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Opinion & Analysis

Honoring John Jacobs, the Best Golf Instructor I Ever Saw

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The passing of John Jacobs at the age of 91 last week was noted by too few, and a great loss for those of us who teach the game of golf. Jacobs was the best golf instructor I ever saw, and clearly the one I learned more from than any other. He revolutionized the way the game is taught and showed an entire generation of his proteges that golf is “what the ball does.”

“The purpose of the golf swing is to apply the golf club correctly to the ball,” Jacobs said. “The method employed is of no consequence if it can be repeated.”

That simple thought was a such an eye-opener to the teaching community who were still immersed deeply in the old-school style of teaching, which placed an emphasis on certain “classic” positions. In it, the club was held a certain way, the player set up a certain way and he or she went through a series of motions deemed correct by the swing experts of the day.

During my training as a golf professional, I can recall vividly observing a lesson from a Class A Professional (we were required to apprentice under a PGA member) during which the teacher asked the student to set up to hit a ball. Before one shot had been struck the teacher said, “Get your elbows a little closer to your body and move the ball further back in your stance.”

I was still a tyro in the trade, but I remember having the common sense to ask myself, “WHY?” I had watched Moe Norman hit balls for a few hours the week before and his arms were a MILE from his body… and he started with his club a MILE behind the golf ball. But the old-school style of teaching said this setup was incorrect, so the instructor changed the student before the ball was struck.

It’s just one example of many; in fact, this was the adopted style of teaching for many years, especially in the time when the game was predominantly taught by players and former players. Jacobs came along and asked a very basic, albeit almost rebellious question: What is the ball doing? He thought that should be the starting point of a lesson.

That point of departure not only made sense; it rendered the old approach obsolete and exposed it as simply wrong… or at least far too limited. All anyone had to do was look in the golf hall of fame to see the myriad styles and the great variety of grips, backswings and other positions to understand there are many ways to set up and swing the golf club. Even the fabled “impact position” has more variety than the standard square-face, in-to-in path and correct attack angle that everyone heralded. Some great players impact their shots with a slightly open or closed face; some are steeper than others and some even swing from slightly outside the line. The commonality is they all learned to make the ball behave.

Jacobs has been the single greatest influence on golf instruction in the modern game, and some of the biggest names in the trade often give a nod to him as the man who most directly influenced their teaching. They include Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, Jim Hardy and even Jim Flick, who confided that to me personally. Flick, of course, was one of the great teachers responsible for the early Golf Digest Schools, which was a huge step in the transition from former tour players teaching the game to full-time professional teachers.

To observe John Jacobs doing a golf lesson was a study of a man totally in command of the subject matter in front of him. He could get students to impact the golf ball better and more quickly than anyone ever; it was a joy to watch. And those of us who learned from him and his proteges are all the better for it. I taught golf before Jacobs, but it wasn’t until meeting him and learning his style that I really got in stride as a teacher. What I learned from him made me confident I could help ANYONE, and helped me more directly to the source of any golfer’s problem.

Jacobs, of course, achieved so much more than teaching the game of golf. His influence on European golf, his Ryder Cup Captaincy, as well as his own fine play are also a part of his legacy and life devoted to our game. But as one who followed the path of instruction, I will be eternally indebted to John Jacobs for making an illogical game more logical, and a counter-intuitive one more intuitive. The teaching community stands as one in admiration and respect to the best of the best.

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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. stephenf

    Feb 15, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    A true giant of the game, and a true gentleman.

    Also, if you get into his books and interviews, and if you’re open to the idea that the hypertechnical approach to teaching in the current age isn’t necessarily the best way, you’re going to find specific things that are just brilliant. His assertion that the synch between the turning of the shoulders and the swinging of the arms is the single most important technical aspect of the swing is one of the best observations anybody ever made. When you think about the perpetual disagreement about “body” versus “hands and arms” and see it in terms of that simple truth articulated by Jacobs, you see a more expansive view that resolves the problem. He always insisted that some people are going to feel the swing more in the arms and hands and some will feel it more in the turn. Probably this has to do with one’s own natural inclination, even in a ironic way: If you naturally swing your arms well and freely, maybe you need to think about turn, and vice versa. But that doesn’t mean the next guy will need to think about the same thing to produce the same result — a coordination between the elements. Jacobs understood it and taught it that way.

  2. tucsonsean

    Jan 18, 2017 at 11:03 am

    I probably own most of the golf books ever published, from Bobby Jones and Ernest Jones to Dave Stockton and Stan Utley. But the one volume that changed and advanced my game more than any other is John Jacobs “Practical Golf,” and it’s the first one I consult when a problem arises. There’s more down-to-earth, practical, USEFUL wisdom in those 144 pages than in the rest of my collection combined. Thank you, Mr. Clark, for marking this humble giant’s passing.

    • energymatt

      Jan 22, 2017 at 12:23 pm

      Ditto to that, I own a lot, and it is probably my favourite golf book

  3. doesnotno

    Jan 18, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Lovely article, thank you Dennis. Practical Golf was the first golf book I ever read and I could make an easy case for it being the most relevant even today.

  4. Andy

    Jan 18, 2017 at 4:02 am

    Nice tribute to a great teacher. RIP Sir.

  5. Chuck

    Jan 17, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Thank you so much, Dennis and GolfWRX for this remembrance. Which are the essential Jacobs books?

    “The most valuable new equipment is… lessons.”

  6. The Real Swanson

    Jan 17, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    “Two turns and a swish.”

    Thanks for the article.

  7. Walter Doyle

    Jan 17, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    I was walking down a hallway in the PGA Training Academy in the Belfry a few years ago and this elderly man approached on a walking aid/stick. He was very hunched over but as I passed he lifted his head and asked “have you no razors where you are from”? I informed him in my best Irish accent that it was called ‘Designer stubble’ and that there was a power cut at home that morning. While laughing at my response he further added; “able to take a joke and Irish”. I then told him that I had read his book the previous night – Practical Golf; and was gutted that I had left it at home. I returned to my group and asked if anyone knew who I was talking with and no one had a clue. I told the group that for every assignment for Golf Coaching in the future, we will all be quoting him, as he, John Jacobs had written the ‘Bible’ for golf coaching. RIP.

    while in training in the

  8. John Mule'

    Jan 17, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Dennis- What a great tribute to Mr. Jacobs. I once wrote a letter to him (care of Ken Bowden…) in the late 70’s expressing my gratitude to him for “saving” my game and making it more enjoyable. He had Ken reply to me and sent me an autographed copy of one of his books that I did not have (wasn’t published in the U.S.).

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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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