How to unleash the Tiger within you

Don't be put off by golf's upmarket image; with a little ingenuity this is a sport for anyone, says Andy Farrell
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The Independent Online

There is no question that playing golf can seriously affect your bank balance. For the finest professionals in the world, it has a seriously positive effect. Phil Mickelson earned $1.17m (£650,000) by winning the US Masters at Augusta earlier this month, while the phenomenon himself, Tiger Woods, has earned more than $40m in official prize money in eight years as a professional, not counting the $60m he receives every year in endorsements and appearance fees.

But, of course, for most people rather than being a profession, golf is a hobby, albeit often an obsessional one, and in this instance the effect on the bank balance is entirely negative. How much is entirely a matter of personal preference. For instance, you can, if you so wish, find a golf club that will relieve you of a five-figure joining fee and the same again in an annual subscription. A Callaway Great Big Bertha driver will set you back £399, a set of top-quality irons perhaps £680, and one of those fancy Odyssey two-ball putters another £119. Then add in the cashmere sweater...

But this is only fuelling the notion that golf is an expensive game to start playing. It need not be. There is no doubt the appeal of golf has broadened considerably, partly thanks to the Tiger Woods effect but also with the game becoming "cool" with celebrities from the rock and film star ranks rather than just the Brucie and Tarby brigade. It has also become more accessible, particularly in England - in Scotland golf has always been more of a game of the people.

As well as those rather imposing private members' clubs, there are stand-alone driving ranges, where you pay for a bucket of balls and then whack away to your heart's content; cheap and cheerful municipal courses, often with punters queuing up overnight for prime tee-times; and smartly run proprietary clubs, which offer both pay-and-play golf as well as a members' club.

One such is at Boughton, near Faversham in Kent, which has a driving range, an 18-hole course with views over Canterbury cathedral and a small par-three layout. The club professional, Trevor Dungate, has been teaching golf for 28 years. His advice for a beginner is simple. "Find your local fully qualified PGA professional," he says. The Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) is the body that trains and certificates those pros that go into teaching rather seeking fame and fortune on the tournament circuit.

"Either find your local club in the yellow pages or check the PGA website where they have a search facility to find your local pro," Mr Dungate adds.

The "How to get started" section on the pga.info website promises that "golf is a remarkably easy game to learn and enjoy". Anyone who has initially thrashed away at a little white ball with an oddly-shaped implement and found the results disconcertingly random may disagree.

A few basics, however, such as grip, stance and ball position, soon get you, and the ball, going in the right direction. "My advice to someone who is a complete beginner is to come along for a half-hour lesson to see if you like the game," Mr Dungate says. "We can provide the clubs so you don't have to buy any before you've tried the game. If you like it, we can offer a series of five lessons where we can work with you on the fundamentals of the swing but also advise on some of the game's etiquette and what sort of clubs you should get."

A half-hour lesson at Boughton is £17 and a series of five comes in at £75. A starter-pack of bag, three woods, a set of irons and a putter can be obtained from £149. (Left-handed sets, once a rarity, are also now available for all budding Mickelsons.) If the course, like most, does not allow trainers then you'll need a pair of golf shoes for around £40.

Then all you need are some balls, a box of 15 Top Flites for £15 or reclaimed lake balls and some tees (£1 per bag) and you are on your way. To practise on the driving range at Boughton it is £1.50 for a bucket of 25 balls, £2.50 for 50. To play the par-three course it's £6, nine holes on the main course is £12.50 and the full 18 is £19 during the week and £25 at the weekends.

There are many organisations helping to get people introduced to - and hooked on - golf. On the basis that it's never too early to start, Young Masters Golf is a teaching scheme now employed at many clubs which offers children a structured programme of learning in all aspects of the game.

Anyone can take advantage of the English Golf Union's "Learn to play in May" campaign, which features free coaching for beginners at selected driving ranges and clubs. Last year, 2,800 people had their first lesson under the scheme and 80 per cent of those subsequently continued their involvement in golf.

