We get it. Golf can seem terribly complicated to the uninitiated. So many rules, so many different kinds of clubs. And then there’s the lingo: birdies, bogeys, bump-and-runs. At Golf Digest, this may be the language we speak every day, but we also know it’s a language that can scare prospective golfers off before they ever pick up a club.
That’s where this online beginner’s guide comes in. To those who know nothing about golf, our goal is to shepherd you through this uncertainty. What kind of clubs do you need? How do you practice? When do you know that you’re ready for the golf course? The way we see it, the only dumb questions about getting started in golf are the ones you’re afraid to ask, or worse, the ones for which you can’t find an answer. The whole point of this guide is to make sure that last part is no longer a problem.
Part 1: What you need to know about clubs
No doubt, the right equipment always helps, but it’s not as if you’ll need to empty your savings account to get started. Instead, focus on finding the sort of equipment that will allow you to develop your imperfect skills with minimal expense. There’ll be plenty of time to go after the latest, hot products on the market (and when you do, make sure you start your search with one of our top 100 clubfitters), but at the beginning, make learning — and not buying — your priority.
1. You only need a few clubs: You’re allowed to carry as many as 14 clubs in your bag, but you won’t need nearly that many when you’re first learning. Instead, start with a driver, a putter, a sand wedge (it’s the club that has an “S” on the sole or a loft of 54 to 56 degrees) and supplement those with a 6-iron, an 8-iron, a pitching wedge, and a fairway wood or hybrid with 18-21 degrees of loft. These are the clubs that are the most forgiving and easiest to get airborne. You can find used and new titanium drivers for as little as $75 and putters for much less than online, but most larger golf and general sporting goods stoes also offer racks of discounted and/or used clubs.
2. Don’t guess — try before you buy: If you’re an absolute beginner looking to buy clubs, go to a larger golf shop or driving range and ask to try a 6-iron with a regular-flex and a stiff-flex shaft. (Generally, the faster and more aggressive the swing, the more you will prefer a shaft that is labeled “S” for stiff.) One of the two should feel easier to control. That’s the shaft flex you should start with for all your clubs. Once you get serious about the game and are able to make consistent contact, a clubfitting will enable you to get the most out of your equipment.
3. The more loft, the better: Unless you’re a strong and well-coordinated athlete experienced with stick and ball sports (baseball, softball, hockey, tennis, for example), opt for woods that have more loft. Why? The extra loft generally means it will be easier to get the ball in the air and also can reduce sidespin so shots fly straighter. So go for drivers with at least 10 degrees of loft and fairway woods that start at 17 degrees, not 15 degrees.
4. Take advantage of clubs made for beginners: Some types of clubs are easier to hit than others. For one thing, you’re better off with hybrids instead of 3-, 4-, and 5-irons. And irons with wider soles (the bottom part of an iron) will alleviate the tendency for the club to stick in the ground when you hit too far behind the ball. Also, with more weight concentrated in the sole, the iron’s center of gravity will be lower and this will help shots launch on a higher trajectory. Generally, a more forgiving iron will feature a sole that measures about the width of two fingers (from front edge to back). If an iron’s sole measures less than one finger width, you only should be playing it if you’re paid to do so.
5. Choose the right ball: Buy balls on a sliding scale based on how many you lose in a round. If you’ve never played before or lose two sleeves or more a round, buy balls that cost around $20 a dozen (if you can’t decide between one brand over another, try putting a few to see how they feel coming off the putter face). When you cut the number of lost balls back to maybe three to five balls a round, buy balls that cost less than $30 a dozen. Only if you’re losing less than a sleeve a round should you consider the $40 a dozen balls.
Part 2: Learning To Play
The hardest part about golf can be getting started. Ask yourself a few questions. First, why do you want to play? Is it for work or social reasons? Maybe then you need only some basic instruction and patient friends. Perhaps you’re looking to jump in headfirst in hopes of getting better fast. If so, there’s plenty of top-level instruction out there. Next, how much are you willing to put into it? That goes for time and the money. Point is, there’s a huge difference between wanting to ride around and have some laughs and being a serious player. Do some soul-searching, and start to develop your plan.
