Sports and Fitness

How to Play Golf – The Ultimate Guide

With 25 million active players, golf is one of the oldest and most popular recreational sports around the world, especially in the United States, which has over 50% of the world’s golf courses.

But as popular as golf is, it’s hard to become a golfer. There’s just so much to know. It’s intimidating, especially if you have no prior golf experience.

Well, we’re here to help you get started. Golf is a sport you can play for your whole life, and this guide is designed to you get started on the path toward golfing success.

By the end of this guide, you should have a good enough understanding of golf and golfing techniques that you can play a full round with your friends or colleagues without feeling anxious or embarrassed about your skills.

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Table of Contents

The Basics of Golf

You’ve probably got a general understanding of how the game of golf is played, it’s important to go over the basic features of a golf course, and give you an example of how each individual “hole” and “round” is played out.

We’ll begin by going over what you should expect from a golf course, and what each “hole” usually contains.

Golf Holes and Field of Play

Golf “Holes” are the individual fields of play for each part of your golf game. There are generally 18 of them on a golf “course”, and they generally are made up of the following

  • A Teeing Ground. This is where the golfers stand to make their initial drive, or “tee off”.
  • Water Hazards. These are bodies of water designed to make golf holes more difficult by providing an obstacle for the golfers.
  • Fairway – generally the intended area for a drive, this well-maintained grass is easy to make shots from, and is usually where you want your shots to go.
  • Rough – As the name may suggest, this section of the hole is less well-maintained, and harder to make shots out of. As such, it’s not desirable to aim here, and most golfers end up in the rough by mistake.
  • Out of Bounds. This happens when you are so far outside of the “rough” that you end up outside of the course altogether. Generally you take a penalty and place your ball somewhere else on the hole if you drive out of bounds.
  • Sand Bunker. These sandy spots, like the water hazards, supply a challenge to the golfer, as sand is much harder to hit from than the fairway, green, or even the rough.
  • Putting Green. This patch of grass is where the actual “hole” for the golf ball is. This is where you want to get your ball, either on your drives, approaches, or chips. This is where all putting happens.
  • Flagstick – The flagstick marks the “hole” that the golfers are trying to reach. It’s a visual aid to mark the location of the “hole”, aiding golfers who are sighting it and making their shots toward the hole.
  • The Hole. This is the end goal of any golf “hole”. Once you get your ball into this hole, your play ends, and you record the amount of “strokes” it took you to reach it. Adding up all of these strokes at the end of the game will give you your score.

Every golf hole will consist of of these basic 10 elements, in different proportion depending on the location and difficulty of the course.

Progression of Play

Golf is typically played in “rounds” consisting of 18 holes. Each hole is played once, and the typical time taken for a full round is 4 hours.

The basic equipment each player will require is a set of golf clubs in a golf bag, a good amount of golf balls, as well as “tees” which are used during the drive.

To record score, each hole has a “par”. This “par” represents the amount of strokes a typical player will take to reach the hole. Scoring is recorded against this number.

For example, If you take 5 strokes to reach the hole of a par 4 hole, you have gone 1 over par, or +1. If you do that same hole in 3 strokes, you will go 1 under par, or -1, and so on. The total par of most courses is around 72.

There are 4 different basic shots and techniques to be used during each “hole.” We will cover these in more detail later on in the guide.

Generally, each player goes through the following shots when playing each individual hole.

Teeing Off and Driving

Play begins with the “drive” which is the shot that is intended to move the ball the longest distance towards the goal. Each golfer places their golf ball on a “tee”, and they hit it as hard and as accurately as they can.

After each player takes their drive, they move towards their respective balls. This allows you to take the next shot, the approach.

Approaching the Hole

After the drive, when each player has located their ball, they make an “approach” shot, beginning from the player who is the farthest from the putting green. Play then proceeds to the next farthest player, and so on.

Approach shots are delivered with less power than a drive, and are generally more accurate. These shots are what are intended to get the ball even closer to the putting green than the drive, setting them up for their next shot.

Due to the massive amounts of variation in player position after a drive, these approach shots can be made dozens of different ways and with almost any golf club, depending on the specific “lie” (where the ball is) of the player approaching.

Chip Shots

After making the approach shot, the next shot is generally a “chip”, if the golfer is not already on the putting green.

This “chip” shot is intended to be a low-power, accurate shot that places the golfer nearby the “hole” on the putting green.

The ball is lofted quite high, and is hit with only a little bit of power, just enough to place it in a favorable position.

