Beginning Golf: Starting Your Journey
By: Jeffrey Severini
PGA Golf Professional
The proper attitude – it is the first thing the beginning golfer should have when starting to play the game. Your enjoyment of this game hinges on your attitude! Expecting to hit a home run in baseball or serve an ace in tennis every time you try is unrealistic. What is more unrealistic is expecting to hit the golf ball well every time. If the golfer can accept this, his or her golfing life will be much more enjoyable.
The first thing to do when starting to play golf is to visit the driving range. You don’t need clubs – you can always rent them. Simply buy the bucket size that you want, rent a club and go find a vacant hitting station. (Beginners should only rent a 7 iron, 8 iron, 9 iron, Pitching Wedge or Sand Wedge.) Golf clubs vary in length and loft. Very simply, the shorter the club the shorter the shot will travel. In general, each club will travel 10 yards shorter or longer than the next. Golf courses are always measured in yardage. The greater the number club, the shorter the distance the shot will travel and the higher the shot will fly. That is, a 7 iron will go 10 yards lower and longer than an 8 iron and an 8 iron will go 10 yards lower and longer than a 9 iron. The Pitching Wedge is a 10 iron and the Sand Wedge is basically an 11 or 12 iron. The Sand Wedge is partly designed to help get the ball out of a sand bunker, also called a sand trap.
The other part of a “set” of golf clubs is called your woods. Most sets include a One Wood (more often called a driver), Three Wood and Five Wood. The woods are longer, bulkier looking clubs. In addition to the three woods, a new set will usually include eight irons – 3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and a Pitching Wedge. The Sand Wedge and the Putter usually have to be purchased separately. When you decide to buy a set, I recommend that your set of clubs be custom fit for you. However, a custom fit set of clubs is not absolutely necessary for beginners. If you choose not to be custom fit the standard size clubs you buy can be lengthened or shortened if you are extremely tall or short. Please be aware that there are many other factors that go into custom fitting besides club length, such as the shaft flex, lie angle, grip thickness, loft, shaft composition and clubhead design. Details about custom fitting are contained in my article “The Importance of Properly Fitted Golf Clubs.”
If you first trip to the driving range is with a friend who has been playing for one week longer than you, he will try to teach you because he is “experienced” and you are not. No one has ruined more golf swings than the person who tries to play “golf professional” with his friends. 99% of the time this person will make your journey towards developing a good golf swing very, very, long. Many times you will be worse off than when you first swung the club by yourself. If your friend is a great golfer this does not qualify him to teach you. Most accomplished golfers in trying to teach their friends tell them to do what helps “him” hit the ball well or the latest thing that has been helping “him” hit better shots. Try this – ask the friend who is trying to teach you what the most important thing about the golf swing is. I’ll bet his answer reflects what “he” has been recently working on in his own swing. If he, in fact, has temporarily improved your ball striking, he most likely has put a band-aid on a broken bone and consequently robbed you of your true potential. To be a good golf instructor one must completely understand a) how humans learn motor skills, b) the fundamental golf swing motion in great detail and c) how to effectively communicate the necessary information to the student at the appropriate intervals in his or her progress. In defense of this “friend” I must state that this person is trying to help you. If it weren’t for him or her, you may never have been introduced to this great game!
'Golf is not a game of Perfect'
-Dr. Bob Rotella, Sports Psychologist, PGA Tour
At almost every level in golf, one cold, hard fact rings true. Golf is all about imperfect shots! He who hits the least bad shots almost always wins. The idea is to hit playable shots; that is, shots that are advanced in the general area of the target. Perfectly struck golf shots are about as rare as a snowman in South Africa. The very best golfers in the world report hitting just three perfect shots in their typical round of golf! The remaining shots they hit are imperfect in one way or another. Never get discouraged if you are not hitting perfect shots. The proof behind golf all being about hitting “imperfect” shots is the fact that there are so many names for the imperfect shots: topped, chunked or fat, thinned, shanked and whiffed (to name a few). These names define only types of clubhead-to-ball contact or lack thereof (types of ball “flights” will be discussed later). Ideally, we want to hit the ball “solid” or “pure”, that is, on the center of the clubface (also called the sweet spot). A topped shot is one in which the leading edge of the club impacts above the ball’s equator (the imaginary dividing line between the top half and bottom half of the ball). I’ll give topped shots a playability rating of “3” on a scale from 0 (not playable) to 10 (very playable). When I use the term playablity I am basically speaking of acceptability. A chunked or “fat” shot is the one in which the club hits the ground before it hits the ball. The playability rating of a chunked shot is “5”. (Keep in mind that a shot can be hit slightly fat, which could advance the ball a fair distance.)
