Never golfed, and not sure where to start? 11 notes that will make you feel more at ease

Thinking about your first time? Here’s what to know, what to do, how to act -- from a true beginner

A golfer (Jopwell/Pexels photo)

Are you ever flipping around on TV and you come across some sort of golf tournament? Golf looks pretty fun, and somewhat less strenuous than some of the other professional sports. Plus, golfing seems like an enjoyable group activity or a bucket-list item for a scenic vacation.

I never learned when I was little, so golf always seemed a little intimidating. How was I supposed to dive in, not knowing a thing?

Still, the sport always seemed intriguing. I’ve grown up fairly athletic, but golf still seemed daunting.

Maybe the barrier of entry looked high. What about golf clubs? I’d have to buy some, not even knowing if I liked the sport. Who would I go with? How would I even know how to hold a golf club or position my hands or swing? What would I wear? Would I slow down others, just by tagging along?

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., everything around us seemed to shut down. But eventually, and even fairly quickly, golf courses were allowed to reopen. It was considered a fairly safe activity.

So finally I figured, what’s the worst thing that could happen? And I bought some clubs and dragged myself to a course.

I’m here to report that it turned out to be a really fun summer distraction. The world around us has changed so much, but when you golf, even for a few hours, you’re not thinking about any of that.

You’re also not caught up in childcare issues, working-from-home stuff, finances, or missing your friends and family you might not be able to see right now -- it’s just you, the fresh air and the good company around you.

Full disclosure: I actually borrowed equipment and went twice the summer before, so I guess I had been on the brink of this moment for quite some time. (You have to get over the hump of your first time!)

But still, when I clicked “purchase” on those clubs of my own and hit the links with my husband, I felt VERY green. If you want to keep reading, I’ll tell you all about it, along with the reasons why the experience doesn’t have to be as intimidating as you might imagine.

1. I’ll use that word again: I say “intimidating,” because truly, there’s no better term. But the intimidation factor isn’t as bad as you might assume.

OK, it kind of stinks when you have to drive (as in, hit your driver) in front of other people. I still hate that. But the reality is, often, especially over the summer months, golf courses are busy places. Tee times are stacked and groups are going out every few minutes, all day. Flat out, you might have to hit in front of other people, but I promise it’s not that bad.

A couple things:

  • Think of something you’re pretty good at. I’m a lifelong downhill skier, for example. When I see newbies on the ski hill, I don’t get judgmental about it. (I really don’t think about them at all, actually, and I say that with love). I’m considering my own turns and whether I’m keeping my weight and hands forward. If I do spot an obvious newcomer, I’m often like, “Good for that person! It’s hard to try new things, especially later in life.” I have a theory that lifelong golfers are the same way. Either they’re minding their own business, in their head about their own backswing, or they’re like, “Kudos! We were all new at some point.”
  • My husband just likes to say: “Focus. Try to use an audience as motivation. Hit the best shot of your life, so they have nothing to say.” Fair enough.
  • Also worth noting: I’ve seen high schoolers who look like they’re on the varsity golf team (with *gorgeous* swings) hit the ball straight into the woods, or just like, struggle to get it off the tee. My swing is still a little ugly, but I can usually hit the ball reasonably straight on a good day. We all hit rough patches, and you just never know someone else’s circumstances -- which is a good life lesson, actually. So if you’re watching others or they’re watching you, just take it all with a grain of salt. Smile. Be kind. Don’t assume everyone’s analyzing your every move. We’re all out here having a good time, right?

2. If you’re that worried about a crowd, go when it won’t be so busy.

If it might drizzle a little this afternoon, there’s no better time to head out. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind some adverse weather!)

I’ve also found weekend evenings to be a great golfing time slot. Or go during a popular sporting event, if you don’t care who wins the big game. That way, there won’t be as much waiting around, which, that can really kill your flow -- and now you can zip through nine holes pretty fast.

3. Just know that you’re going to have good days and bad.

And this probably goes for most golfers, regardless of experience! Golf is a hard sport. I take lessons, and my first instructor used to say, “If golf were easy, we’d all be pros and we’d all be rich.” Smart mentality.

