How To Play Golf: A Complete Guide For Beginners

From absolute beginner, to booming drives that set up birdies + make your mates jealous. Our complete guide to golf will get you there.

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Golf is one of the world’s most popular sports. And for good reason.

It’s a great way to stay fit, it’s fun (sometimes!), it gets you outside, and it’s seriously addictive.

Once you get the golf bug, you’ll have it for life.

And no matter how good you get, you’ll always feel that there’s room for improvement. Even the world’s best players still make mistakes! In fact, there’s an argument to be made that golf is as much a mental game as it is a physical one.

In this beginner’s guide to golf, we’re going to cover everything you need to know to get started in the game.

In part 1 we’re going to cover the basic equipment you’ll need to play the game, or you can use the links below to jump to a specific section.

Sound good? Let’s get started!

Choosing The Right Equipment

To play golf, you’re going to need some equipment. Unfortunately there’s no way round that as you can’t hit the golf ball with your hands!

But the good news is, that equipment doesn’t need to break the bank.

Here’s what you need.

Golf Clubs

Golf technology has improved massively over the last couple of decades.

Modern clubs for beginners are designed to be easier to hit, more forgiving, and to get the ball up in the air.

There are 5 types of golf club, each with a different purpose. Here’s a quick explanation of each:

Driver – the big stick.

This is the longest club in the bag and designed to create maximum distance on tee shots.

Modern drivers have large heads, which are designed to be more forgiving on off centre hits.

Fairway Woods – 3 wood, 5 wood etc.

Can be used on the fairway for distance, or from the tee box as an alternative to the driver.

The higher the number of the wood, the more loft in the club, and the shorter the shaft. So a 3 wood has less loft and a longer shaft than a 5 wood.

That sounds a little technical, but all you need to know is:

  • Less loft = more distance
  • Longer shaft = more distance

Generally (although not always) clubs with more loft are easier to hit.

So while you might get less overall distance with a 5 wood, you might find it easier to hit and therefore a better choice than a 3 wood when starting out.

Irons

Irons are generally used for approach shots to the green, or from the tee on short holes.

They can also be a good choice from any tee box when starting out as they are easier to control than drivers and woods. A shorter tee shot into the middle of the fairway is better than a longer shot out of bounds!

Irons have varying degrees of loft and shaft length.

The lower number the iron, the less loft in the club. For example, a 4 iron has left loft than a 5 iron, and everything else being equal, will fly the golf ball further.

But…

The lower the loft, the harder an iron is to hit. So when starting out we would not recommend trying to hit anything lower that a 5 iron.

Numbered irons run from 1-9 (with 1 having the least loft, and 9 the most), after which the numbering stops, and they are called ‘wedges’.

Most players will use a pitching wedge, and perhaps a sand wedge, with the sand wedge having more loft (= less distance) than the pitching wedge.

More advanced players might also use a lob wedge, which has a very high degree of loft (60 degrees+).

We do not recommend beginner golfers using lob wedges as they are quite difficult to hit.

Blades v Cavity Backs

Traditionally, irons were forged from one piece and shots hit off centre would be punished. These traditional irons are known as blades.

While more advanced players may prefer the feel of traditional blades, beginners should opt for cavity back clubs.

Also known as ‘game improvement clubs’ cavity backed irons are much easier to hit, and are designed to get the ball into the air.

Hybrids

Hybrid clubs (sometimes called rescue clubs) are like a cross between irons and fairway woods.

They have the larger profile of a wood at address, but the loft of a longer iron.

This means they can be used for multiple purposes.

They are great for long approaches, from the tee, and are also very good at cutting through thick rough. They can even be used for chipping the ball from close range.

Beginner golfers will generally find hybrids easier to hit than long (1-4 irons) and we would recommend carrying at least one hybrid in your bag.

Putters

Putters are used on the green (or occasionally from the fringe) to get the ball into the hole!

Best Golf Clubs For Beginners

When starting out, the best option is to go for a full set of beginner clubs.

Normally you will get a driver, a 3 wood, a hybrid, 4-PW (irons), and a putter. Everything you need to start playing golf.