1. Take lessons right away: The bad news when you’re just starting out is you don’t know much about golf. The good news? You don’t know much about golf. You probably haven’t ingrained many bad habits, and you have tons of questions about what to do. Nothing beats starting out with some positive direction. And don’t just seek instruction when you’re struggling. It’s just as important to know what you’re doing right as what you’re doing wrong. Your golf buddies might sometimes have a good tip for you, but it’s better to seek out a PGA professional since they’re the ones trained to teach the game to someone like yourself.
2. Have a range routine: Everyone wants to see how far they can hit a golf ball, but when you go to the driving range, resist the temptation to immediately start ripping drivers. Yes, you might crank a couple, but swinging for maximum distance will throw you out of sync — and fast. Start out by hitting one of your wedges or short irons, warming up your golf muscles with half-swings. Then increase the length and speed of your swings, and move on to your middle irons. Work your way up to the driver, and after you hit some balls with it, go back to a short iron or wedge. This will help you keep your tempo and tension level in check.
3. Learn the short shots: Roughly half of your strokes come within 50 yards of the green. That means you probably should spend half of your practice time with your wedges and putter. This might sound boring, but the good news is, you can practice your short game in your own back yard — even in your TV room. Put out some buckets in your yard at various distances and try to pitch balls into them. Give yourself good lies and bad lies, just like you get on the course. As for putting, your carpet might not play as fast as the greens, but you can still practice aiming and rolling balls through doorways and into furniture legs.
4. When in doubt, go back to basics: Golf can really get you thinking too much. There’s a lot of information out there, and the most mind-numbing part can be the instruction. When you’re a new golfer, you can’t help but read it and watch it, but too much can be, well, too much. When you find yourself getting burned out from too much swing thinking, go back to basics. Try to get yourself into a good setup — check your ball position and posture — then make a relaxed swing all the way to a full finish. Over-thinking creates tension, so be aware of your stress level: Waggle the club a little at address and try to make a smooth move off the ball. Nothing ruins your chances faster than snatching the club back.
5. Find the right teacher: Finding an instructor you trust can really speed your improvement. Of course you want your teacher to be knowledgeable and committed to helping you, but just as important is finding a good personality fit. If you’re laid back, you might like a teacher with a low-key approach. If you’re a creative type, you might work best with someone who teaches with feels and images instead of angles and positions. The point is, you want to be comfortable and enjoy the experience. You’ll learn best when you feel free to ask what you think are stupid questions and when you’re not afraid to fall down a few times.
Part 3: Basic Shots You Should Know
There are parts of golf that will elude you your entire life, but certain fundamentals are essential. You have to be able to hit a driver off the tee with a fair amount of confidence. You have to be able to hit an iron off the ground, and get out of a greenside bunker. You have to know a few basic short shots around the green, and be able to keep your cool when things get ugly. Start with the tips below, and check out Golf Digest’s game-improvement program, Make Me Better. It’s easy to use, packed with great information, and it’s free.
1. Know when to chip and when to pitch: When you have a short shot to the green, you’re going to hit either a chip or a pitch. What’s the difference between the two? A chip shot stays low and runs along the ground, and a pitch flies higher and doesn’t roll as much. Use a chip when you don’t have to carry the ball over an obstacle, like deep rough or a bunker, and you have a lot of green between you and the hole. Use a pitch when you have to carry over something or need to stop the ball faster. The extra height on a pitch shot causes the ball to land softer and stop faster.
2. Get out of a bunker every time: The greenside bunker shot is the one shot in golf where you don’t actually hit the ball: You swing the clubhead into the sand behind the ball, and the sand pushes it out. For that reason, you have to swing quite a bit harder than you might expect; the sand really slows down the clubhead. Here’s the basic technique: Using your sand wedge, stand so the ball is even with your front instep, twist your feet in for stability, and focus on a spot about two inches behind the ball. Swing the club back about halfway then down and through that spot behind the ball. Keep turning your body so your chest faces the target at the finish.