It’s not like running. Sometimes, if I’m getting back into shape, I’ll run like crazy -- every day, or every other day -- and I’ll just expect results. They usually come, too. My times will get better, my baby weight will fall off and my distances and endurance will improve. Golf ... is not exactly like that. Sometimes you’ll hit a shot and it’ll feel SO darn good, and then you’re unable to replicate it the rest of the round. Or you’ll have a fantastic day putting and chipping, but the next week, you stink again. One step forward, two steps back, as they say. The sport can be quite humbling. It’s a fun challenge, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride a bit. Actually, let’s lead that thought right into No. 4 on this list ...

4. If you’re truly a beginner, like me, set the bar low.

What I’m about to tell you might sound discouraging, but it shouldn’t. And besides, people around me say it can take years to get really confident and consistent when it comes to golf. So let’s take baby steps. Full confession: I only recently started keeping track of my score.

As long as I’m making good contact with the ball, concentrating, learning things about myself and mostly hitting reasonable shots, I’m delighted. (And then if you DO make par on a hole, you’ll be overjoyed. Trust me!)

Also, you’ll probably notice several options at the beginning of each hole. That’s because golf courses set up choices for teeing off. Use these to your advantage! Golf looks kind of easy, at times, on TV. But remember: Golf is not simple for most people.

With that in mind, try not to get too competitive with those around you. Go off the yellows. Just aim for personal progress. Try out all your clubs. Notice the differences. If you’re golfing with a more experienced partner or group, ask what they’d hit in whatever situation you end up in. Use these people to your advantage, not to compare yourself to.

If you’re new, you can’t expect to contend with lifelong golfers. Golf is an individual sport. Work on you. You’ll get there! Patience is key.

5. Lean in to your discomfort.

You can’t just throw in the towel if there’s something you’re struggling with.

For example, I’ve often heard (and noticed), that when I drive, I don’t angle my body enough. I’m all arms, and not enough body/twist. But pretty recently, when I tried to self-correct, I must have started doing something silly that was throwing off my whole swing. I had a couple holes where I could barely make contact with the ball. So I was like, “Forget it, I can’t think about this problem.”

And while it’s not a bad idea to table something mentally for a bit, I’ve since realized that you can’t just give up on your shortcomings.

Last time I went out, I thought about the issue a little more, and I started to make some progress toward correcting it. These things just take time.

Another day, I wasn’t hitting my 5-hybrid well (which is a club I use a lot), so I decided I’d leave it in the bag and use my 7-iron on all long shots, because I was having better luck with that one. But as my instructor reminded me, you can’t just do that. It’s not smart golf and you’re not going to improve.

If you’re struggling with a shot or a club, don’t shy away. Lean in if you want to see improvement -- even if in the short term, that means a struggle.

6. Golf doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think.

Not everyone can afford brand new clubs or weekly rounds with a cart -- I get that! Golf expenses can add up. But there are ways to cut corners. Check out places like Play It Again Sports for used clubs, maybe borrow equipment from a friend or look into local rental options. Walk the course instead of riding. Pack snacks instead of buying food (if the course you’re playing permits it, of course).

Gorgeous, right? (Pexels stock image)

The county where I live offers a discount card for residents, and yes, you have to pay for it, but the perks and the savings truly add up if you plan on going out often.

There’s also a nonprofit group in some states called The First Tee that sells a similar card. It more than pays for itself if you play often enough, according to my colleague in Michigan who raves about it.

7. Don’t think too hard about the attire.

Just wear a collared shirt, some khakis and comfortable shoes. And for fellow women who like the skirt or dress look, just know that you’re going to want a skort-style, as in, with built-in shorts underneath, so that you can easily bend, move, fish your ball out of the woods, crouch down to adjust your putt, etc., without worrying about a particularly windy day or a wardrobe malfunction.

8. Think about how long you’ll be able to keep up with golf -- and you’ll feel like the sky is the limit.

I always tell myself: You’re in your 30s. Even though you’re still a beginner, you could play for 40 more years and end up getting halfway decent!

Golf is the definition of a lifelong sport, and it’s such an incredible way to remain active.

I always wanted to get good at basketball too, but it kind of seems like that ship has sailed, you know? What’s my best-case scenario there? Forty more years? LOL.

