Golf Is Ageless – What Instructors Say About Teaching Seniors

Fred Griffin, PGA, instructing a senior golfer (Photo courtesy of Grand Cypress Academy of Golf)

Four years ago, Fred Griffin, PGA, director of Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando, Fla., received a phone call from an 81-year-old gentleman who was unsure about whether to come in for a lesson.

“I play twice a week with my buddies, but they give me a hard time about wanting to taking lessons,” the gentleman said. “If I won’t get better, should I come?”

Griffin was ready with his answer.

“We all statistically lose strength and flexibility as we age, including your buddies,” Griffin told the gentleman. “But if you work with me, I will help you improve.

“Your cronies will eat their words.”

With lessons, the player increased his distance off the tee, and fine-tuned his putting and shots around the green.

Fred Griffin, PGA, with student (Photo courtesy of Grand Cypress Academy of Golf)
Fred Griffin, PGA, with student (Photo courtesy of Grand Cypress Academy of Golf)

Griffin’s advice to senior golfers: Don’t be afraid to take instruction. You can continue to improve. Find something you can get involved in – a nine-hole group or other competitive program – so you will be motivated to get better.

Older golfers are more willing to take lessons, said Griffin, 61, because they can afford it and have more time. Sixty-five percent of Griffin’s students are seniors, both local players and vacationing guests, who often sign up for a combination of individual lessons and golf schools. Their common goal is to improve their shot making and lower their scores. Because they’ve lost distance, Griffin focuses on course management. Some players experience a decrease in coordination around the greens due to deteriorating eyesight or shaky hands, Griffin said, so he gives them a specific routine on how to read greens more effectively. He is more lenient with them on misses and teaches them to have the same tolerant attitude.

“It’s important to have your expectations at the right level,” Griffin said, “especially if you were a good player before. Otherwise you’ll be hard on yourself and not enjoy the game as much.”

Griffin encourages senior golfers to respect the rules and always have fun. He also asks them to pass these values along to younger people. Get children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews started in golf, the game of a lifetime.

John Means, founder of the John Means Golf School, believes the main consideration for senior golfers is their flexibility: what they can and cannot do. His tailors his instruction to each player’s flexibility level and to individual limitations based on body type and fitness.

“Fit seniors are easier to teach simply because they are more flexible,” said Means, 61, a Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame member who lives in Minneapolis. “We’re talking about average men and women senior players who take their fitness seriously, but don’t have to show up looking like Jack LaLanne (fitness expert, 1914-2011).

“Their major concern is loss of distance. They are looking for the fountain of youth, when they were more supple and able to do more.”

Increasing clubhead speed in order to hit the ball farther is related to strength and using the ground properly to generate motion, according to Means. All good golf swings start from the ground up, he said, but many seniors concentrate their efforts from the waist up. It’s not too late to teach seniors to alter this.

“If they improve their flexibility, I can teach them how to use the ground,” Means said.

And proper equipment is essential.

“Rarely do seniors come to me with the correct equipment,” said Means, “although for the most part, fairly good players already understand equipment.”

It’s an opportunity Means uses to emphasize the importance of clubfitting to seniors. It’s possible to “cheat,” Means said, by creating more clubhead speed with a change to lighter equipment.

“But you can only do this so often until it doesn’t work anymore,” Means said, and the golfer must focus more on fitness and technique.

Means suggests exercises to seniors to gain more flexibility and range of motion while avoiding injury. He also emphasizes better nutrition. At golf camps and during individual instruction, he spends time with each golfer, suggesting strategies to implement at home. In group instruction, he works on posture and alignment.

“I get seniors to understand how physics applies to the golf swing,” Means said. “Younger players don’t always comprehend this.”

We all change as we get older, Means tells his senior students, but there’s always time to improve one’s skills.

This same athletic-based philosophy is prevalent at the Country Club of Ithaca (N.Y.), where Martha Wells, PGA, is head golf professional and many members are multi-sport athletes. They play tennis, pickleball and other racquet sports; in the winter months, they engage in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on club grounds.

As a result, they often arrive for their golf lessons with bad backs or other injuries related to their athletic endeavors.

“I’m lucky to deal with a lot of athletes, who all want to play better golf,” said Wells, 45. “I start out every lesson by asking about injury or limitation.

“Ninety percent of my students are seniors, so fitness is a major factor.”

Martha Wells, PGA, teaching seniors (Photo courtesy of Martha Wells, PGA)
Martha Wells, PGA, teaching seniors (Photo courtesy of Martha Wells, PGA)

Wells focuses extensively on the short game, where any player can excel, age and most injuries notwithstanding: distance putting, chipping and hitting more greens in regulation. Seniors tend to get frustrated at not hitting the ball as far as they once did, Wells said, but if they spend the majority of their practice time on shots 80 yards and in, it will help them on the golf course.

