Is the secret found “in the dirt” or through instruction?

by   |   November 24, 2012
ben hogan

Ben Hogan once wrote:

“I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me … adopting it if it helped … sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition.”

In the decades since Hogan and Herbert Warren Wind penned Five Lessons, golf instruction has been dissected, codified and homogenized. It has become a cottage industry comprised of swing gurus, bio-mechanic experts and mental coaches always ready to help golfers shave strokes off their score or plunge elbow deep into a swing reconstruction.

There really isn’t any reason why the average weekend player should attempt to dig it out of the dirt with a homemade swing — what I affectionately refer to as the “swing and hope” technique of learning. Golf instruction is ubiquitous. Being a serious golfer or belonging to a private country club are not pre-requisites for getting help.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

I’m like most people in that somebody else introduced me to the game. My father-in-law handed me one of his ancient Ping Eye 2 irons at the driving range and said, “swing away.” So swing away I did and from that moment four years ago I forged a love for the game and ingrained some nasty habits that I decided to break with the help of one-on-one lessons.

Working side-by-side with a PGA Professional is the most common and direct way to fix your game. There isn’t a sure fire way to be sure you and your instructor will form successful partnership — I’ve crashed and burned through three instructors — but there’s some rules of thumb that have to be followed.

Before you take a single lesson, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your goals? Be realistic about them. If you are 40 years old and just starting out, a spot on the PGA Tour is probably out of reach.
  • How much time do you have on your hands? Swing overhauls typically take one to two years to ingrain. Most people don’t have the patience or dedication of a Nick Faldo or Tiger Woods to take this on.
  • Is it your swing that really needs work? Sometimes an adequate swing is all a person needs. You might get more mileage from your golf instruction if you take lessons on putting or short game.
  • What type of learning do you best respond to? Some people are very analytical and every action needs to be explained; other people simply want to be shown what to do and don’t care about the causes and effects.

Of course, the average weekend player will probably disregard all sound advice. Messing around with one’s golf swing to wring out a few extra yards isn’t something only professionals do. I worked with “my guy” twice a month for the better part of a year on pretty much the same thing week in and week out — getting my body into a better impact position on my downswing. Lessons mainly consisted of my PGA pro grabbing me by the hips and shoulders and twisting me around like a G.I. Joe action figure with the kung-fu grip. For feedback, we’d watch the ball flight for answers.

Unfortunately, I felt like the answers never came, or like a shooting star, I might experience them for a brief instant before they vanished into distant memory. For a change of pace (translation: I wanted to hear the same things in a different way), I took a lesson with another instructor. I drove up to the golf course on a crisp, but not unpleasant October day and spent a half-hour laying sod over the ball. Don’t get me wrong, my instructor was a nice enough person and he was nobody’s fool. But the communication between us just wasn’t there. The brief and entire affair played out like that surfing lesson scene from the movie, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Instead of being told to “pop up,” I was asked to hit down. And yes, I was encouraged to “do less.”

In-person lessons being what they are (generally expensive, sometimes difficult to schedule), I decided to experiment with taking lessons online. Increasingly, this is becoming a more popular method of receiving golf instruction, thanks in no small part to the explosion of smart phones. If my 73-year-old father-in-law can take a video of his swing, chances are so can you. Once you’ve taken a video of your swing (you’ll need to film it both face-on and down-the-line), you upload it for analysis.

In my experience, you’ll receive feedback within 24 to 72 hours. Savvy golfers will quickly realize that in order to get better feedback it’s important to describe your swing issues in great detail. Don’t be embarrassed to treat your online lesson like a heartfelt submission to Dear Abby – after all that’s what these instructors are there for. However, do be prepared to accept that online lessons can’t take the place of the personal attention you receive with one-on-one instruction. If you end up feeling like a cog on the assembly line, well, it’s because you are.

That isn’t to say that online golf instruction is mediocre to it’s in-person counterpart. Some of the best golf teachers in the industry have turned to online instruction to cast a wider net and to offer students a less expensive alternative to taking an individual lesson. For those golfers who have always balked at taking lessons due to cost or time commitments, embrace technology if you haven’t already. To that end, embrace communication — it’s the common denominator in determining if your lessons are going to help or hinder, irrespective of how you take them.

To their credit, golfers are rarely shy about experimenting with any gizmo, swing tip or  school of thought that can help their games. Driving ranges are always packed with old and young, men and women, scratch players and duffers beating balls from summer to winter with unrelenting optimism in their hearts. Pause for a moment and take a lesson or two. Golf instructors are here to help with keeping that beat going.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

About

For the past two years, Rusty Cage has been a contributing writer for GolfWRX, one of the leading publications online for news, information and resources for the connected golfer. His articles have covered a broad spectrum of topics - equipment and apparel reviews, interviews with industry leaders, analysis of the pro game, and everything in between.

Rusty's path into golf has been an unusual one. He took up the game in his late thirties, as suggested by his wife, who thought it might be a good way for her husband to grow closer to her father. The plan worked out a little too well. As his attraction to the game grew, so did his desire to take up writing again after what amounted to 15-year hiatus from sports journalism dating back to college. In spite of spending over a dozen years working in the technology sector as a backend programmer in New York City, Rusty saw an opportunity with GolfWRX and ran with it.

A graduate from Boston University with a Bachelor's in journalism, Rusty's long term aspirations are to become one of the game's leading writers, rising to the standard set by modern-day legends like George Peper, Mark Frost and Dan Jenkins.

GolfWRX Writer of the Month: August 2014


3 Comments

  1. Ron Owens

    November 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    It’s in the dirt. Mr. Hogan was correct. However, you have to know what you’re doing or what to work on or you’re wasting your time. That’s where instruction comes in. Get your fundamentals right with proper instruction then work on them, as well as playing/scoring, in the dirt.

  2. joro3743

    November 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I have been teaching Golf for over 40 yrs and if anything I have found that instruction is usually over done by a lot of teachers who should not be teaching. They teach theory, they teach confusion, and the vast majority of “students” will reach a certain level and not go any farther. Progression depends on ability and to most it is limited by age, physical problems, athletic ability, mind acceptance, or by just no talent. Also there is the aspect of other priorities.

    I am not saying instruction is not a good thing, but it is limited to the basics and then talent and ability. “In the dirt” is a great description to get repetitive, play Golf and it will happen to those who can.

    Over teaching is not the answer, it is taking a person, being realistic about what you can do, and do it.

  3. Frank Dolan

    November 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    A very well written article which put out several different aspects of learning the game of golf. After playing golf for 25 years, I never thought of taking online lessons. Great idea – I’m going to give it a shot and hope it improves my game.

    Frank Dolan

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