How to Become a Good Late-Blooming Golfer

By J. Jody Kelly – May 14, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

If you’re like Betty Ann Penick, your dad didn’t put plastic golf clubs in your bassinet. Nobody gave you golf lessons from the time you could walk. You even missed out on the high school and college golf teams. So here you are at age 40, 50, 60, 70, whatever—who’s counting? You’d like to try golf. Maybe retirement is coming up or you need to learn to play because of your career, but you think it’s too late. Think again.

It’s possible to take up golf later in life and enjoy it enormously. You can even become quite good at the game. How? Take a few tips from Austin’s poster girl for late-blooming golfers, Betty Ann Penick. She’s a member of Austin’s royal family of golfing, but the daughter-in-law of Harvey Penick, who wrote the best-selling Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book with Bud Shrake, didn’t take up golf until she was in her sixties.

Betty Ann Penick’s life-long sport was bowling. She was a scratch bowler who typically averaged well into the 190's. Her highest game was a 299. No, that last pin didn't fall for a 300 game. She bowled three leagues a week and competed in tournaments at the local, state, and national levels. With a group of close friends, she could bowl in the evenings no matter what the weather was like or what had occurred at work. As owner of her own CPA firm and mother of a daughter, also a CPA who has her own financial planning practice here in Austin, and a son, who is a programmer at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, she had no time for golf during the day and no real desire to play, even though her father-in-law and her husband, Tinsley Penick, were professionals in the sport. She read Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book when it was published in 1992 but didn’t have time to apply it to her own life.

No one in Betty Ann’s family encouraged her to take up golf, though no one especially discouraged her either. It was her group of bowling friends who got her into the sport. As the women aged, many developed arthritis or other conditions that made bowling difficult. Several of them gradually turned to golf and eventually gave up bowling. They told her, “If you want to spend time with us, you’ll have to take up golf.” So she did.

Betty Ann’s experience is a roadmap for anyone who wants to start golfing later in life. Although she has spent her adulthood around professional golfers, she started from zero just like everyone else. Unlike many, though, she went on to become a good golfer. She offers five tips for making a successful late entry into a sport that draws over 25 million Americans to the links and attracts many more millions to watch televised golf tournaments on Sunday afternoons.

The first tip to becoming a good late-blooming golfer is to be willing to spend the money for lessons. Her first instructor was the late, great Jackson Bradley. She still takes lessons. When she plays nine holes with her husband, a retired professional golfer and coach, she occasionally asks his advice, but he doesn’t teach her unless she asks. Group lessons are another avenue to learning this great game—the public fee courses offer these lessons from time to time. And don't forget the Golf Channel on TV, where you can watch lessons on a regular basis.

Betty Ann’s years of golf lessons have paid off. After a lifetime as a good bowler, it’s only fitting that she would work hard to excel at her next sport as well. Like many sports, golfing isn’t a do-it-yourself pastime unless you want to look like the cartoon figure who becomes so angry that he breaks his clubs or throws them in the lake.

A second tip for the late-blooming golfer is to play often. With her built-in group of bowling friends and her husband, Betty Ann doesn’t lack for golfing companions. She regularly plays three times a week, sometimes at the Austin Country Club, sometimes at the University of Texas course, and sometimes at the municipal and public fee courses throughout the city, with an occasional trip with her buddies to Santa Fe and Palm Springs thrown in.

Although golfing regularly is a great way to improve your game, Betty Ann notes that she couldn’t play every day, not only because the physical side takes its toll, but because the mental side of golf would be too hard. As with any sport, you have to prepare mentally. You have to keep your focus. You have to manage your time. You have to plan your strategy. There’s no point in allowing the game to become a job. Even the professionals take time off, and so does Betty Ann. In one of her other lives she is actively involved in the West Austin Rotary Club, having served as a past president.

A third tip to becoming a good late-life golfer is to engage in strength training with a personal trainer familiar with the demands of the sport. Betty Ann’s trainer recently helped her increase the power and the distance of her drives. Developing arthritis in her hips and knees may have made bowling difficult, but it hasn’t been a barrier to her constantly improving her golf game. It’s a good idea to find a trainer who can help improve your hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder strength and who can guide you through exercises for core and rotational strength.

A fourth tip is not to let bad weather or lack of time and opportunity stop you from improving your game. You can find ways to practice chipping and putting indoors. Betty Ann places a length of carpet in a hallway of her home for chipping practice with felt balls readily available at golf stores. An indoor putting mat can also help improve your putting skills. Two local nine-hole courses are excellent places to play and practice. The First Tee of Greater Austin's Harvey Penick Golf Course and the Hancock Golf Course are well suited for beginners.

When you can’t get out to the golf course or can’t find golfing buddies, you can practice by yourself at a driving range or a hitting cage. And you can always re-read Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and its companion, The Game for a Lifetime: More Lessons and Teachings, 1996, also by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake.

A final tip from Betty Ann is to enjoy golf. For her, an important part of enjoyment is giving back to the community. She supports the annual Harvey Penick Awards to individuals who emulate her late father-in-law’s leadership in life. The annual ceremony benefits Caritas of Austin, a non-profit organization that assists the homeless, the working poor, and documented refugees with housing, hot meals, education, and self-sufficiency. She also encourages support of the Harvey Penick Endowed Scholarships for men and women students at the University of Texas.

Betty Ann enjoys golf in the usual sense as well. Making the switch from an indoor sport like bowling to a mostly outdoor sport like golfing brought unexpected pleasures to her life. She thoroughly enjoys being outside on a beautiful course. Sometimes, she sees unusual sights, like the huge turtle calmly sitting in the middle of the fairway at the Roy Kizer Golf Course near McKinney Falls State Park. Was it looking for some friends to make a foursome? These days, Betty Ann confesses to loving golf and plans to keep playing for a long time. Her bowler-golfer friends and her husband would surely agree with one of her main observations about golf, “It’s all about who you’re with.”

J. Jody Kelly, owner of Strengthmobile, is an ACE-certified personal trainer who conducts exercise sessions in the homes of the elderly or disabled. She races triathlons, lifts weights, and takes Pilates mat classes.



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