3. Use your athleticism: Beginning golfers often get so tied up in the instructions for making the swing that they lose their athletic instincts. Golf might be more mental than other sports, but the swing is still a dynamic, athletic movement. Here are a few sports images that will help you: At address, stand like a defender in basketball, with your legs lively and your weight balanced left to right and front to back. On the backswing, think of a quarterback rearing back to make a pass: Arm stretched back and body coiled from top to bottom. And on the downswing, be like a hockey player hitting a slap shot, with your wrists staying firm and your hands leading the clubhead into the ball.
Don’t fear the big dog: You might think the driver is more than you can handle right now: It’s the longest club in your bag, and the head is gigantic. The truth is, built into that big clubhead is more forgiveness for mis-hits than you get with any other club. Have a few driver keys to rely on.First, tee the ball nice and high. Second, take the club back smoothly and make a full body turn, getting your back to face the target. Third, swing through the ball; just let it get in the way of the clubhead through impact. Last, hold your finish. If you can finish in balance, you’ve swung at a speed you can control.
5. Lost your way? Go back to chipping: Learning golf can at times be overwhelming. When you feel frustrated, go back to hitting short chip shots. The chipping swing is the basis of the entire swing; it’s the full swing in miniature. And with the chipping motion being so short and slow, you can more easily understand what’s happening. To play a chip, position the ball back in your stance, put more weight on your left foot, and swing equal lengths back and through without hinging your wrists on either side. Once you get a feel for the chip, swing a little longer by hinging the club upward with your wrists and letting your weight shift back and through. In no time you’ll build a feel for the full swing.
Part 4: When you’re ready for the golf course
So now that you’ve got some clubs and you’ve learned the basics of the golf swing, you’re thinking about testing yourself on an actual golf course. Great, but it’s not as if you should step right onto the same course the pros play. If you want to make sure your early experiences on the golf course are positive ones, it’s best to know your limitations, then build yourself up. Here’s what to keep in mind.
1. Start small: Golf is hard enough without needing eight shots just to get to the green. Start on a par 3 or “executive” course before you try an 18-hole championship course. On a par-3 course, all the holes are par 3s — that is, usually less than 200 yards. Executive courses typically have multiple par-3 holes and their par 4s and 5s are shorter than what you’d find on a championship course. Give yourself some time to get acclimated here before taking on a bigger challenge.
2. Play three holes: In a way, golf its own kind of an endurance sport, and you need to build yourself up to playing 18 holes. Consider starting by playing three holes of a nine-hole course late in the afternoon when the course is less crowded and rates are cheaper. The course might not charge a three-hole rate, so just play until you start getting frustrated, then come back another day.
3. Choose the right course: Don’t start on Bethpage Black, or any course that’s going to have you discouraged before you reach the first green. A good beginner course is flat, short and doesn’t have many hazards or forced carries — that is, waste areas or hazards you have to hit over to get to the fairway. There’ll be plenty of time to test yourself on tougher layouts, but for now, give yourself a chance to gather some positive momentum.
4. Move on up: Forget about ego, and feel free to play from the forward set of tees. Playing the course at 5,500 yards or less will save you time, frustration and golf balls. And you’ll be in good company: there’s a nationwide push for recreational golfers of all levels to be playing courses from shorter distances.
5. Keep up the pace: Most golf courses ask that you finish 18 holes in four-and-a-half hours, but you can do better than that. One way to maintain a decent pace is to limit yourself to a certain number of strokes per hole. (We suggest a maximum of seven strokes per hole.) As a beginning golfer, there’s nothing wrong with picking up your ball if you’re holding your playing partners up. Trust us, they’ll appreciate it.
Part 5: Etiquette
Congratulations! You’ve been invited out for a round of golf by a friend or a family member or (gulp) maybe even your boss. You’re excited, but you’re also petrified you might embarrass yourself because you’re not quite sure of the protocol either on or off the course. Golf etiquette may seem complicated, and in truth, there’s plenty you’ll learn the more you play. But if you start with the following five points, you’ll be fine. And remember, if you’re still not sure of something, there’s nothing wrong with asking.
1. Don’t lag behind: The easiest way to endear yourself to playing partners has nothing to do with how well you play, but rather, how fast. That doesn’t mean you have to rush your shots or run to your ball. It simply means you should take just one or two practice swings and be ready to hit when it’s your turn. That still leaves plenty of time to chat between shots (but never when someone is getting ready to hit). Additionally, on the green if it is a casual round of golf, very short putts (roughly two feet or less) are generally “given.” If someone tells you “that’s good” it means it is assumed you will make the next putt and you can pick the ball up. A good way to monitor your pace of play is to always remain a half hole behind the group in front of you.
