Early in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, was when I played my first course – a par-3, Pinecrest, in Vancouver, WA.
After playing there a few times, I decided to branch out. I setup a tee at Colwood Golf Center, a par-3 golf course in Portland, Oregon. I went there expecting that it’d be like Pinecrest – that you play by yourself or with whoever you brought with you.
I was somewhat surprised to find out that I was going to be playing with other people I didn’t know – total strangers.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve played with some nice people. Though, I did play with one group that could have gone badly had I not approached the conversation right.
This got me to thinking that not everyone is comfortable in social situations, especially when they’re setup with people they don’t know, who are all playing a game that can piss you off pretty fast.
So, I wanted to share a few thoughts on making conversation on the golf course and trying to have fun playing a round of golf with complete strangers.
Before the Round Starts
My experience is that you’ll congregate around the first tee within a few minutes of your tee time. Your group will too. There might be a little confusion as to who’s playing with who.
You can clear this up by asking the golf course when you check in if you’re playing with anybody and who they are.
Once you know who you’re playing with, this is a good opportunity to introduce yourself and make some small talk.
Nearly everyone I’ve played with has been pretty cool. We chat for a few minutes, acknowledge that we’re not pros, and then decide who will tee off first and from which tees.
This is usually when someone will suggest keeping score or playing a specific game. You obviously don’t have to go along with this but, if you don’t have any major objections, why not?
Don’t hesitate to make your own suggestions either. If you have a game you like to play, or if you just prefer to do your own thing, speak up.
After a couple minutes, everyone will tee off. The round will start. Now it’s time to navigate a conversation as well as the golf course.
What to Do or Talk About on the Golf Course
My experience is limited. I’ve only played with 4-6 groups of people. But my experiences have been mostly positive, so maybe I can help you out. Let’s start with what to do or talk about.
Encourage Your Group
Everyone is out there to have fun. Golf makes this tough to do sometimes. So when someone in your group makes a nice shot, putt, or shoots a good score, let them know.
Most people who are out there with you understand how hard golf can be. So don’t be surprised when people are rooting for you to make your birdie putt and high-fiving you when you do.
Offer a Mulligan
One of the groups I played it proposed a rule at the start of the game in which everyone got a couple of mulligans for the entire round. You might suggest that at the beginning of the round or be open to it if someone else does.
In other cases, when I had a horrible shot, members in my group asked if I wanted to try again. This might not be the case if you’re playing seriously and are keeping score. But if you’re not keeping score, most people won’t care so long as you’re not holding them up.
So, if you’re just out playing a friendly game and someone in your group hits a bad shot (which you’ll know if they curse or look frustrated), offer them a mulligan. Some people will take one, others won’t. But odds are they’ll appreciate the suggestion regardless.
Ask Before You Smoke
I don’t smoke anymore and don’t care to be around it if I can help it. But being outside it doesn’t really bother me.
What impressed me is that two people I played with (on separate days) asked me if I minded if they smoked. And I said go for it. But it was nice that they cared enough to ask.
If you smoke, odds are the other members in your group that don’t will appreciate it if you ask them before you light up.
If you’re new or not very good, one thing you’ll want to be mindful of is whether you’re holding everyone up. Most people I’ve played with have been patient, especially after I explained to them that, at that point, I’ve only played a few times. That was my first season.
But since you’ll take several strokes to reach the green, and maybe several putts before you finish, every once in a while you might want to consider grabbing your ball and just ending the hole – especially if the other members in the group have had to wait for you on the last several holes.
Don’t feel bad about it. This is part of being new. But until you get a little bit better, it’s something you may have to do every once in a while, especially if you play golf with strangers.
The last thing I want to go over are things to talk about. You might have the common sense not to ask who the other people in group voted for, but what should you talk about instead? Here are a few ideas.
Ask them what they do for work. If they tell you, follow up with another question.
- How did you end up doing that?
- What do you like about your job?
You might also ask them questions specifically about the job itself – anything that caught your attention.
Ideally, you ask questions that are more or less open-ended. That helps to keep the conversation going and to help everyone get a little comfortable playing golf with strangers.
