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Is the Game of Golf too Difficult for Beginners?

How does a casual player become an avid golfer? Is it a singular moment, something transcendent, that occurs on the field of play, or is it a totality of moments great and small, majestic and humbling that fuels a passion for the game.

It’s an interesting question not only for its epistemological value, but even more so for its real-world relevancy. The golf industry as a whole is trying to figure out how to add more newcomers to its ranks. We see it at the grassroots level with many individual clubs offering everything from get golf ready programs to drink vouchers with your round of golf. On a larger scale we see efforts made by equipment manufacturers to help all golfers, but especially high-handicappers, hit the ball longer and straighter. Companies like Active Mind Technology, the makers of GAME GOLF, entered the industry with the express purpose of helping all players identify their strengths and weaknesses with the goal of shooting lower scores. But in a much broader sense, what is GAME GOLF if not a platform designed to encourage a younger, more tech-savvy crowd to discover the sport while simultaneously giving existing players another reason to look forward to their next round.

Some people might argue that participation in the game is leveling out, returning to its natural state of equilibrium before Tiger-mania. The National Golf Foundation figures there’s about 20 million avid golfers who account for 94 percent of all rounds played. Since 2011, the number of very active players has remained almost exactly the same which, if you like to put a nice spin on things, suggests that the old adage –  a golfer for life – really does ring true for many.

 

 

Then again, the NGF estimates there’s about 37 million people who are at least interested in taking up the game. Four million of them visit a golf course each year, only to hit it and quit it. Another seven million take their licks at a driving range facility such as Topgolf, a number that is getting larger. Executives at Topgolf are expecting to service as many as 19 million customers in 2017. A lot of them are non-golfers; most are Millennials – a key demographic that the USGA and PGA of America are trying desperately to engage.

As for Topgolf’s success – it’s a slam dunk. A game at Topgolf takes under an hour to play and how well or poorly you do is almost irrelevant. People go there to eat sliders and drink beer, to chill out with friends and flirt with strangers. You can hit balls both day and night, but it’s much better after dark with the targets lit up and a DJ spinning tracks. On a Saturday night, the energy is palpable. When you contrast the experience of a Topgolf to that of a typical golf club it’s easy to see how a snack shack accustomed to serving hotdogs and soda at the turn could give way to a menu of fish tacos and craft beer.  

If only things were so easy to fix.

Golf has issues on multiple fronts: it’s an expensive game for most people that takes too much time to play; there’s also too many rules (some written, many implied) that can be a deterrent for anyone starting out. But first and foremost, it’s a really hard game.

Hitting the ball far and sure is a difficult skill to master even for accomplished players, let alone beginners. Statistics compiled by GAME GOLF prove conclusively that a typical golfer who struggles to break 100 only drives the ball 171 yards on average. Think about that as it applies to golf course design.

On a standard par 72 layout there are 10 par fours, 4 par threes and 4 par fives. A reasonable length approach shot for a short hitter (170 yards off the tee) is 130 yards (which even then is a generous estimate). If our fictitious golfer could miraculously hit every green in regulation, they would eat up about 3,000 yards of golf course on the par 4’s, 520 yards on the par 3’s and 1,720 yards on the remaining par 5’s. Add those numbers up in this simplistic example and you get a golf course that measures a comfortable length of 5,240 yards. But even with the USGA’s sound advice to Tee it Forward, it’s hard to find a championship-length golf course that doesn’t play from 6,000 yards or more from even the shortest men’s tees.

If anything, most courses play even longer than the yardage on the card, especially for beginners who struggle with both shot execution and basic course management decisions. If you’re not using a product like GAME GOLF that let’s you see how other golfers have navigated obstacles, hole by hole, you’re increasing the difficulty of a golf course exponentially (as if any help was ever required).      

