En route to the 19th hole

Recently, scrolling through the channels to find something worth watching, I came across a golf tutorial, and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that most attempts to teach newcomers how to play golf, or anything else come to that, are delivered by people who know too much about their subject, and are consequently of little use to the true beginner. For example, the golf professional in question was starting with the assumption that his pupil was able to hit the ball. Anyone who has tried to hit that tiny ball with an equally tiny club will know that not only is it the foundation of the game – truly a sine qua non – it is also impossible to teach anyone how to do it.

I have made several abortive attempts to take up golf over the years, and I know that ‘fine-tuning the swing’, which is what the TV expert was attempting to do, can only come after hours of swearing as the ball trickles off the tee or remains resolutely unmoved. But there’s a lot of other stuff you can be addressing in the meantime, and given my serial failures, I think I have a lot to offer in this regard. As a starter, I’d like to address a few FAQs that might reasonably materialise should anyone decide to offer a true beginner’s course.

When I hit the ball, a rare enough occurrence in itself, I find that it swerves to the left, and ends up on the wrong fairway.

Solution: You are probably using the wrong coloured tee. I find that a yellow or green one is much more satisfactory than red or blue in avoiding the hook (I’m assuming you are right-handed), but this is a personal thing, and you need to experiment a bit. However, you should ask yourself if you really want to cure this tendency. You are unlikely to start hitting the ball straight any time soon, and ending up on a fairway – any fairway – is greatly preferable to being in the rough or, even worse, the car park of an adjacent Tesco. At least then you are in with a chance of finding your ball, and perhaps even hacking it back in the direction of the appropriate hole – and of course, finding your ball is one of the chief aims at this stage of your golfing career, when the number of balls required per round tends to be a more useful performance indicator than the number of strokes taken. A word of warning though: keep an eye out for people tackling your adopted fairway in the conventional direction, as novices taking this alternative approach can often be recognised by the shallow dimpled depressions on their foreheads.

NB: Sometimes, your tee shot (or your 2nd to 6th+ shot) will end up on an adjacent green. In this case, you should only play your iron shot if you are sure no one can see you, and remember to replace the divot(s).

When playing into the wind, a shot with a 7 iron which would, on a good day, go at least forty yards, only goes ten or so. Attempts to hit it harder only result in me missing the ball completely, or losing the club over my left shoulder.

Solution: On a blustery day, only play those holes where the wind direction is favourable. On most courses, if the wind is constant, half the holes will require you to hit into the wind, and on the other half, the wind will be behind you. Agree at the start just to play the downwind holes twice, or better still, play them once then go for a drink. On the sort of course you are likely to be using, no one else will notice or care; in fact, you may well find you are not alone in taking this eclectic approach. Another note of caution is needed here though: while a following wind may indeed add distance to your shots, it will also make it more difficult to find the ball, given that it’s unlikely to be anywhere near the fairway. And as far as the adverse effects of trying harder are concerned, see next section.

Incidentally, I was glad you specified a 7 iron in your question. Never attempt to use a longer club (i.e. one with a smaller number). At this stage of your snail-like progress towards achieving a handicap, you will hit the ball further with a 7 iron than with any other club, except perhaps when you get lucky with a pitching wedge and send it soaring over the green and hit a player on the next tee. In particular never be tempted to use a wood (they’re the ones with a big lumpy end that have socks on them) – it will only bring frustration and unhappiness.

When things are not going well on the golf course, which by definition is most of the time, I find that the harder I concentrate, the worse it gets.

Solution: You noticed that, did you? I don’t want to get too metaphysical, but I think there is a lesson for us all here, golfer or not. There is a common tendency to assert that sport is a template for life; that it is somehow “character-building”. Proponents of this philosophy usually witter on about the playing of rugby at school and the taking of regular cold showers. This is nonsense of course: school rugby and cold showers produce those characteristics seen at their most refined in effete traitors, dim and unimaginative politicians and emotionally retarded bankers. However, in this one example of trying too hard at golf, I think there truly is a Lesson for Life. Your best shots will be played when you lose concentration, relax and go with the flow. Trying to do it right produces the tense muscles, anxiety and fear of failure which guarantee disaster. The answer should be easy – stop trying and just let rip – but if you’re British, that’s easier said than done. I suspect that the only answer to this particular problem, and possibly to life in general, lies in alcohol or recreational drugs.

This was just a taster: if you have found this advice helpful, please buy my book “Golf? Why?”, which will be available in bookshops shortly. If not, and especially if you regard golf as a pointlessly frustrating pastime, congratulations.