Beginning Golfer #1

I’ve just returned from the range, the practice area, at the golf club. I witnessed a scene that occurs just about every weekend here in Blowing Rock, a mountain community with a lot of second homes. Here is my description of what I think preceded what I witnessed today. Blowing Rock residents and members of the golf club have their kids come visit for the weekend and bring their children- the grandkids. They arrive on a Friday afternoon after school or work and leave Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. On Friday, Grandpa plays his regular Friday afternoon golf game and shows up for his Saturday morning regular game, as well. He gets a pass to do this with the understanding that, on Sunday, he will take his grandson or granddaughter to the range to hit golf balls and introduce them to the game.

Golf is an extremely difficult game to learn. You make a swing motion that is 12 to 15 feet long that involves weight transfer and rotation with an attempt to make contact with a small ball sitting on the ground. However, here’s the real challenge… the ball is on the ground and you want it to go in the air. Grandpa has usually cut off an old club for his grandson, Tommy, to use that is almost always too long and too heavy. After a dozen or so attempts, Tommy hasn’t gotten one ball in the air. The best ones roll along the ground, what’s called a “top” in golf, but many of the attempts are “whiffs,” missing the ball all together. Tommy is having no fun and Grandpa begins with his woefully wrong instruction. He starts with, “Tommy, swing a little easier,” followed by, “don’t go back so far,” and then, the worst of all, “keep your head down.” After a dozen or so more tops and whiffs, Tommy is about to cry and Grandpa is getting mad. He then resorts to putting his hand on Tommy’s head and holding it still. My boss in the golf business, Claude Harmon, if he had witnessed such a scene, would approach Grandpa and ask, “Did you ever hear of practicing medicine without a license? How would you like someone operating on you who hadn’t been to medical school?”

I’ve taught a lot of beginning golf lessons and the first requirement is to make sure the student (in this case, Tommy) is having fun. It would usually begin with a short cart ride to try to find someone playing golf that has some skill and hopefully a full swing. The second part is more tedious, teaching the student the proper grip; your hands are the only part of your body touching the club, and if you don’t get that right, you’re in for a long slog in learning the game. I was once learning from the boss who was teaching a beginner the grip and patiently putting the student’s hands on the club in the proper position. He always taught us to do this at waist level so the student could see their hands. He would make a game of it, putting the student’s hands there two or three times, and then would stand back and allow the student to do it themselves. I remember one day, at about this point in the lesson, the young man who was taking the lesson said, “When am I going to get to hit some?” The boss replied, “Johnny, if you went to a piano lesson the first day, would you expect to play a song?”

I believe the best place to start with a beginning golfer is on a putting green, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when there isn’t anyone around. First of all, it’s easier to get a putter that is not too long or too heavy, and secondly, there are endless games you can play and a chance that the youngster would have some fun. I would always begin by explaining that the object of putting is to get the ball rolling on green and instead of using your hand, you use the putter. Then, get the student to roll some balls with their hand toward different holes on the green, where they could see that because the green isn’t flat and has contour, the ball rolls different directions from right to left or left to right, uphill, or downhill, in what’s called a “break.” Every putt has a different contour and therefore, a different break. This is why you want to do this when there are not a lot of people around, as this can be distracting. Next, I recommend putting three or four balls in a circle around the hole, twelve or eighteen inches around the cup. They can usually make the most of these and it gives them a little confidence.

In my next post, I’ll describe what I would do on day two with a beginner.