The very first thing a golf instructor should do, in my opinion, is ask the student her/his short-term and long-term goals. When and only when that has been determined can the collective effort commence.

The next thing is to assess is the student’s skill level to determine if the goals are realistic. If they are, the lesson can proceed; if they are not, the lesson should stop immediately, and a reassessment is in order. I’m not going to waste my time or a student’s money telling a 15-handicap he can get to scratch. Blowing smoke is what teachers who have no work do. But the 35+ years I’ve spent teaching people to play golf has revealed that unrealistic golf goals are the exception, not the rule.

The vast majority of people I’ve taught are very realistic in their goals. The 15-handicapper who just went to a 20 does not desire to be scratch; he simply wants to get back to being a 15.

No one comes to see me or any teacher if they are playing well, so we get down to the real work, which is: What’s the problem? Their very presence on my lesson tee indicates some sort of trouble, so I have to determine what that trouble is and find the source of it.

Where to begin? Well, how about with the obvious? What is the golf ball doing?

In golf, there is no other trouble: never has been and can never be. If a golfer spins around, stumbles and finishes with the club in one hand but the ball flies consistently straight at the target that golfer by definition has a good swing.

A flying elbow is not a problem. A spin out is not a problem. Quick is not a problem. Unless they affect impact.

So we come to the most critical part of the lesson: the diagnosis. I’ve seen the golf ball in flight and know from experience that the only thing that made it do what it did is the golf club at impact. Closed, open, shallow, steep, in-to-out, out-to-in, toe, heel? The answer is right there in that four ten-thousandths of a second.

Now when I find that out, then and only then can I proceed to what caused the club to move as it did. Things like flying elbows, aim, grip, spinning out, casting, losing balance, falling — back, blah, blah, blah — may need to be discussed, but only in the context of how these movements affected the golf club at impact.

For all of you who have used my online swing analysis program, what is the first question I asked? What is your ball flight? I cannot even begin to offer a correction in the absence of that knowledge. If anyone offers you a tip without seeing your ball flight, leave immediately. They are guessing, and about to spout some meaningless phrase they have seen on the Golf Channel, read in Golf Digest or heard somewhere else. They may be right, but it would be a blind squirrel finding a nut if they didn’t know your ball flight problem.

We could go right down the list of greats: Jack Nicklaus’ flying elbow, Lee Trevino’s loop, Tom Watson’s quick swing, Walter Hagen’s lunge, Bobby Jones’ narrow stance, Arnold Palmer’s in-and-over, Byron Nelson’s dip, Ben Hogan’s weak grip, Gary Player’s flat swing… Modern day, let’s talk about Jordan Spieth’s bent arm, Rickie Fowler’s laid-off position, Fred Couple’s outside takeaway, Jim Furyk’s everything, Ryan Moore’s loop, Hideki Matsuyama’s pause… and on and on and on.

My personal assessment of those swings? All GREAT! I wouldn’t know any of them (and you wouldn’t either) if they weren’t. What do they have in common other than great impact? They put all their pieces together. Each player’s swing has compatible moves, and that’s all a good teacher is trying to do; put your various pieces together. I’ve heard some people say, “Well, I don’t need lessons. I picked up this or that tip and it worked for me.” Great! Stay with it.

I am the most pragmatic instructor you’ll find. But remember that offering a personal improvement story as proof something is “right” in the golf swing is really only saying, “It worked for me.” What separates a good, experienced instructor from the myriad of also-rans who call themselves teachers is the knowledge of what works for whom. 

To finish I’ll give one classic example about “casting” and “over the top,” although there are many. Casting is a necessary ingredient in an over-the-top move. It MUST complement it. It is not optimal, but is very functional. Try coming over the top and lagging the club. You won’t even make contact. Now, tell someone who is over the top to hit from the inside. I’m giving you 10-1 odds they lay sod over it, because casting does NOT complement an inside path even though it was an essential element of an outside one.