You’ll also get a bag to carry your clubs around in (pretty essential!).

You can check out our recommendation for the best beginner clubs in 2017 here.

Another option is to go for a set of second hand clubs. There are a ton of good deals around on ebay.

Just make sure that the irons in the second hand set are cavity backs.

Golf Balls

You can’t play golf without a golf ball.

In term of which golf balls to go for, we would recommend that you don’t worry about brand, or type, and simply buy balls based on price. Because when you are starting out in golf you are going to lose quite a few balls!

You can get a good deal on 50 second hand Callaway balls from Amazon here.

(the other option is to trawl the rough and woods of your local course and go ball hunting. That way they are free!)

Other Golf Accessories

Besides balls and clubs, there a few other things you’ll need in your bag.

Golf Tees

You’ll need some tees for hitting your tee shots (the clue is in the name!).

We recommend going for 2 ¾” wooden tees, which you can push fully into the ground for iron tee shots, or push in just a little bit for hitting the driver.

A pack of 100 tees will cost around $7.

Golf Glove

A glove is not essential for starting out. In fact, I personally didn’t wear a glove until the last year.

But it will definitely help you to grip the club more securely, which is essential to a solid swing.

Golf gloves are pretty cheap, and you can pick up a decent one for under $10.

Golf Shoes

To play good golf you need to feel balanced and firmly connected to the ground while you swing.

Modern golf shoes have soft spikes, which will keep you nice and steady. They are also waterproof, which will keep your feet nice and dry on soggy courses.

You can pick up a good pair for around $50/$60.

Check out our guide to 2018’s best golf shoes here.

A Golf GPS or Watch

Again, this is not an essential. But, as you get better it’s going to become important to know how far you hit the ball with each club, and an accurate distance to the green. So I would recommend investing in a golf GPS or watch.

Here are the best golf GPS watches this year.

Other Bits & Pieces

Here’s a few other things you might need while playing golf:

  • An umbrella (for keeping you dry!)
  • A pencil (for writing down your scores)
  • A ball marker (although a coin will do)
  • A pitch repairer (to keep the green keeper happy)
  • A patient partner (joking… well kind of!)

How To Play Golf

Object Of The Game

In a nutshell… get the golf ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. Move onto the next hole!

And actually that’s pretty much it. Robin Williams had it about right!

But to explain a little further…

There are 18 holes in a full round of golf. Although some courses will have 9 holes where you can just play round twice for a full 18.

The course has a ‘par’ which is the average number of shots required for a scratch golfer (handicap of 0) to play all 18 holes.

Each individual hole also has its own ‘par’. This doesn’t really come into account in stroke play (where the total number of shots at the end of the round is what counts), but does matter during stableford, or match play (see match formats below).

Generally courses will have a number of par 3s, par 4, and par 5 holes. So on a par 4, to make a ‘par’ you have to get the ball down in 4 shots etc etc.

So what’s it called if you don’t make par on a hole?

  • 4 under par (i.e. a 1 on a par 5) = turn pro immediately!
  • 3 under par (i.e. a 2 on a par 5) = an ‘albatross’
  • 2 under par (i.e. a 3 on a par 5) = an ‘eagle‘
  • 1 under par (i.e. a 4 on a par 5) = a ‘birdie’
  • 1 over par (i.e. a 6 on a par 5) = a ‘bogie’
  • 2 over par (i.e. a 7 on a par 5) = a ‘double bogie’
  • 3 over par (i.e. an 8 on a par 5) = a ‘triple bogie’
  • 4 over par (i.e. a 9 on a par 5) = time for a beer!

Match Formats

There are 3 main formats in individual golf – stroke play, match play, and stableford.

There are also a number of team formats (Texas Scramble is great fun!), but we won’t go into them here.

1. Stroke Play

At the end of the round you count up your scores from all holes to get a total score. Most major golf tournaments use the stroke play format.

If you have a handicap you will be able to deduct that from the total (gross) score to get a net score for the round.

