October 1, 2014

Point of View

Here’s the good news about golf: According to the latest numbers from the National Golf Foundation, about 3 million people take up the game every year. The bad news? Another 3 million people give it up the same year.

It’s not hard to figure out why so many start playing. You watch golf on television, and it certainly looks easy enough. Unlike baseball, the ball doesn’t move, so how big a deal can it be to make full contact and smack it a few hundred yards?

 

Putting can’t be that difficult, can it? On a perfectly manicured piece of emerald green grass, surely the ball heads pretty much where you want it to go. It always does for Tiger and Phil, and maybe with a little practice, perhaps it can for you, too—especially if you’re pretty good at croquet.

Here’s more good news about golf: You don’t have to run. Tights and spandex are banned from the grounds. You sweat from the heat, not from a heart aerobically pumping at 130 beats per minute. You can drive around the course in a golf cart with a little cooler filled with your favorite beverage, and if you hire a caddy, you don’t even have to look for your lost ball.

So why so many former golfers? For one, the game clearly is not as easy as it looks. For another, it takes a lot of time, often a lot of money and a very real commitment to stick with it, no matter how many times you swing and occasionally miss until the lessons kick in.

Still, the $60 billion a year golf business depends on 28 million golfers in the U.S., a number industry people would like to see increase. All around the country, many courses are trying different methods to attract new golfers and keep the ones they already have. The PGA of America’s two-year-old Play Golf America program offers a number of free clinics for beginners taught by their pro members, as well as offering a Web site (playgolfamerica.com) to direct them to more instruction and other beginner-friendly facilities in their communities.

Some experts in the golf industry believe that building shorter courses, six- and 12-hole venues, may address the game’s time management and cost problems. A six-hour ordeal becomes a two-hour pleasure. And if it only costs $15 to $20 for six holes, you can still afford lunch.

The equipment industry is also trying to do its part. Manufacturers continue to press the governing bodies of the sport—the U.S. Golf Association in this country—to allow more technical innovations in clubs to make it easier to play the game, even if their products may violate current standards established for playing professionals.

And if you’re thinking about joining those 3 million about to try a little golf, here are a few suggestions on how to truly enjoy the experience.

Take lessons: Far too many players think they can just step up to the tee and whack it down the fairway. Forget about it. You wouldn’t try driving a car without getting someone to show you how to turn it on and steer. Call a professional. He or she will get you started and show you how to do it, the better to keep you coming back for more.

Head to a driving range: There are several public ranges in the area where you can swing away at a bucket of balls for a very nominal price. Most nearby semi-private clubs also have practice areas that allow you to hit on the range, work on your short game and putt on a real green.

Learn a little etiquette: You don’t want to play your first round and do a lot of silly things that will upset your playing partners or the group behind you. Avoid yakking on someone else’s backswing or stomping on his putting line on the green. One practice swing, not six, is enough. Rake your own sand traps, spread a little grass seed on the divots you’re plowing out on the fairway, and don’t waste time looking for lost balls.

Go with a friend—or three: Beginners don’t really want to play with more experienced golfers. So bring along a newbie pal the first few times you go out to the course. And try not to play in prime-time hours. You’ll get dirty looks if you show up at 9 a.m. on a weekend morning without your A, B or even C game. Better to tee off later in the afternoon, when not as many folks are around to watch you flail.

Speed it up: Most golf courses want you to play an 18-hole round in about four to four-and-a-half hours. If you’ve just hit your seventh shot on a par four and you’re still 160 yards from the green, just pick up that ball, drop it on the green and try to sink a putt.

Join a league: There are plenty of them catering to one and all—juniors, beginners, seniors, couples, swinging singles, executive women, whatever. They usually play nine holes late in the day and offer social events afterward.

Play the proper tees: Most courses have four or five sets of tees, and there should be no shame in moving up to the spot that best suits your game, including men playing the ladies’ tees and vice versa. Mix and match over your round as well.

Don’t keep score: Why bother if you’re just out for a lovely day of pleasant views, fresh air and good company? If you stick with it, practice every once in a while and get some professional help, the game will come more easily, and quitting definitely should not be an option.

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