Barriers to Playing Golf and Why You Should Start Now
I'll be the first to admit that there is a barrier to entry that is unique to golf. You may not be good at basketball, but if I tossed you one, you probably have a general idea of how to dribble and the goal of shooting it through that "basketball ring." It may be awkward and clunky, but there's a good chance we'd be able to toss a football back and forth to each other. A few months ago I played backyard volleyball with some friends. Anyone watching wouldn't mistake us for pros, but that didn't keep us from playing and having fun.
Golf is different. Most people I meet don't have a visualization of what it looks like. If they've never swung or held a golf club before, it doesn't come naturally. The rules sound complicated and the goal seems difficult. I'm supposed to get it in a cup that small in how many tries?! For many people, golf will remain this mysterious "other" that is not for them. And that likely would have been my story as well, if not for my parents.
When I was in high school, my parents required me to participate on a high school sports team. Being the practical video gamer that I was, I chose the sport with the shortest season and didn't involve locker rooms. Golf! I went to a smaller religious school that had a fairly competitive golf team for its size. It was completely merit-based, which means I finally made junior varsity my senior year. (Some of the schools we played against were not so competitive, I would have been varsity on more than one, even in my underclassmen years).
I hated golf in high school. It was frustrating. I wasn't good at it. It was a long walk outside. I'm only competitive when I like my chances, which means in most sports I'm very non-competitive. In hindsight, it was a good thing I wasn't on varsity, I'm not sure I could have handled the pressure of my score actually mattering for something. I endured four years of parent prescribed golf, fighting it every step of the way.
Something happened after I graduated from high school. I got better at golf. The lack of pressure definitely helped. It was also momentum building. As I got better I played more which helped me get better. As you read my story of it taking four years to even enjoy golf, you may be wondering why I'm suggesting it now. I want you to learn from my mistakes. It's never been easier to get into golf for the first time. You don't have to take as long as I did to enjoy it. Here's what I've learned.
Barrier One: Price
If you're of a certain age, you'll remember when golf was only for certain types of people. Certain people had the time to watch golf. Certain people had the time to play golf. Certain people could afford the club memberships and the equipment and the greens fees. Then Tiger Woods became the most famous athlete in the world for about a decade.
Golf exploded! First Tee programs sprouted up all over the country. Courses were crowded. Golf tournaments did phenomenal TV ratings. Then, for a variety of reasons, golf has receded from its highs. Tournament prize money is still crazy on the main tour - over $10 Million was awarded at the PGA Championship a few weeks ago. But like the rest of television, viewers have been segmented. As golf has been looking for new stars to market (many have rotated through over the past several years) its place in popular culture has dwindled.
10 or 15 years ago, a golf course or instructor might have had people knocking their door down to pay for their services. Today they have to work a little harder to make it worth our while. One of the local 9-hole city courses in my town used to cost 12 or 13 dollars to walk the course. Today you can play it for $7. Even if you live in higher cost of living areas, where the golf might seem prohibitively expensive, take some time to shop around for deals. When I lived in Southern California, I found a course that I could play 9 holes in the morning before 8 a.m. and included a pretty good breakfast for $20. I spent more than that at the movies today. Golf course prices are not created equal. They get most of their business very early in the morning. If you're willing to play in the afternoon, greens fees go WAY DOWN at most courses. If you're looking to play 18 holes and ride in a golf cart, its not uncommon for a course to charge $50 for that in the morning, and $25 in the middle of the afternoon.
Personal Tip: Be flexible on tee times and you can shop around for deals to match any budget.
When golf was trending up, you may have been tempted to pay top dollar for the newest and the latest. Golf manufacturers have had to keep up with the market just like the courses and instructors do. If you're willing to buy used there is a HUGE secondary market through secondhand shops or the internet. Even buying new clubs is more affordable if you're willing to wait and buy at the right time.
If you're checking golf out for the first time, something you might not know is that new lines of clubs come out far too often. Stores have to clear out the previous years inventory to make space for new inventory. If you're willing to take your time and do some comparison shopping and learn the rhythm, you can buy clubs that have been never used for a fraction of the original cost. I have a favorite line of wedges (shorter clubs for shots that go higher and stop more quickly). I was able to find a complete set of these wedges brand new for more than 50% off the original sticker price.
If you're looking to join your buddies for golf a few times a year, it's appropriate to find a secondhand set and spend very little money. If you'd like to join work colleagues or play at least weekly, depending on your situation, you might want to spend a few hundred dollars on clubs by buying last year's models from the store.
Personal Tip: Never pay full retail for clubs. Ever. Research online, check more than one store, and figure out what you really need.
Barrier Two: Skill
Someone who's never played basketball before can likely make a layup within an hour of practice. They can experience some form of payoff rather quickly. You may recall in my story that I didn't seem to experience a payoff for FOUR YEARS in golf! And it's true that if you pick up a second hand set off Craigslist and head off to a golf course to try hitting golf balls for the first time, you won't experience much payoff.
