “The business development director of UK FootGolf happened to be there. He saw me playing, approached me, and urged me to enter some local tournaments. It’s all stemmed from there. It’s like it was meant to happen.”
‘Big Ben’ immediately swapped playing 11-a-side football on weekends – curiously as a goalkeeper – for FootGolf. As his status skyrocketed, however, he was burdened with juggling his passion with his profession.
“I used to work Monday to Friday at the school,” he said. “They got fed up of my asking for time off – Thursday to Monday I’d usually be travelling. So they gave me an ultimatum in 2017 – concentrate on your work here or your FootGolf. I made the choice to focus on FootGolf.”
Clarke, along with Argentinians Garcia and Perrone, is now a fully-fledge professional. “Gatwick FootGolf and UK FootGolf have helped me tremendously to get where I am today,” the Watford fan said. “At very small tournaments, first prize will be £250, and you can win up to around £7,000 at an event. I have some sponsors.
“I get free entry at all the events across the world, which comes as a prize for players winning certain events. That saves a lot of money. It’s mainly the travel and accommodation I fund myself, but that will be covered by winning tournaments. I’ve travelled abroad this year 15, 16 times and I play on the UK Tour too.”
Clarke may have won three World Tour titles, and two European Tour crowns, but FIFG FootGolf World Cup glory has eluded him.
“At the last World Cup last December, the UK came second as a team and I came second as an individual,” he said. “It’s something I’d love to win.”
477 players across three categories – men’s, women’s and over 45s – from 33 nations participated at Marrakesh 2018. Those figures are expected to increase at Japan 2020 as the popularity of this enrapturing sport heightens.
“At the previous World Cup, France beat the UK in the final,” said Clarke. “The UK recently beat France in the final of the European Championship. So I’d say France and the UK are the leading nations.
“The Argentinians are very good also. They’ve got Maty and Nico, really, really strong players, and a lot of other talent.”
Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and USA – who all boast formidable FootGolf players – will have something to say about that. There’s no doubt, though, who will be the individual to topple.
“Dominance in sport is rare, but we are in an era of living sporting greats – Messi, Federer, Woods to name a few,” said UK FootGolf's tournament director Paul Oliver. “Ben has achieved this level of greatness.”