The Putting Green

Once every golfer is on the putting green, putting begins. This is where the golfers attempt to get their golf ball into the actual “hole” of the golf course. Once they succeed, they record the number of “strokes” it took them to get the ball into the hole.

A “stroke” occurs whenever the golf club is used to intentionally make contact with the ball. That is, every time a golf club is used to move a golf ball, a “stroke” is recorded.

Strokes can also be gained from penalties, such as “dropping” the ball next to a water hazard where it has been lost, or from going out of bounds.

This play progresses throughout all 18 holes of the golf course. Upon ending the “round”, whoever has the least number of “strokes” is declared the winner.

Understanding Golf Clubs

Now that you know the basics about golf courses, and about the standard progression of play, it’s time to take a closer look at golf clubs.

This is where golf starts to get complicated, but it’s not too hard to understand. There are 5 basic types of club in each golfer’s bag. They are as follows

Woods

Woods are the longest distance clubs, intended to drive a golf ball down the fairway towards the hole. They are made up of a very large “head” and a long “shaft”, and are built for maximum club speed. The head and shaft are often hollow, decreasing the weight of the wood and allowing it to be swung very rapidly.

Despite the name, nowadays they are generally made of composite metals such as titanium and aluminium. They are the most powerful of all golf clubs. The largest wood in a golfer’s bag is known as the “one wood” or “driver, but generally a player will have several different woods in their golf bag to be used depending on the length of the hole.

This Pinemeadow PGX Offset Driver is an example of a typical “one wood” or “driver.”

Irons

Irons are solid, all-metal clubs, and they feature a shorter shaft and a flat-angled face, compared to woods. These are your jack-of-all-trades clubs, used for almost every shot that’s not a drive or a putt. To aid in their flexibility, they come in many different shapes and sizes, usually ranging from 1 to 9, which corresponds to their “loft angle” and the distance they are capable of creating.

Generally speaking, the higher the number on the iron gets, the shorter its shaft gets, and the higher loft angle and heavier head it has. This all means that lower irons will hit the balls farther. 2-4 irons are “long” irons, 5-7 irons are “medium” irons, and 8-9 irons are “short” irons.

This Callaway Men’s XR Iron set is typical of most iron sets, including 7 differently numbered irons for almost any golf need.

Wedges

Wedges are a specialized type of iron, intended for tricky shots. Their loft angle is much higher than a standard iron, and they are used for tricky approach shots, or hitting the ball out of hazards and towards the green. Wedge angles vary from about 48° all the way up to 68°.

This Cleveland Golf Tour Action Wedge is a good representation of most wedges. You can choose between a 50° angle, all the way up to 60°.

Putters

The putter is a special class of club, designed only to help the ball roll along the grass of the putting green. Because of this, they always feature less than 10° of loft, and are used to make the lowest-power golf shots.
This Pinemeadow Golf putter gives you an idea of what you see in most modern putters. They’re designed with special ergonomics and large faces, to help you get an accurate hit.

Chippers

Chippers are a sort of specialized putter with a higher loft angle of over 10°, designed for short chip shots. Often used to replace a high-angle iron, it allows the golfer to lift the ball out of hazardous surroundings, such as the rough, and drop it onto the putting green, where it will simply roll instead of bouncing, as an equivalent iron may do.

It is important to note that while this sort of club is designed more like a putter, it is, technically speaking, a variant of an iron.

As you can see from this Wilson Harmonized Chipper, it looks a lot like a putter, just with a higher angle to get it a little bit more loft.

Golf Club Sets

As you’re just starting out as a golfer, we recommend looking into a golf club set, such as the Callaway Men’s Strata 12 piece.

This set comes with a golf bag, and it has everything you need to get started in your golfing career, including a driver and a 3 wood, plenty of irons and wedges, and a putter. You may want to customize what’s in your bag later on in your golfing career, but for now, this should do quite nicely.

The Mechanics of A Golf Swing

There are four different basic strokes involved in golfing; Driving, Approaching, Chipping, and Putting.

And while the precise mechanics of each stroke are different, all of them except the putt are based off of the same golf swing. All that varies is the amount of power you put into your ball, the type of golf club you use, and the basic angle at which you make contact with the ball.

In all of those strokes, the basic goal of a golf swing is to direct as much kinetic energy as you can from your body into the club head. When that energy transfers, the ball is hit, and it flies toward the target.

While that sounds simple, it takes a lot of independent steps in order to execute a golf stroke correctly. And it begins with your grip.

