The rubber grip feels awkward in my hand and it takes a good three swings until I finally hit the golf ball off the practice mat. Even then, it doesn't follow the soaring comet's momentum as it did with my instructor, Danny Jakubowski, who is effortlessly thwacking his targets past the driving range's 228-metre marker. My golf ball doesn't even go forward. Instead it pathetically bounces off some two metres to the side at ankle height.
As you may have guessed, I had never played golf before setting out to write this account. In fact, I'd never even held a golf club before, but maybe that makes me just the person to write a beginner's guide to the much-loved sport. It feels humbling to be learning the game where some of its heavyweights, including Shane Lowry, played only a few weeks before, for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. I am at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, with its man-made green hills rising above stone-framed pools of water in my range of vision and its landmark falcon-shaped clubhouse behind me. Birds with long tapering beaks and brilliant blue feathers are flying in flocks from the trees to my side. Coupled with the cool breeze and the silence, it's easy to forget I am in Abu Dhabi.
“Don’t worry,” Jakubowski, who is the group director of instruction at Troon Golf Abu Dhabi, calls out encouragingly. “No one hits the ball far on their first day. Most don’t even hit it at all.”
Tricks of the trade
Golf is a problem-solving game. It requires analytic skills to know which clubs to use and when. And even when you're armed with the right club for the right shot, a lot will depend on your technique. The goal is to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. A full round of golf covers 18 holes and can run up to four hours. Most people opt to play a game of nine holes, which can go up to about two hours.
"It's all about nuance. The ball should hit the centre of the club head, the 'sweet spot'. Hit it at the sole and the ball will go bouncing off to the side," Jakubowski explains. "Ideally, your swing should shave off a sliver of grass as you hit the ball."
Jakubowski has been playing the sport since he was a teenager and has been an instructor at the club for 10 years. He has mentored high-profile football figures and rock stars such as Alice Cooper, so he knows what he's talking about. Still, as the ball feebly bounces off the mat at my umpteenth swing, I wonder if he has ever encountered a more trying student.
"If you want to hit the ball far, the trick is to swing with your wrists and hips, and your back foot should pivot as you swing the club. Like a boxer's knockout punch." He demonstrates the motion at the driving range, an area where golfers are practising their swing, as I try to hit the ball as far into the green as I can, which is to say not very far.
There are many benefits to learning golf, Jakubowski says. “Like any sport, it boosts confidence, but then there is also the etiquette of the game, the social aspect of it. You need to know the rules and respect them. It is also one of the few, if not the only, sport that can bring together a 15-year-old, 30-year-old and 60-year-old, and have them play competitively.” The game can also help improve posture. Jakubowski says he often has to help his students, particularly teenagers, to straighten their backs. Most, he says, have slouched shoulders and a spine that has curved as a result of long hours spent in front of the computer or on their phones.
Jakubowski says the game has now started attracting a younger audience. Part of it is due to players such as Tiger Woods, who imbued the sport with a more athletic image. "Every game needs a transcendental figure to attract new players, like Michael Jordan or LeBron James with basketball," Jakubowski, who went professional at 22, says. "However, unlike other games, golfers who go pro tend to stay in the game for a long time. This, along with the lower injury rate, tends to attract more people. There's also money in it."
With that, I successfully hit the ball with a decent swing and, although it doesn’t shoot off as fast or far as Jakubowski’s, I am proud. I don’t know if he is.
Let’s talk clubs
You're allowed 14 in the bag, but most beginners don't need more than nine. You can get a Wilson set for Dh1,600, while more expensive sets, made out of carbon fibre and titanium, can go for between Dh10,000 and Dh20,000. These specialised clubs are made of a solid piece of metal such as forged iron, as opposed to their mass-produced cast-iron counterparts. But you don't need to aim that high yet; a beginner's set will serve you fine. If you're still not ready to claim your own bag, then most golf courses will rent you a set.
Of the essential clubs, there's the driver, which is arguably the most illustrious of the bunch. It is the longest club in the bag and has the largest head. It's most likely what you will use for your tee shot and is designed to drive the ball far. Then come the mid to short irons – these versatile clubs can be used in various situations, and are usually numbered from three to nine. A beginner, or a golfer still improving his or her game, needs only the six, seven, eight and nine. The higher the number, the higher the angle on the golf face, meaning the ball will travel high, but for a short distance. Lower number irons have less of an intense angle on the golf face and will drive the ball far, but not high.
The sand wedge has the widest sole of the bunch and is designed to get you out of a bunker. You'll be able to swing through the top layer of sand without fear of your club getting dug in. Then you have the putter. Jakubowski says although it isn't the most exciting club, it is perhaps the most essential. Because even after you've sent your golf ball far into the green, shot it out of the sandy bunker and brought it close to the flag, you're still going to need this club to send it down the hole.
Dress like a golfer
I show up for my crash course in a pair of jeans and Air Force Ones, and while the kicks were acceptable, the jeans were a no-no, according to Jakubowski, who also advises steering clear of denim shorts or those with drawstrings. Players are usually expected to wear a polo shirt and tailored shorts. "Lately there's been a trend for blade-collared shirts as well," Jakubowski says.
You’re also going to need gloves.
A single one is fine, for the left hand if you’re a right-handed player. “Some people wear two to prevent sun freckles,” the trainer says. “You definitely need the one to keep your hand from developing callouses from the rubber handle of the club. It also gives you a better grip.”
For golf shoes, the options are endless. You can get a dependable pair, with good soft spikes for a comfortable venture out on the green, for about Dh500. Nike offers a more affordable version based on its Roshe line-up for Dh315. If you want to make a statement, Adidas has shoes with a flyknit upper and boost soles (the same used on Yeezys) for Dh900.
There are even Nike Air Jordan derivatives, the one based on the Air Jordan 3 (complete with the elephant print), which go for Dh500. So whether you want to show up to the course in a blade-collared polo and some Yeezy-like Adidas shoes or in a more low-key polo shirt and shorts, is up to you.
Even as I mentally plan my wardrobe for my next game, it occurs to me that it might be more fun to play a round with friends – a means to enjoy the great outdoors after work.
“Although people are rarely or ever naturally good at golf, it’s easy to pick up the basics. To get good at it and develop your technique requires repetition. And the better you get, the more challenging the game will get, as you move on from the beginner’s tee to the more advanced distances. Either way, it’s a fun sport to get into whether you’re 16 or 60,” says Jakubowski, who finally agrees with at least one of my strategies, as he concludes: “And, yes, it’s much better with friends.”