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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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