9. It’s a good skill to have in your pocket, if you’re invited to a work event or a charity scramble.

When I was in college, I attended a family function/scramble/best-ball-type of event, and I whiffed about 67 times in a row until I eventually just started riding along in the cart, drinking beers and sitting most holes out. Embarrassing.

I felt a little silly.

But now if I’m invited to a golf thing, I’d at least be familiar with the etiquette and able to keep up with the group. Progress!

10. At the end of the day, it’s a game.

Recently, I crushed three straight drives into a wooded area and I wanted to throw my clubs in the river. (No, that’s not dramatic or anything, is it?)

You have to learn to shake it off like a quarterback who just got sacked. If you hold onto that frustration, it’s not going to help you golf BETTER. So, you can’t get up in your head. Take some deep breaths and learn how to move on. That day, I was just like, “Well, we’re outside, it’s the weekend, I have a White Claw in hand, I’m riding around with my friends and the scenery is gorgeous.”

You’re not on the PGA Tour. Relax, Tiger. Stop and appreciate your surroundings! It’s just golf. Games are supposed to be fun.

That said, on a tough day, sometimes you just have to drop your ball with the crew and keep it moving. Pace of play is important. You don’t want to be that person who holds up the whole afternoon. If you’re having a hard time off the tee or your shot’s just not clicking, know that most people have been there. Take a penalty shot or two and hope for the best on the next hole. No biggie.

11. Bring lots of balls. And take a lesson if you can.

An instructor at my county course ran me $175 for five lessons -- granted, they were quickie, 35-minute lessons, but they made a lot of difference in my game, and I thought the price tag wasn’t half bad for five whole sessions. GolfTec is another story I could write; let’s just say I highly endorse a package, if you have the means.

Plus, it’s a nice gift to yourself. Take some of the money you’ve saved by not going out to eat over the pandemic and treat yourself.

Or, if $175 sounds steep, snag a $30 putting green for your backyard and look up some videos on YouTube to improve your game. There are so many ways to get better, and they don’t have to involve official instruction.

But I will say as my last note on the lessons, sometimes it’s just better to take your advice from a stranger or person you’ve just met. It can be weirdly personal when my husband gives me a tip or an adjustment, but when I hear something from Scott, it resonates better. After all, he’s not picking on me. He’s a professional and golf is his job. I think my ears are more open with him.

PS, I say “bring lots of balls” -- oh, and try to buy the brightly colored ones so you can spot them easier on the course! -- because you’re going to lose a bunch. I think that part’s just inevitable if you’re new. I’ve played with far superior athletes, and even they’re not immune to losing some golf balls. Of course, it’ll depend on the course you’re playing too, but prepare for this regardless.

My daughter even thinks it’s cool I’m learning a new sport. She asks me nearly every week if I’ve managed to “beat daddy” yet, and while the answer is always a resounding NO, and will likely stay “no” for years to come, I think it’s cute that she’s my little cheerleader. I think about her, and her growing up seeing women who golf, and people who try new things, well into adulthood. Don’t underestimate the example you set for your kids, or the other young people in your life. Even when I play poorly, I like to tell her things like, “This is why we practice. This is why we try, again and again. It’s like when you work on your letters and numbers. Even though I didn’t beat daddy, it was no big deal. We had fun together! Golf is hard work.” I think there are several lessons here about the value of effort, dedication, and it’s an opportunity to show grace and sportsmanship.

Maybe you’ll hate golf. Maybe you’ll love it. I find it strangely addicting and I wish I lived in a place that stayed nice weather-wise year-round, so I didn’t have to take a season off. More than anything, it’s kept me from going stir crazy during this pandemic, and I’m grateful to have the means and the opportunity. If you love it, don’t give up. And don’t assume you’re not worthy -- you paid for the round just like everyone else. So many people just golf a few times a year. You’re not surrounded by pros; you’re probably surrounded by people like me, people who lose their balls in the woods, who are working on their swings, too.

It’ll all start to click and feel more natural the more you play. Get those reps in! Now tell me in the comments: What kept you sane during the pandemic?

This story was first published in 2020. It has since been updated.