A Beginner's Golf Guide: What every new golfer should know when picking up the game
There's never been a better time to take up golf. Here's some essential advice to help you get started
There has never been a better time to learn golf, and if you’ve come this far, it’s probably because you’ve figured that out on your own. By its nature, golf is uniquely suited for a social-distancing world—it’s a game played over a vast outdoor space, a worthwhile source of exercise, a diversion for the mind. To truly appreciate golf, however, you need to get past all the intimidating elements that might have kept you away until now. It’s a hard game, for starters, and it brings with it an assortment of equipment and customs that might overwhelm anyone coming in cold.
To which we say, don’t sweat it.
Every golfer has been a bad golfer at some point—many of us still are!—and you’d be surprised how much of everything you can pick up as you go. Our purpose here is to give you the basics—not only how to hit a golf ball, but what you need to hit the ball with, and anything else necessary to start your golf journey on the right foot (speaking of which, you don’t need golf shoes right away). There’s a reason Golf Digest has been around for 70 years, and it’s because there’s no shortage of topics to cover when it comes to the greatest game there is. But best to keep it simple with some basics here first. When you’re ready for more, we’re here.
INSTRUCTION: THE HOW-TO-PLAY ESSENTIALS
Do I need lessons first? What are other ways I can learn?
The Hall of Fame golfer-turned-commentator Johnny Miller once described teaching his kids how to play golf as starting out by letting them whack balls into a pond because it was fun to see the splash. Notably, there was no talk about how to hold a club, how to swing it, or anything else technical.
Does that mean you don't ever need lessons to get better? No, a good coach will certainly help you improve. Eventually. But Golf Digest Best Young Teacher Will Robins is firmly in the Miller camp, embracing the dynamics of the game first and fine-tuning later. That means going to a practice range, Par-3 course or even an open field with a sack of plastic whiffle balls and getting the feel for making the club move around you before diving into deep swing theory.
“When you move from the phase where you're just trying to whack it to where you actually start thinking about mechanics, you stiffen up—and you probably have trouble even making contact,” Robins says.
Instead, stay connected to the feeling of swinging the club with some speed, not hitting “at” a ball. “You don’t need a swing thought beyond: ‘Get to a balanced finish and hold it for three seconds.’ ”
You can try Robins’ video series, which helps get you off the couch and onto the course with fewer swing thoughts and more solid shots.
What are the basics I need to know to just hit the ball solid?
There are a blizzard of golf tips out there—trust us, we’ve seen them all!—which makes picking one that’s perfect for you a tricky task.
A good place to start? You can think about a good swing motion as a composite of what lots of good players do. The closer you can get yourself to some of those benchmarks—without necessarily being obsessed with copying any particular player’s swing—the more solid you’ll hit the ball. Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Nick Clearwater is the director of instruction for GolfTEC and has swing data on more than 50,000 players at all handicap levels.
Two prime examples keeping you away from hitting a solid shot that doesn’t curve dramatically to the right? How you turn your shoulders back, and how you turn your hips through.
“For a lot of new players, the tendency is to turn the shoulders back level, as if you were turning to look behind you to talk to someone,” Clearwater says. “But tour players tilt their shoulders—so that the one closest to the target is lower—in addition to turning them.”
You can also make solid contact much more likely with a quick tip for your hips. “Beginners tend to stall hip rotation—the amount the hips are turning toward the target—on the downswing and try to control the swing with their hands and arms,” Clearwater says. “Tour players have their hips turned toward the target at impact almost twice as much.”
There are so many different clubs. How do I need to know when and how to use them?
In broadest terms, your clubs themselves will help tell you when it's best to use them. Each club is designed for a particular job—namely, to send the ball a particular distance at a particular trajectory. The longest clubs in your bag—the driver, fairway woods and hybrids—have longer shafts and less loft on the face, so the ball goes farther and runs out more. With irons, the shafts get progressively shorter and the loft on the face progressively increases, which means the ball will travel shorter and come down more steeply as you work your way down from a 5-iron to a sand wedge.
The first secret to using each of those clubs well is to set up to give yourself the best chance of success, says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Cameron McCormick. “For example, with a short club like a wedge, you're trying to maximize clean contact and hit the ball on the descending part of your swing arc,” he says. “That means the ball should be behind your sternum, or slightly behind center.”
Contrast that to your driver, which should be played so that the ball is set up near your front foot—a difference of at least six inches. McCormick’s Golf Digest Schools series works as a set of owner’s manuals for the different clubs in your bag, and is a great way to get more of an introduction.
