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Yes, golf instructors make mistakes

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As teachers, we all make mistakes. As we get more experienced at the craft, we make fewer, but the work is a human endeavor so we are prone to error. Where and how the error is made is most commonly in the diagnosis.

Let’s face it, instructors get an hour or so to solve a problem. That hour, in my lessons, is divided into three distinct parts in the following order:

  1. The diagnosis
  2. The explanation
  3. The solution

To me, the diagnosis is far and away the most important part of the lesson. It’s the part of the lesson where the teacher decides exactly what’s wrong with the golf swing. And the problem will always boil down to what I call “the big three:”

  1. Is the attack angle too steep or too shallow?
  2. Is the face open or closed?
  3. Is the path too inside or outside?

There may be a myriad of things causing the problem, but the problem itself will always be one of those things.

Teachers may disagree on the method of correction, but should never disagree on the diagnosis.

After deciding what the biggest problem is — the face, the path or the attack angle — the teacher needs to determine the causes of the problem(s). But here is the crux of the matter: If the diagnosis is incorrect, there is rarely enough time in the lesson to right the ship.

“No, forget that, let’s try this,” is the absolute worsT thing a student wants to hear in a golf lesson.

Technology has made diagnosing swing problems quite a bit easier, but the correct diagnosis is still elusive at times. And what can be just as difficult for teachers is choosing the proper sequence of correction once the diagnosis is made. Sequencing is crucial, because I want the first shot my students hit after a correction to be a better shot than they previously hit. If what I suggest has little to no effect on ball flight initially, a trust issue develops between me and my student.

As I teacher, I have to get a student’s attention as soon as possible in a lesson. If someone comes to me hitting ground balls and 20 minutes later they are still hitting ground balls, I have LOST that student!

You, the student, need to be prepared for these changes. If you’re not ready for what’s about to happen, you’re in for a surprise and it might not be a pleasant one. Often I’ll see a student lose sight of their first shot because they are looking in the wrong place. They’re expecting the same slice they have seen for 15 years, so a hook or draw might be a shock. But as a teacher, I have their attention.

In my early days of teaching, I went “by the book.” In other words, if something didn’t look right, I’d try to change it without really knowing how the suggestion was going to fit into the bigger picture. One day I had a student who was making a very abbreviated shoulder turn in the backswing, perhaps 45 degrees at best. It just didn’t look right. So I suggested a fuller shoulder turn. On the next swing, he missed the ball by a foot!

Ugh! Why?

His attack angle was shallow, and when I asked him to turn more I made it really shallow; he was falling back and hitting up on everything. I blew the attack angle diagnosis and voila… a good 15-20 minutes was wasted in the lesson.

Nothing should ever be changed in a golf lesson because it doesn’t look right. For example, if Jordan Spieth sent a video to an inexperienced instructor, he might tell Spieth to strengthen his left hand grip or straighten his left arm, right? I mean those two things are obviously wrong, so let’s fix them straight away. Boom! You just made the best player on the planet an also-ran.

If you’re interested, here’s my analysis of Jordan Spieth’s swing is below. 

The diagnosis is an overview; it’s an analysis of how the whole swing dynamic has developed and where it needs to go next. If that first critical phase slips through the cracks, the teacher is going to be playing catch up for the rest of the session and it may be too little, too late when he finally gets around to the right fix.

What does all this mean to you? It means you need to be proactive and participate in the learning process. You need to understand the whole dynamic, not simply accept what has been said as gospel.

Why did I top that shot? Why are you moving my hand over? The instructor is human and she/he is there to help; the two of you are working together in the process and that requires your full participation. If the golf ball starts behaving better, there’s a good chance you’ve been pointed in the right direction. If you feel you are doing what you’ve been asked to do (and you have the video and/or radar numbers to prove it), however, and the golf ball is still misbehaving, you may consider seeking advise elsewhere.

No golfer has to get worse before they get better.

You should get new results, not always great results, but the swing should feel and look different than before you made the change AND the ball flight should be better. If not, ask why. If the same old slice or shank is there after the entire lesson, consider another teacher. The next instructor may communicate more to your liking, or be better at guiding you through the learning process.