2. Wait your turn: If all golfers hit at the same time, it would be mass confusion, so knowing when to go is important. Traditionally, the person who had the best score on the previous hole has “the honor” and tees off first (and so on). From there, the general rule is the person furthest from the hole — or “away” — hits next. Bear in mind, however, that your group might decide it wants to play “ready golf,” which means anyone who is ready to hit can go. Once you’re on the green, another consideration is the flagstick. If you’re the closest to the hole, you’re in charge of removing the flagstick if everyone says they can see the cup clearly, tending the flagstick (which means pulling it from the hole as a putt tracks closer to the hole) if they can’t, then putting the flagstick back in the hole when your group leaves the green.
3. Don’t kill anyone. Yell “Fore!”:Chances are you’ll need to say this quite often when starting out. Shouting “Fore!” is merely a way of saying, “Watch out!” and it is used when golfers hit shots astray that might possibly come close to another person on the golf course. A couple of things to know about using this term: First, don’t wait. The moment you realize a ball has even a remote chance of hitting another person, shout it out. That brings up the second point, which is, SHOUT IT OUT. Using the term at anything less than full voice is a disservice. It is a warning to other golfers. Also helpful is to yell the direction the ball is headed in, as in “Fore right!” or “Fore left!” The more specific, the better. There is no harm in yelling “Fore!” even if the ball does not come close to someone.
4. Take care of the course: It’s hard work to make a golf course look as good as it does. Do your part to take care of it. For starters, if you’re in a golf cart, find out if it is OK to take the carts on the grass or if they must remain on the cart path. Either way, never drive the cart near the putting green. On the course, if you take a divot (a piece of turf when hitting a shot), you should either replace it by carefully placing it in the spot and then firmly pressing down on it with your foot, or filling the hole with some seed mix. Shots hit to the green often leave a ball mark. If you don’t know how to properly fix them, ask one of your playing partners to show you. And make sure you rake the bunker after you hit out of one. The sand is daunting enough without having to contend with someone’s footprint.
5. Know where to stand: Golf may seem like a genteel sport, but keep in mind it is played with blunt objects. If golfers seem obsessive about where people are standing, it’s because they don’t want anyone to get hurt. They also don’t want anything interfering with their concentration on a shot. A good rule of thumb is to stand to the side and slightly behind the ball several yards away. If a player is in a bunker, stay alert and stand well off to the side. Those shots come out fast and can go anywhere. On the green, try to stay out of the line of sight of the person putting. Further, when walking on the green be aware of the line from other player’s balls and the hole and don’t step in those lines.
Part 6: Those Pesky Rules
Yes, it’s true, the Rules of Golf is 182 pages long and understanding many of the game’s 34 rules is important. But don’t worry. Most golfers, including those guys who turned their noses up at playing with a newcomer like you, have very little knowledge of how to play the game correctly. You’d be surprised by how many golfers just make rules up as they go, so don’t fret if you’re not sure about what’s OK and what’s a violation. Just remember these key points and you’ll do fine for now.
1. Don’t move your ball: Unless you’re on a putting green, don’t move your ball under any circumstance. Play it as it lies unless it’s interfered with by an obstruction (think man-made object — yardage marker, beer can, etc.). And if you’re not sure what an obstruction is, ask the head pro or an experienced golfer. On the putting green, you have to mark the ball’s position before lifting it, usually with a coin or a small ball marker.
2. Stick with your own ball: If you see a ball that’s not your own, you may think, “Hey, free ball!” But what you should do is leave it. Believe it or not, you’re not the only golfer on the course who is hitting his ball to unintended locations, so it could be another player’s ball from another hole. And speaking of which …
3. It’s (mostly) OK to play from another hole: If your shot lands in another fairway, you can play the ball as it lies as long as that fairway is not designated as out of bounds (white stakes or lines). If you don’t see white stakes or lines, you can play back to the hole you’re playing. Just don’t interfere with players on that particular hole. Let them play through unless they give you permission to go first. If your ball is outside the out-of-bounds markers, take a one-stroke penalty and play another shot from the spot you just hit from.