“There is some resistance to this at first,” Wells said, “but the proof is in the pudding. I ask seniors to keep track of their putts and their up-and-downs when playing with friends.”

After their rounds, golfers report their results to Wells, who gives them feedback. If she’s not on site, post-round communication occurs via email. Seniors often are surprised at their improvement.

Wells’s female senior golf students, mostly in their 60s and 70s, tend to prefer group lessons. “They feel less exposed,” said Wells.

Instructing seniors is a pleasure, said Wells, who believes age is not a factor. Eleven years ago, when she was teaching at Medicine Hat Golf and Country Club, in Alberta, Canada, two 75-year-old widowers, longtime good friends who never had touched a golf club, came to her for a single joint two-hour lesson, just wanting to learn the basics.

“They laughed at each other; we all laughed,” Wells recalled. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had giving a lesson.” The gentlemen went on to play golf frequently, improving over time.

“It was inspiring to me,” said Wells. “It showed me that golf is ageless.”

Sometimes even experienced senior golfers may need reminding that golf is meant to be fun. One of the best things seniors can do, according to PGA Master Professional Warren Bottke, is to remember that they know how to play the game.

“I give seniors a lot more credit than they give themselves,” said Bottke, 61, master teaching professional at PGA National Resort & Spa, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “The ones who were terrific players are easier to teach.

“Their swings are lying dormant, sitting in their archives. We just need to rejuvenate the parts of their swing that were great.”

That caliber player, Bottke said, has high expectations and doesn’t want to be mediocre at any age.

Half of Bottke’s students are seniors. He tells them that “it’s not over. If you are willing to make changes and do the right things to succeed, you will see results.”

For Bottke, the excitement of teaching senior golfers is giving them a fresh look at their game. Evaluating each individual’s swing and fitness allows him to teach players how to get around obstacles. Is a new hip or knee replacement preventing a golfer from bending or turning? Getting over the psychological barrier, then speeding up another part of the swing to compensate for the restricted movement, may be the answer. Is arthritis hindering range of motion? Movement evaluation, followed by exercise prescription, may lead to a freer swing.

And all senior golfers, Bottke said, can benefit from proper shafts on their clubs. Bottke’s student Herb Richman, 84, could achieve only 40 or 50 mph clubhead speed. A shaft change made a significant difference.

“Once we got a more flexible shaft, got it to sing a little, Herb got the ball in the air beautifully,” said Bottke. “He was happy to hear the swoosh sound.”

Warren Bottke, PGA Master Professional, with military veteran (Photo courtesy of PGA National Resort & Spa)
Warren Bottke, PGA Master Professional, with military veteran (Photo courtesy of PGA National Resort & Spa)

After equipment adjustment, Bottke asks seniors to figure out their goals. What do they want to accomplish? Do they want to play recreationally now? Or primarily for exercise? Or do they want to compete? Bottke has a specific recipe for each student, depending on the answer to this question.

Looking at a player’s grip is important, Bottke said. Strengthening it positionally will provide more power. This is especially true for senior women.

“The weakest part of a woman’s body is her wrist,” said Bottke. “We move the club down to the fingertips and the knuckle area, instead of a diagonal grip.

“This increases the wrist socket’s hinge, resulting in more power and range of motion.”

Bottke enjoys building, developing and maintaining a golfer’s swing, staying with a player over time. He recommends that seniors consider this approach with their own instructors.

“Some players have been with me for twenty years,” Bottke said. “If I’m moving the needle, they stay with me.

“Remember, they weren’t seniors when they started.”

Bottke encourages all his students to hone their short games and use imagination to visualize shots, but he emphasizes these even more with seniors because reaching greens in regulation is a challenge.

“They can erase that extra shot by getting the ball out of the bunker in one instead of two,” Bottke said. “This is not age related, but the importance of it increases with age.”

Bottke enjoys teaching senior golfers “unless their expectations are too lofty. Then I can’t reach them.

“We need to meet in the middle of the road.”

You’re never too old to take a lesson to improve, Bottke affirms. And it’s never too late to take up the game for the first time.

One of his students, 65 years old and recently retired from a 40-year professional career, never had played golf but received a set of clubs as a gift.

“Teaching him is a joy,” said Bottke. “He has no bad habits, just a fresh canvas.

“That’s the beauty of it. Everyone is different, like a fingerprint.”

—Sally J. Sportsman, Senior Golf Insider