Looking at the swing in this way offers real answers to golf swing problems, not stabs in the dark. Everyone of you reading this has the ability to solve your golf equation; you just gotta know the formula. And that’s what good golf instructors try to provide.

Questions? Concerns? Post your comments below. If you’re interested in my online swing analysis program you can contact me at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. This summer, he's teaching out of Southpointe Golf Club in Pittsburgh

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

42 COMMENTS

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  1. More teachers need to do what is illustrated in the article’s accompanying photo. A golf teacher needs to put his hands on a student and show them correct positions. Words often just confuse a lot of students, even better golfers because of preconceived ideas and repetition of bad moves. Top golf coach Dana Dahlquist not infrequently makes a complete video lesson (using Trackman) for a non-local golfer to review at home over and over, emphasizing the key things that need to be changed, and how to get the proper feel for the new move. Zero old-school band-aids and goofy drills like the ‘Flamingo’ drill. LOL. A student can make his own range videos and use mirror work for followup. In contrast, most golf instructors teach using an ineffective “slow drip” method. One lesson to strengthen grip with specific drills, one lesson for impact with specific drills, etc, etc. You get the picture…painful and actually a very poor way to get it done. Here is an example of a better way- a well-communicated lesson summarized on video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzEhFvYmoLE. IMO, the more logical way for better golfers to make solid improvements- a total video template!

  2. I like the article. I think Mr. Clark’s opinion is well on point. Every golfer is different and every swing is different and each lesson plan for the golfer should be to different and not cookie cutter, the same for every person, but the goal is the same, square club face at impact and to enjoy the game.

  3. I don’t understand the “if he doesn’t know your ballflight, leave immediately”. That would probably be good advice if the point of every single golf lesson was to hit the ball straighter. But there is much more in play (fat, thin, clubhead speed, etc…). Seems silly to me to demand that from a pro.

    It took me about two years to go from a 12 to a 2. I’ve had the same pro the whole time, once a month. The entire first six months we worked on nothing but increasing clubhead speed and didn’t care a whit for where the ball went. I realize thats the exception (we built a two year plan) but there is a whole lot more to getting better at golf than making the ball go straighter.

    If you are a “resort instructor” (i.e. you see people once or twice and thats it) then this is a fantastic article. If you are more of a “coach” (getting someone a great swing over years and years) then this advice seems awful.

    PSG

    • As an aside, after reading some of the comments, this article is too negative on what students can achieve. Alot of golf work (working out, doing mirror work with tape, swinging with a medicine ball,e tc..) can be done at home, off the range. I guess I have much more faith that a 15 who really wants to get to scratch can do it, and that that isn’t silly. In 2008 i was about a 23. Now I’m a 2 and falling. Its not easy, but there are people out there who do it and who can do it, and this article saying immediately that 15->scratch is just ludicrious and should be written off is not only wrong but borderline offensive.

    • Ewe I teach at a resort with 600 members, and I have coached many top players to collegiate careers, PGA Tour, web.com, so…Thin, fat,toe, heel, shank, are all forms of “ball flight” or in this case LACK of it, they are under the general category of IMPACT. I have two players with over 120 MPH club head speed and several in the 80 category. The instruction does not change…I’m either working on club face, attack angle or swing path/plane. Without knowing those I’m teaching golf, not teaching THAT person to play golf. Thx DC

      • Just so I understand, you ask people what their ball flight is, and if they tend to hit it fat they say “my ballflight tends to be fat” ?!??! I find that hard to believe.

        I think its odd that you preach the “every golfer is different and should be taught differently” philosophy (which I agree with) and then speak in absolutes (“15 cap can’t become scratch”, “must ask what ballfight is or run”, etc…) If everyone is different, why do you have these hard and fast rules?

        I’m not doubting your credentials, I’m doubting you actually do what you say in this article. I’m also not doubting that you are a good coach.

        I’m doubting two things: first, that a coach who doesn’t immediately ask what your ballflight is is by definition bad and, second, that you “can’t” go from a 15 handicap to scratch, as though that is a ridiculous thing like growing a third arm.

