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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.)

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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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Opinion & Analysis

Be Curious, Not Critical, of Tour Player Swings

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After a foul ball by a tour player, the talking heads on TV are often quick to analyze the “problem” with that swing. Fair enough, I suppose. Even the best players are human and our game has more failure than success. But I’d like to offer a different take on swings of the best players in the world.

First, let’s remember how good these guys and gals really are. If you met up with the lowest ranked player on any professional tour at a public course one day, I’ll bet that golfer would be the best golfer most of you have ever played with. You’d be telling your buddies in the 19th hole about him or her for a very long time. These players have reached a level of ball striking most people only dream about. That’s why I’m more curious than critical when it comes to a tour player’s swing. I’m not thinking about what he/she needs to do better; I’m thinking, “How do they do it so well?” In other words, I want to know how they put their successful move together. What part goes with the other parts? How did their pattern evolve? What are the compatible components of their swing?

Let’s use Jim Furyk as an example. Furyk has what we might call an “unconventional” move. It’s also a swing that has won nearly $70 million and shot 58 one day. But I’ll offer him as an example because his swing illustrates the point I’m making. From a double-overlapping grip, Furyk picks the golf club up to what might be the most vertical position one would ever see from a professional. Then in transition, he flattens the club and drops it well behind him. Now the club is so flat and inside, he has to open his body as quickly as he can to keep the club from getting “stuck.” Let’s call it an “up-and-under loop.”

Let’s take Matt Kuchar as a counter example. Kuchar’s signature hands-in, flat and very deep takeaway is pretty much the total opposite of Furyk. But he comes over that takeaway and gets the club back into a great position into impact. We’ll call that an “in-and-over” loop.

Both are two of the best and most consistent golfers in the world. Is one right and the other wrong? Of course not. They do have one thing in common, however, and it’s that they both balanced their golf swing equation.

What would happen if Kuchar did what Furyk does coming down? Well, he wouldn’t be on TV on the weekend. If he did, he’d be hitting drop kicks several inches behind. That doesn’t win The Players Championship. The point is that the Furyk downswing is incompatible with the Kuchar backswing, and vice versa, but I’m guessing they both know that.

How can this help you? My own personal belief and the basis of my teaching is this: your backswing is an option, but your downswing is a requirement. I had one student today dropping the arms and club well inside and another coming over the top, and they both felt better impact at the end of the lesson. I showed them how to balance their equation.

My job is solving swing puzzles, a new one very hour, and I’m glad it is. It would be mind-numbing boredom if I asked every golfer to do the same thing. It’s the teaching professional’s job to solve your puzzle, and I assure you that with the right guidance you can make your golf swing parts match. Are there universal truths, things that every golfer MUST do?  Yes, they are the following:

  1. Square the club face
  2. Come into the ball at a good angle
  3. Swing in the intended direction
  4. Hit the ball in the center of the face (method be damned!)

But here’s the funny part: Let Kuchar or Furyk get off base and watch every swing critic in the world blame some part of the quirkiness of their move that has led to their greatness. When players at their level get off their game, it’s generally due to poor timing or that they lost the sync/rhythm that connected their individual parts. The same holds true for all of us. We have to find the matching parts and the timing to connect them. You might not need new parts.

After all, weren’t those same parts doing the job when you shot your career low round?

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Opinion & Analysis

The numbers behind “full scholarships” in NCAA men’s college golf

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If you are in the world of junior golf, you’ve probably heard about a young man you know who’s getting that coveted full ride to college, maybe even to a Power-5 school. With all the talk in junior golf about full scholarships, and a lot of rumors about how many are available, we decided to poll coaches and gather some real data about “full scholarships.”

So, what did we find out? In total, we got responses to a voluntary online survey from 61 men’s D1 coaches, 19 men’s D2 coaches and 3 NAIA coaches (83 total). On average, the coaches in the survey had 11.8 years of coaching experience. Of the coaches that responded, 58 of the 83 coaches reported having zero players on full ride. Another 15 coaches surveyed reported having one player on full ride. This means that 69 percent of the coaches surveyed reported zero players on full scholarship and 18 percent reported one player on full scholarship, while another four coaches reported that 20 percent of their team was on full ride and six coaches reported between 2-3 players on full ride.