Dungate says that figure is even higher for those who start with a series of lessons. "People who give it a go and just thrash about can lose interest very quickly," he says. "But for those who get involved with a series of lessons, I reckon over 90 per cent carry on with the game. I still get people coming up to me who say that 10, 12 or 14 years ago I taught them how to play golf.

"There used to be a perception that golf was a rich man's sport for posh people but that is changing quickly. It is more and more a game for everyone and anyone. Some companies produce a starter pack of clubs for as little as £99. They may break in six months but that's long enough for someone to find out whether they like the game and then want to move on to better quality equipment.

"Private members' clubs can be intimidating, although they are having to change these days, but certainly at clubs like ours you will be sure of a warm welcome. There will be no one looking round saying 'what are you doing here'."

A seven-day membership at Boughton costs £739 a year. But there are plenty of categories available, including very cheap ones where you still pay a green fee but at a discounted rate. A typical subscription for a private club, many of which currently have vacancies for new memberships, might be £1,000 but rates vary widely across the country. The benefits of membership include being able to play in competitions and getting a handicap: the system that, unique in sport, allows players of differing abilities to have a keenly fought contest.

Now the golf bug has bitten, you can spend as much or as little as you want. Better equipment and shoes will follow, a glove (£11.95) for a better grip, a towel (£6.95), the top-of-the-range Titleist Pro VI balls at £10.95 for a sleeve of three (expensive on a course with water), a Nike cap to look like Tiger (£12.95) and waterproofs (anything from £69 to £199 but no price is too great for remaining warm and dry in a British summer, let alone the winter).

For those who forsake exercise, a buggy can usually be hired for around £30, while the posher courses may have caddies - the bigger the tip, the better the advice. Visiting other courses is a good way to improve and green fees at the private clubs might start at £40-£60, while top whack is £200 for a round on the famous West Course at Wentworth.

Soon there will be no escape from the desire to improve. Hints and tips in the golf magazines are essential (subscription to Golf Monthly, £40), while for the non-traditionalist, the new Golf Punk might be more the thing. Sky Sports is a must to see how the pros do it - there is even now a 24-hour Golf Shopping channel - while nothing beats seeing your golfing heroes in the flesh.

A season ticket to the Open Championship at Royal Troon in July is £140 if booked before the end of April. Later the same month at Sunningdale is the Women's British Open - aspiring amateurs can often learn more from the top women professionals than the Tigers and the Mickelsons, who really do play a game with which we are not familiar.

Which only leaves the bar bill at the 19th hole. One of those old traditions is that anyone having a hole-in-one should buy everyone in the bar a drink. If you think this might be a problem, insurance is available.

Go to www.pga.info and www.englishgolfunion.org for more information. The golf unions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland can offer similar advice.

'Everyone is getting into golf'

A few years ago, Anthony Back had no idea he was going to turn into the sort of person who would pay hundreds of pounds for a golf club or jet off to play in Tenerife. Were it not for some football injuries, he might not have. "You play the odd game growing up but it wasn't until two years ago that I started playing regularly," said the 30-year-old electrician from Canterbury.

"It was time to give up the football as my legs had taken a few knocks and I was looking around for something else to do."

Back tried golf and turned out to be a natural. Sickening, really. "It just came naturally. It's something I enjoy and find relaxing." He started off with a handicap of 21 but has been successively cut and now plays off 10, a rapid improvement.

The golf bug took hold quickly. "It only took about three or four months," he said. "The golf bug kicks in when you can see you are getting better and beginning to improve.

"Of course, when you start you just want to smash the ball as far as you can. But then you start to realise that it is better to keep the ball under control. You want to be in the fairway and then on the green. The tactics start to come into play."

Better equipment meant better control but to help balance the books Back, a member at the Boughton club near Faversham, seeks out the discounted twilight rounds on summer evenings. Friends in Tenerife mean the clubs get taken on holiday.

"You can spend as much or little as you like," he said. "And everyone is getting into golf. When you play in competitions or society days, you meet all sorts of people.

"I find golf something that de-stresses me. Being out on a nice summer's day - I find that much better than just going down the pub."

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