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

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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WATCH: What to do when you’re short sided

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Top-100 instructor Tom Stickney shows you how to avoid compounding a mistake when you’ve missed the ball on the wrong side of the green.

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Why flaring your left foot out at address could be a big mistake

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In his book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” published in 1957, Ben Hogan recommended that golfers position their right foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line, and then position their left-foot a quarter of a turn outward at a 15-degree angle (Note: He was writing for right-handed golfers). The purpose of the left-foot foot position was to assist in the “clearing of the left hip,” which Hogan believed started his downswing.

Through this Hogan instruction book and the others he wrote through the years, there four categories that defined his advice;

  1. He accurately described what was occurring in his swing.
  2. He described a phantom move that never occurred.
  3. He described something that occurred but to a lesser degree than indicated.
  4. He inaccurately described what was happening in his swing.

As evidenced by today’s modern video, Hogan did not open up his left hip immediately as he described. This piece of advice would fall into the fourth category listed above — he inaccurately described what was happening in his swing. In reality, the first move in his downswing was a 10-12 inch shift of his left hip forward toward the target before his left hip ever turned open.

SPINNING OUT

Those amateur golfers who strictly adopted his philosophy, opening the left hip immediately, ended up“spinning out” and never getting to their left foot. The spin-out was made even worse by the 15-degree angle of the left foot Hogan offered. That said, based on Hogan’s stature in the golf world, his advice regarding the positioning of the feet was treated as if it were gospel and adopted by both players and teachers. Since that time his hip action has been debated, but the positioning of the left foot has remained unquestioned — until today.

THE FLARED FOOT POSITION

The flared position of his left foot may or may not have been of assistance in helping Hogan achieve the desired outcome in his swing. That really is not the point, but rather that over a half-century there has never been a voice that argued against the flared foot position he advocated.

The rest of the golf world accepted his advice without question. In my opinion, the left foot position advocated by Hogan has harmed countless golfers who slowly saw their swings fall apart and wondered why. His well-meaning advice was a poisoned pill, and once swallowed by golfers it served to eventually erode what was left of their left side.

DEAD WRONG

The subject of this piece is not to debate Hogan’s hip action but the piece that accompanied it, the 15-degree flare of the left foot. I’m of the opinion that it is not only wrong. Because of its toxic nature, it is DEAD WRONG.  The reason has to do with the tailbone, which determines the motion of the hips in the swing. The more the left foot opens up at address, the more the tailbone angles backward. That encourages the hips to “spin out” in the downswing, which means they have turned before the player’s weight has been allowed to move forward to their left foot and left knee.

As a consequence of the hips spinning out, players move their weight backward (toward the right foot), encouraging a swing that works out-to-in across the body. You can see this swing played out on the first tee of any public golf course on a Saturday morning.

FOOT FLARE ISSUES

The problem with the 15-degree foot flare is that it promotes, if not guarantees, the following swing issues:

In the backswing, the flared left foot:

  1. Discourages a full left- hip turn;
  2. Encourages the improper motion of the left-knee outward rather than back
  3. Reduces the degree that the torso can turn because of the restrictions placed on the left hip.

In the downswing, the flared left foot: 

  1. Promotes a “spinning out” of the left hip.
  2. Does not allow for a solid post at impact.

STRAIGHT AHEAD

In working with my students, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most advantageous position for the left foot at address is straight ahead at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The reason is not only because it encourages a positive moment of the player’s weight forward in the downswing, but it also improves the player’s chances of making a sound backswing.

THE POWER OF THE LEFT HEEL

There is an inherent advantage to placing the left-foot at a 90-degree to the target-line. It is the strongest physical position against which to hit the ball, as it provides a powerful post at impact that serves to increase both power and consistency.

JACK NICKLAUS

A number of years ago, Jack Nicklaus appeared on the cover of Golf Digest. The byline suggested that in studying Jack’s footwork, they had discovered something that up to that point was unknown. The “secret” they were describing was that after lifting his left heel in the backswing, he replanted it in the downswing with his heel closer to the target line than his toe. The intimation was that this might be a secret source of power in his swing.  This was hardly a “secret,” and something that Nicklaus was probably unaware of until it was pointed out to him, but it’s a demonstration of the fact that his natural instinct was to turn his foot inward, rather than outward, on the downswing.

THE DISCUS THROWER

The discus thrower whirls around in a circle as he prepares to throw. On the final pass, he plants his left toe slightly inward, relative to his heel, because this is the most powerful position from which to cast the discus. This position allows the thrower to draw energy from the ground while at the same time providing a strong post position from which additional torque can be applied. The point is that as the discus thrower makes the final spin in preparation for the throw, he does not turn the lead foot outward. Why? Because if it were turned outward, the potential draw of energy from the ground would be compromised.

The same is true when it comes to swinging a golf club for power, and you can test the two positions for yourself. After turning the left foot into a position that is 90 degrees to the target line, you will immediately note the ease with which you can now turn away from the target in addition to the strength of your left side post at the point of impact. Conversely, when you turn your left foot out, you will feel how it restricts your backswing and does not allow for a strong post position on the downswing.

REPAIRING YOUR SWING

Do you have trouble cutting across the ball? You might look to the position of your left foot and the action of the left hip. The first step would be to place your left foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The second step would be to turn you left hip around in a half circle as if tracing the inside of a barrel. The third step would be to feel that you left your left hip remains in the same position as you scissor your weight towards your left toe, and then your right heel, allowing the club to travel on the same path. The combination of these changes will encourage the club to swing in-to-out, improving the path of your swing.

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WATCH: Over-the-top vs. over-and-through: 1 destroys a swing, 1 can save it

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This video is about OVER-AND-THROUGH, which is very different than being over-the-top. Over-and-through is a great recovery from a backswing that is not quite in the right position. Over-the-top is flat-out a full default to the ball. See how you can bridge the gap with getting your swing to deliver better to the target!

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