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Opinion & Analysis

Have you taught a golf “Einstein?”

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MY BACKGROUND:

I have been active as a professional educator for approximately 14 years. In that time, I have engaged in teaching at a lot of different levels. I started out as a public school music educator in Maine, where I taught grades K-12 (including instrumental, general/classroom, and sometimes choral methods). I have also been a college instructor – lecturing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Fort Kent I was also an instructional assistant at Florida State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A large component of my university teaching experience involves pre-teacher education (mentoring and instructing undergraduate education majors how to be teachers).

I am an admitted degree “ho,” having earned four degrees in music and professional education (including a school administrative certification), and am now earning a fifth degree; a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction; curriculum and instruction being the “what and how” of the educational sphere. A current research interest for me is how issues and considerations in public school education transfer over into golf instruction, which serves as the premise for this writing. This interest comes from a very new experience for me – becoming the golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine while I finish my doctorate.

Please note: this article is geared mostly for those involved in golf pedagogy and instruction, including golf coaches, PGA professionals, golf educators, students and even parents. That said, I feel there is content here that may be relevant for a wide range of individual interest. Feel free to comment and I will respond to any and all questions to the best of my ability.

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

MY QUESTION:

Let me begin by asking all the golf educators a simple question, “Have you ever taught an Einstein?” Maybe not a literal golfing Einstein like a Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but maybe a player you would put up against the best in their category, or even one who exceeds everyone else in that category. Some of you might say yes, others no. For those who answered in the affirmative, how did you qualify such a determination? Were you thinking about a particular student and the qualities he/she displayed? Did these qualities include any of the following (?):

  • That student was the best player you ever had.
  • Exhibited personal maturity above and beyond his/her peers.
  • Appeared to learn quickly/was easy or fun to instruct.
  • You liked him/her and maybe that student’s parents.
  • That student showed great enthusiasm for your instruction.
  • He/she beat everyone who played against them.

If any or all of these were your reasons for describing your student as an “Einstein,” then…you might actually be wrong. Sorry!

SOME CONTEXT:

Let me share an old rumor with you about Mr. Einstein when he was in grade school. As the rumor goes, young Albert was labeled by his teachers as only average or even a slightly below average student, was somewhat defiant, and unengaged and rather quiet (yet another rumor was that he began speaking relatively late). Hardly genius material here, many might think.

Okay, this was just a rumor, and Einstein later clarified how it came about. Despite being the most gifted mind in the room (my words) Einstein found it difficult to work within the rote instruction process that characterized education of his period. Unfortunately, it also characterizes our period as well, but I digress.

Rote learning is a concept nearly all of you know well, even if you are unfamiliar with the term itself. The short of it as it pertains to education is: everyone showing up on time, sitting in orderly rows, silently listening to the teacher, remaining constantly focused (no talking!), “open your books and do examples 1-40 till the bell, and 40-70 for homework due tomorrow” … wash/rinse/repeat. Essentially, many of the things you might have hated about school are directly related to a rote approach. This highly structured (perhaps mundane) paradigm was an old European staple and made its way to the United States as it was looking for international recognition as a valid power prior to the second World War — kind of like OEM competitors copying the technology of whichever brand is leading the industry at the time.

While I taught public school, I was approached by a number of parents to take on their children as private students instead of enrolling them in band classes; their reasons including that the mainstream music program was not appealing to the child, though musical instruction, in and of itself, was highly desirable. Kind of crazy when you come to think about it, because I was also the music educator at the school! What these parents were actually telling me is that there was something about the structure I used when teaching many children was not right when it came to teaching their child.

There was no elitist mentality coming from these parents either; they weren’t the richest, they weren’t the most highly educated, etc. They simply realized that the traditional (rote) learning structure of the school was not what their child needed, despite his/her interest in music. I submit that the same kind of thing can happen in golf instruction.

Here is an interesting fact: the most accomplished music students I have ever taught never participated in my regular school music program. There was nothing about the approach I was forced to use in school that appealed to them. Of the students I am thinking of, one had her own solo recording career by age 14, and the other was a former Miss Maine, having competed in the Miss USA pageant. A number of other students went on to have successful (though minor) careers in New York and Nashville.

To further elaborate on this idea, nearly all of those private students had issues in school. They ranged from fighting with classmates, disrespecting teachers and other adults, truancy and below average academic performance. When they came to me for after school lessons, however, I rarely saw any of this. They were focused, almost always on time, and were upbeat and conversant; in stark contrast to how their other teachers described them. I am not taking credit for this change, rather I am pointing out that these students were ALWAYS that pleasant – it was the structure forced upon them that promoted the negative behavior and lack of motivation … most of the time. They were “diamonds in the rough,” or “Einstein’s in disguise,” if you will.

*2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson has a unique learning style — he’s never taken a lesson.

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

FIRST HALF SUMMARY – YOU HAVE REACHED THE MID-WAY POINT!

