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

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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. 

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Rusty Cage is 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 Fairway Executive Podcast Interview http://golfindustrytrainingassociation.com/17-rusty-cage-golf-writer (During this interview I discuss how golf industry professionals can leverage emerging technologies to connect with their audience.)

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ron Owens

    Nov 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

    Nov 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

    Nov 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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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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