Grip

How you grip the golf club is up to you. There are many variations, including the “Vardon Grip”, the “interlocking grip”, and the “ten finger grip”. The above video addresses golf grip, and can help you get a better understanding of the different kinds of grips that you can use while golfing.

However, no matter what grip you decide to use, it should feel comfortable and natural. It’s not worth switching your grip to one that feels uncomfortable just because you think it might be better. Having a good grip is important, and the best grip is always the one that feels the best to you.

Once you’ve managed to find your correct grip, the next step in a golf stroke is your stance.

Stance

Sight your target, orient yourself, and plant your feet firmly in a comfortable position to the side of your golf ball, in order to get a low center of gravity.

Your feet should be slightly less than shoulder width apart.. Make sure that your club will contact the ball in front of you during your swing without requiring you to lean forward.

Sight your target again, and then focus on the golf ball once you are sure you’re in the correct position.

Backswing

The next motion is to bring your golf club back from the golf ball. You will bring your arms back in a straight line until they meet your hip level.

At this point, you will have to “cock” your right wrist if you are a right-handed golfer. Continue bringing your golf club back.

Once you reach the top of your backswing, your left arm should be perfectly straight, and your right arm will be “hinged” at the elbow. This position is what generates a lot of the kinetic energy of your downswing, as both your elbow and wrist will rotate with your downswing, generating a lot of potential energy.

Downswing

The downswing begins with your hips and your lower body, rather than your arms. As you begin to bring down the golf club, your hips and lower body will rotate naturally, along with your arms.

As the swing begins, your hips turn into the shot and your right elbow will drop down and hug the right side of your torso.

At the same time, your wrists will drop down, uncocking and delivering a lot of potential energy and rotational force into the golf club.

At the bottom of the downswing, your golf club should make good contact with the golf ball, and you should be in a relatively neutral position, your elbows and wrists having “uncocked”, and resumed a neutral position.

Followthrough

The amount of energy you put into your swing means you can’t just stop your stroke once you hit the ball. Your club will continue its course past the ball, and when it comes to rest you should be in a balanced position, leaning somewhat forward and balanced with the golf club resting on your neck.

Pay careful attention to the path of the ball, as you will need to locate it to continue play, and lower your club slowly.

Putting It All Together

This above video will be very helpful to you as you being to learn how to do a proper golf swing. It touches on many very important aspects of the golf swing for beginner, such as golf club rotation, and position relative to the ball.

You’re not going to be able to get a satisfactory golf swing without actually putting all of these above movements together. This is because each of these above moments are not distinct from another. Rather, they all happen in quick succession, with precise timing and coordination, creating a “kinetic chain”.

This “kinetic chain” is what creates the power that gives you the ability to move the ball. If any link in the chain is broken, or executed incorrectly, your stroke will suffer. You will lose power, or accuracy, or even miss the ball entirely.

This is why we recommend you practice your golf swing off the course, before you begin. Simply grab a club of your choice, find a wide-open space (a lawn is good, a garage will do in a pinch) and practice these movements one at a time. Once you get a feel for each, combine them.

Get your stance, sight your target, bring your club back, bring it down, and follow-through. Do this as many times as you wish to get a feel for how your kinetic chain performs, and how it should feel when you execute a golf stroke correctly.

Now that you know the basics of golf strokes, it’s time to get into what you do for each individual shot on the field of play, beginning with the drive.

The Drive

This above video will help you as we discuss the drive.

Driving is very important. Driving is the first thing you’ll do on each hole on the course, and as such, it’s the stroke in which you want to produce maximum power.

A good drive can be the difference between putting your ball in a great position to do well on the hole, or driving it straight into water, the rough, or a sand trap, so many golfers focus a lot of energy on improving their drive.

Grab your driver, place your ball on a tee, and sight down the course to see what obstacles (water hazards, sand traps, etc) are in your way. Take aim at a target, say a good patch of fairway, from which you can make a good approach shot onto the putting green.

Once you’ve planted your feet and found your stance, begin your swing. And remember that, while you want to put as much power onto the ball as you can, you shouldn’t just be swinging wildly. Your motion should be smooth, with no sudden stops or starts, allowing your kinetic chain to deliver energy to the ball.

Your goal is to make solid contact with the golf ball at the point when your driver is in a neutral position. That is, you want the head of your club to be at, ideally, 0°.

Now, this does not mean that you can’t rotate your club during your swing. In fact, that’s discouraged. You simply must rotate it back to a neutral position before hitting the ball.

