Why do golfers golf?

While all coaches want to improve the angle of attack or clubhead speed of a golfer in a lesson it is worth remembering the reason that most people actually play golf, writes Sue Shapcott.

Why do adults play golf? Considering the golf coaching business relies on people playing the game, we should know the answer to that question. But do we? With few exceptions, golf coaches work with a range of players, most of them recreational. Think about your typical students. Why do you think they play golf? Did they take up golf to play competitively? Did they take up golf so they could develop a technically correct swing? Did they take up golf for exercise? Or did they take up golf for more social reasons? Research suggests the latter.

To be clear, recreational golfers do want to improve their games. Not necessarily because they want to be competitive, but by playing a little better, golf can be more enjoyable. For example, I’m sure I’m not the only golf coach who is frequently told, “Just help me not embarrass myself!” The motivation behind this cry for help, and many others, is that golfers want to play well enough to enjoy their time with their friends and family on the golf course.

The ‘why’ behind the recreational golf is important for coaches to remember. When we coach, it is easy to project our own golf interests on our students – striving for a faster clubhead speed or a lower launch angle. Most of the time, however, our clients aren’t so technically demanding. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t improve players’ impact positions or increase their clubhead speed. These are all noble causes and ones that may help golfers find golf more enjoyable. But coaches should work gradually on technical changes and not overlook the other things that your students want from golf – social capital.

Academic researchers have amassed a compelling body of work suggesting that social capital, including networks and community, are one of the main reasons people play golf. For example, the new retiree may be looking to develop a network of friends and acquaintances to replace those she left behind with her career. The couple who are new to the area may take group golf lessons in the hope of meeting other like-minded people. And a man in his twenties may turn to golf because his girlfriend and her family are golfers. If he plays, he will also be included in the family outings.

Golf’s social capital carries a lot of weight. Golfers say that they come to depend on the social networks the game provides. Friends made through golf often become a center-piece in golfers’ lives. In marriages, couples give credit to golf for providing an activity that they play together. In doing so, it brings them closer together. And golf can be the activity that bonds new arrivals to a community in a town or city.

Knowing this, coaches should consider what their responsibility is to golfers beyond providing technical adjustments. I think we have a big responsibility because we are in a unique position to facilitate the social capital that recreational golfers crave from golf. For example:In group lessons, make time for people to get to know each other. Make sure everyone is introduced by name, and help them find common interests. At the end of the program, suggest participants celebrate by having a drink or lunch together in the clubhouse. This gives players a chance to swap contact details and arrange to play or practice together in the future.

Ask your golf students who they play golf with, and if they would like to be introduced to other players. I’m constantly surprised at how many students take me up on this offer. I keep a list of players looking for playing partners and introduce potential playing partners by email.

Consider starting a golf league. If recreational golfers are motivated by golf’s social dimension, they will give up the game if that need isn’t fulfilled. Therefore, providing an accessible and casual structure for players to golf may keep more people in the game.

It is always satisfying to watch golfers improve their techniques and ball flight. But equally as satisfying is when I see my golf students making friends, having fun and playing golf together on the course. It is important to remind ourselves of the social motivation and sense of belonging players seek from golf. Because no matter how much golfers enjoy their golf lessons, they will not stay in the game unless it gives them social capital.