Golf can be intimidating. That's not a secret. Heck, the rules and etiquette would be enough to scare away some folks, even if it wasn't so hard to hit the ball hard and on-target.
In fact, just going out on the course can be more daunting for some beginners than playing the 18th at Augusta would be for a pro. Yet it doesn't have to be that way. You should be able to learn the basics and be able to go out on a course and have some fun. And you can!
Inspired by the popular Couch to 5K (C25K) program, which lays out a simple 9-step training plan to turn a couch potato into a 5k runner, we've decided to lay out some similar steps for a beginning golfer.
How to Go from Couch to 9 Holes
North Oaks Director of Instruction Grant Shafranski knows a bit about teaching beginners. In fact, he developed the popular Get Golf Ready program for the Minneapolis Park Board when he was Program Director for The First Tee of Minneapolis. It's a set of two-hour group lessons for beginners that teaches them the basics, from rules and etiquette to the skills necessary to play their first nine-hole round. So who better to help us put together our 9-step program?
"It's all about building up the confidence so you're comfortable going out on the golf course," he says. "The most important thing is to be able to make a full swing and then answer the question, what did the club do to the ball to make it do what you just saw. As long as you can answer that question, you can figure out how to improve."
With that in mind, here's Grant's nine-step plan to get you off the couch and out on the course.
1. Start with Putting
"Anybody can learn to make two-putts with a little bit of practice," he says, "so we start there." It turns out that putting at a hole that's 15- or 20-feet away shouldn't be as difficult as it seems. "We try to make it reactionary, like playing catch. I don't think about how far my arm goes back and how far it comes forward when I'm playing catch, I just throw it at the target," he says.
You can create that feel by doing a "box" drill. Use a string (or tees) to mark a square on the practice green that extends either two or three feet around the hole and putt at it from a short distance. Once you can consistently putt into the box from that spot, you move further back. "It's basically a ladder drill," Grant says. "You start up close, putt it into that box, then move back a step and put again. You want to see how many you can make in a row without missing."
It's amazing how when you just focus on getting the ball in the box, how quickly you get good at it," Grant says. And by the time you're comfortable with the drill, you've developed one of the most important skills in golf – the ability to consistently two-putt.
2. Move to Chipping
The second step isn't much further from the hole because Grant believes chipping is almost as easy to teach. "We do a low shot and a high shot (an 8-iron and a sand wedge)," he says. "Typically, the low shot is the easiest to correct, because if I'm trying to hit the ball a few feet in front of me and roll it across the green, that's a lot easier to correct than flying it all the way across the green with my sand wedge, and I can't hit that spot as often as I can hit the one right in front of me."
Hitting those short shots also pays off down the road, though. It's the first step towards longer ones.
"The reason we progress like that is to understand the physics of the strike on a small scale. You have to hit the south pole of the golf ball with the middle of the clubface to produce a shot that gets in the air. When you hit a ball that goes across the green, it's not because you hit it too hard, it's because you hit the ball on the equator. You didn't hit it too hard, you hit the wrong part of the golf ball."
3. Hit 8-Irons Off a Tee
Now you're ready for the driving range, but not for a driver. Grant suggests starting with 8-irons off a tee, because it's one of the easiest clubs to hit with a full swing. "You'll get the confidence to get the ball in the air consistently, and start to learn how to make adjustments," he says.
"It's about being able to make a full swing and being able to answer the question, 'what did the club do to the ball?' As long as you can answer that question, you can improve,'" he explains. "It's understanding that when I top a shot, I swung too high and hit the north pole of the golf ball, and if I swing an inch or two lower and get the club down to the south pole, I'll hit it better. A lot of people don't realize it can be as simple as that."
4. Buy some foot powder spray
Next up, go to Walgreen's. Seriously. Grant says Dr. Scholl's foot powder spray is one of the best tools for learning how to hit the ball consistently. Spray it on the clubface before each practice shot to see the ball's impact.
"You use the spray powder to actually see where the ball is hitting on the clubface and then look at where it's going" he explains."When you know that, you can make swing adjustments that are tied to the ball flight, not just how the swing feels."
5. Add direction (hit straighter)
It goes without saying, but hitting the ball more consistently in the middle of the clubface will help you dial in the direction – although some subtle adjustments will still be necessary. For example, if the ball is always spinning to the right (slicing), you may also need to change the angle of your swing (bringing the club closer to your body before impact to avoid the outside-to-inside club path that causes the ball to spin out the other way). Make the opposite adjustment if you're hitting the middle of the clubface but the ball is spinning off to your left (a hook).
By focusing on simple cues and experimenting with simple adjustments, Grant says beginners can quickly gain consistency. "Your confidence is always going to grow when you start to hit the ball consistently."
6. Increase your distance
Once you can swing consistently with an 8-iron, adding distance simply requires swinging with longer clubs and using the same feedback loop. Watch where the ball goes, check the club to see where you hit it, and make the appropriate adjustments.
Your goal is always in the middle of the clubface, near the south pole of the ball, and with limited side-spin. If you move slowly from club to club, you should be able to make small adjustments to keep hitting the ball consistently - all the way until you're hitting driver.
7. Measure your distance
The next step requires more practice, but also some measurement. "When you're out on the driving range, see how far your average drive goes," Grant says.
Golf is all about distance control, so every driving range has flags to tell you how far you hit it. Check to see how far you consistently hit some of your commonly used clubs – especially your driver and your most consistent wedge. This will come in handy when you move from the range to the golf course.
8. Scale the Course
"The biggest mistake most people make is they don't scale the course to their game," Grant says. "They take four, five, six or however many strokes to get the green and they don't even want to finish the hole by the time they get there."
Yet there's an easy solution to that problem that will make the game much less intimidating. Take your average shots and match them up to par for each hole in order to scale the course for your game. What's that mean? "If your average drive is 150, and your wedge is 50, then you should start a Par 4 hole about 200-yards from the pin," Grant says. Do something similar on Par 3s and Par 5s.
"That's the way Tiger was raised, so he could always make pars or birdies whenever he played, even from a young age," Grant says. It allows beginners to keep score and count greens reached in regulations without getting frustrated before ever reaching the green. "When you play from a place that's appropriate for your game, you feel a lot better about your ability to keep pace and your ability level because a Par 5 isn't as daunting for you."
Does that mean teeing it up in the middle of the fairway? Yes, but don't worry, Grant says it will make everybody happier. "It will make you much more comfortable, and your playing partners will appreciate it because it's so much better for pace of play."
Pro Tip: Many courses put small yardage markers in the fairway to help players know the distance to the center of the green. Ask how to find those yardage markers when you start your round.
9. Start playing (without the pressure)
Now that you know how to play, it's important to practice and play in a low-pressure environment, because most players have a hard time improving when the pressure is on.
At North Oaks, we have many opportunities to play without pressure. Besides our ladies clinics, we have the Social Six (where members play six holes at 6:00 before socializing), and our five nights set aside this summer for couples twilight golf.
Grant also suggests taking a "playing lesson" with a pro. You play nine holes with a teaching pro and get instruction on every swing, and every situation. "It's actually a lot of fun," he says. "You just show up, and we go play nine together."
And as you gain confidence and start to play, Grant suggests spending most of your practice time on the range rather than the putting green.
"Distance and ball striking are the fastest ways to lower just about everybody's score. Putting doesn't really do it too much, because everybody can two-putt from 15 feet. But you need to putt for less. You need to have your first putt be for twos and threes rather than sixes and sevens."