Learning or Improving the Game of Golf at an Older Age

I am fifty, does that make me over the hill on learning to play golf?

There are numerous neurological studies that reveal the human brain is capable of learning motor skills throughout life. We once believed that when motor skills were learned they became “fixed” and could not be changed; we now know the human brain is capable of learning or changing previously learned motor skills throughout life. That knowledge opens a new world of activities to a group of people we might have once called “over the hill.”

The fact that learning is possible for older golfers does not mean it will happen. There is a big difference between being capable of doing something and actually doing it, and that goes for people of all ages. Learning the fundamentals of golf at any age takes time, patience, and practice. The older we are the longer the process takes—patience is a handy quality to pick up as we age. There are three stages of learning that everyone goes through to make motor skills autonomous, this is true for golfers of all ages. When your expectations for quickly learning fall short remember that golf is worth the effort and you don’t have to be a super star to play the game. We can all learn but we must realize learning golf is a journey and not a destination, and no one ever masters this game. If you begin learning golf with your focus on having fun and hitting the ball, you will be off to a good start. Perfecting your game is what happens during practice sessions. 

Following are the steps to hitting a golf ball: once the swing starts you have approximately one and one half seconds to perform hundreds of motor skills while blending seven fundamentals in support of four distinct swing phases that create a club head speed of 75 to over 100 miles per hour just before impacting that 1.62” diameter ball. You now may be thinking, “Wow, if it takes all that how does anyone ever succeed?” 

You succeed because you have a piece of equipment that’s not in your golf bag. It’s your amazing brain, and if you understand the learning process and make your brain your partner rather than your opponent, you increase your odds of success tenfold. 

The brain can handle approximately seven cognitive thoughts at any given time. Under the age of twenty the genetic makeup of homo sapiens places a high priority on learning physical skills. Long ago skills like running, climbing, or building shelter were necessary for our species to survive. Today the ability to learn multiple motor skills is still part of our genetic makeup but we use that ability for different purposes with athletics being a major focus. As we grow older our brains tend to focus less on physical skills and more on mental challenges. This change of priorities at age twenty is genetic and makes learning motor skills at older ages more difficult but not impossible. 

To put all this in perspective the most valuable motor skill we have learned is to walk. It is a complicated physical action equal to the complexities of learning golf, and we learned to walk without coaching at about age one. The initial schooling was implicit and came from observation. As the learning progressed, we got explicit learning through trial and error. It all happened without verbal or written instruction. Operating on its own our brain realized crawling was inefficient, and the big people were walking. Being mobile and upright requires balance, coordination, and strength. Our brain decided how much trial and error (practice) was necessary while clinging to the coffee table before it attempted to solo. The brain did this without outside help. Letting the brain take the lead was the key to success.

Can you imagine the outcome if you had been coached? “Okay, Junior, bend your knees, keep your feet six inches apart, hold your arms out away from your body, bend slightly at the hips and not at the waist, put one foot out in front of you about two inches, don’t rush it, and be careful not to fall.” I am certain that if it had fallen to me to give my daughters first-step instruction, my list of dos and don’ts would have been considerably more detailed. But I think you get the point; without instruction the brain was able to concentrate on its own implicit learning pattern. It focused enormous effort on learning the combination of skills that allow us to be balanced in an upright stance and then launch our first steps. This period of trial and error we now call practice. 

We want to teach the same brain that learned to walk how to play golf. The process will be more complicated because most of the advice coming from well-meaning individuals whose only credentials are that they have played more rounds of golf than we have. We listen because the skills to hit a golf ball are unlike any skills we have developed playing other sports, and we feel lost. This attempt to learn from anyone who offers advice is never completely successful and leads to developing a golf game that’s part right, but mostly wrong. To add additional confusion to the process the brain wants to help; after all it did learn to walk. 

The brain goes into a protective mode because it is frugal and does not want to waste time learning new skills when the skills it now possesses will do just fine. It automatically substitutes previously learned skills for the ones you need to play golf. (This is called transference) You have to actively fight against this process. 

The first skill you should work on is the grip, and while it seems like a simple straight forward task you should be warned: Ninety percent of all golfers have learned an incorrect grip, so the chances of a positive outcome are not great if you plan to learn the grip from your good buddy. If you combine poor instruction with your brain’s desire to be frugal you are going to end up with a grip that is a combination of grips—spatula, tennis racket, hammer, etc.—you  have learned in the past. Your grip could turn out to be the hammer-suitcase-handle grip. This conflict with your brain over prior learned skills will be a constant obstacle to learning any of the fundamental skills needed to play the game of golf. 

To hit a ball with a mostly predictable result, have fun,  learn the fundamentals,  know the rules of the game and break 100 will take you the better part of a year, but only if you throw in that dreaded word practice. Plan to take three weeks going through the cognitive (information gathering) phase for each of the seven fundamentals and for each of the four parts of the swing. In approximately thirty-three weeks your game will be in the associative stage (skills are more automatic, and performed with almost no conscious thought). You no longer have to think about each action before you perform it. Once all your skills are in the associative stage it will depend on how much practice and play you put into your game to move to the autonomous stage (no conscious thought required) where golf really becomes fun. The autonomous stage is where our performance is automatic, and we begin to concentrate our efforts on strategy and shot development. 

I can make this promise to you. It is not necessary for you to become a skilled golfer to enjoy the game. Even with limited ability the game is fun. If you take Arnold Palmer’s advice and go out on the course and “just whack the ball,” you may find that satisfies a part of your motivational system: the need to be in control of the environment you live in. The National Golf Foundation reports that 33.5 million Americans enjoy the game of golf, but only 24.5 million of these golfers play on regulation golf courses, and you should know that their average score is around 100. The other 9.5 million get their golf fix at driving ranges and golf entertainment venues. You have choices. 

Here is a suggested outline for practice in your game development:

Your short game is most critical to your eventual success in golf and of all the practice possibilities it should receive the highest priority. Learn to chip and to putt by allotting 50 percent of your practice time to work around and on the green. 

The second priority is to learn to hit your driver and fairway woods. The emphasis is on being in the fairway because you don’t want to hit your second shot form the rough.  Allot 30 percent of your practice time to your driver and fairway woods. 

The third priority is to allot 20 percent of your practice time to iron shots.  

Good Luck

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