I'm often asked what the best age is to start kids in golf. My answer: When they're old enough to catch a baseball. That tells me they've developed basic eye-hand coordination. Plus, sooner or later, someone's going to toss them a golf ball -- either on the range or out on the course -- and if they can't catch it, they might blame golf for the bruise on their forehead. There's one other rule I try to follow when teaching juniors: The lessons must be fun and stay fun all the way through. If you get that right, they'll want to keep playing and learning more about the game. Over the next few pages, I'll highlight six keys for unlocking the golf potential in your youngster. Keep it simple and give them plenty of positive feedback, and you might just hook your kid on golf.
Get A Kid Into Golf
The secret is to make it fun
MOVE DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL
Whether it's from a teacher at school or their parents at home, kids are always being told what to do. No matter the message, the instructions usually come from someone who's taller than they are and speaking down to them. Over time, kids might come to view all these encounters as the same and ignore the message, even if you're trying to help them.
The best way to get through to junior golfers, I've learned, is to get into a position where you can make eye contact with them. It might mean you'll get your knees dirty from time to time, but that's a trade worth making. Your kid will appreciate the one-on-one attention. (I'll tell you later what we're doing with the sponge.)
One more thing: All my lessons begin and end with a firm handshake. It shows I respect them and teaches a little golf etiquette. Plus, they learn a good grip!
ONE OF MY FAVORITES: THE PONYTAIL FINISH
I can tell a young girl who has no golf experience to swing a club so it stops at her ponytail, and voila, she'll pose in a fundamentally sound finish position. For the boys, I ask them to make a "hat-strap finish," but the goal is the same: to complete the swing under control and in balance. You won't see them spinning around wildly or falling over if they know they have to hold that position when they're done. In place of talking swing theory, this image helps create extension through the ball and gets them thinking about the process, not the results.
BLOWING BUBBLES FOR PERFECT IMPACT
Memory cues are great in golf -- if they stick. On the lesson tee, I use the phrase "Chew bubble gum" to get kids to learn the correct order through impact: club, ball, ground. It might not be clear for some juniors, especially when they see the pros on TV taking giant divots, but if they're going to be consistent iron players, this C-B-G sequence is what they need to remember.
It works because kids like to chew gum -- I stock a big supply -- and blow bubbles. No matter how frustrated they get, they'll leave with a good taste in their mouth.
KIDS ARE SPONGES, SO WHY NOT USE ONE
Instead of buying the latest training aid, try a large sponge you'd use to wash your car. It's a good progress tracker when held in place between the arms or knees during the swing. Between the forearms (previous page), it keeps them working in sync; between the knees, it stabilizes the lower body. I have my students squeeze the sponge at the finish (above) to be sure they shift to their front side.
Another cost-saver is starting kids with used clubs. And they don't need a full set, either. You'll know they're into the game when they ask for an upgrade.
BET A MILKSHAKE, AND PAY UP FAST
There's nothing worse than earning something and then having to wait for it. So pay the bets you make with your kid right away. Our milkshake games on and around the practice green are competitive and bring out the best in everyone. Kids enjoy trying to beat people who are older than they are, especially if there's a reward on the line. When you lose, be a good sport and pay up. I always do -- just check my tab at the halfway house -- because it validates their accomplishments. If you put it off, it loses its luster.
ABOVE ALL ELSE, KEEP IT POSITIVE!
Golf is difficult, and that can be the case even before you tee off. Pushing a tee in the ground and setting a ball on it isn't so easy the first few times. So give your juniors the short tees: They're easier to use, plus their driver heads aren't as big. I've given a lot of high-fives for the simple act of teeing a ball. (Be sure to celebrate with them every chance you get.)
When it comes to giving kids swing advice, avoid criticism. If you keep the directions simple and use drills that give instant feedback -- like the sponge drills or the ponytail finish -- they'll get it without you saying a word. That keeps it fun, which is what they need from you most of all.
John Elliott Jr., one of Golf Digest's 50 Best Teachers, is based at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club in Ocala, Fla. Students shown: Pam McFarlane, 13; Juliet McFarlane, 10; and Heather Proctor, 17.