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Dennis Clark: Helping golfers find their own path
Ask a handful of golf instructors to analyze a golfer’s swing and you will likely get a handful of different answers. It’s the nature of golf instruction – different teachers have found different answers to the question of how to best hit a golf ball toward a target.
Some golf instructors advocate certain methods and fundamentals, while others have pointed to the laws of physics and biomechanics as the basis of their teaching. Then there are teachers like Dennis Clark, an instructor who doesn’t promote any specific golf swing or methodology.
Clark, a PGA Master Professional, relies on the experience of the more than 30,000 lessons he’s given in his 25-year career as the foundation for his instruction. He is director of instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Penn., the site of the 84 Lumber Classic from 2003 to 2006, and has taught golfers of all levels from very beginners to tour pros. He was heavily influence by legendary English golf instructor John Jacobs, one of the first teachers to advocate the observation of ball flight as the key to successful coaching.
There are very few training aids at Clark’s teaching facility, because according to Clark there is only one thing great golfers have in common: their swings return the club to the same position at impact time after time. Training aids can help golfers alleviate certain flaws while using the aid, but Clark rarely sees much of a carry over when he puts their golf clubs back in their hands.
While the 63-year-old teaching veteran identifies himself as being anti-method, he is certainly not anti-technology. Every lesson he gives employs high-speed video and a golf Doppler radar system (Clark uses Trackman) to help him learn as much as possible about his student’s swing.
According to Clark, golf Doppler radar systems have ushered in a new era of understanding for golf teaching professionals, what Clark calls an age of enlightenment for golf instruction. Thanks to these technologies, instructors know more about what the golf club is doing at impact than ever before.
The latest technology, however, tends to perform best in the hands of the most experienced professionals, which is why Clark said that there is no substitute for the knowledge he’s gained from nearly three decades on the lesson tee.
In the past, it had been typical for an established instructor like Clark to take on a starting pro and teach him his craft. But Clark has seen a trend developing in the golf teaching industry – there are fewer one-on-one learning situations for starting pros. Retail and management training often take away from a beginning instructor’s time on the lesson tee as well, but even with these added responsibilities many young teaching professionals are leaving the mentoring process as soon as they can to go out on their own as instructors.
“If you’re only popping your head out of the pro shop for five to 10 hours a week to give lessons, you’re not being exposed to enough situations to go out on your own. [Young golf instructors] leave, they think they have it, but they don’t.
Clark grew up in Southern Philadelphia, a scene much different than the AAA Five-Diamond resort that he currently occupies during Southwestern Pennsylvania’s golf season and the Marco Island Marriot Resort where he teaches from November to April in Naples, Fla. His underprivileged upbringing made a career in golf unlikely, but he fell in love with the game regardless. He was introduced to golf as a caddie, playing as many as 90 holes on Mondays when caddies were allowed to play the course.
*Clark’s teaching facility at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
As he got better, he took lessons, although he never considered himself good enough to turn professional. Clark was a good basketball player — talented enough to play in high school as well as in college at Glassboro State. But even though his focus was on basketball, he continued to play golf in the summers. He did so “quietly,” however; golf was not a sport he would brag about to his peers.
After college, Clark worked as a schoolteacher, which allowed him free time to play golf in the summers. He also worked restaurant jobs and continued to caddy, jobs that led to free afternoons and free golf. Clark’s skills improved, but even as they did he was reluctant to pursue a career playing golf. But he thought a career teaching golf might be feasible if he combined his background in education with his passion for golf.
Clark earned his PGA Professional card with a single focus. The operations side of golf wasn’t for him — he only wanted to teach people how to play golf, and spent his early years developing an eye for the swing and honing his communication skills. He refined these skills teaching long days in the John Jacobs Golf Schools and Golf Digest Schools. But when Clark started out, he made the same mistakes as most beginning teaching pros. He taught his students the things he did to hit the ball well.
Clark told me a story about a lesson he had very early in his career with a man that was occasionally shanking his wedges. Clark never had the shanks himself, so he wasn’t experienced at solving the problem. Clark told the man everything he knew about curing the shanks. He instructed him to move away from the ball, to get his weight more on his heels – anything to keep the man from swinging the heel of the club out toward the ball on the downswing. But what Clark didn’t tell the man was the actual cause of the shanks – a shank happens when the ball is struck off the hosel of the club.
Before long, the man wasn’t just shanking his shots occasionally; he was shanking nearly all of his shots. Clark apologized to the man, saying he was new at teaching and really hadn’t earned his stripes yet. As Clark was walking away the man told Clark not to worry about it, “He would figure out how to stop hitting the ball off the toe of the club eventually.”
Clark realized his mistake, telling the man that he had it wrong — a shank happens when a golfer does the exact opposite, making contact well toward the heel of the club.
“Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” the man asked.
It was an important lesson for Clark. He realized that a simple explanation is often the best. And his choice of words would be very important when teaching golf, especially to high-handicap players.
