For many people in central Illinois, the end of winter signals more than spring: it signals a return to the golf course. But after long months away from the green—or if you’ve just decided to take up the game—what do you need to know for the upcoming golfing season?

Robby Dobelstein, PGA head professional for the Peoria Park District’s Golf Learning Center and Kellogg Golf Course, has been a golf pro for 35 years—the past 17 with the Peoria Park District. “What I like most about the game is the variety of challenges it presents to really excel,” he said. “I also like that golfers at all skill levels can enjoy playing the game; not everyone needs to shoot birdies and pars to have fun.”

However, he firmly believes in golf lessons—especially for those new to golf. “They should do themselves a favor and take instruction first. The Part District offers excellent beginner group lessons I recommend as a first step for new golfers of any age. Also, new golfers shouldn’t buy any equipment until they’ve had some instruction,” he said.

Jeff Roche, WeaverRidge Golf Club teaching professional and Bradley University head men’s golf coach, agreed that expert instruction makes a big difference for newbies. “They should find someone to teach them the fundamentals of the golf swing. This will make the transition into playing a lot easier. Their instructor can help them with many things besides the golf swing: the rules of golf, proper etiquette, and getting their first set of clubs that will be fitted to their individual needs.”

Both pros said that even seasoned golfers could benefit from lessons. “Since the best players in the world still take golf instruction, I’d say it’s only common sense that amateur players at all levels should take instruction,” Dobelstein said.

Roche, who’s been in the golf industry for 20 years, explained that golf typically is enjoyed much more when a player has some idea about how to achieve success. “In recent years, even touring professionals such as Tiger Woods have brought to light the benefits of having a teaching professional give them instruction.”

Don’t be afraid that you aren’t the right “type” for golf, as it suits many different personality styles, Dobelstein said. “That’s what’s great about it; players can take from it what they want. So if you’re extremely competitive, you challenge yourself to excel. And if you’re just looking for some exercise or relaxation, you can have fun playing golf, too.”

Roche added one caveat with which most golfers would agree. “No matter what level of golf one plays, patience is a very important virtue.”

One challenge new players face is learning golf etiquette. “Basically, common sense and respect for others dictates the rules of golf etiquette,” Dobelstein said. “One of the most important golf etiquette rules is stay up with the group in front of you. Keeping pace on the golf course means a lot to the other groups playing. For beginners, there are many different ways to learn about golf etiquette. And new players should learn as much as they can before they ever set foot on a course. They can learn from the many sites on the Internet that discuss golf etiquette in detail, and there are plenty of books on the subject too. Friends who golf are also good sources for learning golf etiquette.”

When gearing up for the season, Roche advised players to practice their short game—the area of 100 yards and in from the green. “This is the area usually practiced the least and the area that can improve a player’s score the fastest. No matter what players shoot, they’ll hit 67 percent of their shots from these yardages. They probably should practice that same amount of their short game.”

Dobelstein explained that after a long winter break, golfers should ensure they do the proper amount of stretching before practicing. “And they should always practice before they return to playing a course itself. Actually, ever since the Park District opened the Golf Learning Center, there’s really no need to gear up any more. The year-round facility only closes on Christmas and New Year’s Day, so golfers can practice in comfort in any type of weather. So when the courses open in the spring, the golfers who practiced all winter don’t miss a beat.”

He said many players would be surprised at how much improvement they’ll see from hitting a bucket of balls every week—and not just with their drivers. “One of the best tips I can offer anyone who plays golf is to practice at least once a week all year long. When they do, they keep their golf muscles in tune and ready to play at any time.”

As with most other pursuits, the definition of a good golfer is subjective, Dobelstein said. “For example, a golfer who shoots 120 in a round may consider a golfing partner who shoots 110 a pretty decent golfer—and their friend who shoots 100 really good. Then there are other players who think they really blew a round because they shot 75.”

Whatever a golfer’s current skills, Roche believes the greatest aspect of the game is the mental challenge. “It’s the same for players of all skill levels,” he explained. “Each player has to handle the pressure of each shot, be it for a tournament win or a career round.”

For more information on WeaverRidge Golf Club, call 691-3344. For more information on Peoria Park District’s golf programs and courses, call 689-3329. a&s