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

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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

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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Instruction

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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