Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

A Normal Person's Guide To Golf

Illustration by Sam Woolley
Illustration by Sam Woolley

After a decade off, I decided that I needed to start golfing again. My girlfriend thought I was having a midlife crisis.

“You’re having a midlife crisis,” she said.

She’s probably not wrong, which doesn’t augur well for my lifespan (I’m 32), but I think my real reason was that golf was something I knew I could still, even with my advancing age and my general bad habits, be potentially great at. The evidence was all there, mainly in the form of the old retired (white) men one finds on any golf course in America, many with healthy guts, who nonetheless maintain a five handicap, and never let you, the schlub with used Pings and a decent-but-still-needs-work swing, forget it.


Golf doesn’t depend on your health or waist size. It’s about your ability to consistently deliver the same body motion, swing after swing, round after round, following years of searching and failing to find that correct body motion. Which is maybe why golf has a reputation of being a sport for assholes, because for one to even get decent one must be bad for a very long time, in isolation, humiliating oneself against better opponents over and over, so when one finally does get good, or even not bad, one feels they’ve earned the right to shit upon one’s lessers. The shitters remember those years, too, and the pain, and how no one gave them any sympathy either, so don’t mind them while they laugh at your pathetic hack and good luck. (The idea that golf is full of assholes is not just a stereotype.)

All of which means that golf can be an intimidating sport to break into, especially if your uncle didn’t bequeath you last year’s clubs and free rounds at his country club—basically, if you just grew up like a normal human and were concerned about music and video games and sex and not trying to get better in a sport that has never been considered particularly cool.

Golf is also dying, and perhaps this is a good thing, but hear me out when I say there’s really no sweeter feeling than lining up on the first hole of the course with a crowd of people behind you waiting to play and watching your every move and you knock your drive 250 yards with a nice fade down the middle of the fairway, walking back to your bag like you’ve done it before; or taking a quick read on a 30-foot putt and a brief stroke and sinking it; or lining up your shot from 150 yards out and hitting a soft 5-iron and it drops within 10 feet of the cup.

Golf has its moments.

If you have even the slightest curiosity about getting into the sport, this primer is for you. I’m going to operate under the assumption that your swing is trash and that you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on gear and greens fees. The sport still isn’t cheap, but I’m going to try to convince you that it’s worth it.


Here are eight things you need to play golf: a set of clubs, a bag in which to carry them, a glove for your non-dominant hand, a pair of spikes, some golf balls, some golf tees, a ball marker, and a divot tool. All of these items can be found on Amazon for as little as $300, total.


Here are some things you don’t need to play golf: a set of clubs, a bag with which to carry them, a glove, a pair of spikes, some golf balls, some golf tees, a ball marker, and a divot tool that collectively cost more than $300.

Many players are, as the saying goes, all gear and no idea: Duffers with thousands of dollars worth of equipment and apparel who look the part but, after a couple holes, get found out. Do not be this person. It’s sort of fine to spend a lot—thousands of dollars, even!—but only, really, proportional to your skill level, and, even then, the difference between having a $1,200 driver and a $20 “experienced” wood is maybe 50 yards at best. If your swing is trash, no amount of money can save you. And while buying top-end gear and equipment might ultimately save you (some amount of) strokes per round, unless you’re competing for serious money it’s not really worth the expense.*


*This is in part because, like the toothbrush or safety razor, golf clubs really haven’t been improved upon in decades. Sure, there was the introduction of metal woods, and titanium clubs, and graphite shafts, and other metallurgic wonders that have improved the distance and control players achieve on the course (and, for the pros, considerably changed the landscape of many classic courses). But the same reason many experienced players (and a huge number of pros) still prefer blade irons—which aren’t much different than what golfers used in the decades before Karsten Solheim invented more forgiving cavity-back clubs, striking gold with the widely copied ping eye series of irons in the 1980s—is because the one thing better than a good swing is your best swing, and it’s not worth trying to hide the flaws. Cavity-back irons are effective because the weighting of the club is in the heel and toe, not the center, thereby reducing the amount the club head twists if it strikes a golf ball imperfectly, having the effect of enlarging the club’s sweet spot. But the clubs also make many shots too straight, meaning that putting a little fade on your 6-iron just became that much harder. All of which doesn’t matter for the amateur golfer, for whom “fade” and “draw” are hilarious concepts they might attempt in the far-distant future, but one other advantage of blades is less tangible: the immediate knowledge of knowing if one’s shot is pure and true, because it will have gone straight (along with a pleasing, uh, ping.)

Which brings us to the important point: How do you develop a swing that isn’t trash? One of the worst parts of picking up the game is playing alongside betters who offer unsolicited advice, usually bromides that they once heard (“swing down, DOWN, that’s how Tiger does it,” whatever that means) and that only serve to get further in your head.