EQUIPMENT: EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WHAT TO PLAY
What’s the bare minimum of what I need and what will that cost?
One of the intimidating things about getting started in golf is wondering whether you’re using the right clubs. As with most things in this game, the key with equipment is to start slowly but strategically. First, even if most players get there eventually, there’s no need to begin with 14 clubs in your bag. Basically you need less, not more.
You need a club you can hit off the tee on par 4s and par 5s, you need two or three clubs you can advance the ball down the fairway with at basically 100-, 150- and 200-yard increments (pitching wedge, 7-iron and a hybrid would be our choice), you need a sand wedge you can use around the green and out of the greenside bunkers and you need a putter. That’s six clubs max.
Since limited sets are rare—you might get lucky with a used set, or on eBay—that probably means your buying strategy is to invest in a full set and pare down to the minimum number of clubs to get you around the golf course. There are box sets with a full complement of clubs for less than $200 in many places. There are also high-quality used clubs at a decent price on websites like GlobalGolf.com.
You’ll need golf balls, but our advice at this point in your golf career is to spend less than $25 for as many balls as you can get. Once you stop losing two sleeves a round, then you can start to be a little more particular. Some other essentials we think are important:
Golf bag. Hard to find one that’s decent quality for less than $100. If you’re not sure about golf, maybe you should ask a friend who plays a lot if they’ve got an extra one in their garage. That will be sufficient for the time being, and it’ll save you some cash.
Tees. These used to be handed out for free in piles but may be less plentiful today under the current touchless environment. Buy a pack of 100, and you won’t be buying tees for years.
A divot tool to repair marks on the green will come in handy once your iron shots start to hit greens with more regularity, and you’ll buy goodwill with playing partners.
Towel. Don’t steal one from the linen closet. Steal one from your golfer friend who probably has 20 littering up his garage. It comes in handy to keep your clubs clean, and it helps when that chunky 9-iron’s backwash splatters in your face. Trust us. It even happens to the best players in the game.
That’s it, for starters. We think you can make this whole entrance to the game start for less than $500, and if you get creative, maybe even half that. Seems a bargain for the game of a lifetime.
OK, I’ve tried it and I’m hooked. What’s my next move with my equipment?
This is a matter of defining how much of a commitment you’ve decided to make. And by commitment, we’re talking about dollars and cents. While we highly endorse the used-club marketplace at the PGA Value Guide as a starting point, we know there’s an even stronger level of appeal toward new clubs. (We especially like that idea because we highly value clubs that are custom fit specifically to your game.)
If you’re not ready for the full couple of thousand dollars’ investment, maybe focus on getting a new driver to start. That could mean a cursory clubfitting experience with an expert at your local golf shop. It could mean a virtual fitting like ones offered by some equipment companies (Ping and Callaway).
The beauty of a driver fitting is how relatively straightforward the experience is, but more often than not, you’ll find you need a driver that is going to fight your slice. Some can be adjusted to achieve that effect with movable weights or hosels that can set the face in a closed position or an upright angle to help shots fade less. Other models are specifically geared to slice-correction, and again, let’s emphasize a driver with draw-bias will not hurt the average beginning golfer’s game. Not to start and not for a very long time after. You’ll probably want a little more loft (try 10.5 degrees), but with the multiple levels of adjustability in today’s drivers, you’ll often be able to change that loft by as much two degrees (plus or minus) to dial in your performance as your game develops.
Why focus on the driver to start your new set? Simple. If you’ve got a driver you can trust, you’ve gone a long way to starting the hole with confidence, purpose and most importantly distance. That gives you a fighting chance to enjoy most of the day because there’s nothing worse in golf than being out of the hole before you’ve actually started it.
COURSES: GETTING OUT TO PLAY
How do I know if I’m ready for the golf course?
Can you get a 7-iron airborne off a tee with some consistency? Golf Digest Best Young Teacher Jason Birnbaum says that’s the best way to gauge whether a beginner is ready for their first time on a course. And in fact, keep a bunch of tees handy even for the fairway, Birnbaum says. That’s a great way to ensure beginners enjoy their first couple of rounds of golf. “You need to keep it fun,” Birnbaum says. “Hitting off a tight lie in the fairway can be daunting to a beginner, so help instill confidence by encouraging them to tee up their iron shots. Using a 7-iron will give the player some good trajectory along with plenty of distance necessary to keep moving along at a good pace.”
If possible, seek out a friend with golf experience for your first couple of rounds. They can really help with the minor aspects of etiquette (more on that below). The biggest thing, Birnbaum says, is trying your best to stay positive as struggles are part of the game (for all levels!).