On the lesson tee with Dennis Clark
I took a lesson from Clark before I interviewed him at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in late July. I had just finished playing a three-day amateur event where I had hit some very good shots, but also some very bad ones. Like every golfer, I wanted to know what was causing my bad shots, and what I could do to fix them.
Although Clark and I had been working together on instructional stories since April, it was the first time I had the chance to meet him in person. Like most of the readers that commented on his stories, I’d enjoyed his content. Click here for a list of Clark’s instruction stories. I was anxious to hear what he would say about my swing.
Taking a lesson can be an uneasy experience, but it was hard not be at ease at Nemacolin. The resort is located on 2,800 acres in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, about 1.5 hours south of Pittsburgh and 45 minutes away from any city that can be called a small town. But Joe Hardy, the owner of 84 Lumber and the founder of Nemacolin Woodlands, made sure there are countless attractions that make the resort’s isolation a non-factor.
The resort has a spa (one for humans, one for pets), a zoo that includes exotic animals such as lions and zebras, a 140-acre outdoor sporting facility for shooting and fly fishing, fine dining and quite a few other draws. But like most addicted golfers, I was most excited by the opportunity to improve my golf game.
It didn’t take long for Clark to recognize the recurring flaws in my swing. After a handful of 6 irons, Clark led me inside his studio to watch high-speed video of my swing on his V1 Golf Academy software. He showed me that during my downswing I had a “reverse twist” of the clubface; instead of the clubface rotating closed, my clubface was actually opening as it approached the ball. Close to impact, I was forced to roll the face shut in an attempt to square the clubface. Clark’s Trackman showed that many times I failed – my clubface was opened at impact sending shots to the right, the same misses I battled in my tournament.
To fix the problem, Clark had me hit shots where I felt like the clubface was rotating more closed during my downswing. This change was twofold – it eliminated the need for me to roll the club shut at impact, and because this created less hand action my body rotation also improved. The best part about the change was that it took only a few swings for me to start incorporate the changes Clark proposed. Less than 24 hours later I played Mystic Rock, a Pete Dye design on the Nemacolin property that hosted the 84 Lumber Classic and played a solid round working on the swing changes.
*No. 1 at the Pete Dye-designed Mystic Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
“It never gets old”
During my lesson, Clark emphasized the need for me to turn my upper body more behind the golf ball in the backswing, eliminating a reverse pivot in my lower body. When I watched him give lessons to a six handicap, however, he taught the exact opposite, having the golfer feel that he stayed on his left side during the backswing.
The reason Clark gave two contradictory lessons is simple. I tended to contact the golf ball “late,” hitting my shots thin, while the man from Clark’s other lesson tended to hit the ball early, shallowing out too soon and hitting the ball fat.
“His swing had never bottomed out in front of the ball in his life,” Clark said. “As soon as I got him to do that, he was hitting much better shots.”
To Clark, it is an absolute requirement that a student leaves the lesson hitting the ball better than when they arrived – it’s the way that he can best promote the game of golf.
“Most people quit [golf] or don’t play as much because the game gets frustrating to them,” Clark said. “I find that when they start hitting it a little better, they play more. And I owe everything to golf, so why not give something back?”
To best promote the game, he can’t teach everyone the same way because every golfer’s swing is different. That’s why Clark has become so excited about golf Doppler teaching systems like his Trackman. They provide an avenue for further learning and understanding, and have helped Clark become a better teacher. Even more importantly, golf Doppler radar systems have provided information that in some cases has been contradictory to what some golf experts regard as truth.
For example, instructors not using a golf Doppler radar system might assume that a ball that started left of the target and moved to the right (for a right-handed golfer) did so because the club was moving on an out-to-in path at impact. While this is often the case, sometimes it is not.
Golf Doppler radar has shown that for every 0.5 inches a golfer (right-handed in this example) hits a ball toward the heel of the club, a counter-clockwise (or closing) rotation of 2.5 degrees occurs in the clubface. So a golfer could actually have an in-to-out path at impact, the type of movement that is typically associated with draw, and hit a fade. The same is true of a toe strike – a golfer could swing out-to-in, the type of move associated with a fade, and with toe contact he or she could hit a draw.
Clark said that if I came to his lesson tee for six hours, I would see six different lessons. That’s why after more than 25 years teaching golf, he still hasn’t tired of his job.
“Every lesson is a little different,” Clark said. “A different puzzle that I have to solve.”
Students who overload on instruction articles and videos sometimes complicate that puzzle. While Clark has found truth in nearly all the articles and videos he has seen, he said that the average golfer doesn’t know what tips apply to them. This can do more harm than good to their golf games. That’s why Clark maintains that he doesn’t teach golf, he teaches people to play golf.
“When some golfers take their first lesson from me, they think I’m giving them a Band-Aid fix because they start hitting the ball better in 10 minutes,” Clark said. “But it’s not a Band-Aid. I’m just starting them on the path to making a better swing within their limits.”
You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz and GolfWRX @GolfWRX