So, ignore me if you want. I’m not a golf coach. But here are the tips that actually helped me, and if any of them ring true to you, maybe they’ll help you too:

  1. Never bend your left elbow if you’re right-handed (or your right elbow if you’re left-handed), on your backswing.
  2. Your swing, from driving off the tee to chipping from 40 yards out, should always be more or less the same motion. Driving isn’t Happy Gilmore; it’s the same swing you use on your other shots. The reason it goes farther isn’t because you’re hitting it harder; it’s because the ball is teed up and the club itself is the longest club in your bag (thus increasing club head speed) and the club head’s loft (the angle of the club’s face) is the smallest.
  3. Relatedly, stop trying to overhit the ball. It’s tempting even for experienced players, mainly because it’s fun and satisfying to hit a golf ball as hard as you physically can. But a swing that consistently delivers balls that fly straight is ultimately more satisfying than one in which you feel viscerally excited at the moment of impact only to look up and see your shot flying very quickly into the deep woods.
  4. You’re slicing your drive badly because you’re leaving the club face open as you swing through and not turning your wrists. Turn your wrists.
  5. On the greens, worry about speed, not accuracy. Don’t take five minutes to kneel and try to read the green like it’s the U.S. Open. Not only is that obnoxious, you’re not going to learn anything that a quick glance from above couldn’t tell you. Aim for a 2-foot diameter circle that includes the cup and try to relax.
  6. If you’re in a position where there are tree branches above and you’re wondering if you might hit them, step on the club head of your iron on the ground. The direction the shaft is pointing will reveal your shot’s trajectory.
  7. Do not try to “fix” or change your swing on the course. You have to play with the swing you’ve got, and then work on things later at the driving range.
  8. If you’re 140 yards out and you pull out your 7-iron because one out of 10 times your 7-iron goes 140 yards, move up a club. Most amateurs hit everything short, and hitting it long (which you probably won’t do anyway) usually carries the same penalty as hitting it short, so give yourself a chance to actually get there.
  9. Don’t try to hit a perfect shot between those two trees in front of you. Punch out into the fairway. Hero golf is dumb golf.
  10. Ignore detailed analyses of the specific positioning of individual body parts. Here’s an example, from none other than Jordan Spieth: “Shifting toward the target on the downswing is critical, but not to be overlooked is what my feet reveal here. The toes of my left foot have rolled off the ground, proving that my weight has moved into my left heel. That allows me to straighten my lead leg so I can pivot my body and swing around that leg like a post. On the other side, the heel of my right foot is off the ground.” This all might be true! But at no point during your swing should you, an amateur golfer, be worried about where the toes of your left foot are. This will only serve to make you overthink everything.
  11. Do not read golf magazines, which are full of stuff like the above. Not unlike the sex-and-body-industrial-complex of magazines like Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan, golf magazines are an endless source of tips that promise to fix everything about your game and/or life. Here is some free advice: The key to losing weight is eating less and exercising. The key to having a good golf swing is doing something that feels natural and is relatively compact and doesn’t try to do too much.
  12. Good luck in the sand. Few amateurs have any real clue what to do in the sand, aside from advice like “keep your club face open” and “aim for the space before the ball,” none of which has ever seemed to help me. My only suggestion is: Take a decent swing and hope for the best.

Let’s talk about golf courses. There are courses in this world in which I, an ordinary golfer, will never play. These are many of the courses you see on television: Pebble Beach, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Augusta National, Shinnecock, etc. And while it may not be obvious, these are also courses that for you, the ordinary golfer, would not be fun to play. That’s because they are very long and very difficult and would only lead to a round that was a series of frustrations piled upon other frustrations. “I’m not this bad,” you think, after you shoot a 120 at Bethpage Black. And, indeed, you aren’t. You just got beat by the course. Golf, it turns out, isn’t very fun if you suck.*


*This, incidentally, is why I’ve never believed that Donald Trump is a bad golfer, per se. I’m sure he shamelessly cheats and I’m sure his handicap is not 2 or whatever insane number he claims it is, but golf simply is not a fun game to play if you aren’t at least decent. And while I know Trump’s life is organized around taking Ls at any opportunity, playing golf with Tiger Woods would be demoralizing and frankly nightmarish if you followed up his 350-yard drive with a clean whiff and then a bad slice that travels 150 yards and lands a hole over.

So where should you play? Public courses, mostly, if you live in an area where public courses are a thing. This is because many public courses are subsidized by taxpayers and, hence, have cheap-ish greens fees. (I play at Bethpage, where the other courses aren’t nearly as hard as Black.) It’s also because you can, at public courses, dress and play like a normal human without getting side-eye. Feel free to wear jeans. Or gym shorts. Or a T-shirt. Or a hoodie if it’s cold. Or dress up in your $100 Nike slacks and your $55 Under Armour shirt with HeatTechColdWearGear™ if you want! The point is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a public course and anyone who tells you that you need to be wearing a collared shirt and Bermuda shorts can fuck off. You pay your taxes too.


When Ben Curtis won the 2003 Open Championship, it was a shock, not least because Curtis had been an unremarkable professional player up until then, just barely qualifying for the tournament at all. And, sure, he was the beneficiary of an epic collapse by Thomas Bjørn on 16, but, to me, that didn’t matter: Curtis was a local kid, who played collegiately at Kent State, in my hometown. His wife grew up about 500 feet from my front door in a house that, for a time, had a putting green on the lawn. That might sound weird and even luxurious but, believe me, Kent was a pretty modest place; golf wasn’t the province of the wealthy so much as something that everyone played. For me that meant handing over (I think) $5 at the university’s golf course and playing 36 holes, while going to free early-morning lessons with the coach of the university’s women’s team.


Golf on the east coast, where I now live, is different. The courses and country clubs here are bigger and exponentially more expensive and, if you live in New York City and you don’t own a car, require riding the subway with your clubs. And while golf is a bit more exclusive here, what’s true everywhere is that the sport is, still, too often given over to its worst indulgences: needless snobbery and racism and all gear and no idea and all that. My quiet plea, if only to ensure that the game may yet endure, is for you, reasonable reader, to play golf, and for you, elites of the world who make golf unpleasant and niche, to go away. The game was never designed for the people, exactly, but it should have been. It’s more fun that way.

Erik Shilling is the news editor at Atlas Obscura. You can also find him on Twitter.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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