“Don’t worry about what you shoot for your first 10-15 rounds,” Birnbaum says. “Keep tabs of the number of solid hits versus poor hits. Once your solid hits outweigh your poor ones, you know you’re on the path to improvement.”
How do I get a tee time?
In the absence of access to a private course, you’ll need to secure a tee time at a public course. Call your local course, and explain you’re a beginner, and you’re hoping to play when the course is less busy, thus making it a less pressure situation for you. Often, late afternoons are great options. There are a number of tee-time aggregators (Supreme Golf, GolfNow or TeeOff.com), which is good for searching for a tee time at multiple courses at the same time. Some courses, though, are not on those websites, and they won’t be able to cater to a beginner’s specific needs, so it’s most reliable to call them directly.
Where can I go to work on my game?
Practice ranges are great. We recommend finding a facility that lets you hit off grass once you’ve mastered hitting off a mat (hitting off grass is the most realistic practice, and mats will mess with your clubs). If you have a little room at home, setting up a net to hit into is a great alternative. Anywhere with enough room to allow you to make a full swing is a good practice spot. Plastic balls are great if you don’t have a mat and are practicing in a field near you or your backyard. Those won’t hurt anyone, and will allow you to take a full swing without losing a ball. Also, look into retail stores near you: Some offer practice time by the hour. That’s a great alternative for winter practice.
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What if I don’t want to play a full 18 holes … are there alternatives?
Yes, always ask a course if you’re interested in playing six, nine or 12 holes. Some courses allow you to pay per hole. More and more courses have nine-hole rates.
ETIQUETTE: THE BIGGEST DO'S AND DON'TS
I’ve always heard golf has a bunch of rules. What do I need to know to not make a fool of myself?
It’s true, golf has plenty of rules, but you should take solace knowing even many experienced players don’t know all of them. If you’re venturing out onto the course for the first time, really the most important thing is to be respectful of the people you’re playing with and the golf course itself.
For instance, it’s worth noting most other players don’t really care how good a golfer you are provided you’re not dramatically impacting their experience. That means not slowing the round down even if you’re struggling (better to give yourself a reasonable number of strokes for each hole and picking up for that hole after that). It means being mindful of not interfering with their swing by standing too close or making noise when they’re over the ball. And it means leaving the course in decent shape for others: Replace your divots when you take one with a swing; try to even out ball marks on the green if you’ve dented them with a shot; and by smoothing out the sand in the bunker either with a rake or your foot if you’ve just hit out of one.
There are plenty of other nuances you can pick up as you play more (walking in between the line of another player’s ball and the hole when you’re on the green is one we’ll give you now … some people make a big deal about that), but if you go in with a good attitude and a willingness to admit what you don’t know, most golfers will be happy to help you learn.
JUNIORS: THE BASICS FOR KIDS
What’s the best way to get my kids started?
There are a few ways to answer this, starting with the most straightforward: Simply take them with you the next time you go play. As golf courses have re-opened in recent weeks, there have been anecdotal stories from around the country of double the number of boys and girls playing compared to before the coronavirus. In part it’s a reflection of many facilities relaxing restrictions on when junior play is allowed to cater to families looking for an activity everyone can take part in. Now more than ever, courses are looking to accommodate golfers of all ages.
More broadly, the best way to get your kids started is to make the experience as fun as possible. Have them play at first with only a handful of clubs. Don’t have them hitting from the tee box; drop a ball (or tee one up) in the fairway around 100 yards from the hole and tell them to play there. Don’t make them play every hole if they want a break. And don’t worry about keeping score. The key is keeping it fun, and for them to associate golf with fun, so they want to return the next time.
As we wrote in this primer a few years ago (6 tips for taking your kids on the course), playing for the first time with kids means recognizing their attention spans are short. Embrace that so the experience doesn’t drag out. Better for them to be upset they have to go rather than asking when are we leaving?
Our “How to play golf with your kids” survival guide also outlines a few handy secrets. Consider a different scoring system to increase the fun. Have them earn points for making good contact on each swing, or getting the ball out of a bunker. The more you “gamify” your golf experience, the more likely it will be the first of many for your kids.
If you’ve got still more questions, consider these resources:
Oh, and one last point. If you’re playing with your kids, don’t pay attention to your own game and score. Those are things you can focus on any other day.
Stephen Hennessey, Ryan Herrington, Matthew Rudy, Mike Stachura, and Sam Weinman contributed to this report.
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