So for example if your total number of shots taken on all 18 holes was 100, and you had a handicap of 28, your net score for the round would be 72.

If the course had a par of 70, your net score would be 2 over par. A pretty good score!

The handicap system allows golfers of all levels to play against each other competitively. A golfer with a handicap of 5 would have to shoot 77 (7 over par) to match your net score. If he shot a 78, you would win!

See the section on ‘how to get a handicap’ for more information on how the handicap system works.

2. Match Play

In match play, you are simply playing for holes.

So if you take a 4 and your opponent takes a 5, you win the hole. For each hole you win, you get a point.

If you and your opponent get the same score on a hole, you both get a half point.

At the end of the round, the player with the most points wins!

The Ryder Cup is probably the most famous example of a match play competition.

Match play is a great golf format to play when starting out. Why? Because if you mess up a hole it doesn’t really matter. You’ve only lost one hole and can just pick your ball up and move onto the next one.

In stroke play however ‘blow up holes’ are a lot more punishing. Writing down a 10 on your card can really kill your round.

3. Stableford

Stableford is another good format for beginner golfers as, like match play, it lessens the impact of blow up holes.

Basically for each hole you get a number of points depending on your score. At the end of the round you add up your points.

The number of points you score on each hole depends on your handicap, and it’s a little complicated to explain in a few words, so we recommend reading this article for more on the format.

The Rules Of Golf

We’re not going to go to in-depth into the rules of golf, but here’s a quick overview, along with an explanation of some common terms.

Before we start, we should point out that these rules really only come into play during competitive rounds. You can be a little more lax while practicing or playing a social round with friends.

1. Play It As It Lies

Generally, you should play the ball as you find it.

That means that if it’s sitting buried in the long grass, then unfortunately you’ll have to just find a way to dig it out of there.

There are however a few exceptions.

Casual Water

If the ball (or your feet) are in casual water – that’s water that’s not a hazard – then you will normally be allowed to pick it up and place it at the nearest point of relief, no closer to the hole.

Plugged Balls

Most courses will allow you to remove a plugged ball from the fairway and drop it with no penalty. Balls in the rough that are plugged will normally have to be deemed unplayable, removed, and dropped with a 1 stroke penalty.

Winter Rules

During the winter season, when courses are often a little weather beaten, you will normally be allowed to pick your ball up from the fairway, clean it, and replace it.

Check the local rules for your course (normally found on the scorecard) to ensure that this rule is in place.

2. Lost Ball

If you lose a ball then the rule is that you have to take another shot from the same place that you hit the first one, incurring a one stroke penalty.

So if you hit your drive out of bounds, you would play a second ball, but would be hitting your third shot due to the penalty.

If you think your ball might be lost, but are not sure, you are allowed to play a ‘provisional’ ball.

You can then go and look for your first ball, and if you can’t find it, can play your second ball from where it landed. This would be your fourth shot (3 off the tee).

The same rule applies if you think you have lost a ball from the fairway (or rough).

Let’s say you hit your drive ok, but your second shot gets lost in the deep rough. You would require to hit another ball from the same spot you hit your second shot, and this would then be your fourth shot.

In casual rounds, you and your playing partner might decide that you can play another ball from where you think the original one landed and just take a one stroke penalty.

3. On The Tee

You must take your tee shot from behind the tee markers that you have decide to play. Most courses will have 3 tee positions, with competitions taking place from white tees.

This is the only time you are allowed to put your golf ball on a tee.

4. On The Green

When on the green, the flag must be removed from the hole or tended. This rule might however be changing in the near future to speed up play.

You can also mark your ball, pick it up, clean it, and replace it, on the green before hitting your shot.

5. Order Of Play

The player furthest from the hole should hit their shot first.

From the tee box, the player who recorded the best score on the previous hole should tee off first. This is known as ‘having the honour’.

On the first hole, the player with the lowest handicap in your group should tee off first. If you don’t have a handicap, you could just use a simple coin toss to decide who gets ‘the honour’.

6. Water Hazards

There are two types of water hazard you might encounter on a golf course. The type of hazard will be indicated by a coloured marker.

