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What we can learn from the greats about golf instruction

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As I reflect on the passing of the immortal Arnold Palmer, “The King,” I can’t help but wonder about all the things that made him the legend he was. There has been so much written about AP’s off-the-course generosity (and deservedly so), but as a teacher what intrigued me most was the unique way he learned to play the game.

Since the earliest days of golf instruction, the fundamentals of the game have always been the same: grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment (not necessarily in that order). And I think it’s safe to assume that most teachers would agree to that list. “Some things never change,” as the old adage suggests. But in my experience, I might more accurately refer to this list as preferences instead of fundamentals.

Here’s why: If grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment were truly fundamentals, the very best players would do them the same way. And as we know, that is anything but the case.

The reason I think of the fundamentals of golf as preferences is simply because one can choose to hold the golf club, aim the body and position the ball in individual ways and still play great golf. A few examples might be Jim Furyk’s double-overlap grip, Fred Couples’ open alignment, Bubba Watson’s ball position or Matt Kuchar’s flat swing (which is not ideal for his height, we are told). Watch the video below I made of Arnold Palmer’s swing. What fundamental book is his address from?

When we start out in the game, all of us quickly develop a method of swinging the club. Our earliest days of getting the ball in the air toward the target established a way of   swinging that created a certain ball flight. After that, one is likely to position the golf ball where the bottom of the swing is, and aim the body away from where the ball generally flies. They can even stand up to the ball in a posture that allows them to maneuver as they do. In fact, many great golfers developed their fundamentals as opposed to starting with more “classic” positions and then learned to match their swing to what they did naturally.

Lee Trevino, for example, faded the ball with a STRONG grip and an open alignment. How is that possible? Well, he matched all his elements and learned to make the ball behave. It’s the proverbial chicken-egg dilemma.

  • Did Trevino develop a hook with that grip and then use an open setup to offset the path? Or was it the other way around?
  • Did Furyk develop an upright back swing and then learn to drop it way back in, or was it the other way around?

It really doesn’t matter, does it? Golf history will never forget Trevino or Furyk.

This is not a license to play golf any way you want or hold the club however you please, of course. Let’s say you are comfortable with holding the golf club in a certain way, say in a stronger position. That doesn’t mean you cannot play from there; it simply means you’ll need a swing that is compatible with that grip.

If a strong grip has a closing effect on the club face, perhaps you might consider a more vertical swing plane, a more open setup or a later release, as these factors have a opening effect on the club face, which would balance the grip’s effect.

This is what we do in teaching, juggle things to get the right blend, the right mix for THAT player. It’s not easy, but I believe it’s easier than trying to start over and build a whole new swing. That approach is futile, and the vast majority of the time (if not always) leads to period of getting worse before you get better. As a teacher, that is the LAST thing I want to see.

In any case, I, like millions of others who love golf, mourn the passing of the legend. I’ve been in this wonderful game for more than 55 years now, and there is an eeriness to Mr. Palmer no longer presiding over it.

RIP AP! Long live the King!

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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

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Alex Ross-Edwards

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    I wished I had been aware of Arnold Palmer much earlier in my life and to witness his ability to bring the game of golf to the average man. Mr Palmers gift to the world is the idea that we all could play and enjoy this great game, – – Which ever side of the track we were from. Thank you Mr Palmer.
    My two bits worth regarding the golf swing and all its nuances. I love this great game simply because I will never fully master it, but I will continue to explore its complexities, and enjoy the ever diminishing journey. I’v been joyfully distracted by the conundrum that is golf for 35 yrs and dread the day I may solve its last mystery. Many, many more hours studying than playing but I do play on most occasions to a very high standard. Thank you for the joy of this, again Mr Palmer.
    I would just like to say to all; Every day you will find the secret of golf and every day it will be different to the day before but within all those secrets there will be a very small piece of the puzzle that will reveal the real secret to how to play your greatest game of all.
    Vale The King. Mr Arnold Palmer
    Thank you for making my life a little bit nicer.
    Cheers.

    • dennis clark

      Oct 3, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      “We are all dogged victims of an inexorable fate” and as Jim Murray once remarked, “Arnold may have been the most dogged victim of them all”. This old pro can’t imagine the game without him!

  2. gvogelsang

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:03 am

    someone once said that Arnold Palmer’s hands looked beautiful on a golf club. All of the great players have something between a two knuckle to almost three knuckle left hand, with the butt of the club held up underneath the heel pad. The right hand simply compliments the left.

    I have seen film of Arnold’s swing when he won the US Amateur. He had a beautiful, full follow through. The famous Palmer finish developed years later as he became afraid of the hook. It is a shame, because his 1950’s swing was exceptional, and textbook.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 2, 2016 at 11:07 am

      Well his swing was always beautiful in terms of what it produced. talent, drive, determination, great athleticism and pair of hands that were like two massive hunks of steel. I was in his company several times and one could not help but be taken aback by those mitts! (John Daly was another with hands like that). You couldn’t be built any better, think any better or be more determined than AP. “I wanted to win, DESPERATELY” he said so many time…RIP

  3. Philip

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Denis, I think the failing comes from our language and our minds in that we have a hard time wrapping around the concept that “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” are both fundamentals of golf AND preferences of golf – it is not night and day. In the beginning for a golfer they may be considered preferences and for sure between golfers they are preferences. However, once a golfer has set themselves upon a repeatable version of their personal “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” then these elements go from being a preference to becoming a fundamental for that golfer and their unique swing – especially as they rise to be one of the better golfers. At least, that is how I see it. I don’t go to a golf swing coach to tell me how to swing the club and how I need to do my preferences/fundamentals – I go to them to help me understand concepts, to check when I say I am aligned that I am, is the ball going left because of what I think or maybe something else, to point out that the club has moved into my palm – I need to figure out how to correct the issues (hopefully with some tip or drill from the coach) and work on it – not have the swing coach wave their magic wand suddenly everything is fixed :o)

    • dennis clark

      Oct 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Phil, yes those are the reasons you should check in with your coach. You’re not going to change your swing very much if you have played for some time; you’re simply going to see if you have the balance in your swing elements that have allowed you to play best. Remember what you did when you played your best, and keep working toward that goal.

      • Sometimes a Smizzle

        Oct 1, 2016 at 9:10 pm

        Great article. But i disagree that making big changes are difficult.
        I dramatically changed my swing by focusing on one of the different changes i wanted each week. Made several changes in 2 months. Started with a matt kuchar swing and switched to something between Bubba and a young Tiger swing. Need slow motion camera to do it. One hour per night practicing and also rehearsing the movements in my living room when i walked past my wedge. Also got rid of back pain.

  4. Tom Duckworth

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Perfect…You are so right. So many golfers have been frustrated by lessons by a teacher trying to force them into that teachers idea of a perfect swing. I’m not saying lessons are bad but finding the right teacher is important. That’s the hard part finding someone who you can relate to.

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Instruction

Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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WATCH: How slow-motion training can lead to more power and consistency

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Eddie Fernandes has made big changes to his swing (and his power and consistency have gone up) by mastering the key moves in slow motion before he speeds them up. Everyone should use this kind of slow motion training to make real changes to their swing!

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WATCH: What you really need to know to control the direction of your shots

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In this video, Top-100 Teacher Tom Stickney shows you how to better control the direction of your shots by understanding how both the club face and swing path determine where your ball goes.

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