Remember, it’s your time and your money. You have the right to hold your teacher accountable. Believe me, you are NOT insulting an instructor by leaving his or her camp. It happens often. When you take the steps needed to be an active participant in your own improvement, if often leads to better results… and sometimes a different coach.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. WM

    Aug 3, 2015 at 2:46 am

    I have taken many lessons and I find that most instructors focus on swing planes and drawing lines and angles on a monitor. They promote an over lap or Vardon grip to prevent hooking, but when in fact most amateurs slice the ball, then the instructors ask you to pose at the top. This, I believe exacerbates an amateur’s problem and this is what is wrong with modern instructions, because they don’t teach the hand or club path on the down swing or how the body should react.

    After years of frustration I focused on what pros’ impact positions (with photos and videos) should look and feel like and reversed engineered my swing up to the top and trust me it feels very different from what I thought I should be doing based on professional instructions. At the end of this process the pro positions that you see in photos came naturally. I am by far not a professional instructor, but because I am an amateur, I can relate to most of my golf buddies. By using this method I have helped many of my friends improve their ball striking immensely.

  2. Dennis Clark

    Jul 31, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    sure…there are three thing that need to be determined in the diagnosis. The face, the path and attack angle. Flightscope and Trackman now quantify those things for you. No more guesswork. I don’t work with K vest but as I see it, it is a BODY tracker…it does not supply impact information. Now after impact has been diagnosed, you could use the K vest info to see how the BODY is affecting the golf club. But FIRST you need to now club face path and attack angle. Otherwise you are just grasping at straws really

  3. Le

    Jul 31, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Dennis, can you comment on how you think technology has helped or hurt the “diagnosis” aspect of the lesson for the teachiers? I’m interested in developing a wireless sensor technology that functions like the kvest but more attainable for average golfers to use daily. Love to hear your insight. Thx

  4. Hokiegrad86

    Jul 30, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Sean Foley is a very fine teacher and a great person. I doubt he pays much attention to the negative comments made by internet golf trolls. His stable of successful golfers is quite full and he is in demand. It didn’t work out with Tiger. So what? Tiger won many golf tournaments when he was working with Sean but he was hurt all the time and living a secret life. It all blew up and now Sean was the problem?!!!! I know one thing for sure….If Tiger wanted to change something he did…and if he didn’t…he didn’t! Butch is the teaching God? He had the Tiger in his prime and a healthy confident Tiger in his prime was an easy gig. Butch is a fine teacher….so is Hank….so is Sean. To each his own but Sean didn’t ruin tiger. Hank didn’t ruin Tiger. Tiger’s ego ruined Tiger.
    Jack and Arnie and Hogan didn’t change their swings to get better. They were good enough and they knew it. Tiger’s real problems began when his father died. End of story.

    • Pat M

      Jul 30, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      The fan boys pilloried Hank Haney after Tiger hit a fire plug and fired Hank. It is always the teacher with Tiger and never Tiger. The guy is 250th in the world or lower. At The Open, the only people he beat were 60+ year old Tom Watson and close to 60 and retired golfer Sir Nick Faldo.

      It is over. Tiger should have gotten Nike to pay Butch Harmon $4 million a year and Stevie Williams $3 million a year. This was the ONLY way Tiger could have gotten his mojo back but it is too late now. I blame the fanboys more than Tiger’s coaches.

  5. Dennis Clark

    Jul 29, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    you got it right Bob…this is an article about student/teacher dynamic onlt. That was photo my editors chose, nothing more or less. Tiger moves the needle sooo much that even when threads are not about him, they make it about him 🙂 And if you send me a video, I’ll tell you EXACTLY your whole picture.

  6. Bob DeLellis

    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Wow. Just about everyone is concentrating on Sean Foley and Tiger Woods, instead of the topic of the article.

