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A PGA Master Professional’s Guide to Taking Golf Lessons

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So you’ve decided to take a golf lesson… congratulations! There is no more-proven path to getting better at this game than working with a trained professional.

As a PGA Master Professional with more than 30 years of experience, I’ve helped countless golfers make rapid improvement and achieve their golfing goals. Of course, that has meant different things to different students over the years.

Getting the ball airborne or beating their buddies is a big moment for many golfers; for others, the goal is to win their club championship or make it on tour. Whatever your golf goals are, lessons with a trained professional can help you get there. And trust me, it’s just as exciting for a teaching professional to watch one of their students hit their first draw as it is to watch one of them win a professional event.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the hidden reward in the golf instruction process, which attracted me to the field in the first place. If golfers put their best foot forward and take the time to identify the right teacher for them, they’ll learn things about golf and their swings that will cause them to fall even deeper in love with this great game. Maybe even more important? They almost always learn something valuable about themselves, which is usually applicable to another area of their life.

Throughout the years, however, I have noticed similar traits in the small percentage of golfers who don’t do as well as others with golf lessons. You can learn about those (mostly fixable) traits in my story, 6 signs golf lessons won’t help your game.

Before we get into my guide, which should answer most of your questions about taking golf lessons, let me remind golfers that they should always take lesson with a SPECIFIC GOAL in mind. As you work with your new coach, remember to evaluate your progress based on that goal.

Searching for a teacher

The instructor you choose should be someone you feel can help you. Ask around about teachers in your area. Don’t feel compelled to take a lesson at your club if the pro does not meet your criteria. You have to decide the “type” of teacher that’s best for you.

Is he or she a method teacher? Does he/she espouse a particular swing style, or work with a golfer’s existing motion? Do you feel more comfortable with a man or woman? How much experience does the teacher have? What kind of reputation? Has this teacher helped other golfers you know? What about technology? Is it important to you and your learning style that your teacher have all the latest technology?

Even after an exhaustive search, you may still have to try a few instructors in your area before you find one with whom you feel comfortable. Finally, NEVER sign up for a series of lessons the first time you work with a teacher. “Try it before you buy it.”

Set a realistic goal

What do you want from the lesson? Talk with your teacher and tell her or him exactly what your goals are for this lesson and beyond. Set short and long-term goals for yourself, and ask the teacher if he or she feels your goals are realistic. If you’re a 15-handicap expecting to play in the U.S. Open next year, the teacher should be the first to inform you that your goals are unrealistic. If you were a 10 handicapper six months ago and you’ve shot up to a 16, you’d have every right to expect that you can get your handicap back. How long it might take is a matter of how much time you have to practice what you’ve learned.

Decide what kind of lesson you’re after

Read my article on the two types of lessons. It is important that you know what you’re after when you begin the process of improving your game. You may be thinking about breaking your whole swing down and starting over. Or you may want to stay with the swing you have and tweak it a bit. That is a conversation you and the perspective teacher should have right at the outset.

My advice: Depending on how long you’ve been playing and how often you play, breaking down your whole swing and starting over is usually not productive.

Seek help with the weaker areas of your game

If you hit 12-13 fairways a round but miss most greens, it should be obvious what you need to work on. From experience, however, I can tell you that’s not always the case. I have my students keep track of their rounds, and the patterns that emerge are very revealing. Weaknesses are not as obvious as one might think. But it is imperative that you seek help with the areas of the game at which you are less adept.

When to take a lesson?

As I mentioned in my article, 6 signs that golf lessons won’t help your game, there are times to take a lesson and times when golfers should stay away from the lesson tee. But in general, if the problem you’re having is not URGENT, wait until your big match or the member-guest is over. Or even more immediately, always consider taking a lesson AFTER a round, not before it. You also need to consider time of year in your decision to take a lesson. Going into your golf season is a better time than near the end of it.

I also do NOT recommend taking lessons outside in inclement weather, such as when it’s really cold or raining. You don’t need to add external distractions to your internal ones.

Where to take a lesson?

Simple answer: In as private of a setting as possible, and NEVER at a crowded range. Again, external distractions are not conducive to optimal learning. Golfers should also arrive early to their lessons, if possible, so they can hit a few balls to warm up.

How to take a lesson

So many golfers are nervous about taking lessons simply because they are embarrassed to hit poor shots in front of a professional. Many golfers think they have “the worst swing in the world.” Or worse, the teacher will ask them to do something they’re incapable of doing. Adult fear of failure is very stressful.

Here’s what I tell my students: “You are not going to show me anything I haven’t seen many times before.” So relax, and DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR RESULTS. The minute any golfer becomes overly concerned about results, they cannot focus on the process of making changes. Golfers take lessons to learn, not to show the teacher what they can do.

[quote_center]I want to see your problem shots, not your good ones.[/quote_center]

Having done this work for 30+ years I can tell you this: I have NEVER expected a student to know what they’re doing when they arrive. I know all too well the internal distractions from which they currently suffer, and it is MY JOB to help them relax and learn.

I’ve never made a student feel worse, uncomfortable, or intimidated, and no teacher worth their weight in salt would. Any experienced teacher has multiple ways of getting a message across, so if something you’re hearing isn’t registering, it’s OK to ask the teacher to say it another way. If you can’t perform a drill you’ve been given, ask for another.

Remember: Be ACTIVE in your learning; participate! DO NOT stand there and say nothing. The teacher needs your feedback to proceed or change course.

Establish a dialogue that you can internalize

If you don’t understand so much as ONE WORD the teacher says, stop him and ask a question right then and there.

  • What do you mean, “Over the top?”
  • Why are asking me to do that?
  • What’s a “stronger grip?”

I always want my students to understand what I’m saying and why I’m asking them to do something in a lesson. Don’t ever feel that you’re being slow to understand or just “not getting it.” Remember, you’re not supposed to get it… until you do.

If you leave the lesson unsure of something, it will not become clear later… believe me. If you feel intimidated or inept, look for another teacher. I work my students pretty hard, but they know they can always back off when they feel pressed. It’s all about timing, establishing a flow and comfort level, and participating in the process.

Follow up

You need something to take home with you. You are NOT going to remember all you’ve learned. I email all my students a video of their lessons. It runs for 10 minutes or so, shows the beginning, middle and end of the lesson, and covers the main things we worked on. They can watch the video on their phone or tablet, which allows them to reference it as they go to practice. If taking notes helps you, do it.

Although my videos cover everything — club recommendations, drills, specific changes and general encouragement — V1 Golf has a great app that allows golfers to send swings to their teacher when they have further questions. You can do the same thing through text messaging and email now, too. Most transient guests in my schools use this this feature. Follow up is crucial as swing changes take time!

Have more questions? Contact me on my Facebook page or email me at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com.

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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 Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Dave C

    Jan 8, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    Thank you. Very helpful with the points to consider.

  2. Magnus

    Jan 8, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Yeah, I would love to have a teacher like Dennis nearby. I learn something new everytime I read his articles. And its important things that I learn.

  3. Stretch

    Dec 23, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    What device do you use to record the lesson? Thanks.

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 23, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      V1 video. Flightscope radar. Boditrak. And a very trained eye ????

  4. Fran

    Dec 23, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Very informative information. I can see why he was teacher of the year.

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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Instruction

Is There An Ideal Backswing?

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In this video, I talk about the backswing and look into optimal positions. I also discuss the positives and negatives of different backswing positions.

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