'At what age should I start my child taking golf lessons?'

By: Dave Castleberry

I've been asked this question a lot, and as a golf professional, its one I'll undoubtedly be asked countless more times. Most often, the inquiry comes from a young mother or father whose toddler recently picked up a 9-iron and showed great joy in thrashing around the backyard chasing a little white ball. When the little Tasmanian devil is asked if he enjoys golf, he'll answer with an enthusiastic "Yes!" and take another wild chop.

Or perhaps the munchkin is swinging at the grass - at this age it's often a 50-50 call. What we do know is tykes enjoy anything that involves swinging an object wildly around. Ever see a 4-year-old with a cardboard tube left over from a roll of wrapping paper? What are those things called anyway? I'm sure it can't be anything as simple as tube of cardboard.

Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, at what point should I teach a diminutive club-wielding maniac how to direct his wild flails at an actual target? The question itself often gets my curiosity going. After all, have we ever looked at a young child bouncing a ball around the house and immediately said we should get him or her basketball lessons? Or watched as he tossed a tippy-cup at his sister with such great velocity that it made us think of looking for a pitching coach? Of course not.

So what's different with golf? Two reasons come to mind. The first and most obvious is that a parent looks at their offspring and envisions the next Tiger Woods. Please note the omission of the next Michelle Wie (more on her later). The kids are too young to have dreams at a tender age, so parents will dream for them.

And what's the harm in this? There is no harm, really. As long as parents accept that their children will grow with dreams of their own and those dreams might not necessarily mesh with those of mom and dad. These dreams, the child's dreams, are the ones they should be encouraged to follow, not the dreams of the parents.

The second reason is that a lot of parents are a bit skeptical of their ability to teach their kids how to golf. Sports like basketball, baseball and football are played by kids all over the country and parents see no harm in teaching a child how to shoot baskets or to throw a baseball or football. But there's a stigma when it comes to golf that if you don't teach someone the correct way from the start they'll develop a number of unrecoverable bad habits. So parents who dream of their kids becoming the next links superstars but are too afraid their lessons will only teach them how to slice seek out a local PGA professional to do the dirty work.

I've met many parents who see that "special something" in their kids; a little glimpse that their child can become a great golfer. A PGA Tour player, in fact. These are the parents who come to me about getting their kids to tap into that potential. These are also the parents who need to realize that it's going to be about 20 years before we find out if that potential is fulfilled.

But there's a second realization parents must also grasp. At the risk of bursting some bubbles, I'll just come out and say it: There are literally thousands of kids of all different ages all around the world who have what seems like limitless potential when it comes to golf. But it's a very small percentage of these kids who ever fulfill that potential.

Michelle Wie is a great example. Five years ago, when she burst onto the scene by winning the U.S. Public Links Championship at ripe old age of 13, she wasn't alone in her skill set. She wasn't the best 13-year-old golfer the world had ever seen. The national media hype surrounding her just made it seem that way. But truth be told, there were a ton of kids - some of them a little older and some even younger - who have Wie's same ability and potential to become great, and maybe one day become the world's best.

Don't believe me? Just ask a coach of any major college golf program about the kids they're recruiting today. They'll tell you of youngsters barely in high school who go out and post scores in the low 60s and easily drive the ball over 300 yards. No, Michelle isn't alone. A lot of people were just made to think she was. Sadly, Wie, like a lot of other kids, will probably never reach her potential. She'll probably never win an LPGA Tour event, let alone a PGA Tour event, and will be relegated to the "Whatever happened to…" files of golfers-past.

So what does all this have to do with me teaching a 4-year-old with well-intentioned parents how to golf? What I'm saying is this: Parents shouldn't think they're missing the boat if they don't get their kids golf lessons at a tender age. They're not going to be permanently damaged if they start golfing at a prepubescent age without the guidance of a trained teaching professional. They're not going to fall behind other kids enrolling at the David Leadbetter Academy with a golf bag in one hand and a diaper bag in the other. And, perhaps most importantly, they're not going to take a wealth of knowledge away from me or any other golf pro that is going to turn them into a star.

I've taught kids younger than a lot of the socks I own. Usually, this happens just outside the pro shop near the practice green, and never at a cost to the parent. I show them how to grip the club - a 10-finger baseball grip with their thumbs pointing down the shaft is what I recommend for these wee-fingered children. And I stress they should keep their feet still when they swing. Beyond that, there isn't much else to tell them. Except to have fun.

Here are five tips to getting your kids (and yourself) to enjoy golf:

1. Don't take them to the range thinking you're going to be able to hit balls too. You'll only end up babysitting while trying to practice. Doing all this as you make sure they're safe and out of the way of others is impossible. You won't get anything accomplished, except to frustrate yourself and your kid.

2. When take them onto a golf course for the first time, try and find a facility that has those little poles in the center of the fairway for 150-yard markers and use that as the hole. This way they can avoid most of the hazards around the greens and you won't have to worry about them running on the putting surfaces. Trust me, they won't know the difference and you'll enjoy yourself a lot more.

3. Only sign them up for golf lessons if they ask for them.

4. Try and get a friend of theirs involved. The child will be much more apt to stick with golf if they have buddies they can play with when you're not around.

5. Johnny Miller used to do this with his kids. If you can get your hands on a couple hundred used balls, take the child to a pond or a lake (just make sure no one from the EPA is around) and have him or her hit balls into the water. They'll love it. (Ever watch a little kid throw rocks into a lake?) But only let them hit about half the balls before telling them it's time to go. That way they'll want to come back and do it again.

Dave Castleberry is a member of the PGA and currently the head professional at Cedarcrest Golf Course in Marysville, Wash. Born in Fort Lewis, Wash., Dave and his family moved to Marysville when he was 2 years old. After graduating from Marysville-Pilchuck High School, he attended Washington State University where he earned a degree in Communications in 1995. He began his career in the golf industry on the maintenance crew at the Plateau Club in Sammamish, Wash. Dave spent three years on Plateau's crew, the last two as the irrigation technician before becoming a PGA pro in the year 2000. He spent three years as an assistant pro at Plateau before moving on to Sand Point Country Club in Seattle in 2004. During his time at Sand Point, Dave served as chairman of the Western Washington Assistants' Committee and was named Assistant Professional of the Year by his peers. He began his tenure as Cedarcrest's head pro in March 2007. He currently resides in Lynnwood, Wash., with his beautiful wife of three years, Jennifer.