How to Play Golf (for Beginners)
April 4, 2019
Balata. Bladed shot. Cavity-back. Lateral slide. Pendulum stroke. At least one thing’s for sure: There’s absolutely no shortage of jargon in the game of golf. As overwhelming as golf culture may seem for the uninitiated, you’ve got to remember that every single golfer who has ever taken a swing was new to the game once upon a time. Before you let those tight polos and buzzwords get the better of you, get a grip on the foundational rules, practice your form with reliable habits, and get ready to get your golf course Zen on.
Principles of the Game
From links on the Florida Panhandle to those in the Aloha State, everything from bunkers to wind conditions varies. The game of golf, however, works the same whether you’re at Pebble Beach or Kiawah Island: Down to its very core, golf is all about hitting the ball into the cup in as few strokes (i.e. swings) as possible.
The standard number of strokes required by a first-class player to reach that hole is known as “par.” Strokes in addition to par add to your score and strokes under par subtract from it. The goal is to have a low score, indicating a low number of strokes. Order of play is determined by distance from the hole, with the person whose ball is farthest away playing first.
Each game starts from the tee box and progresses to the putting green–the short grass surrounding the hole–until the ball is holed. In stroke play, the total number of your strokes will be counted over the course of the game; in match play, each golfer or team earns points for the holes on which they’ve bested the opposition.
But what is a birdie in golf? Easy. It’s one stroke under par for a hole. An eagle is two under par. Think of that one as a big birdie. On the flip side, a bogey is a score of one over par. These terms can stack up as a double bogey, double eagle and so on.
Basic Golf Rules
The United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club govern the worldwide rules golfers abide by. In its classic Rules of Golf, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews puts it simply, encouraging players to, "Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair.”
Still, you’ll get a leg up by keeping a few basics in mind, all laid out in the USGA’s Rules and Interpretations. Practicing on the course, which means playing from anywhere or giving the ball a test roll on any surface, is only allowed before and between rounds during match play.
You can practice putting or chipping near your first teeing area during stroke play. Throughout play, penalty strokes may be added to your score in certain situations, such as declaring your ball unplayable where it lies. In this case, you’ll “do what is fair” by dropping a substitute ball at a one-stroke penalty. If your ball goes out of bounds, you can re-play it from its original position, incurring a one-stroke penalty, but as per 2019 rules, there’s no penalty for deflecting a ball in motion if it hits you or your equipment–you just play it as it lies.
You can carry up to 14 clubs in your bag, but start with the basics–a driver for teeing off, a putter for short strokes near the hole, a few wedges to work your way out of rough terrain, and a fairway wood for when you need a good bit of loft. The USGA recommends maintaining a “prompt pace of play” by making each stroke in 40 seconds or less. Players keep score on a scorecard throughout the round (where each round is the total number of holes you play) and every player signs the scorecard to verify its correctness before moving on to the next hole.
How to Hit a Golf Ball
As you tee up, first take a good look at exactly where you want the ball to land. Line your feet, hips, and shoulders up parallel to that target, allowing for just a bit of flex in your knees. Center your weight over the balls of your feet and bend slightly forward at the hips. Your arms should hang down straight, gripping the club so that your hands are just about under your chin.
Turn your shoulders to start your backswing, bending your right elbow as your left arm stays fairly straight (but never tense). Your shoulders will naturally stop at the top of your swing, which signals the start of your downswing. Keep your forearms relaxed, exercising a motion similar to swinging a baseball bat. Follow the downswing through its natural course as the club hits the ball and swing through the impact.
More Golf Hacks for Beginners
Golf is a social sport and a centuries-old tradition, so embrace that shared experience. When you’re new, feel free to ask questions about the rules of the game. The best way to learn, after all, is on the course with a club in your hand.
Brush up on your golf etiquette, which includes customs like refraining from stepping on your fellow players’ putting lines and always replacing your divots (the bits of turf cut out of the ground when you make a stroke). Respect, consideration, and good manners are a big part of the game. Learn to nail that balance among your friends and business partners and you’ll soon find out why this time-tested game still reigns as the ultimate in bleisure.
Written by Dan Ketchum for Knockaround