“Whose idea was it to come to golf practice? Was it your idea, or was it daddy’s idea?” This particular anecdote from one of my teaching pro’s stories is emblazoned upon the walls of my mind, in hope that I might remember its lesson whenever thoughts of my sons and golf collide.
As it happens, 2020 was the year that my sons both joined me for their first adventures at real golf courses. First the five-year-old and I ventured out together, and soon thereafter, as with most activities, his younger brother soon demanded inclusion in whatever we were doing. I desperately hope that they were memorable experiences for my boys in the most positive ways possible. For me, our trips to the golf course created indelible memories and provided some priceless lessons early to a dad of young children who are interested in playing sports, lessons preserved for posterity below.
In the moment, wrangling a then two-year old and a five-year old armed with live-ammo golf balls and golf clubs can be nerve-wracking. There is a desperation to how much I want to not bother any other golfers by the noise and commotion inherent to my kids’ gallivanting around a golf course. The sights, the colors, the sheer magnitude of the open-space green grass, ripe for the imaginations and gyrations of boys under age six, must be marvelous.
The best advice I picked up from the golf professional community was to remember to let my kids be kids. This evergreen advice proved particularly important in introducing new places and activities, like playing golf at an actual course, so that they came away with positive feelings and memories, and perhaps a desire to do it again.
The journey of getting my boys to the golf course began this year, in earnest, in Hilton Head, of all places. For the purposes of our family’s collective sanity, we needed something COVID-19 compliant to occupy the five-year old while the then two-year old took his afternoon nap.
We had gone to the driving range together to hit balls on vacations past, but I believed his self-control had matured to the point that we could enjoy some time on a golf course together. The semi-abandoned fairways of mid-summer afternoons in the South Carolina Lowcountry sounded like the perfect place for a test run, knowing that, at a minimum, the novelty of riding in a golf cart could hold the attention span of a child for at least nine holes.
I had no expectation that he would actually play entire golf holes, but rather had ideas that he could hit a few shots from some tee boxes and that we might create a course within the course for him that included playing up to some greens, giving him the opportunity to have fun where the scoring that matters happens.
Riding along while I hacked my way around nine holes at the Shipyard Plantation, enjoying snacks in the cart and dressing in golf attire like his dad were new and novel enough activities to keep his attention. Taking the time to hit a few shots, and hit a few of them very well, helped plant seeds of how much fun golf can be, seeds that I hope will germinate and grow in the coming seasons.
As the summer progressed, we learned that the 120 yard, downhill hole at our home course in Lexington offered a great opportunity to play an entire hole from tee to green. Watching him light up after making solid contact and knocking a shot 40 yards towards the green or getting his wee 7-iron shots airborne are thrills that have remained memorable for both of us.
When it comes to scoring, we skip that part of golf, for now. My son has only ever mentioned “par” occasionally on the tee box, out of curiosity of what par he thinks I should set for him for the hole, using our own homemade formula. I think he either read it on a scorecard or on a broadcast graphic, without truly grasping the concept.
He’s never asked about par once we get to the green or after he holes out a shot, and I like it that way. We don’t count strokes as he makes them, instead preferring to revel in his random successes or gently strategize about what he needs to do next after striking a wayward slash at the ball.
The lack of fear both of my sons have as they prepare for a shot is so beautiful and pure. Proper form and better speed might soon replace over-swinging and oversized divots, but for now, they are happy to make their own way with golf.
During one of our Hilton Head adventures, the older boy dribbled a shot into a greenside bunker. He had never practiced playing out of sand, or even discussed it as far as I could remember, so I told him he could pull his ball out of the bunker and chip up from the approach if he wanted to, instead of hitting from the sand.
Never mind that nonsense! He walked right up to the ball, made a mighty THWACK! And out popped the ball onto the green on his first try. I was flabbergasted by his miraculous shot, while my son didn’t get what all the fuss was about. My dear hope is that he retains that sort of fearlessness for years to come.
We have figured out that I can’t be his golf coach; it ruins it for him. It’s probably much better that I learn that now before I do permanent damage to his enjoyment of the game. It goes against every fiber of my being to withhold the simple wisdom and knowledge I’ve accumulated after two decades of playing the game, share with him and point out things that will instantly increase his skill level (and in my mind enjoyment).
Coach Glenn at Man O’ War Golf is good coach, and my son has thoroughly enjoyed the group clinics he attended. Thus, I’m left trying to frame any helpful comments in the light of “remember, Coach Glenn wants you to …” so that he doesn’t think I’m being critical, I guess.
On the other hand, his little brother is much more open to suggestion and instruction at this point in his golf career. He checks with me periodically when he’s become unsure about if he has crossed his hands in his grip or not. I gently remind him to put the ball (or Birdie Ball or Wiffleball or whatever he’s using as a golf ball) on top of a tuft of grass rather than trying to hit between our yard fescue clumps, and he is off and swinging. He seems to have a natural aptitude for stick and ball sports, so I plan on doing my best to give him opportunities and stay out of his way.
At age five, my oldest son has proven tall enough and strong enough to carry his bag out on the course. Our golf adventures in Lexington consisted of a few holes of twilight golf at my local course, Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome. In the summer, usable sunlight persists well after 9 pm, so we could get an hour or two of fun in after dinner.
Some episodes consisted of lingering around the practice green, chipping and putting for as long as we wanted, while other outings included playing up to five or six holes of walking and wandering around a largely empty golf course. We’ve watched hawks soar, groundhogs forage, and heard the hustle and bustle of the City fade away in favor of the crickets’ chirp and birds’ songs as nighttime approaches.
He has become an especially talented golf bag racer, even besting his old man once or twice in our arbitrary races from where we stand to some bridge or tree or green. Declaring a race, pointing out a finish line and loudly saying “3…2…1…GO!” is an effective way to direct and move children around a golf course, if you don’t mind feigning a wind sprint now and then.
There’s something wonderful about the fairways of a golf course to my boys. I’m not sure they’ve ever had such a large swath of closely mown turf on which to roam. What I take for granted and deride as a narrow playing corridor is, for them, the largest lawn they’ve ever experience, much larger than their soccer fields and easy to walk through than their grandparents’ farm.
Watching them run this way and that, in almost complete freedom (with me nearby keeping them “safe”), they play and dream as big as the space they are sharing, and it’s a heartwarming thing to watch.
As much as my oldest enjoys a good walk around the golf course in the golden rays of the magic hour before twilight falls, the lure of riding in and helping drive the golf cart trigger powerful endorphins in a child’s brain, an experience my son finds utterly addicting. If you want to introduce your child to the golf course, but they have limited to little interest, get them on the golf cart. It’s an easy bribe with an almost 100% success rate of making them want to be at the golf course.
Something I didn’t expect to happen was that both boys make it overtly clear that they like golf, and enjoy getting better at the actual playing of golf, but they mainly like being out on the golf course with their dad. I was never that self-aware at that age. I’m barely that self-aware now. We’re not competing against one another on the golf course, yet, save for those golf bag races. What we do is make memories, even if the little guy doesn’t fully remember his first loops around the course in bright detail.
In addition to maximizing fun on the course, I am actively, gently trying to plant the seeds of good etiquette and best practices. Simple things like not talking during someone’s swing, where to safely stand while someone swings a club, and how to determine whose turn it is make some sense to the boys some of the time. Like anything else, I think those lessons need repetition.
The most important lesson I learned by bringing my boys with me to the golf course is that when they are out there with me, it’s not about me. It never was. If it ever becomes about me, I’m doing it wrong. It’s an evergreen lesson that needs more practice and more repetitions, wherever I might find them.