Hitting things with sticks comes naturally to most children. Put a youngster in a field with nothing better to do and, like as not, he'll pick up a switch and start decapitating dandelions. Give him a bat or a racket and he'll begin swinging it even before you toss him a ball. Often he'll make a pretty good pass at whatever he's trying to hit just by instinct. If he enjoys what he's doing—and most children I know like spontaneous physical activity—he'll get better at it simply by watching and copying how other people do it.
That's how my children started the games they play, and with golf in particular I can't think of a better way. The big danger with too much early adult direction is an overprogrammed, overcomplex approach to what is essentially a pretty straightforward act—hitting a ball with a stick. Many parents who tee it up on weekends suffer from paralysis by analysis. The best way to avoid that in children is to encourage them at first simply to whale away at a golf ball with no objective other than giving it a sturdy wallop. The rest can come later if and when a youngster decides that it would be more fun to really try to play golf, rather than just beating balls around.
The chances of that happening are proportionate to how much enjoyment the child has gotten out of belting balls. It is a bad idea, in my view, to try to force a youngster into a game just because you play. And it is even worse to move him along too fast because you want him to excel at a game—one of the problems with Little League baseball and other junior-level team sports. You have to love a sport to play it well, and love grows out of enjoyment, not coercion.
The greatest thing my father did for me was to invite me to try golf, and then, when I liked it, to give me the opportunity to play. There was no "must" or even "should" about it. If he suggested I join him for a round and I didn't want to, that was fine. If I wanted to go to the movies instead of practicing, that was fine, too. The only pressure he put on me in regard to golf was to abide by the game's ethics and traditions. The big decisions were mine.
One of these was to join the weekly junior group golf program run by Jack Grout at Scioto Country Club in Columbus. I was 10 at the time and a lot crazier about baseball and football than golf. But a couple of hours a week beating balls with 40 or 50 children under Jack Grout's enthusiastic but uncomplicated direction quickly showed me three things about the game that caught and held my interest.
First, it was a sport you could play by yourself, and at any time, which appealed to what I suppose were the beginnings of a desire for independence. The second thing was that, although it looked easy, golf was in fact extremely challenging, more so than playing baseball or football. This appealed to my youthful competitiveness. Finally, hitting a ball well was a heck of a lot more fun than hitting it badly, which made me want to get better at it as quickly as possible.
It was the group coaching that really gave me the bug. Looking back, I think I see the reasons why such programs are excellent for moving a child on from hitting balls to playing.
Most children like to do things with other children rather than with adults. The reason, of course, is that by so doing they are participating and competing on their own level, not the remote and seemingly unattainable levels of grownups. This is particularly important in terms of distance—the proper beginning goal of all youngsters. No matter how close an adult-child relationship is, it has to be frustrating and perhaps intimidating for a youngster to be continually out-hit. Junior group experience minimizes the differential.
Also there is the pleasure of peer approval, which comes with developing skills. I got a kick out of being hauled from the line by Jack Grout to show the rest of the kids "how to hit down on it" and "how to get out of a bunker" or whatever. I'm sure that wanting to remain a demonstrator and model was as great a spur to improvement as playing better for its own sake. I know I certainly worked harder after Jack Grout had used someone else to show off a particular shot or technique.
Another plus in teaching youngsters in groups is that they naturally move from learning and practicing to playing together. Adults can get satisfaction from competing against the course, or from trying to strike the ball well. Such challenges are too esoteric for children. They relate much better to competition with those of their own age than to things like par or a particular flighting of the ball. Youngsters who play with adults or alone eventually get bored because they rarely get to compete against a fair and realistic adversary. Also children playing together soon learn how to handle both winning and losing—a very important educational experience.