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Golf for Beginners: The 33 lessons every new golfer needs to know

May 26, 2021

Illustrations by Michael Byers

Dear New Golfer: Hello! We are delighted that you have picked up this beautiful sport. It is a game of endless joy and unceasing frustration. If that doesn’t sound like a paradox, you are in the right place.

And you are not alone. The National Golf Foundation reports that 6.2 million new players came to the sport in 2020. That figure is the most in history, and the largest single-season percentage increase in beginners and youth golfers since Tiger Woods’ historic victory at the 1997 Masters, according to the NGF. Better yet, in a game that has long struggled with including others, the participation surge represents a variety of social and economic backgrounds. The game is still not where it needs to be, but it’s getting better.

We at Golf Digest want to make sure your introduction to golf is as welcoming and hospitable as possible. With any new venture in life you might have questions, and, as you might have noticed, golf has a number of curiosities surrounding when and where to play, what to do and how to do it. The world of golf even has its own rules and language. It can be overwhelming, and that’s before trying to hit a tee shot in front of total strangers. So we called on your fellow golfing brothers and sisters, asking them what wisdom they have accrued that they wish they had known in the beginning. Their answers did not disappoint. Here are the lessons every new golfer needs to know.

Don’t be intimidated. Let us disabuse you of one of your biggest fears: No one cares what you shoot. Stop fretting about looking stupid or overmatched on the course. We all started somewhere, and even the pros hit poor shots.

Lower expectations. Golf is rewarding and fun, but it is not an easy sport to pick up quickly. Enjoy the challenge of getting better. It’s a journey. Like stopping to admire the scenery on a long road trip, allow yourself to fully appreciate the feeling of a well-struck shot.

You have one primary responsibility. Do not hold anyone up. Slow play is a constant source of misery. If we could, we would put the worst offenders in stocks by the clubhouse to be mocked and pelted with driving-range balls. To reiterate, it’s OK if you struggle. Just don’t be deliberate about it.

All right, one other responsibility. The course is our refuge from life, and getting paired with a jerk can wreck that sanctuary. Be the person you would want to meet. That means being kind, generous and funny.

Watch our video, "10 Things Every Beginning Golfer Should Know," below:

You don’t need 14 clubs. You probably don’t need more than seven to start. A driver with at least 11 degrees of loft, a fairway wood, a 5-, 7- and 9-iron, a sand wedge and a putter are more than enough to get you going.

A tee time that involves others is sacred. Resolve to never break one that is less than a week out, except for a medical or family emergency.

Play your game. If a golfing partner hits the ball a lot farther than you, don’t try to match him or her. It will only get you in trouble. Play within yourself, and you will do a lot better.

Go for the hero shot. Hack it through the trees. Give yourself the green light on a drivable par 4 or try to reach a par 5 in two. Attempt a flop that would make Phil Mickelson proud. You will remember the one time it came off long after you have forgotten the 99 failures.

Have some gumption. Mentioned above, golf has a history of sexism, racism, exclusion, restriction and absurdly petty rules. Stand up to the pedants.

Never give swing advice. It does not matter how funky their movements look; you’re in no position to say a word. Conversely, if experienced golfers have a tip or two, take it in. We know newbies when we see them, and if we’re compelled to say something, it’s advice you should consider.

Learn to yell “Fore!” really loud. Your fellow golfers aren’t going to be mad if you have to wander onto their hole to find your wayward drive. But they will be mad if you almost took them out because you failed to warn them of the incoming missile.

It’s not Windex. That mysterious blue liquid, often found in unmarked bottles in and around country-club locker rooms, is an antifungal foot spray that makes toes sing. Apply it after you shower, and a few minutes later your tired dogs will be tingling with joy. You might even feel like playing another nine.

Get the basics down. Namely, do not walk ahead of golfers who haven’t hit, do not walk in the line of a player’s putt and do not talk while someone is hitting. Do those three things, and you’re in decent shape.

Also, chill with the phone. Go easy on the texts. Same goes with phone calls. And for goodness sake, don’t spend 10 minutes trying to capture the perfect Instagram photo.

