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Health & Fitness

Golf Without (Much) Madness

Roger M. Williams


“A good walk spoiled” is the most famous of many joking descriptions of golf. Nonetheless, the sport remains the most favored among retirees. For every senior who carries his or her love of golf into retirement, it seems, another takes it up after getting there.

All that, despite its well-known ability to drive participants to swear aloud, smash their clubs, and drown their sorrows in strong drink after drowning their golf balls in a succession of water hazards.

Sue and Bob Schmitt, former high school history teachers in Illinois, are a prototypical pair of NEA retiree golfers. He started playing when he was a six-year-old farm boy, while she only four years before she retired. Although he is more skilled, they often play in the same foursomes—in Florida during the winter, in Illinois the rest of the year—and cite that togetherness is a reason they pursue the sport.

“Golf drives me crazy,” says Sue cheerfully, “but I love it. It’s always different from one day or one course to the next. You can play it almost anywhere you go, out in the fresh air.” Even golf’s near-singular form of competition appeals to her: “Not only can you play by yourself, you’re playing against yourself, hoping to improve your score.”

Indeed, trying to shave a few strokes off one’s “handicap” (average score above the course rating) has been known to drive golfers nearly mad. Those who maintain their sanity do so by regarding golf as a game, not a test of character, and by savoring its social aspects.

Sue notes that golf is “a major activity” in their Sebring, Florida, community; Bob adds that “We arrange most of our tee times as a couple, and that’s led to making friends with numerous other couples.”

A key to happiness on the course is moderating expectations—especially when driving off the tee. Nowadays the professionals you see on TV seem to be hitting their tee shots a half mile. The average senior, by contrast, should be content with 150 yards or even less. “

You’re just not going to drive the ball like you did, or would have, when you were 50,” says Alex Lively, who teaches golf to residents of Leisure World, a large retirement complex in Silver Spring, Maryland. “There are too many physical limitations (such as) diminished strength and range of motion, lack of flexibility, maybe arthritis.”

Lively recommends, and logic dictates, a focus on developing a reliable “short game,” that is, approaching the green and putting. Those shots require not power but reasonable accuracy and a sense of how to handle the appropriate clubs.

Which leads to the matter of lessons, or how you want to spend your golfing time: some of it at the driving range with a teaching pro, or all of it playing. Hitting drives without instruction tends to reinforce bad habits, rather than change them, ensuring what a friend of mine calls “a preview of coming detractions.” If you’re at least moderately serious about your game, lessons are a good investment, which can produce lower scores—and bragging rights—down the line.

All senior golfers must decide how, literally, to negotiate the course: on foot or in a cart. And if walking, whether to pull the bag or carry it. If you’re keen on exercise, and the course is not too hilly, and disability is not a factor, try walking. It will heighten what many feel is golf’s best feature—the chance to enjoy nature in a serene and often beautiful setting, and sidestep at least part of the curse of a good walk spoiled.


Clubs and Their Use—Take particular care in choosing your driver.  For extra power, get one of the large-head models; and for greater “loft,” which leads to more distance off the tee, select a head with about a 14-degree tilt. Look for clubs with some flexibility in the shaft and—if you need to compensate for weak or arthritic hands—a larger-than-normal grip. On the fairway, choose a mid-number iron; stay away from the low numbers (“Only God can hit a two-iron,” pro ace Lee Trevino declared) and from all woods.

Balls—Look for Surlyn-covered balls; Pinnacle is a leading brand.  They generate longer distance from slower swings.

Avoid Partner Envy—That is, serious competition with younger players in your foursome.  Play within your own capabilities. For example, be content with a 150-yard drive while they’re hitting well over 200; and play cautiously to avoid landing in water hazards or taking additional strokes to get out of a sand trap.

NOTE: Senior golf can be fruitful as well as fun. For the seventh straight year, retired members of the Michigan Education Association staged a   golf outing to raise college scholarship money; the outings have already generated nearly $1 million.

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