Once you make contact with the ball, your follow through should feel natural. Remain in that position, and keep an eye on your ball. With any luck, and a little practice, you should have driven it down the fairway in a relatively straight line, and for a good distance.

Practicing Your Drive

Given the fact that driving is considered so important for golfers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are facilities dedicated entirely to golfers who wish to practice their driving.

These are known as driving ranges, and are the single best place you can go to practice your drives. For a flat fee, you can buy a bucket of golf balls, take them to a designated position in the driving range, and blast them out there to your heart’s content.

If you want to practice your drive, there’s no better place to do it. Grab some balls, get out there, and start hitting them. As you get more familiar with the motion, you will see results.

The Approach

After you’ve made your initial drive or “teed off”, you’ll come to the next part of the progression of play. The approach.

Given that this part of the golf game consists of basically every stroke until you reach the putting green, it should come as no surprise that there are many different ways to approach the putting green, each suitable for different situations.

We’ll start with the fairway shot.

Fairway Shot

Fairway shots are what you’ll be taking if you get a good drive, and make it good distance down the course while remaining on the fairway while avoiding the rough, and other hazards.

This shot is similar to a drive in execution, but with less power and a different club. Generally, one of your irons is used for this shot, the choice of which is determined by your distance from your goal.

Lower irons are better for longer shots, as their faces are less lofted, their shafts are longer, and they can hit the ball farther. Higher irons are suited for shorter shots, as their shorts shafts and higher loft will result in a naturally shorter shot.

Take aim at your target, get in your proper swing stance, and look at the ball. Swing at the ball, bearing in mind that the amount of power you’ll want to put on it will vary depending on how far from your goal you are.

Fairway shots take practice to get right, because unlike driving, you can overshoot your goal. Because of this, good approach shots require precise aim and good swing control.

Don’t be surprised if, for a while, you have trouble selecting the right iron for the job, or have a tendency to over or under-drive your goal. You will get better at this as you practice.

Now, when you’re new to golf, you won’t always end up in ideal situations. This means you won’t always be taking fairway shots, and may instead need to take some more specialized shots to get your ball away from obstacles and tough situations. We’ll go over these shots now.

Pitching, Flopping, and Bunker Shots

These shots are all designed with one intention; getting you out of trouble. After a rough drive or a bad fairway shot, you may find yourself in a position where you can’t take another fairway shot or drive the ball very far, because of the terrain you’re on, or the position your ball is in.

Pitching is usually done with a pitching wedge, as the name suggests. It’s useful to make a short shot with high loft, and designed to get your ball up and over obstacles over short distances (30-50 meters).

This type of shot would be done if you were, say, behind a sand trap, or just in front of a stream or lake, or another type of water hazard.

The high loft of the pitching wedge allows your ball to travel high up to avoid obstacles, while still making sure you don’t hit it too far.

Flopping is somewhat similar to chipping, which we will discuss soon, but the club face is “opened”, meaning the shot is delivered with less power in order to prevent rolling once the ball is at the target location.

Flopping is usually done when you’re in an okay position, but over-driving your ball may put you into a bad one. For example, you’re close to the putting green, but directly behind it there’s a sand trap. If you hit your shot too far, you’ll be in a worse position than you are now.

So, as the name suggests, it’s a low-power shot that makes the ball “flop” into position, with minimal rolling and extra distance. But, say you did land in that sand bunker. What would you do?

A bunker shot! Bunker shots are specialized pitch shots, done with a usually done with the same pitching wedge. The intention of a bunker shot is to put enough power and loft onto the ball that it will roll over the sand bunker, and out of the hazard.

It’s a bit more difficult to pull off than a simple pitch due to the technical difficulties in hitting a ball out of sand, but the same idea applies; you’re going up and over a hazard in order to put yourself in a more favorable position, even if you don’t hit the ball very far.

Practicing Your Approach Shots

Unfortunately, unlike driving ranges, there aren’t really dedicated facilities to help you improve your approach.

The best way you can practice your approach shots is by simply playing golf.

If you’ve been playing for a little while, and you’re noticing that you have trouble dealing with a specific shot, be it a fairway shot, a pitch, or a bunker shot, you may want to try intentionally placing yourself in a bad position. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more you practice getting out of bad situations, the better you’ll get at it.

And if you’re a beginner golfer, you’ll get into plenty of bad positions. Just realize that it’s part of the learning process, and that the more you have to deal with hazards, rough, and other obstacles, the quicker you’ll learn how to do it well.

Once you’ve gotten your ball close to the green, whether from a well-placed fairway shot, or a pitch or flop, it’s time to look at the next golf stroke.