4. Only take five minutes to look for a ball: If you hit a shot and you can’t find the ball after five minutes of searching, take a one-stroke penalty and play another shot from as close as possible to the last spot you played from. This might require you to drop a ball. If so, extend your hand at shoulder height over that area, simply drop it, then play from there.
5. Play within the golf course: If you ever hit a shot out-of-bounds (white stakes or lines), you have to replay a shot from as close as possible to where you just hit and add a stroke penalty to your score. So, for instance, if you teed off and hit a shot out of bounds, take a stroke penalty and play your third shot again from the tee.
Part 7: Getting in golf shape
There’s a reason why you can’t accelerate through the ball like a touring pro and it’s not because you weren’t handed a golf club in your crib. A key component to making an efficient, powerful and correct golf swing is having a body that’s able to do it. Strong hip muscles, flexible hamstrings and a stable back are just a few reasons why tour pros are tour pros and most of the rest of us are, well, not. If you want to play well, and play this game for the rest of your life, you have to exercise and pay specific attention to the muscles that will allow you to do it. Start with these areas and you’ll be in great “golf shape” in no time.
1. Walk, don’t ride: Whenever you can, no matter how tiring it might seem, walk instead of riding in a golf cart. And carry your clubs when you can. A seven-mile walk with clubs on your back might seem daunting now, but it will get easier the more you do it. And if you’re worried your golf bag is too heavy, our golf bag Hot List features several great lightweight bags with pop-up stands
.2. Stretch the right way: Save long-hold stretches for after the round or at night. Before the round, do dynamic stretches that prep your muscles for the golf swing. For instance, swinging a leg back and forth like you’re kicking a ball. Make this kicking motion 10 times for each leg trying to kick higher each time. To see a couple of more dynamic stretches you can do before your round.
3. Pack your own snacks and hydrate: Almost all food served at golf courses is trouble. Burgers, dogs, granola bars, chips — they may seem appealing at the moment, but they’re not going to help your performance. The best foods to eat for a round of golf are lean protein (such as chicken or turkey) and complex carbohydrates (such as all-bran cereal or a banana). You should eat before the round and again at the turn, or on the back nine, to maintain energy and concentration. And drink lots and lots of water. If you’re urine is not clear in color, you are likely dehydrated.
4. Train the right muscles: The most important muscles in the golf swing are located from the top of your knees to under your chest. Focus on them when you weight train and you’ll have a powerful swing and stay injury free. Squats, lunges, and planks [(demonstrated in this video)(/golfinstruction/blogs/theinstructionblog/2011/01/fitness-friday-its-time-to-wal.html) should be staples in your exercise routine. Strong, flexible hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, abdomen and lat muscles are crucial to a functional/powerful swing.
5. Put it on ice: If you’re sore after a round, ice is OK to reduce swelling, but only apply to the sore area for 15 minutes per hour, max. In the morning, apply heat (a warm shower will help) or heat wraps and consider taking pain relievers such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin or naproxen sodium before playing. But do so only with a doctor’s blessing since the masking of pain can lead to further injury.
Part 8: What To Wear
Learning how to play may be the most important part of becoming a golfer, but not to be overlooked is knowing what to wear. Your attire matters for a variety of reasons: because most golf courses enforce some kind of dress code (some stricter than others); because you’ll be spending at least four hours outdoors; and because, frankly, who doesn’t want to look sharp? With that in mind, we provide five pointers to make sure you’re outfitted right for the course.
1. Pick the right collared shirt: Most courses, even public ones, require that men wear a collared polo (women are more often allowed to play without a collared top). There are two main types of collared shirts: those made of cotton, and others made of more technical fabrics. If you feel more comfortable in a traditionally-cut polo, stick with cotton. But if it’ll be hot on the golf course, collared shirts made of technical fabrics, such as those made by Adidas, Nike and Callaway, will help keep you dry by wicking moisture away from your skin.