        Both of those things seem really silly.

        • I don’t take your comments as an affront to my credentials at all. You have every right to raise these points. And since you have done so politely, I’ll take a minute to respond…

          I saw a lesson a range recently where the instructor asked the student to set up to hit a golf ball. BEFORE the ball was hit, the “teacher” said “first your stance is too wide and your grip is too strong”. This is the type of approach I am objecting to in this article. “Wide” or “strong” mean nothing in and of themselves. That would be like seeing Jim Furyk’s backswing and saying it is WAY too vertical. Hence my point about watching some impact, seeing path, plane and angle BEFORE i make a suggestion. I have been doing this work for near 40 years, and have seen FAR too many people offer suggestions simply based on a book, a theory, a recent TV comment etc. The teacher MUST see it in action, and internalize the entire dynamic (which is ball flight as a result of impact) before he/she suggests a correction. If a teacher suggested to Furyk, that he get his takeaway “on plane” and he then dropped the club well back under as he tends to do, he would be a club golfer. He’s one of the best in the world because he and his dad put together a sequence that works for JIM.

          Now about the realistic goals comment…You are correct in saying a 15 may be able to get to scratch; technically there is no question. That’s why I begin by asking “what are your goals”? There are two distinctly different lessons: One I call correction and the other creation. If a student says, I’m 15, I wanna be scratch, I have to assess the situation, and inform him/her how REALISTIC this aim actually is. If the physical ability is there, as apparently yours is, AND if the student can afford the time and investment, then we set out to do a “creation lesson”, by that I mean we begin by rebuilding the swing from “scratch”- no pun intended. But when I said I’m not going to kid the student, I’m referring the guy who plays on the weekend, hits balls only to warm up, has no speed etc. If HE says I’d like to be scratch I’m not about to say “OK no problem I’m your guy”– JUST to get work. Too many instructors mislead students with wild flights of fancy. I’m not demeaning or insulting ANYONE, I handle the conversation with courtesy and professionalism but I make it clear that more realism might be a better way to enjoy the game.

          Thank you for your interest and I hope this explains my article a little better.

          • That was a very good response. Thank you.

            You make good points here. I would really enjoy a future article from you on how to determine if goals are realistic. I set out to just ‘get better’ but it has taken a whole lot more than I thought. As an instructor who has seen improvement, I’d love to read what you “look for” in a student in terms of who can and can’t’ rapidly improve so that even if a reader isn’t taking lessons he can gravitate toward becoming more “teachable”.

            Thanks for replying to each point. Makes sense.

  4. I can have anyone hitting the golf better in an hour, and won’t change your whole swing to do it either…or there is no charge for my time! Match the parts, get the club face, attack angle and path/plane right and don’t worry about the method of application-I’m sure that every experienced teacher would tell you the same.

  5. Dennis-
    You are spot on in your article- Almost all things we see in a swing are results and not causes- attempts by athletes golfing brains to take the club face and square the face through impact with a reasonable angle of approach-
    Owning what you do is just as important in tournament golf as anything else- and it’s certainly more important than being correct to some “scientific standard” – just ask a long list of hall of famers

  6. “I’m not going to waste my time or a student’s money telling a 15-handicap he can get to scratch.”

    Just a question – wasn’t every scratch golfer a 15 at some point? Or is it more that people with innate skill can get to single digits on their own before they seek out a coach? Because I used to be a 6, then medical problems made me quit the game for 7 years. And now I’m back, but I’m a 15. I want to be a 6 again. Actually, I want to be a 4, but I’d settle for a 6. And as bad as I’ve been off the tee recently, I know there’s 9 shots right there. :)

    • Was every scratch player a 15 once? Maybe a week, month, no ore than half a season probably when they 12 yrs old? of course I’m talking about the guy who has been a 15 most of his career, or at least for a good long while. In your case, if you were actually a 6, and not TOO long ago (age factor) you likely have the ability to get back there. I could have you hitting the ball better in an hour, but rest of that climb would be the time and work you put in. Thx.