Chipping

When you’ve placed your ball in a favorable position, but you’re too close to the putting green or other target to do a fairway shot, you’ll “chip” it.

A chip is a short range shot, usually only played when you’re under 40 yards from the green. A short iron or a wedge is generally preferred, as you’re looking to put a significant amount of loft onto your shot.

The goal of a chip shot is to place your ball safely on the green, and allow it to roll towards the hole.

Since this is a short range shot, you don’t need to put too much power on the ball. Remember that even though you’re looking for a lower power shot, you’ll still want to make sure your stroke is accurate, smooth, and that you have a good follow-through.

Practicing Your Chip Shot

Practicing your chip is similar to practicing your approaches, because you’re not going to find any kind of grass outside of a golf course that mimics the smoothness and sensation of a putting green. Therefore, the best way to practice your chip is to play golf. There’s no way around it.

If you’re serious about improving your chip, though, consider finding a golf course where few people play, or go to a golf course at an odd time of day, when there are fewer people playing.

Play out your game as usual, but take several opportunities to chip a ball towards the green when you get the chance. The more you do it, the better and more consistent your chip will be.

And once you get on the putting green, guess what’s next?

Putting

This above video will be helpful as we go over the basics of putting.

Putting is the one stroke in golf that does not use a standard golf swing. This is because it’s done at short range, on a (relatively) flat surface, and with a very low amount of power.

The putt is more of a guidance hit than it is a stroke meant to develop any sort of distance or power on the ball. You simply are guiding the ball towards the hole. Nothing more.

Because of this, putting is relatively easy compared to the rest of golf. You don’t need a masterful golf swing, and a good putt requires very little endurance or power compared to the rest of the game of golf.

But this doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. About 40% of golf shots are putts. This means that if you can putt successfully and consistently, it can easily lower your score as much as improving your drive and your approach shots, and it’s much easier to do this, given the ease of putting practice.

Setting Up

First, when you’re putting, you want to set up. Stand with your feet a comfortable width apart – usually shoulder width.

Bend your knees slightly, and bend forward with your arms hanging in front of you together, relaxed.

Make sure that your feet are comfortable, and place perpendicular to where you are aiming. Then, grab your putter.

The Grip

If you have a standard stance, place your left hand near the end of the grip of your putter, resting your left thumb on the front “flat” or the putter. Then place your right hand in the same position below it, on the opposing side of the grip.

Both thumbs should be on the front section of the grip, and the angle of the shaft of the putter should match the angle of your forearm. This will keep your motion flat and consistent.

The Stroke

Rock your shoulders back and forth and feel the motion of the putter, and get familiar with this stance. This is the the exact motion that you’ll want to make when putting. Get used to how it feels. If it feels strange, you may want to take another look at your stance, or at your grip.

Your hands and wrists should not be moving, they should be functioning only as the method by which motion is transferred from your shoulders.

Remember, this is just about putting enough energy onto the ball that it rolls forward in the correct line.

The Shot

After placing your putter behind the ball, and taking careful aim at the hole, use the same “shoulder-rocking” technique you practiced before, and hit the ball, keeping your wrists and hands steady, and making sure your putter is lined up with your forearm.

If you’ve done all this correctly, the ball should slowly roll in a straight line towards your target.

If not, you may be a little off. That’s okay. Keep practicing.

Practicing Your Putts

Putting, unlike approaching and chipping, is easy to practice. It’s even easier to practice than driving, because you can do it almost anywhere.

You can practice indoors, by simply aiming at a cup or other object placed on a solid, flat surface, or even by playing miniature golf!

Also, many golf courses offer putting greens that are not part of the standard course, and are designed only to help you improve your putts.

If you’re serious about improving your putt, we recommend finding one of these putting greens, and spending some time refining your stance, stroke, and technique.

Next Steps

That’s it! In this guide, we’ve gone over the basics of rules of play, progression of play, golf clubs, basic golf swings, and the four basic strokes you’ll need to understand in order to play a game of golf.

The next step for you is to get out there and start playing. We won’t beat around the bush. It won’t be easy. You will not be a good golfer the first time you play, and you probably won’t be a good golfer the tenth time you play. But what’s important is that you will improve over time. The more you play, the better you will get. You’re only competing against yourself.

What we’ve taught you here will get you going and get you golfing, but if you’re interested in more advanced techniques and tips, there are tons of resources out there for golfers. One of the most popular is Golf Information, which has a massive database of information about just about every possible golf topic.

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