    I have stopped taking lessons from anyone because I have yet to find someone that can analyze everything and give me a complete plan. I’ve leaned on my own that most of what is wrong with my golf swing relates to #1 my physical limitations and #2 my sequence (tempo/timing). I’ve looked at my own swing and I have determined that I’m not CURRENTLY physically capable of getting in the positions that young tour pros can, and probably never have been able to. Why has no one ever given me a stretching and condition plan as part of the analysis of my swing? I’ve spent thousands in lessons and it makes you start to wonder if instructors limit the info to keep you coming back. I went to GolfTec and they strapped me up with sensors to measure the rotation of my shoulders and hips. I paid $100 for one hour and came away with being told I was rotating my hips too far in the backswing. The completely paralyzed me and could barely hit the ball. I feel allowing my hips to rotate is as much an unconscious way to protect my back as it is a swing flaw. Recently they showed similarities of Tom Watson and Bubba Watson’s swings and how they lift their left heel, which takes strain off the back. They mentioned that Tom Watson, at 66, doesn’t swing markedly different than when he was younger. The average weekend golfer is not in a condition to handle the stress that young athletes like Rory McIlroy place on the bodies by restricting their hips and turning their shoulders 100º+. If I find someone that can develop a complete “plan”, then I’ll consider taking lessons again. Quite frankly the Orange Whip for $100 has done more to fix my sequence, tempo and timing than the thousands I’ve spent in lessons over the past couple decades. In the mean time, I’m content being a middle 80’s golfer that invests little or no money in getting better.

    My motto: “The best way to keep from getting disappointed is to lower your expectations”. 🙂

    • Chris Loskie

      Jul 30, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      The oranges weighted ball was a good investment you think??!! I always look at it swing it a couple times in tbe store then put it back. .. i thought about lessons then said f it.. ive always worked out and have found I played better while doing more yoga with my workouts.. felt better and more flexible.. I will also say the best “learning” tool ive bought was the silly tour striker club… f the swing. You either cime into the ball correctly and hit it or you dont lol..

  7. Ted McIntyre

    Jul 29, 2015 at 11:39 am

    I think it’s irresponsible to feature a photo of Sean Foley under the headline “Yes, golf instructors make mistakes,” unless you’re prepared to point out where you believe he erred.

    • Carlos Danger

      Jul 29, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Well…for starters he has those eye glasses on. That should have been Tigers first clue, “dont take golf instruction from a hipster.”

    • Christosterone

      Jul 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      As I said below….in Foley’s words, he “augmented” Tigers chipping and putting stroke…
      I mean, come on!!! Harmon said he never touched those after the summer of 1997 because he had never seen such ability from 30 yards and in on all levels…
      To change this was the greatest error in coaching in history….Tiger destroyed the record books because of his ability to get down in 2 from any green side situation….putting, chipping, sand or otherwise…
      Foley “augmented” a once in a century talent…if that’s not a mistake, I don’t know what it…
      -Christosterone

      • other paul

        Jul 29, 2015 at 4:21 pm

        Should be no surprise that a guy that comments in 3rd person would criticize an elite golf instructor

      • Jack Nash

        Jul 29, 2015 at 5:12 pm

        What about Foley’s other students? They don’t seem to be having all these Tiger like problems. Maybe it was a comprehension problem with Woods. Hell if Foley didn’t help Woods and caused him injury the same could be said about Haney and Harmon. Why didn’t they try to help Woods cure his left leg knee snap? You know the move that’s caused him over a years worth of injury time?

        • Christosterone

          Jul 31, 2015 at 1:45 pm

          Haney arguably brought out the best in Tiger.
          2006 Hoylake was a master class in all 9 shots(as Haney said).
          But in all things, coaches get too much and too little credit…
          Tiger has won nearly 80 times on the PGA Tour….just to make 80 cuts is preposterously hard, let alone win…with a majority being in tourneys which saw the best in the world only…
          That being said, many of Foley’s student struggle in chipping and putting distance control….when the pressure is great(Mahan at the Ryder cup comes to mind)….foley has forgotten more about golf than I will ever know…
          But I would NEVER “augment” Tiger’s short game….NEVER NEVER NEVER
          -Christosterone

  8. Alex

    Jul 29, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I guess you don’t find many good golf instructors since most young pros want to be PGA Tour players. Now, you find the rare specimen who loves teaching and sharing, and you’ll have a good teacher. You may finally agree with his/her swing philosophy and the student-teacher bond will be a long one.

    I don’t see my teacher often because he lives away from my town, but we’ve been working together for 7 years now.

