It is rarely talked about but how many beginner golfers do we lose because the golf industry is not minding the gap. I’m talking about the gap between the beginner programs the industry provides and the ability to play the game at a reasonable level.
Just how big is the problem? According to the National Golf Foundation in the United States, there have been over 12 million people in the past 5 years introduced to the game through new golfer programs and only 200,000 became golfers.
Golf organizations are quick to measure their success in attracting newbies into national beginner programs but not so willing to look at just how many are lost in the gap.
So, what’s the problem?
Let’s face it, it’s not all that fun being a bad golfer, you want to become at least average to play the game with others. It is proven that more skilled golfers play much more golf, our goal should be to create a golfer who plays regularly, instead of someone who takes a golf class.
The golf industry massively underestimates the length of time it takes to become an average golfer. 93% of male golfers are a 26 Handicap or better and the Average Female Handicap is a 27.5. It takes longer than a 5-hour course to get there.
Our beginner golf programs are setting the wrong expectation and our students eventually find out they aren’t good enough to play on the course as hoped.
So how long does it take to become an average golfer?
From my research teaching more than 350 new golfers annually over a 7-year period, I estimate it takes around 50 rounds of golf to become an average golfer. So, if it takes this long, why do we shy away from getting beginner golfers on the course? Why do we tell them to go practice on the driving range?
Where Traditional Programs Fall Short
We end up overwhelming golfers by teaching them every skill in 5 lessons, and they leave not feeling very good at any of them. Yes, the golf instructor taught the class well but where did the class end, where did the students go, and most importantly, did they become a golfer?
It’s unfortunate but beginners are told to practice to develop the skills needed to play on the course. We are leaving our students in the gap to fend for themselves.
Where is the transition to play model?
We need to offer a model that gives beginners a motivating and timely way to play. In today’s world, if a Golf Instructor puts beginners on the course after a 5-hour instructional program, they could easily take 3-4 hours to play 9 holes and hold everyone up behind them. This could easily become a bad experience for the student, other golfers, and management. A new golfer can easily feel defeated and forced back to the driving range for more practice. The only problem is, golfers, don’t keep practicing. They end up thinking the game is too hard and find something else to do with their time. They are no longer in the gap, they are now out of the game.
Realizing the value of one new golfer
I often ask myself, what if every golf course manager realized the value of one new golfer? That’s right, a golfer that needs everything sold in the golf shop from equipment to clothes. Someone who will be paying membership and/or green fees for the rest of their lives. If they knew this person would need to play 50 rounds of golf to make it through the gap, would they invest, encourage or even mandate their golf instructors to create a new pathway? Most golf courses spend money advertising and promoting the golf course, what if this money was spent creating effective new golfer programs.
Play-Focused Programs are the future
We don't need to redesign every golf course by adding more tee-boxes, we just need to redesign the narrative we give beginners. This starts with better programming and an effective model that works for students, instructors, club members, and club managers. Here is a good place to start...
1. Get beginners playing on the golf course
Have beginners play from just in front of the green. Once they can make contact with the ball with a short swing and move the ball forward, it should be time to play the golf course. If they can play mini-golf, they should be able to play real golf on the course. We play all sports in the environment in which it is played, why should golf be any different?
2. Give students a clear goal
Create a target score of 5 shots. If they can do this easily, move them back further from the hole. If they are unable to attain this score, move them closer. When learning any skill, it’s important to be able to adjust the difficulty factor so the student is motivated yet challenged which improves the learning process. It also makes it much more fun!
3. Provide Play Days not lessons
For a once per week newbie, 50 rounds of golf will take 1 year, few will sign up for a lesson package of 50 lessons so creating Play Days is the answer. A Play Day can include a clinic before the new golfers go play, this allows coaches to correct swings and take question. Coaches can then go play with the students to help them learn care of the course, pace of play, etiquette, rules, shot selection, and how to handle conditions. Play Days should be as fun for the coaches as it is for the students, a fun social outing which looks and feels much different than a group golf lesson.
4. Give them the means to experience progress
Build a level program that provides a challenging and motivating pathway to becoming an average golfer. The level program can tie directly into the distance they play from the green. This allows students to improve while enjoying playing the game on the course. Beginners will feel as though they became a golfer right away and never enter the gap. They will consider themselves a golfer who plays on the course right away.
5. Create social connections
Provide social opportunities where your new golfers can communicate to other new golfers as well as the coach. This is something you would not normally do in a 5-week program but when you realize that for a once-a-week golfer, it’s a 1-year process, creating a social club makes a lot more sense. This can be done in different ways from creating a social media group, provide fun outings to other courses, skills challenge events, or hosting social events. Ideally, the management of the club as well as other members should be involved with this group to welcome them into the club.
Minding the Gap
The above statistic show that we are only successful 1.7% of the time leaving a massive gap of opportunity. What we need now is a complete paradigm shift in how teach beginners. Minding the gap means we learn from our current results and find a better way forward.