A warm February day led to a dusting off of my golf clubs and a short drive to the closest practice range near me (Note – it’s a practice range, not a driving range. I’m out of my car and practicing golf). It was time, the first since late October, to get off my tush and hit some golf balls.
I have two practice ranges near me, and I go to each for different reasons. One has better mats and practice balls but horrible distance markings on the outfield. The other’s markings are much better, but the mats are often worn or torn. But it also has grass putting and chipping greens, the other does not.
So I go to the former just to work on ball striking and to the latter for other game elements.
My last round in late October played at a course I hope never to play again, got me thinking it might be time for a lesson or two to clean up a few things. I had heard the range nearest me had good instructors and thought I'd inquire after I slammed my 50 stripers. But then, disaster struck. Not for me, but for the guy behind me getting a lesson.
The gentleman paying for help was in his mid-70s, I'd guess. He had a mixed bag of clubs and told the pro he hadn't played in a long time and wanted to get back into the game so he could play with his son. I think that's the best part of this story.
The pro asked, "What do you think you'd shoot for 18 holes today?" And the student answered, "Maybe 110, likely a little more." Good start; the baseline is established. Then, for the next 30 minutes, the pro pontificated on things like ball trajectory, angle of attack, forward press, why ball speed is more important than swing speed and shot shaping. And all this before the student had swung a club and hit a shot! That's like going to the doctor when you don't feel well and the doctor going through a litany of possible medical conditions before asking, "What hurts?"
I learned the game by playing with friends and reading "Golf My Way" by Jack Nicklaus. The last time I had a lesson, maybe 20-25 years ago, the pro tried to remodel my swing totally. I'm 6'2" with an upright swing. He wanted me to flatten it out, from Ernie Els to Zach Johnson. It messed me up for five years and soured me about how teaching professionals instruct the swing.
Listening to the pro behind me fill a student's head with everything other than how to hit the ball reinforced my sourness. It also inspired me to reach out to iconoclast, resident golf philosopher, and ball-striking savant Tom Abts of Deer Run Golf Club in Victoria, MN. Tom writes an email delivered every Friday, one of two I look most forward to. Geoff Shackleford's is the other. Tom opines about customer relations, the meaning of life, and, most importantly to this article, why pros make golf so difficult to learn. I now turn the narrative over to Mr. Abts.
Thanks, Harvey. Sadly, yours is a typical story. Golf instruction has been geared to the needs of Tour players "If they're working on this, it must be important."
But that's not accurate…at least for most players. Golf instructors need to prioritize, and of first priority in the golf swing is impact. Nothing else really matters. Harvey talked about how he has an upright swing, yet his instructor tried to make him have a flat swing.
There is not one model swing that everyone should copy. No one ever hit a golf ball better than Lee Trevino. But Andy North and Scott Simpson won U.S. Opens with upright swings drastically different from Trevino's flat swing.
Golf instructors are not evil… or stupid. However, I believe that they are an example of misguided ideas about turning people into robots. Instead, our job as golf instructors should be on identifying the fundamentals of the golf swing and adapting them to each student's unique abilities. The student needs to understand impact, and the instructor has to figure out how to get him to it. One size does not fit all.
This is not limited to golf instruction. When I was a kid, we went to our family doctor. He knew us, and he'd seen everything. He could diagnose your health problem(s) in a few minutes. And, if it were out of his league, he'd send you to a specialist.
Golf needs more instructors like the old-time family doctor. Most people have pretty basic problems related to ball contact. Treating average players as if they need to understand a highly sophisticated Tour player's swing is not helpful. In fact, it's detrimental.
Many years ago, I was at a Titleist Staff day, and the speaker was a famous instructor of Tour players. He emphasized how he was working with famous players on exiting low-left on their golf swing. Well, most amateur players need to exit high-right … they're poor players because they come over-the-top and thus finish low-left. But, on the other hand, tour players do not come over the top… they can exit low-left.
Golf instruction should be simple, sane, and uncomplicated. Players need to understand contact, learn an easy natural motion – basically a throwing motion – and they'll be able to play decent golf. And that philosophy will help 99% of players, especially new players.
Save the sophisticated movements for Tour players and scratch amateurs. Most people just want to play decent golf.
Thanks, Tom. You can tune into his weekly emails by signing up here.
I think what we've described is the range of teaching techniques that range from Homer Kelley's often maligned "The Golfing Machine" to Harvey Penick's beloved "Little Red Book." It's the highly technical and complicated – Kelley, to the simple and direct – Penick.
I'm a firm believer that if one were to collect and analyze the tips from any of the published golf magazines or videos over the past ten years, we'd find the same problem addressed in diametrically different ways. And really, all the average golfer wants is a competent and consistent way to experience shot euphoria.
I hope the guy who wanted so badly to get back into the game and enjoy golf with his son got something out of his complicated lesson, and shot better than 110 the next time he played. Otherwise, he'll likely give up the game for bocce or pickleball. Then, we all lose.