Yellow markers indicate water hazards that cross your line of play. If your ball lands in a water hazard marked with a yellow stake, drop a ball anywhere behind where your original ball entered the water hazard and take a one stroke penalty.

Red markers indicate lateral water hazards, i.e. water hazards that run alongside the line of play. If your ball lands in a lateral water hazard, then drop a ball 2 club lengths from the point where the ball entered the hazard.

Tip: Your driver is your longest club, so use that to measure the two club lengths!

7. Bunkers

If your ball lands in a bunker, then unfortunately you’re going to just have to try and scoop it out of there.

The main rule to be aware of is that you mustn’t ground your club in the sand before you hit your shot. If you do, it’s a 2 stroke penalty, or loss of the hole in match play.

Basic Golf Etiquette

Let me start by saying, that any view of golf as a snobby sport for the middle/upper classes is totally wrong. It’s true that there used to be quite specific rules on dress code etc, but most clubs are a lot more relaxed these days. Golf is a game for everyone.

But with that being said, it’s nice to be nice, so here is a little bit about golf etiquette.

1. Allow Faster Players To ‘Play Through’

You should never feel rushed on the golf course, particularly when you are starting out.

If you have a player, or group of players behind you that are catching you up, then you should let them play through (i.e. skip ahead of you). That way you can continue your round at your own pace.

The best thing to do is finish the hole you are on and then let them tee off before you on the next hole.

2. Don’t Walk Over Someone’s Line

Try and avoid stepping directly on someone’s putt line while on the green. Your friend will never forgive you if your spike mark causes their birdie putt to drift away from the hole!

Always walk behind their ball.

3. Shout ‘Fore!’

If you hit an errant shot and it’s rocketing its way through the sky towards another group of golfers, then give them a heads up by shouting ‘fore!’.

They will quickly duck out of the way and avoid getting smashed in the head with a golf ball!

4. Dress Appropriately

Ok, I know I said that dress code isn’t as rigid as it used to be, but it’s always worth checking if there is a dress code before playing a particular course. If there is then respect it as best you can.

If there’s not a dress code, I would still advise against wearing jeans. Not for any fashion, or etiquette reasons, but simply because they are quite restrictive and not great for a sport like golf where you are twisting and turning.

And of course, wet jeans suck!

Golf Swing Tips

Golf seems like it should be a simple game. Swing a club and hit a little white ball as far as you can.

But unfortunately, once you start playing you will realise it is really not that easy.

In fact, sometimes the golf swing can seem a little counter-intuitive.

For example, did you know that when swinging your irons, you should hit down on the ball to make it go up?

Or that if you try to counter a slice (where the ball curves right) by aiming to the left, you’ll probably end up hitting it even further right?

It can be a confusing game a times. But let’s try and demystify it a little.

Should You Get Lessons?

The best way to quickly improve your golf swing is to get lessons from a PGA professional. There’s no doubt about that.

However, with that being said, I’ve personally never had a lesson, and my handicap is dropping (currently 17).

I’ve learned everything I know from trial and error on the course, from reading numerous books about the golf swing, and from following online tutorials and videos.

So lessons will definitely speed up the learning process, but these days they are not essential for learning how to play golf.

Best Golf Books For Beginners

I must have read about 100 books on the full golf swing, chipping, putting, and even golf psychology. That’s seriously no exaggeration!

But here are my personal recommendations for the books that have helped me most with my game.

1. Ben Hogan’s 5 Lessons

This is an old book, first published in 1957, but it still stands as probably the best total overview of the full golf swing.

Hogan was considered by many as the greatest ball striker of all time, and was certainly one of the most consistent. Most modern golf teaching will incorporate some of Ben’s lessons in some form or other.

In 5 lessons Hogan walks through everything from taking your grip, to proper posture and stance, takeaway, backswing, and downswing.

It’s a must have book for any beginner golfer, and if you are just going to purchase one book on golf, then this is the one to get.

2. Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus is probably the game’s greatest ever player (sorry Tiger!).

