Golf, Doctors and Money

In pop-culture, golf, doctors and money often go together. In reality, I've never met a doctor who takes the mythic Wednesday afternoon off to play golf. For those of you interested in getting started, or just interested in having a dialog about this endlessly fascinating pursuit, let me review a few basics based upon my experience.

In pop-culture, golf, doctors and money often go together. In reality, I’ve never met a doctor who takes the mythic Wednesday afternoon off to play golf, and I am a lifelong golfer. The few physicians that I know who do play came to the game later in their careers, when they had more money and more time.

Time, not money, is the crucial factor. It takes four to five hours to play a round of golf, not including travel time, warm-up and an after-round libation. And golf is a game that’s only fun if you have a certain level of skill, much like skiing.

True, golf can get expensive: Clubs, shoes, accessories, balls -- lots of balls, unfortunately -- greens fees, lessons, and golf-related travel can add up. The only "good" economic news for golfers is that, because of the recession, it is estimated that up to 10% of all private country clubs will either go belly up or convert to public play in the near term. So buy-ins and greens fees are way down for those of us who remain or are interested to take up the game.

I admit many non-golfers don't "get" the appeal of the game, and I can't say I blame them. (After all, golf is just "flog" spelled backward.) But, I always like to say, even if you don’t play well, the grass is still green, the sky is still blue and you have a nice day to walk in a park, usually with congenial people. And more to our point, a lot of business, formal and informal, seems to get done in this more relaxed atmosphere.

You can also learn much about your potential business clients/partners/referral relationships by observing how they go about the game. Do they enjoy themselves or grind? Do they follow the rules, or kick a ball in a bad lie with their "foot wedge”? Do they drink too much on the course, or curse or spend half the day on their cellphone? Do they tell jokes sociably, or clam up?

Under these "ordinary and necessary" business conditions, golf can be a deductible expense, even a pricey country-club membership. Just be prepared with specific documentation to justify your claim. (Check with your tax advisor.)

For those of you interested in getting started, or just interested in having a dialog about this endlessly fascinating pursuit, let me review a few basics based upon my experience. (Note: This is not stuff that your book/DVD or golf pro is likely to say.) First of all, do start with an off-the-shelf golf set, which you can purchase from a discount sporting goods or department store. Standard clubs will set you back between $100 to 300, compared with the $1,500-plus that a properly fitted, custom first-line set will cost.

Rentals tend to be expensive and widely vary in usefulness. Incidentally, when you are ready for the high-priced spread, high-tech club fitting can make a big difference in your results and enjoyment, especially if you are big or small, older or have some special need. As an offset, if you walk when you play, instead of riding in one of those iconic little carts, you can save $15 to $30 per round and get a good deal of exercise in the bargain.

On the course, as in other areas of your life, dressing well makes a difference in your confidence. Most golf courses don't allow jeans or shirts without a collar. (Loud pants are optional.)

Next, take some introductory lessons from the best, most-expensive Professional Golf Association pro that you can find and afford. Expect to pay up to $500 if you get a nationally known teacher. (There is a huge gap in quality here, and it shows in the pricing and in the results.) Tip: Ask about the "stack and tilt" method -- after all these years, it's the one that has made the most difference for me. Also, read the reference materials recommended by the pro.

An experienced player can just watch somebody step up to the tee and immediately know what kind of "stick" he or she is. So a basic lesson is that if you don't set up properly, everything after that requires compensation, which can lead to poor results. The swing is just applied biophysics and a proper stance, which you will learn from the pro or the book. It takes no athletic ability and can give you a great head start. Just practice in front of a mirror until you get it right and feel comfortable.

The advent of video and laser monitoring of the swing has made a significant difference and you should have your pro expose you to it. The cost will be factored into his fee, just like your stethoscope. Except for stance, don't get too hung up on photographic static positions, as it is supposed to be an athletic, smooth flow. That's where you get all the comedians' bad jokes about "head down, elbow in, knees out," etc.

So if it’s so easy, why do so many people play so badly? For starters, you can generalize that golf is a game that’s rarely taught correctly. I once took a weekend class from a touring pro and he stopped his instruction to ask what I was writing. “Notes,” I told him. He was going through a lot of things, and the cost of the lesson and greens fees were too expensive to let any of it slip from memory. The pro looked surprised. "I've been teaching for years and you are the first person who has ever taken notes," he said. (His bad for not recommending note-taking, and his students' bad for not realizing the benefit of taking them.)

Practice is also key to becoming good at the game. Most novices don’t practice enough and when they do, they do so without a plan. You can learn a lot just by sitting at a driving range and watching the swing/practice flaws of those who are getting poor results. Conversely, time spent watching a beautiful swing has been shown to translate into a better tempo. Watching the pros does help, once you get over the awe.

Once again, let me stipulate that golf can be expensive, time-consuming and difficult. But it is an activity that you can play for the rest of your life, constantly learning new things and thoroughly enjoying a passion, even if you don't do well on a given day. In fact, when I write my golfing memoirs someday, I am going to title it, "How To Line Up Your 4th Putt." I've always said that life imitates golf. Fore…