If you're looking into starting playing golf, it's possible you know someone who plays and are interested in joining them. Recruit their aid if you can!
Personal Tip: Don't treat your friends like unpaid golf instructors, but give them opportunities to teach you what they can if they're interested.
I've helped enough people go from never having hit a golf ball to playing a round of golf and having a good time to know that communicating expectations is key. Unless your friend is a pro golfer, they are unlikely to make you good at golf. Don't expect them too. But I bet they like talking about their hobbies the same way you like talking about yours. Give them an opportunity to share their hobby with you. They can help you with things like
- the rules of golf (not all of them, just enough to play)
- pace of play
- basic swing fundamentals (how to hold the club, keep your eye on the ball)
See if your friend will take you to a driving range and let you start hitting some golf balls. Going to a driving range is not going to make you a great golfer at the beginning. Your goal is to make the golf swing feel more natural to you, so you can repeat it the same way each time. Focus on making repeatable contact with the ball, and let your hobbyist friend share as much as they are comfortable sharing with you.
If you don't have a friend to learn from, or if you want more precise instruction, professional lessons are affordable. If you're willing to take some group lessons, those are most affordable. Even a single session one-on-one can raise your confidence level and get you ready to get on the course. Don't commit too early to pay for a series of 12 lessons. Try it out once, see if it feels like it helps, determine if you like the instructor. I recommend only paying for lessons as you want them.
Personal Tip: A professional lesson can accelerate your proficiency, but its not a substitute for practice.
The biggest difference between the me who got good at golf after high school and the me who was terrible at golf in high school wasn't instruction. I had a great golf coach who not only knew the game, but was better than even our best varsity players at the game. The difference was practice. I hated practicing in high school. I only did it when required (IE my dad made me go out with him, or actual practices for the high school team). As a college student who started to enjoy the game and had more free time than a high school student, I actually practiced of my own volition.
Practice doesn't just mean play more on the course. One year a friend took me out and showed me his putting practice routine he did at the beginning of each season. A few hours on a putting green set him up to putt better for months! You can spend money for practice sessions with top notch facilities. You can also likely find places to practice for free. Almost every course has a putting green you can practice on. I used to go putt for an hour without even playing on the course. One course in my town had a couple of greens and a sand trap set up. You could hit balls from up to 70 yards away onto the green, practice bunker shots and pitch shots and chips in this free practice area. Yes, you have to provide your own golf balls.
SUMMARY SO FAR
Don't buy the most expensive set you can find and go straight to a golf course for a $50 round on a Saturday morning. Instead, shop around and determine what you need for what you want. Connect with friends who already play if you can. Go to a driving range and get used to making contact with a ball. Take a group or individual lesson if you are able.
Myth VS Reality
Golf is only for rich people
If you're flexible, golf is affordable
Golf is too hard to learn
A little practice goes a long way
Golf is supposed to look like on TV
There are more people like you on the golf course than you realize
Barrier Three: Expectations
I won't lie to you, I had to learn this lesson over and over again. I was really bad at golf in high school. And then I got pretty good at golf. And I naturally expected to continue getting better and better at golf over the years. Then I moved from community college to a school downtown in a major metro area. Golf was not as accessible. Then I started working a full-time job. The first thing I dropped from my golf hobby was practice. Around the same time I dropped a whole bunch of weight. It affected my swing in a negative way (still worth it).
I got really bad at golf. For a really long time. I wasn't practicing. I didn't take lessons. I played occasionally on the weekends and struggled. It took me a few years to understand that I would get out of golf what I put into it. And unless I was willing to invest the time that late-teens Zac had available to invest, I was likely to never be that good again. I had to adjust my expectations.
If all you've ever seen of golf is on TV, you'll have to adjust your expectations too. When you go out for your first round of golf, what do you hope will happen? Do you want your friends to describe you as a golf savant and sincerely support your goal to go on tour? Or do you want to have a good time with some buddies, and play well enough to not embarrass yourself? Or do you want to hit one decent shot that day? For your first round, expectations somewhere between the second and third are most realistic.
If you were to play golf with me today, you'll hear me say something like "Oh well, if I wanted to be better at golf I would practice more." It works as a mantra for me to remind me to have right expectations about the round. Whenever I get just a little bit "hot", that is, I start playing well, I immediately start imagining myself playing amazing golf for the rest of the day/week/month/life. And then I struggle on the next hole. And I remind myself that if I wanted to be better at golf, I would practice more. My expectations with golf today are to have a good time with people I like spending time with. The golf is a context for that. What are your expectations?
Personal Tip: The golfers on TV regularly shoot a round of 65, 66, 67, etc for 18 holes. Remind yourself that most golfers at the course you play this weekend would be ecstatic to shoot a 99.
There are more casual golfers just looking to connect with friends while being outdoors and enjoying hitting a ball with a stick than you think. The courses in your town are not full of golf savants who will be embarrassed to be seen with you.