Always bring a water bottle. With COVID protocols, a number of courses have shut off access to coolers or fountains, and the beverage cart is not always making the rounds. Two hours is a long time without hydration; we don’t need you passing out in a bunker.

Don't let your bag fall with a bottle of whiskey in it.

Enjoy the grind. It’s easy to quit or feel defeated after a bad shot. Regardless of your skill level, always try to find a “game within the game”—like no triple bogeys on the scorecard— to help motivate you even when you don’t have your best stuff.

Keep a towel draped over your clubs. Clip-on towels are perfectly fine, but nothing says serious golfer like a towel draped over your sticks. Plus, the utility of it is amazing. Make sure to keep half the towel wet.

Swing like a kid. Child golfers usually prompt adult golfers to say things like, “What a great little swing!” It’s generally true that 8-year-olds possess tempo and fluidity that make older folks jealous. Why? It’s because kids don’t have enough strength in their hands and forearms to “muscle” shots. As a result, they tend to swing properly using the weight of the club to create acceleration. Think of this the next time you’re struggling.

If you use a cart, make sure the bag is strapped tight. Nothing says “newbie” more than the poor bastard whose bag falls off the back of his wheels.

You don’t need a new wardrobe. You definitely have something in your closet you can wear. Golf is becoming more relaxed in its dress code, so wear what makes you comfortable, and not what you think you should. However, if you’re traveling to a new course or country club, look up its dress-code policy online. A simple call ahead can relieve a lot of stress or potential awkwardness.

But one piece of fashion advice: Go easy with the white belt. Our beloved “Mr. Style” Marty Hackel has a Rule of 36: If your age or waistline exceeds that number, white belts are not a great look.

There is joy in playing with strangers. Maybe you wanted to go alone or needed some one-on-one time with a buddy. But if you get paired by a starter, be gracious and welcoming. Often some of our best experiences start as unexpected encounters on the first tee. Think of it as four hours to make a new friend. Plus, you clearly have something in common. That’s a start.

Take a lesson or two. The value of establishing fundamentals in your first few months—rather than spending years trying to figure it out on your own—cannot be overstated.

Make sure the bucket is beneath the range-ball dispenser before you put the token in. There is no greater shame than the eyes of an entire range as 50 beat-up balls hit and scatter across the pavement.

Look on the bright side. No matter how bad you're playing, you can still look forward to a hot dog and cold drink at the turn.

Keep complaining to a minimum. It’s fine to sigh as your drive slices into the wilderness. The occasional swear word can be cathartic. But don’t sulk about a bad round. Don’t get angry at a bad round. Don’t do anything but laugh at a bad round because, again, we all stink. And never, ever complain about your opponent’s good shots.

Always play for a buck or two. Nothing will motivate you to get better more than losing some money. You can even play against yourself, setting a nine- or 18-hole score you want to beat. If you lose, put the cash in the clubhouse tip jar.

Treat the cart girl with respect. Don’t flirt with her. This is her workplace, and she has already been hit on a dozen times before she reached your group. Treat her like a human being.

Believe in yourself. Subbing out a new ball for a scuffed one on a hole with out-of-bounds or water is admitting defeat before a club is in your hands, to say nothing of putting some self-fulfilling prophecy in play. Yes, it stings to lose a new ball. But have courage that you’ll be able to keep it safe.

Get to know the practice green. Whether you are honing your putting, chipping, sand shots or short pitches, a well-rounded short game will make up for other deficiencies. Better yet, most short-game areas on public courses are free. It’s a great way to spend 20 minutes or two hours.

Never ask “Is this good?” If you’re in a match, assume you’ll have to putt everything out. Asking for a gimme places your opponent or friend in an uncomfortable spot. Nothing signals character more than taking responsibility for a testy three-footer.

It bears repeating: No one cares how good you are. There’s a reason we are playing here and not on tour. If we make good contact on one shot, we’re in paradise. Most of us don’t even need that. So when it comes to playing partners, we are looking for a fun hang—nothing more, nothing less.