In this book Jack discusses his experiences of learning and playing golf, along with walking through the fundamentals of his swing.

Notwithstanding the instructional element (which is excellent), it’s a great read.

3. Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect by Bob Rotella

Did you know that the best golfers will fully visualise a shot before they hit it? Playing it over like a movie in their mind.

It’s true that there’s a big psychological element to the game of golf. When you are feeling confident the fairways seem wider and the holes seem bigger.

In this book Rotella focuses on the mental golf game, and what he recommends really does make a difference. For example, my putting improved massively after reading this book – without changing anything to do with my actual stroke.

If you struggle with nerves on the tee, or tremble with fear over short puts, then this is the book for you.

Best Online Golf Instruction For Beginners

Online golf instruction has come a long way in the past few years. I’ve tried out a number of different sites, but here are the two that I would recommend.

1. RotarySwing.com

Generating power in the golf swing is all about using the big muscles of your body (rather than the hands and arms), fully coiling in the backswing, and properly shifting your weight to the lead side on the downswing.

And that’s what the Rotary Swing (now the Rotary Swing Tour) is all about.

Chuck Quinton, the founder of RotarySwing.com walks through everything you need to know to develop a modern, tour quality, rotational swing.

His videos are easy to follow and break everything down into bite size chunks, with each section of the swing having numerous drills to follow.

You can sign up for free to watch a number of videos, but I would definitely recommend upgrading to a full membership. In addition to a ton of videos and tutorials, you’ll also get a monthly video swing analysis included in your membership.

2. Me And My Golf

PGA golf professionals Piers Ward and Andy Proudman cover everything you need to know about the golf swing – from the fundamentals, to fixing swing flaws, and curing slices or hooks.

Their instructional videos and drills are simple to follow, and perfect for the beginner golfer.

You can sign up for a free 30 day trial here.

Best Golf Instructors On YouTube

Again, I’ve viewed drills and lessons from a ton of different instructors on YouTube. And normally what starts as a plan to view a quick 5 minute instructional video quickly turns into a multi-hour YouTube golf marathon!

Here are my favourite channels.

1. Ask Golf Guru

Mark Crossfield, PGA golf coach at Clifton Hill Golf Range in Exeter, regularly uploads tutorial videos to help his subscribers fix specific problems in their game.

A great channel, with a wealth of information for the beginner golfer.

2. Me And My Golf

Another shout out for Piers and Andy!

While it’s well worth signing up to their website for all their videos, they also have a load of great free content on their YouTube channel.

Again, their videos generally take the format of helping subscribers with specific problems in their swing.

Facebook fans can upload videos of their swing for analysis, and Piers and Andy will provide tips and drills to help fix any issues.

Whatever you feel the issues are with your swing, there’s probably a tutorial to help you fix it on their channel.

Golf Tips For Beginners

I’m not a golf instructor, so I’m not going to go into huge detail on each part of the swing.

Instead, I’m going to give a quick overview of each part, and then include the very best YouTube tutorials for each.

The Grip

The golf club should primarily be gripped in the fingers (not palms) of the left hand. The right hand wraps over to support the club.

I personally use an interlocking grip, which connects my right pinky to my left index finger.

Grip pressure should be light and constant throughout the entire swing.

Here is a great video from Me And My Golf, which runs through how to grip the golf club in detail.

Setup: Posture And Stance

The biggest issue that affects most beginner golfers when it comes to posture is slouching over the ball, curving the spine.

The back should be kept reasonably straight, and you should bend at the waist, with a slight flex in the knees.

In terms of stance width, a good rule of thumb is shoulder width apart for short to mid irons, and progressively wider with long irons, hybrids, woods, and driver.

The ball should be positioned off of your left heel for most shots, but with the driver it should be slightly forward in your stance.

I find the best way to set up is with my feet together and the ball in the centre. I then take a short step to the left for every club (apart from the driver), an equal step to the right for short to mid irons, then a wider step to the right for longer irons, driver etc.

For the driver I just flare my left foot out and then step with my right foot.

