Beginner’s Gold: Taking the Challenge at Monarch Dunes
I turned down a trip to Bandon Dunes. I know, I know. Who does that? When I mention this to anyone in the golf world they look at me like I just stole candy from a baby.
If you’re reading FORE magazine, I assume you’re a golfer. And though you may not remember how hard you struggled at first, this story about beginners is still for you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from people addicted to golf it’s that they want the people they love to love the game as well. But for beginning golfers like me, it’s not always easy to fall in love with the game.
Golf participation is declining, and pundits chalk it up to expense and time. Both are valid reasons. But I’m confident that the industry is working on this. Programs like SCGA Youth on Course make golf affordable to kids. The USGA’s 9 is Just Fine campaign reminds us that you don’t have to set aside 4–5 hours to have fun on the course. These initiatives aren’t perfect yet, but they’re a step in the right direction.
But there are other reasons people don’t embrace golf that aren’t being addressed on a national level, reasons that I didn’t even think about until I took a trip to the Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes GC in Nipomo (just south of Santa Maria, California).
I went to visit the Challenge Course with the intention of writing a short feature for FORE on the course’s “grow the game” initiative. The SCGA and FORE are committed to highlighting efforts to bring new people into the game, and from what I had heard about the Challenge Course, they were geared up to do that, putting together a 12-hole, par-3 course that caters to beginners building the skills necessary to succeed at golf while having fun doing it. To someone like me who doesn’t exactly love hitting dozens of balls on the range and would much rather learn the game while out on the course, it sounded like a great idea.
But it turns out the program at the Challenge Course does much more than help develop your golf skills in an on-course setting. Golfers on the Challenge Course can choose between a regulation-sized hole or a larger, 7-inch one. There are four sets of tees, including the front green tees, which are a long putt away from the green. And all the bunkers are shallow and manageable for a beginner.
But superintendent Tom Elliott and head pro Jim DeLaby go beyond addressing the golf skills–based challenges and really look into why people are fearful of starting up the game: intimidation.
Golf is an intimidating sport. There are a zillion rules, strict etiquette and pressure to keep up a certain pace. The fact that the sport hasn’t exactly been welcoming to newcomers in the past doesn’t help.
When I arrived at the Challenge Course, Jim was waiting for me outside of the golf shop. I wasn’t getting any special media treatment—he does this for all his new Challenge Course golfers who sign up for the Learn Golf program and a walk-through with him. Right off the bat he asked me about my golf ability, and was pleasantly surprised when I told him I was a beginner. (I get that a lot. People think SCGA employee = single-digit handicap. I’m proof it doesn’t.) “I was going to make you go through the whole course left-handed,” he told me. I assured him I’d struggle enough with my dominant hand.
For the rest of the day Jim treated me like a first-time Learn Golf participant. As we walked into the golf shop to get my scorecard, he explained that for the most part the shop is the place where you can buy somewhat expensive logoed balls and shirts. “If you want golf balls, buy them at a golf retailer. If you want Monarch Dunes golf balls, buy them here,” he said. Of course I knew that, but I appreciated his honesty with first-time customers.
We then went over to the Learn Golf station, which is in the back corner of the shop. Jim told me to take a scorecard and a pencil, and we went through what all the boxes and numbers meant. “If someone wanted to try to play golf for the first time and showed up at a course, how would they know how to do this?” he commented.
Next we discussed par, possibly the most frustrating part of the game for beginners. The definition of par is “the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to take to finish a golf hole or course.” But wait, I’m not a good golfer. Do I still have to play by those standards? Not at the Challenge Course.
“We don’t want you to fail the first 100 times you play the game,” says Jim. “Why should your goal on a hole be the same as mine, a golf professional’s?”
So instead, Jim and I recreated my par. There was a spot on the Learn Golf scorecard for me to put in my own goals for strokes per hole. At that point we were ready to head to the course. As we exited the shop doors, Jim was stopped by a middle-aged woman. “Jim, you forgot to teach us something!” she said with a smile. “What’s that?” he asked. “Starter,” she replied. “I booked a tee time on my own, went to the guy at the Golf Shop desk, and he told me to see the starter. What’s that?”
Jim explained that a starter is like a concierge of golf, and provides information regarding course, play time and other golf-related issues. “That’s someone who’s going through my Learn Golf program,” he told me as we headed toward the course. “She’s actually married to someone in the golf industry and hasn’t had any luck getting excited about the game. But that was the first tee time she ever booked on her own and she played 12 holes! That’s what this whole thing is all about.”
As we walked away from the shop, Jim pointed out a series of small flags lining the cart path. “For someone who’s never been here before and isn’t familiar with the game, how would they know where to go when they left the golf shop or parking lot?” he asked.
I wouldn’t have known where to go. So luckily for me and fellow beginning players, the Challenge Course is lined with these flags throughout its 12 holes, showing the walking path for all of its golfers, from the golf shop to the final green.
My 12-hole experience on the Challenge Course was a blast. Jim sprinkled in terminology and etiquette advice between holes, and the rest was just about having fun with a golf club in my hand. We opted to play from the forward tees for the true beginner’s experience, so I only used a putter. No pressure, but still challenging. The “par” number Jim and I had created for me in the golf shop? I didn’t hit it every time, but I sure as hell wanted to.
I enjoyed the experience so much I went back out on my own the next day. I played all 12 holes again, opting once more to play with just my putter. “If I can’t record a 3 on every hole from the forward tees, why would I move back?” I thought to myself. It’s a good question, and one that falls directly in line with the PGA’s Tee It Forward initiative.
Walking off the course that second day I ran into Jim. “If this was in my neighborhood, I’d be here at least once I week,” I told him. And it’s the truth. How great would it be to keep playing the Challenge Course until I could successfully shoot par from the forward tees? And then the same from the second set of tees? Talk about an ideal way to get better at the game while being challenged at a reasonable level and having fun doing it.
Someday I hope I’ll make it to Bandon. And I’ll be able to experience it the right way, with a golf game I’m comfortable with. Until then, I’ll use Jim’s ideas to keep challenging myself.
Julia Pine is the asst. director of communications for the SCGA. She can be reached at email@example.com.