The “wiff” and the “shank” both get a rating of “0”. The wiff occurs when you attempt to hit the ball and fail. The shank is the ugliest shot of all! The shank occurs when the golfer impacts the ball with hosel of the club (see diagram A). The ball will travel either directly to the right or directly to the left, depending on which side of the hosel the ball hits. The most playable and sometimes desirable shot is the “thinned” shot. The thinned shot gets a playability rating of 10. (Note: these playability ratings are based on full swing shots, not short shots.) The thin shot is the one in which the leading edge impacts the ball on or slightly near the equator. This shot always advances the ball farther than the other “imperfect” shots. Your job is to have the clubface relatively square to the target at impact and you will be rewarded with a very playable shot. If you have a pond to hit your ball over and you hit the shot “thin”, your ball just might skim over the pond to the other side! The saying goes “thin to win”.
Four ball “flights” that every beginner should know are slice, hook, push and pull. Unlike the previous shots discussed, these four happen when the face of the club hits the ball. Once again, hitting the ball with the center of the clubface aiming at your target at impact is what every golfer strives to do. If he does this and his club path to the ball is correct, the rare, sought after “straight” shot will result. The slice is the most common ball flight and the most difficult to cure. For right-handed golfers a “sliced” shot curves to the right. A “hook” curves to the left. A “push” goes to the right with no curvature. A “pull” goes to the left with no curvature. Keep in mind that good golf shots almost never go perfectly straight. There is almost always some spin imparted on the ball by the golf club. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Therefore, we are always trying to minimize sidespin. 'I always tell my students that if there is a road to good golf, nowhere on that road is there a slice. You can go from slicing to hooking to good golf. But you can't go from slicing to good golf.'
-Hank Haney (Tiger Woods' Coach)
Once you have begun taking golf lessons there are some key points to remember. Your journey towards developing a solid, functional golf swing will be filled with peaks, plateaus and valleys. Your days at the driving range will be very much like the stock market. One day you might hit the ball fair, the next day you might hit the ball great and the day after you just might hit the ball terribly. If you read or watch the stock market, you will never see a particular stock go up day after day. You will, however, see stocks improve gradually over a period of time. This is what happens in golf if you are applying what you have learned correctly. There are many reasons why we hit the ball better and more consistent day after day. The main reason is because we don’t feel the same day after day. We are not robots. One day we might be a little stressed out, the next day tired physically, the day after that we might be a little depressed or anxious about something totally unrelated to golf. We, as humans, go through many different physical and mental states of mind. My advice if you are struggling with your swing is to first lighten your grip pressure on the club. When things are not going well with our golf swings, the first thing that we usually do is grip our clubs tighter to make things get better. The results are always disastrous. If this does not work complete a practice drill that your golf professional has given you and/or go practice putting. The next lesson will clear up the problem.
'The player who expects a lesson to "take" without productive practice just isn't being honest with himself or fair to his professional.'
At some point in the future you will make your first trip to the golf course. Before you go to the full-length course, I recommend playing a chip and putt course, which is a small-scale golf course. There is not a person alive who has played golf for the first time and not been extremely nervous on the first tee. (The first tee is where one begins play). I have been playing golf for many years and I still get a little nervous on the first tee! One of the biggest misconceptions that goes through almost everyone’s mind when on the golf course is “those guys over there are probably really good” or “gee, I hope that I don’t embarrass myself around all these good golfers.” First of all, the chances are that “those guys” are not that good and who cares if they are. A good dresser does not make a good golfer. It often scares people into thinking that he or she is a good golfer. Expensive clubs and a big PGA Tour golf bag also does not indicate that that person is a good golfer. Don’t be intimidated by anyone at the golf course – it will only bring unwanted anxiety.
The most important thing to know when playing golf is not to play slowly. If you want to be accepted on the course by your friends or by new people that you’ve just met, you must not play slowly. Your job on the golf course is to keep up with the group you are playing with and the group ahead of you. If the group ahead of you gets too far ahead (e.g. they’ve completed the hole that your group is to play next) you must either rapidly pick up your pace of play or signal the group behind you to play through (by moving off to the side and letting them play the hole that you are currently on to get ahead of your slow group). No matter how poorly you play on any given day, no one will be bothered so long as you are not holding them up. If you play too slowly the people you are with will never want to play with you again. If you are struggling on a hole, I suggest that you simply pick up your ball and walk to the next hole to regain your composure. This practice is very acceptable and often encouraged if you are not hitting the ball well.
So please remember, have the right positive attitude – it is priority! Always work towards reducing the bad shots and increasing the playable shots. Perfectly struck shots are unbelievably rare. Never let yourself be intimidated by the other players at the course – they might be beginners also. Always keep up with the group you are with and the group ahead of you. Building a good golf swing is a journey that will always have peaks, plateaus and valleys. Your goal is to minimize the valleys and most importantly, have fun.
Published 1998, APA. Jeffrey J. Severini, PGA Golf Professional