You can ask them if the caught the last match or game on TV. Golf is a safe bet, but many people who play and watch golf watch other sports too.
A safe bet is to talk to them about golf. You might ask them how long they’ve been playing, if they’ve had lessons, the golf gear they use, and about their favorite golf courses.
Once you find an opening, the conversation will flow from there. You can make small talk between shots and while walking from the greens to the next tee box.
However, you also want to remember your golf etiquette. You don’t want to talk when someone is about to take their shot.
Also, understand that not everyone will want to chat. Sometimes they’ll be playing with a friend or spouse, so they might spend more time talking with them. Or, they just might not be a chatty person.
Odds are you’ll know pretty quick if this is the case and, if so, can stop worrying about trying to make small talk. This might be a good thing if you have a tendency to stick your foot in your mouth.
What NOT to Do or Talk About on the Golf Course
Now, while there are many things that you can talk about, there are also things that you shouldn’t talk about. Here are the big three.
One of the groups I played with, we hadn’t even teed off when one them asked me what I thought of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests (as Portland had both riots and protests during that time).
What do you say to that?
I’m sure you could make the argument for saying what you believe and letting the cards fall where they may. But I didn’t get the impression that this guy was truly interested in having a civil, educated discussion. So, what good would it have done? It would’ve just made things awkward.
You never know where people fall on the spectrum of these topics – whether they care, what they believe in, how strong their beliefs are, or how they might react to something they DON’T agree with.
And do you really want to find out on the golf course? I don’t.
Anyway, I shared this story with the group I played with the next time I was out at Colwood and he shook his head. He then told me the advice his father gave him that I think more people should keep in mind, regardless if you’re playing golf or out to dinner with your friends or family.
If you want to make friends and keep them, don’t talk about politics, money, or religion.
Sound advice, if you ask me. But that’s not all that you should avoid talking about or doing on the golf course. Here are a couple more things to avoid.
Don’t Complain or Make Excuses
Don’t be “that guy” that groans every time you hit a bad shot. Don’t be that guy who throws his clubs in the pond. And don’t be that guy who feels the need to explain to the other people in your group that you usually don’t play this badly.
Odds are you do if you feel the need to tell everyone you don’t.
Not only that, though, but the truth is that no one cares. No one cares how badly or how good you’re playing. No one needs or wants to hear you complain.
More than that, unless you exchange phone numbers, you’re unlikely to play with this group again, let alone run into them again. No one is going to remember how well you played.
Leave Your Drama at Home
No one wants to hear you talk about your problems at home or in life either. Why would anyone talk about this stuff with complete strangers anyway?! But it happens more often than you might think.
Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice
Most people are out playing golf to get outside and have a good time. No one shows up to play a round with the innate desire to receive an impromptu, unsolicited golf lesson.
Think about the last time someone decided to give you advice – did you want it? Did you apply it to your game? Probably not. Most people aren’t in a position to give (good) golf advice. That’s why you don’t ask random strangers for golf advice – you get golf lessons instead.
So, odds are most people aren’t going to be receptive to advice. They might thank you, but odds are they’re not going to implement it or are in a position to.
And why should they? Are you a golf coach? Probably not, so giving unsolicited advice is not only likely to be unwanted, but it could be damaging too.
Either way, most people don’t want advice so don’t say anything unless they ask you to.
Playing Golf with Strangers Can Be Fun and Rewarding
I know some people are much better in social situations than I am. They can easily make small talk and navigate the minefield of notoriously awkward and potentially explosive topics like religion, money, and politics.
But this guide isn’t for those people. It’s for people like me who aren’t naturals in social settings and weren’t ever taught how to make conversation.
It’s not always easy to learn this stuff either, as some people are more introverted than others. But if you want to play golf, and if you often play solo or with one other person, then it’s going to be a skill you’ll want to pick up as many golf courses pair you up with other groups.
I didn’t like it at first, but once I got a little better at it, I found that it made my rounds more enjoyable talking with other people who love playing golf as much as I do. Maybe you will too.