We then asked coaches, “what percent of golfers in Division 1 do you think have full scholarships based on your best guess?” Here’s what the responses looked like: 25 coaches said 5 percent and 36 coaches said 10 percent. This means that 73 percent of respondents suggested that, in their opinion, in men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA, there are less than 10 percent of players on full ride.

Next, we asked coaches, “what was a fair scholarship percentage to offer a player likely to play in your top 5?” The average of the 83 responses was 62.5 percent scholarship with 38 coaches (46 percent) suggesting they would give 30-50 percent and 43 coaches (52 percent) suggesting 50-75 percent. Only two coaches mentioned full scholarship.

The last question we asked coaches, was “what would you need to do to earn a full scholarship?”

  • Top-100 in NJGS/Top-250 in WAGR – 41 coaches (49 percent)
  • 250-700 in WAGR – 19 coaches (23 percent)
  • Most interesting, 17 coaches (20 percent) noted that they either did not give full rides or did not have the funding to give full rides.

The findings demonstrate that full rides among players at the men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA levels are rare, likely making up less than 10 percent of total players. It also suggests that if you are a junior player looking for a full ride, you need to be exceptional; among the very best in your class.

Please note that the survey has limitations because it does not differentiate between athletic and academic money. The fact is several institutions have a distinct advantage of being able to “stack” academic and athletic aid to create the best financial packages. My intuition suggests that the coaches who responded suggesting they have several players on “full rides” are likely at places where they are easily able to package money. For example, a private institution like Mercer might give a student $12,000 for a certain GPA and SAT. This might amount to approximately 25 percent, but under the NCAA rules it does not count toward the coach’s 4.5 scholarships. Now for 75 percent athletic, the coach can give a player a full ride.

Maybe the most interesting finding of the data collection is the idea that many programs are not funded enough to offer full rides. The NCAA allows fully funded men’s Division 1 programs to have 4.5 scholarships, while Division 2 programs are allowed 3.6. My best guess suggests that a little more than 60 percent of men’s Division 1 programs have this full allotment of scholarship. In Division 2, my guess is that this number is a lot closer to 30 percent.

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Opinion & Analysis

Oh, To Be An (Oregon) Duck

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A few weeks ago I flew into Eugene, Oregon on a mission. I’d come to work with one my students who is a member of the Duck’s varsity golf team. I had never been further south than Seattle or further north than Monterey, so this part of the world was new to me.

What I did know was that the Bandon Dunes area had become a destination for some of the greatest golf in the world, rivaling other famed resorts around the country. The resort is just outside the quaint town of Bandon, which is a good two-hour drive from Eugene. The resort’s four courses — Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails, Pacific Dunes, and Old McDonald — each have their own personality, but at the same time they have one thing in common: the four architects that designed them took full advantage of the natural topography, deftly weaving holes in and out along the Oregon coastline.

I was looking forward to playing two of the courses before leaving: Pacific Dunes and Old McDonald. You may find this hard to believe, but those two rounds would be my first and second of the year after a busy summer season on the lesson tee. And for that very reason, I had no expectations other than to make a few pars and enjoy the scenery.

After retrieving my luggage from the turnstile, I made my way toward the exit with luggage in tow. My rental car was just across the street in an open-air lot and as I pushed through the airport doors, I was greeted by a gust of wind and a spray of rain. “Welcome to Eugene,” I thought to myself.

The sudden burst reminded me of playing in Scotland, where the rain gives way to sun only on occasion. I surmised that the weather in the Eugene would be similar. “Don’t forget your rain suit,” a fellow professional reminded me when I told him about my trip. As it turned out, that was good advice. He had been there before around the same time of year. “You’ll be lucky if you get one good day out of three,” he said.

As I drove through the area to my hotel, what struck me the most were the large hills that commanded the landscape and the thick white clouds that seemed to cling to them like giant cotton balls.  I found a comfortable hotel just outside Eugene in the small but quaint town of Cottage Grove. In charitable terms, you could characterize my hotel as “a tribute to the past.”

I woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning, dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby. The rain had continued through the night and as I prepared to leave the hotel,  it started to come down even harder. I stood in the lobby, waiting, while listening to the rain drops pounding on the roof,  a steady beat at first, then rising and falling like a conga drum.

I’d agreed to meet my student at 10 a.m. for a practice session and then he was slated to play nine holes with the team later in the afternoon. Based on the weather, I was concerned that the day might be a total rain-out. What I didn’t know at the time was that the school has a portable canopy that allowed the team, rain or shine, to practice on natural grass. I ran to my car ducking rain drops. The forecast called for a chance of sun in the afternoon. And this time the weather man was  right.

That afternoon I was invited to watch my student and the rest of Casey Martin’s boys play a quick nine holes at Eugene Country Club, the team’s home course. The layout is one of the most unusual that I’ve ever seen with giant trees bordering every fairway. The tips seemed to stretch up and up into the sky, piecing the low-hanging clouds above, as if they were marshmallows on a stick.

The Ducks have fielded a strong team the past two years, winning the NCAA Division 1 Championship in 2016 and then finishing second this year. A good deal of credit for that accomplishment goes to Casey Martin, who has coached the Ducks since 2006. For those who are too young to remember, Casey Martian was a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford University. He later competed on the Nike Tour. Casey earned his PGA Tour card in 1999 by finishing 14th on the Nike Tour, but his earnings through the 2000 season were not enough for him to retain his card, relegating him to once again to playing on the development tour. He played sporadically up through 2006. The following year, Casey assumed the job of Head Coach, which brought him back to his native Eugene.

In earlier years, Martin’s play career as a professional was hindered by the fact that he could not play 18 holes without a golf cart due to a birth defect in his right leg. The PGA Tour Board ruled against his use of a cart, maintaining that the physical act of walking was considered an integral part of the competition. Believing that he was in the right, Casey filed a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. His case made its way to the Supreme Court where he won. As for his competitive record, by his own admonition, he is disappointed that he didn’t play better as a professional. A primary focus of his coaching then, as he conceded, is to teach his players not to make the same mistakes he did in his own career. What struck me as unique was the passion and intensity with which he coached. I would venture that it’s the same level of intensity that he brought to the golf course when he competed.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a closed-door, defensive-team practice at Duke University with Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) on the floor. He had divided the team into two groups with one at either end of the court competing against each other. His legs straddled the center line as if he were Colossus with his head swiveling back and forth as if on a stick. The impression was that he saw everything and be never missed anything. And then when he saw a player make a mistake, he would blow his whistle sharply. The players would immediately stop moving as if they were frozen in place. And then, in peg-leg style, he would hobble across the floor favoring one leg over the other. He was clearly in need of a hip replacement at the time.

I’ve had both of my hips replaced, so I could easily imagine the pain that he was experiencing as he peg-legged it from the center of the court to either end. I suspected that he had decided that surgery would have to wait. The season was just a few weeks away, and given that his team was largely composed of freshman, he could not afford to miss a day. Casey Martin doesn’t blow a whistle, nor does he run a defense practice, but as he climbs out of his cart, deftly working his way to a vantage point where he can see his players from every angle, I’m reminded of the halting walk of Coach K.

There is something else that these two man share in common — an intense desire to win. They settle for nothing less than great. And when you look into their eyes, you can see that there is an intensity that burns from within that is vastly different from the man on the street.

As you might remember, I was scheduled to play a round on Pacific Dunes and another on Old McDonald. The two courses are both spectacular layouts with ocean views. And the weather… I drew two perfect days, defying the odds my friend had laid down. It was sunny and 65 degrees with just a hint of wind. How did I play? Let’s just say that I made a few pars. What I found was that striking the ball well is no guarantee that you will score low on these courses. The green complexes are diabolical. The best advice I can give you is to throw you scorecard away. You’ll enjoy yourself more.

The next morning, I was on an early morning flight back to Minneapolis only to discover that we were experiencing Indian Summer with temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual. But as Minnesotans, we all know what is waiting for us just around the corner.

I’ll leave you with this thought. After watching Casey Martin and the players on his team play and practice, I’m sure of one thing. And that’s when next year’s NCAA Championship comes around, Casey Martin will have all of his Ducks in a row.

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