 

 

We might all joke about it, but there’s something slightly sadistic about golf course architecture. Cavernous bunkers, deep rough, forced carries over water and blind shots may offer strategic challenges for the highly-skilled player, but for everyone else it amounts to nothing more than a bunch of lost balls and a day of frustration. Many of the top-ranked courses in the United States and elsewhere are rated almost entirely on the “strategic shot-value” they present, which is a polite way of recognizing and rewarding their difficulty. Take this interesting description of the renowned Pete Dye Course at French Lick on GolfAdvisor:

Out in the middle of nowhere, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort is one of the most beautiful and difficult courses you will ever play. Perhaps it’s too difficult, no matter what tees you play. You not only have to hit fairways but you really have to work the ball into the slopes of the fairways or they will run out into thick rough. Couple that with the fact that there’s hardly a level lie on the course, missing greens by a couple of yards often brings big numbers into play.

French Lick might be on the far end of the extreme, but even a relatively flat, less demanding layout is simply no bargain for most recreational players. If anything, there’s a realization now that course designers need to dial it back. That change in thinking is exemplified by the recently-opened Gamble Sands in Oregon which prides itself on bringing the concept of fun back into the game.

With a focus on substantially wide fairways and player-friendly contours, Gamble Sands is a step in the right direction, giving distance-challenged golfers additional scoring opportunities. 

The stats show that a typical high-handicapper is going to miss the green more than 75 percent of the time from 100 to 150 yards out, according to Columbia Business School professor Mark Broadie. Off the tee that same golfer sprays the ball 20 yards offline, sometimes more depending on their carry distance, he writes in his book, Every Shot Counts.

 

 

Let’s not kid ourselves, golf is a lot more fun when you can control your ball. A one-degree of improvement in accuracy helps a player struggling to break 100 improve by 1.1 strokes per round. An additional 20 yards of carry distance leads to a 2.3 stroke advantage. But to improve your swing – that’s a tough piece of advice to sell to beginners. Even something less physically demanding like putting, which can yield big gains in less time, still requires a lot of practice.

The fact is, any kind of substantial improvement is going to take time. Technology, however, does offer some hope for anyone looking to enjoy the game more in the here and now, irrespective of ability.

The new GAME GOLF LIVE device doubles as a GPS-enabled rangefinder. When paired with the GAME GOLF APP on an iPhone or Android device, it lets golfers not only see their real-time stats but gives them front, middle and back distances to the green. The value of knowing how far you have left to the pin can’t be stressed enough since almost all golfers from a broad spectrum of handicaps consistently under-club.

So at the risk of sounding like a broken record – stop guessing the yardage and take more club than you think you need. It’s an easy way to save shots. And after you upload your round to GAME GOLF, use the platform’s online dashboard to compare your performance to other players within your handicap range. The system will show you your strengths and weaknesses so that you can use your practice time more efficiently.

Of course there’s more to golf than just the number you fill out at the end of your round. The game was founded in Scotland in the spirit of camaraderie. So if you’re a beginner, quit obsessing about your scorecard and enjoy the game as it was drawn up. For starters, do yourself a favor and ditch the golf cart. Up until the last 50 years or so, everyone walked. It’s a great form of exercise that burns over a thousand calories. You can take advantage of an Apple Watch or a Fitbit Surge to track your heart rate and calories burned.

Walking also helps you to experience the course and the company of your playing partners in a more fulfilling way. A device like a Sportpod allows you to mount your smart phone, tablet or GoPro while playing so that you can post your pics to Instagram or Snapchat. You can also use it to record your swing so that you can share it with your instructor. Just be smart about using it and don’t hold up the group behind you.

There’s plenty of old-school golfers around who find the recent explosion of wearable tech appalling and they wonder how any of it can help grow the game, let alone help anyone become a better player. To that I say, go easy on the judgement. There are countless reasons why so many people fall in love with this difficult game, none of them simple.

So go ahead and bust out a selfie if it makes you happy. And a have a cold one at the turn. Golf can’t afford to snub it’s nose at anyone, least of all beginners.

 

From Rusty Cage

Rusty Cage is an avid golfer and freelance writer from Long Island. He has written extensively for some of golf’s leading online publications including GolfWRX and AmateurGolf.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @citizencage and visit his website at http://citizencage.com

His articles have covered a broad spectrum of topics – equipment and apparel reviews, interviews with industry leaders, analysis of the pro game, and everything in between. When he’s not writing about the game, or reading about its rich and varied history, he’s spending time outdoors golfing, in the yard grilling or goofing about with his two Labradors.

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