Golfcross: A New Way to Play the Game

By: Jeff Shelley

My friends Charlie and Becky just returned from a five-week vacation in New Zealand. Besides a lifetime of wonderful memories, they brought back to Seattle a tiny football-shaped golf ball with dimples and a funky-looking tee to hold it.

Thus was my introduction to the New Zealand-invented game of golfcross. Though requiring the use of golf clubs, there are several nuances that differentiate this unusual game from the one invented by the Scots (or, as has been argued about in recent articles, the Dutch or Chinese).

How Golfcross Differs from Golf

Unlike golf, whose essence is a round ball rolling along the ground after being smote through the air for great distances, golfcross is strictly an air game. Instead of fairways it has "yards." Holes, cups and pins are replaced by "goals." Every shot is hit off a tee, with no putting involved. Though it also has nine or 18 holes, the game is based on smacking the ball through uprights similar to those found on the American gridiron or New Zealand rugby pitches.

Because of its ellipsoidal shape, the flight of a golfcross ball is more easily manipulated than the familiar round sphere. It's aerodynamically more stable than its sister, so when you hit a golfcross ball at the tilted-back position like a football primed for kickoff, it goes straight. But by angling the ball to either the left or right side of the tee, players can easily hit a fade or draw.

That ability to control the ball flight is crucial in golfcross, as the goals have only three positions. When faced with a narrow angle from a side of the golfcross goal, one had better be skilled at hooking or slicing for the ball to go through the goal posts and notch a good score.

Another vital element is positioning the ball in the yard. Because the goal has only three fixed positions, it's crucial to put your ball in the proper place for the all-important shot on goal. Land your ball inside the yard and you're able to turn the goal to any one of the three positions for the widest possible target. When outside the yard, however, you have to lay on to get turning rights or attack the goal in its facing position by going for a field goal. If you're not in the goal zone you could take a punt and try to go in over the top.

Though this terminology may be a bit confounding, you're still essentially playing golf. It's just that the target is three-dimensional. Since the fairways are narrow, there's only one way to score a goal (unlike golf where you can come from behind or the sides of a green to access the hole). Scoring is the same, the clubs are the same and, as is typical with well-played golf, excellent shot-making breeds success.

The Game's Roots

Golfcross was first played in 1989 at Wanaka when writer Burton Silver asked Rolf Mills and George Studholme to play some oval golf balls through a series of simple goals as part of a photo shoot for a book about invented New Zealand pastimes. Silver had fashioned the balls out of polyester resin in his garage workshop and while they were like rocks to hit, the ball's unique aerodynamic properties became evident.

After the photo shoot, the game might have died then and there were it not for Studholme's excitement about it. The former greenkeeper for the local golf club loved the idea that all of the expense involved with building and maintaining putting greens could be eliminated with this new golf crossover. "You could play it very cheaply and just about anywhere - anywhere you can get a mower or a mob of sheep," he said.

Encouraged by this response from an experienced green keeper, Silver realized that a game with goals could be a viable alternative and knew that an oval ball would be a big draw card - but first he needed to find out how an oval ball made of the proper compound would perform.

Silver persuaded Joe Gibson, a local wood turner, to put one-piece balls onto his lathe and turn them into small oval shapes. Silver, who doesn't play golf, gave these to his golfing friend Martin O'Connor to hit. O'Connor was rather skeptical at first but when he discovered that the oval ball placed in the upright position resisted any attempt to slice or hook it, he became an ardent supporter.

However, when Silver attempted to interest golf ball manufacturers in making an oval ball he was looked at rather strangely and quickly shown the door. Finally, after six years, Silver persuaded two Englishmen from Birmingham, Peter Smewin and William Baird, who worked for Penfold Golf, one of the world's oldest golf-ball makers, to make some prototypes in their spare time. After many failed prototypes and a lot of testing by Martin O'Connor to find the right weight and shape, a one-piece, oval golf ball with dimples finally became available in 1996.

What was lacking, though, was a goal that could handle the often-ferocious winds that whip across New Zealand. Dominic Taylor, a young industrial designer who was the chief mechanist on "The Lord of the Rings" movies, came up with a brilliant design after numerous field trials. Modeled after trees that stay upright by shedding branches in high winds, the modern golfcross goal features highly flexible branch-like stays that are tension-hinged so as to collapse in on themselves when the going gets tough.

What My American Friends Thought About Golfcross

Charlie and Becky came across golfcross in Wanaka, a scenic town at the entrance to Mt. Aspiring National Park. Nearby is a winery by a large lake. Snowcapped mountains and glaciers loom in the background of this pastoral layout which, as unbeknownst to them, is the planet's first-ever golfcross course.

"We played in a sheep pasture owned by the Rippon Vineyard, an upscale winery and vineyard above the shores of Lake Wanaka," Becky related. "Wanaka is a beautiful little town with stunning views of Mt. Aspiring and Lake Wanaka. I have misplaced our scorecard with yardages, but as I recall the distances of the holes were 90 to 350 meters over nine holes.

"I hit my long shots well - straight and pretty good distance, but had trouble getting the ball into the net. It wasn't until the 7th or 8th hole when Charlie shared with me the secret of getting the ball in the net - an 8 iron! I always chip with a wedge and was going over the goal. Charlie wasn't as straight with the longer shots but killed me with the approaches! On the second hole I drilled a sheep, it 'baaaa-ed' and scampered off."

As a devoted American golfer, and an 8 handicap at that, Becky enjoyed her introduction to golfcross. "The game was a blast - a hoot to be playing in a sheep pasture and a great memento for New Zealand, the land of many sheep!" she enthused. "Quite good exercise as the course had a number of hills. I thought we picked up the technique pretty well. However, I would need some practice to get the hook and slice perfected. I left Charlie in charge of the rules; we played according to Charlie's rules!"

The Idaho native feels the game could find a home in the broad pasturelands of the U.S. "I think it's fun for rural areas: places like Idaho and Montana. It would also be fun in a big park like Discovery Park [near downtown Seattle] where there is plenty of open space."

Becky also liked the time it took to play the game. "The round probably took one and a half hours. The most time-consuming part was to set up and balance the ball on the cupped tee."

She was surprised by the small investment needed to 'build' a course. "The expense of setting up and maintaining the course would be minimal - rocks to mark the tee box, the net for the goals. The grounds [where they played in New Zealand] had been cut by a hay mower and there were no greens. The pasture was dry land, with no irrigation system."

Charlie was similarly impressed. "The ball travels surprisingly well, but does feel a little heavier [than a golf ball]. Our only departure from the rules was positioning the goal. It has only three fixed positions to choose from, so most shots would be from an angle. There is a pin sheet that shows you in advance what those three positions are and you need to hit your shot to the green accordingly.

"We played along with that somewhat, but it wasn't real clear sometimes, so we would occasionally hold the goal in a 'tweener' position for our fellow player."

For More Information

The most active proponent of golfcross is still Burton Silver, the sport's inventor, though he has collected around him a lively group of enthusiasts. Silver has written a beautifully illustrated and photographed book called "New Zealand Golfcross." He also created a small tract entitled "The Game at a Glance" that can be carried onto golfcross courses for rules reference and the like. In addition, Silver operates, an excellent website that outlines the game, its rules, places to play around the world (including the U.S. and Canada), and other helpful information.

If there is a "Johnny Appleseed" of golfcross - "the game that lets you play like a pro and demands that you think line one too" - Silver is it. Many thanks to Burton Silver, for both the information and photos on his website, and to Charlie and Becky for their help in preparing this article.