  9. Christosterone

    Jul 29, 2015 at 9:31 am

    The fact that Sean foley augmented tiger’s chipping and putting is tantamount to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa….
    Seriously, this dude ruined a national treasure….
    -Christosterone

  10. Todd

    Jul 29, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I think there is a disconnect with some teaching professionals. Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of great teaching professionals that will look at a swing and can improve it without over-hauling it. Then there are others who either think they know what a player should swing like, or since the player is asking for a change in their swing tear a player up from the swing they have had since high school. I don’t think that is going to work. Seems like Tiger might be n this group, he asks his teaching professional to do a swing change and he gets a mix of his natural swing and the new swing when the chips are down. On the range he can hold it together and hit balls with his new swing, but once he gets on the course he instinct takes over and his old self tries to take over.

  11. Marcus R.

    Jul 28, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    I think Tiger’s biggest mistake when overhauling his swing was to try and naturally Fade the ball, when all of his life he hit a natural Draw. It seemed the more he tried to fix the driver the more crooked he got. Just my opinion.

  12. SirShives

    Jul 28, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    I had two lessons with a pro who seemed to barely enjoy his coaching gig. After those two lessons I was hitting the ball better, my slice had straightened out, and I was occasionally hitting a draw. I saw the guy outside of the range and excitedly told him about my progress. The guy acted like we had never met. I get that he probably had plenty of students to keep up with, but how about at least pretending to know who I am? I had prepaid for a three lesson package but I never went back for the final one. I found a more enthusiastic pro and started breaking 90 immediately after having spent the previous ten years shooting 105s.

    Find a coach who enjoys their job!

    • KK

      Jul 31, 2015 at 12:03 am

      I couldn’t agree more….one of the most important student teacher relationships is do you/can you relate to each other and does the teacher explain a concept in a way that you understand and can apply it. I don’t understand the smug attitudes from golf “pros” that I come across all the time in the 10+ years that I have worked in the business. I can only attribute it to one of two things…the pro was once trying to play for a living and realized he/she didn’t have the game to compete and they are bitter that they now have to teach amateurs how to play golf, or they don’t really care whether a student actually gets better at golf, they just want to give you a few tips over the course of an hour and hope you keep coming back. Like any hobby or profession, you can only be truly great at it if you want to be. There are quite a few teaching pros out there that could care less about you and your golf game. It’s very unfortunate too because the game of golf is really hard and getting people to play better is a tall task for any teacher, especially the ones who don’t really want to do it.

      • Dennis Clark

        Jul 31, 2015 at 9:52 pm

        You re right JJ. One had a passion for teaching or not. It can’t be taught if a person doesn’t love the work.

  13. Dennis Clark

    Jul 28, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I had the common decency to charge him NOTHING…But there were lesson that I should have refunded early on, no question. Any teacher who says otherwise is, uh, lying.

    • Jeff

      Jul 28, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      Good man! That is how you make a good reputation.

  14. Jeff

    Jul 28, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Dennis – Did you charge full price for the lesson you gave to that student who was making a very abbreviated shoulder turn in the backswing that you wasted 15-20 minutes with your poor diagnosis?

  15. gubment cheez

    Jul 28, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    You should’ve made this more about Ledbetter than foley

  16. Marty Knowles

    Jul 28, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Great article Mr. Clark! This article parallels my teaching career almost to the letter. I used to be in the there is one way to swing the club camp. Whether they were physically able to or not I thought they had to get in the “perfect” positions throughout the swing. It wasn’t until a wise old teacher asked me how I’d fix Lee Trevino that the light went on and I started concentrating mainly on what was happening at impact rather than trying to make everyone’s swing look beautiful.

  17. Michael Wray

    Jul 28, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Sean is a nice guy, if not somewhat misunderstood. His presentation in Orlando in January made him more human for many of us. His analysis of “analysis” has great insight, particularly in sequencing corrections, which I believe is the genius of teaching…just my two cents.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 28, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      I agree, he’s a good dude…I liked him at the Summit as well. Did not turn out a good match for TW though, but Sean is a bright guy.

  18. Rwj

    Jul 28, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Just looking at Sean Folley in that picture, the image he has for himself with his clothes and “style,” would keep me from listening to a word he says about any subject. He looks like a clown

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 28, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      🙂

    • Chuck

      Jul 28, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Four mistakes in one photo; that haircut, those glasses, that shirt and that tattoo. The swing advice might have been okay, but since he’s talking to Tiger Woods, it’s doubtful.

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