The left foot should be flared about 45 degrees or so towards the target, and the right foot should be square to the target line.

Weight should be distributed evenly between both legs, and on the balls of your feet (or if anything towards the heel).

Rotary Swing has some great videos on posture and stance.

And here is a video from Me And My Golf on ball position.

Setup: Alignment

Most beginner golfers will benefit most from setting up square to the target line.

That means that the feet, knees, hips, and shoulders should all be parallel to the target.

The reason they should be parallel to the target is that the golf club is in front of the body. If you set up with your knees, hips, and shoulders aiming at your target, then your club will be aiming to the right!

Here is a great video from Mark Crossfield which explains how to properly align to your target.

The Takeaway

Often described as the most important part of the golf swing, the takeaway is the first move away from the golf ball, up to the point where the golf club is parallel to the ground.

A good takeaway will lay the foundations for a solid, repeatable golf swing.

While there are a number of ways to conduct the takeaway, most methods advocate that it is done in ‘one piece’. That means that the arms stay in front of the chest as the body turns.

A disconnected takeaway, where the arms go behind the body will cause the club to turn too far to the inside and cause all sorts of problems in the rest of the swing.

I find the best way to stay connected in the takeaway is to concentrate on turning my right shoulder behind me, while keeping my forearms lightly pinned to my chest.

Here is Chuck from RotarySwing.com explaining how to do it.

Completing The Backswing

Once you get the takeaway down, you should be in good shape for a solid backswing.

From the halfway back parallel position, it’s simply a case of cocking your wrists, and continuing to rotate your body and shoulders away from the target.

Again, Chuck from the RotarySwing.com does a good job of explaining the rest of the backswing.

One thing I should point out here is that you should always rotate on your backswing, and never sway off the ball to the right. Your right leg should remain flexed and you should rotate around it.

I like to dig my right heel into the ground and feel like I’m turning it clockwise (without actually moving it) to keep my right leg secure and prevent a sway.

The Transition

Once you get to the top of the backswing, it’s time to come back down and hit the ball!

But actually hit is the wrong word. Because what you don’t want to do is rush from the top.

And in fact, you want to avoid the feeling of trying to ‘hit’ the ball with your right arm as that will cause your shoulders to spin out, resulting in a slice or a pull.

The first move from the top of the backswing should be a shift of the weight to your left side with your lower body.

As you do this you should try and keep your top half back, which creates separation between your upper and lower body, resulting in a ton of effortless power and speed.

The weight shift should be triggered with a slight lateral hip bump towards the target.

A great drill to ingrain the proper hip bump and weight shift is the 9 to 3 drill below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4BnT8rNySA

The Release

If you have properly shifted your weight from your right side to your left at the start of the downswing, then the rest of the swing should be pretty much automatic.

But one thing to make sure of is that you maintain the connection between your arms and body during the downswing, and that you fully release the club to the target.

Again, the 9 to 3 drill will help to ingrain the feeling of a full release.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4BnT8rNySA

Keep Your Head Behind The Ball And Hold Your Finish

Keeping your head down is not particularly good advice in the golf swing.

It encourages players to push their chin into their body, causing a slumped posture and making it difficult to rotate. Your chin should be far enough away from your shoulders to allow them to pass underneath.

But what is important is to keep your head behind the ball until well after impact. If you’ve watched the 9 to 3 drill above (yes, it’s that good!), then you’ll know why that is important.

Finally, after release, swing through to a full, balanced finish and hold it. Your weight should be fully on your left side and you should feel tall, strong and stable (not like Theresa May though!).

Watch the ball fly to the target and get ready to do it all again!

You’re Ready To Start Playing Golf!

Of course that was a very quick overview of the full golf swing.

For a ton more detail, I would highly recommend buying one of the books (specifically 5 lessons to start) and signing up to RotarySwing.com or Me And My Golf.

And that’s it for this beginner’s guide to golf.

We’ve covered equipment, the game, rules, etiquette, and how to swing. Everything you need to get started in the wonderful game of golf.

Remember…

It’s all in the hips.

Next: Best golf training aids for beginners

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