2. Stick to khakis: Hands down, these are the most comfortable pants to play in, especially since khaki fabric is more breathable than ever before. And you won’t find a golf course that doesn’t allow you to wear khaki pants. Most courses, save for a few traditional private clubs, now allow shorts as well, although some are iffy on cargo shorts. As for jeans, best to leave those at home. Even if a course allows them, they’re uncomfortable for golf.
3. Prepare yourself for the elements: If all goes well, you won’t be spending your entire round punching your ball out from under trees, so shielding yourself from the sun will be important. A basic baseball cap never fails, and when it’s time to buy sunglasses for golf, make sure the lens blocks UVA and UVB rays, and that they wrap around your eyes to offer complete coverage. Of course, golf is played in all kinds of weather. You’ll need a good rain jacket for wet conditions, and you should always carry a dry towel to keep your grips dry.
4. For starters, go with sneakers, not golf shoes: Hold off on purchasing golf shoes until you become really serious about the game. Stick with sneakers, which you’ll be able to use on and off the course. Since you’ll want to stay as level to the ground as possible, make sure you don’t wear running sneakers, which have too much cushion under the heal of your foot.
5. Apply sunblock: A must-have accessory for all golfers. You’ll need to apply sunblock 30 minutes before your round and again at the turn, since the SPF in sunblock wears off after a couple of hours. (See our skin cancer guide here). Look for a sunblock with an SPF of at least 30. Also, try spray sunblocks when you reapply during your round, since you can apply it without making your hands slippery, and don’t forget to apply a lip balm with SPF.
Part 9: Outings
The legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones once said, “There’s golf and then there’s tournament golf, and neither one resembles the other.” If you’re signed up to play in an organized golf event or outing for the first time, don’t let those words unnerve you. All Jones meant is that standing over shots that matter is an experience far richer than just hacking around with buddies. It’s fun to feel butterflies in your stomach, to feel your hands shake. Even if you shoot a million, what follows are five points to help you look like you’ve played tournament golf before.
1. Know the format: Such as with darts and billiards, there are lots of different ways to score golf events. While the goal of getting the ball in the cup in the fewest strokes possible never varies, understanding how your group’s round is being tabulated will help you maximize strategy and save time. For events in which the ability levels of participants are widespread, the most common formats are a Scramble and Best Ball. Because team formats are designed to reward aggressive play, you’ll often be in a situation where only a one putt will suffice (so don’t leave the putt short), or, after several bad shots, your score on a hole will likely not count, in which case you should pick up. When in doubt, ask your group’s scorekeeper how to proceed.
2. Use the right gear: Besides clubs, two essential items for tournament play are a Sharpie and a coin. Use the Sharpie to draw unique dots or lines on your ball. Simply knowing what brand and number you’re playing (Titleist 1, Callaway 2, Nike 3, etc.) is not enough to reliably distinguish your ball from the balls of other competitors. Have a ball ready with a slightly different marking in case you need to hit a provisional. You’ll use the coin, or a plastic ballmarker, to mark your ball on the greens. A tee will not do. Golfers are finicky when it comes to marking. Know that replacing your ball with anything less than full care signals that you’re either a novice or a cheater.
3. Announce when you’re picking up: If you’ve topped consecutive shots or pumped two balls out-of-bounds, there’s no shame in picking up. In fact, your playing partners will appreciate this effort to maintain pace of play. However, not clearly announcing your intention creates an awkward situation. Your playing partners will be uncertain if they should wait, help you look for your ball, or play on.
4. Maintain a sense of humor: This is probably the most critical element of playing in a golf outing. Enjoy the pressure and challenge of hitting golf shots that are counted towards a prize, but remember, these are casual events and no one cares if you play poorly. Since you are not a professional golfer who practices daily, the only expectation others have is that you offer pleasant company. Sulking and cursing are unacceptable, and especially ridiculous if you’re a beginning golfer.
5. Never get a lesson the day before an event: Winning’s fun, and it’s natural to want to play your best when it counts. However, resist the temptation to get a lesson or otherwise revamp your swing the day before an event. “I’ll arrive to the course early and figure out my swing on the range” are universal famous last words. Golf swings take time to settle, and it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll play miserably if you have a lot of new thoughts in your head as you try to simultaneously cope with the experience of playing in a tournament. Go with what you know.
Literally everything a beginner needs to know