  7. “We in the PGA do not do a good job at training teachers. Many are permitted to hang out their shingles well before they are ready to do so.” Congrats Dennis, that is a good start. Step one.

  8. My question Dennis with the advent of technology over the past few years, hasn’t that made instruction from the past obsolete? I’m confused by Nick Faldo, Peter Kostis, and even Michael Breed, to name a few, when they make a swing analysis of what they think is going on. And I’ll see other swing analysis of the same players by younger more recent instructors debunking what the old guard has said… Confused…

  9. You can also add the cookie cutter approach that many instructors dispense on a regular basis. It’s tiresome and frustrating to hear them say the same things to different people without giving effort to the one individual they have in front of them. Like a broken record, with the same old same old. You sir appear to be one that treats the individual.

  10. Look this is not a swipe at good, qualified instructors, it is a word of caution to those who takes lessons. Buyer beware! The truthof the matter is this: We in the PGA do not do a great job at training teachers. Many are permitted to hang out their shingles well before they are ready to do so. And this demeans the industry as a whole…I’m telling the lesson takers of the world to be careful. There are warning signs out there and I’ve offered a few here. No one, pro or a, should be offering tips without seeing you hit balls or at least knowing your ball flight. I’d be very wary of that instructor. That’s ALL I’m saying

    • Well, it’s interesting that you think “No one, pro or a (sic), should be offering tips without seeing you hit balls or at least knowing your ball flight. I’d be very wary of that instructor.”

      What do you think of teachers giving golf swing advice over the internet without as much as a video of the person’s golf swing? Tell the truth now Dennis!

      • IF this, THEN try this…the IF is the operative word…IF you slice, try this or these things…or this CAN cause, the CAN is the operative word. When “giving advice” in that context it is alluding to some possibility of BALL FLIGHT…very different animal than “this is right or wrong”. in terms of absolutes there is only one one: impact

  11. Dennis, loved the article. The number problem I see with 99.9% of all golfers is alignment. Always to the right. ( right handed player) This as you know causes an outside to in path all day long. Pretty hard to be consistent trying to hit a ball at a target that you aren’t aimed at. Makes sense to me. Jack

    • You’re saying that aiming to the right causes an out to in path, why? I don’t see that many people aiming right- in fact i see more aiming left. As far as aim is concerned, golfers typically aim AWAY from their BAD shot. That is, slicers aim left, hookers aim right etc. It’s a reflex. Thx

    • You talking about alignment of the body or the clubface? If the alignment of the body is to the right but the clubface is to the right as well but less it’s a draw. What’s wrong with that? I’m not sure you understand what you are saying. And yeah it causing an outside in? That’d be a double cross, which is highly unnatural since it could be all arms. At which point the legs don’t matter as much.

        • I don’t understand honestly why so many people are having problems with your article. Perhaps you are stirring the pot too much but IMO that’s a good thing. Different golfers want different things, and instructors can offer that or tell them to go somewhere else. Some people are perhaps a little sadistic (like me) and want to make their swing look as textbook as possible. Some just want to get a quick fix or two and be able to hit the ball straight (not to mention just focus on scoring better).

          A pretty swing doesn’t equal a good score anyway is what I’ve learned playing with random people lol. A guy I’ve played with who has been a scratch golfer most of his life doesn’t have a perfect looking swing but it sure is consistent and his short game and putting is just right on.

  12. I can’t believe people pay me money to give them lessons! I don’t know how to teach.
    MY RATES:
    $150 per hour
    $600 for a five lesson package (5 one hour lessons)
    MY PLAYING LESSONS:
    $250 for 9 holes (fee includes greens fee and cart)
    $400 for 18 holes (fee includes greens fee and cart)
    MY CLINIC FEES:
    $350/$450 for 2/3 days.
    Range and green fees are always around $50 per day.

  13. I liked it. The opening statement ( four paragraphs) sets the tone for the rest of the article. Comprehension plays a big part in what one gets out of reading an article. Much like a golf swing.

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