Personal Tip: The groups around you on the course will be most concerned that you keep up with the pace of play, and avoid hitting golf balls at people (two skills you should learn ASAP!).
How Will I Know If I'm Ready for the Course?
- You can hit the ball forward most of the time you try. You don't have to hit picturesque shots each time. You don't even have to get the ball high in the air all that often. You should be able to regularly advance the ball far enough that you'd need to move your golf bag to where your ball now sits. You are also reasonably sure you can avoid hitting other groups on the golf course. Mistakes happen, and you can yell "FORE (FOUR?)" to warn them, but that needs to be the exception rather than the rule.
- You can keep up with the pace of play. Some personal preferences are involved here, but if you take a long time to prepare to hit each shot, you better not take a long time to get to each shot. And if you're taking a lot of shots, I'd encourage you to try to trim down how long you take to prepare each shot. Remember to adjust your expectations. You aren't recreating what you saw on TV, you're advancing the ball closer to the hole.
- Occasionally you hit a really good one. If you've been to the range, and once in a while you hit one that does start to look like what you see on TV, the next step is to do that on a golf course. Be warned! Hitting towards a single target on a golf course is very different from hitting in a direction on a driving range. (Many instructors will tell you to pick at target on the driving range for this reason, but lets be honest, there are usually so many targets that even if you miss, it feels good to hit it at a target, even if its not the one you intended). But there is no feeling quite like hitting a great shot on a golf course. Folks like me who have played for decades can attest to that. A whole round of bad shots can be redeemed with one great one, and it keeps us coming back.
- If at all possible, you have someone more experienced you can play with. When you are golfing for the first time on a course, having someone who knows what they are doing will be invaluable to you. I try to have this even when I am just playing on a course I've never seen before. Someone who knows their way around will help you keep up with the pace of play. They will help remind you of rules you just learned. They will advise you when to keep hitting and when you should maybe just pick the ball up and take it to the green to putt.
- You are prepared to feel silly. The golf swing is not a natural motion. You will at times feel silly trying to remember the swing while standing on the side of a hill or in a sand trap. You will hit the ball poorly, alot. You'll be tempted to expect better of yourself. You'll start imagining that your playing partners are frustrated with you. Your playing partners might get frustrated with you. Its all part of it.
So Why Bother?
Some of you are thinking "Zac, you've told me that I'll have to practice golf just to be bad at it, why should I take it up then?"
- Golf is one of a handful of lifetime sports. You'll see folks of all ages enjoying the golf course. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, grandparents and grandkids. Most golfers I know even have stories of getting owned on the golf course by a senior citizen. If you take up golf now, you'll have it as an activity for the rest of your life.
- Technology has helped close the skill gap. The last few times I went out prior to writing this article, my best drives (the first shot on each hole) were the ones I felt like I hit poorly. The driver self-corrected because of the advancements in technology. Club heads have gotten bigger, the technology has gotten better, and the game is more forgiving as a result.
- Hitting a great golf shot is the closest I feel to being a great artist. You'll remember great shots you hit years later. I remember my first birdie and my first eagle. I remember hitting a 4-iron on a par-5 from 219 yards to within 18 inches of the hole. I don't just remember the result, I can picture the shot in my mind. I remember what the shot felt like. And it happened over 10 years ago. I remember hitting a cut 7-iron last summer around a tree and onto a green. These are terms that will make more sense after you start playing golf. Great golf shots are things you can take with you.
- Its a fantastic way to connect with people and with the outdoors. I am not an outdoors-man, unless I'm playing golf. Something about the way the grass is cut and the greens are manicured and the sand is raked... I find it very cathartic to go out there and hit a ball with a stick. Some of my best friends over the years have been the people I play golf with. We have the time together to have conversations about a variety of topics. Its a chance to check-in with a person that you don't get in too many other contexts. Its been great to share golf with my dad for the past 20 years too.
If you've been thinking about taking up golf, you can! Its not beyond you. There are more people like you than you think who are already playing. Practice a little bit, adjust your expectations, and find others who are like-minded. Its a journey that can last a lifetime!
- Before buying a season pass to play golf, do some math and project how often you expect to play. How often will you have to play to pay for the pass? Does the pass work at just one golf course or multiple ones? Are there time restrictions?
- Stay hydrated and use sunblock. Dermatologists have to remove skin cancer from tons of older golfers. You may not think about the sun on a golf course like you would at the beach. Its still there and you're going to be outside for a few or several hours.
- Research golf course difficulty ratings. Not all courses are created equal. The average "slope" rating of a golf course is 120. If your course is rater higher than that, its more difficult than average. The "course" rating is approximately related to par. If the par for a course is 72, and the course rating is 69, it is a little easier than average. This does NOT mean you should expect to shoot a 69.
- Course ratings are just a number. As you play golf you'll notice that certain setups fit your game better than others. I am a more accurate player but I am not very long. A "tight" golf course that values accuracy but not length might seem "easier" to me than a "long" golf course that values length over accuracy.