The next time you hear a non-golfer criticize the game because it’s too expensive, please correct them, and then offer to take them to putt, because putting is free.
I can pinpoint the moment, down to a single shot, when I became forever hooked on golf. It wasn’t the first time I hit a solid 7 iron or driver. It was the first time I made a long putt. I was about six years old, just getting started in the game, on the putting green at Hop Meadow Country Club, in Simsbury, Conn., my home course growing up.
My dad had left me pretty much to my own devices; I think he may have been on the range. I had been batting two or three golf balls around the green with mixed results, but at one point I chose to take on about a 60-footer, clear across and down the green.
Whether it was luck or kismet, my infant powers of touch, direction and green-reading all converged in one single stroke. When the ball disappeared into the cup, I reacted as any normal six year old would: I took off shouting and running around the green, quasi-Hale Irwin-style. Whatever dreary members were around were probably annoyed, but at that moment they witnessed the birth of a lifelong golfer.
It happened that I had my first epiphany in golf at a private club. But it didn’t have to be that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way for current and future golfers. For all the (rightful) attention TopGolf and its peers have received for the ways in which they have added a new definition to the term “golf experience,” they are doing it through the full swing, which is full of nuance and requires a lot of steps to execute correctly. Sure, pure hand-eye coordination and a bit of luck can produce a passably pleasing shot, but isn’t putting, for all its difficulty to approach mastering, so much simpler to introduce to a novice? Not only that, it’s a great litmus test for someone’s potential to take to the greater game. Anyone who can handle missing a three-foot putt early on without quitting is likely to stay, appreciating the extent to which failure is part of golf’s charm.
Putting is free, or as near as makes no difference. Any non-golfer could go to a used sporting goods store and buy a putter for less than ten dollars, a decent used ball for a buck, and right then and there be equipped for almost half the entire game. Add an old sand wedge (another $5-$10) and someone can play most of the game (or the entire game at pitch-and-putt courses like Scotland's Bruntsfield Short Hole Golf Club in Edinburgh). For all golf’s elitist image problems, that is a tiny investment for a ton of prospective enjoyment.
The next step: find a green, which is easily done at any of thousands of municipal golf courses. I’m fortunate that range prices at my home course, Sandridge Golf Club, are reasonable at about $3.50 for about 35 practice balls. But an hour of twilight putting practice is an even better deal at free-99, as they say. The same goes for the new short game area that is growing in, courtesy of Director of Golf Bela Nagy.
Is there a stigma against this practice? Do people feel that by going to the course and using the practice facilities that don’t require purchase is somehow a form of freeloading? At least at municipal facilities, I would disagree. While I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable rolling up to a high-end daily fee course and just putting or practicing my short game without paying them for at least a bag of range balls and/or a drink or snack in the bar, I would never think twice about using a municipal golf course putting green. These facilities are public amenities; there is no difference in potential use between a muni course putting green and a bench in a park, as I see it. In the midst of a long and busy recent work trip, the 20 minutes I spent putting at Herndon Centennial Golf Course outside Washington, D.C. was a brief but thoroughly relaxing golf experience. And it was free.
If there should be a chicken in every pot, there should be a putting green in every town square. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the Himalayas Putting Course at St. Andrews – it can (and sometimes should, for reasons of maintenance) even be artificial turf – but a couple thousand square feet in the local green space would give golfers and non-golfers alike a place to interface with a significant part of the game. Give it a sturdy foundation so it can stand up to years of traffic and just enough contour so that it gets people learning to read break, and it becomes another wonderful low-cost public amenity. It would be a perfect portal into the game for kids and other non-golfers, as well as the entrenched golfing set.
It’s also a potential urban golf solution. En route to becoming a Master-level chess player before he even hit high school, my uncle Bob played chess against the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square Park until they refused to continue funneling their own money into his pockets. A great golfer of the future – or Major Series of Putting champion – could someday look back on the 15-footers they holed at an inner-city putting green as their own start in the game.
For now, though, my suspicion is that our municipal course putting greens are underutilized. Perhaps periodic “Open House” nights – rent a floodlight, invite some food trucks, target non-golfers and kids – could create a few new golfers, and energize the entrenched local base of golfers. People would pay for the beer and the food, but the putting, as always, would be free.