Here is the thing: the best minds and talents in golf, music or any other endeavor think and perform differently from their peers as a matter of course. It is logical to conclude that they might learn differently as well. Why then, do most instructors use one general methodology to teach ALL students? If you want a “different” result (discovering those rare talents who might simply be hidden behind a “misfit” image, like in the Einstein example), you can’t keep on with the status quo, expecting that different result to magically manifest.

Whew! That is a lot, right? This is where we bring it back to golf instruction…

AT THE TURN – HOW TO THINK DIFFERENTLY:

Here are some thoughts for the golf coaches and educators to consider based on the experiences I just shared:

Be prepared for the “best and brightest” to not always look the part

I see it all the time. “We” like teaching the students who are the easiest to teach and who are the most fun to be around – subconsciously recognizing them as being most consistent with our own personal standards. This doesn’t make you a bad person; it is just human nature to enjoy the company of, and interactions with, those who we view to be most like ourselves. However, it may make you a better golf educator to realize that the students you feel yourself naturally gravitating toward (while worthy of your time as well), may or may not have the most potential in the game of golf, apart from being no more worthy of your attention than any other student. Don’t be one of the teachers who fall easily into this trap.

We must never look for the “easy button” when it comes to teaching others, especially the young ones. Look for the best qualities every member of the group displays and take time to get to know every student in your charge personally, as appropriate. Sometimes (many times) all that it takes for a student to come out of their shell and step up their performance is for someone important to take an interest in them. Further, if there is one student who is not fitting in with the rest of your students (like on a golf team or junior practice), what might change that is you showing the group that you “accept” him/her by showing equal interest. The group followers the leader, which is you. Set the best possible example.

You won’t always find who you are looking for. Rare talent is … rare!

I want you all to know that I am NOT saying that every “ugly duck” will turn into a swan (or Einstein golfer) with a little love and attention. I am also NOT saying that every underperforming or unmotivated student is a victim of an educational structure or mismatched instructional model. Sometimes children just act like punks, even older ones – I just think these children represent a minority viewpoint. A good teacher learns to take the good with the bad and keep offering opportunities despite a lukewarm reception or occasional middle finger. Regret is an awful thing, and anyone who has been teaching for any period of time can look back on at least one situation and say,

“Man, I wish I had done more for that kid.”

We don’t mean for things to turn out poorly, but sometimes it’s hard to keep working with a kid who never responds to what we are saying, or wants to think they know better than us, or may just appear to “not get it.” Our frustration comes from the subconscious notion that this is a reflection on us, when it may not actually be so.

The best instructors will keep trying, ask for help, research solutions, talk with parents, talk with the student, talk to your deity of choice; whatever it takes to get through to a kid. Poor behavior reflects on the student, but a lack of effort just because things are tougher than we would like reflects on you. Strive to have a teaching career with as few regrets as possible – they get worse with time, trust me. Even if you don’t find that one super student that comes around once a career, you will help a lot of others who might not have otherwise had the same attention.

It may be beneficial to reevaluate the instructional models you teach with

Some students DO actually need the rote learning approach; it isn’t totally irrelevant. In golf, there has to be a degree of repetition as a matter of course, and that isn’t likely to change soon. I just want to clarify that this repetition should focus on the performance of the golf swing, and not as much as it pertains to a golf educator’s analytical teaching presentations.

That said, there are a number of recent studies that show growing numbers of students are better served with mixed approaches as pertains to instruction. The good news is, early research is showing that greater numbers of students are displaying tactile learning preferences – those that learn from a more hands-on approach and by “doing.” This makes a bit of sense, if you consider all of the handheld “gadgets” children are using these days (iPods, phones, tablets, Xbox, etc.). All of these promote tactile expectations from learners, and to a lesser degree, visual ones. It is certainly good news for us, because golf itself is a tactile endeavor requiring implements (clubs), and greater numbers of students appreciating this quality of our sport is a very good thing, as it can be used as a selling point to bring more to the game.

What does this mean specifically for instructors? It means that you should be prepared to vary your methods and move away from lecturing students as a core, teacher-centered approach. Yes, there needs to be a certain amount of information conveyed verbally during lessons, but you should be willing to keep this to as bare a minimum as a given student needs, especially in-group lessons, junior golf practices and golf team practices. This is hard to do, because the measure of a “good” teacher has traditionally been judged by the accuracy and depth of their content knowledge, often expressed verbally. It is hard for those of us who have been trained in traditional methods to move away from a teacher-centered model (“Do what I say”) to a student-centered model (“What do you need?”).

Private lessons don’t mitigate the effects of rote instruction

Again, rote instruction is not inherently bad (for our purposes), but not knowing the appropriate time to use such an approach will cause problems for newer generations who learn in increasingly diverse ways.

Are your lessons simply “smaller” classroom situations? As a golf educator, do you spell out every aspect of a lesson and nothing happens without you prompting it? Do you tell a student to put in “X” number of hours of practice per week or to make specific changes to his/her gear specs?

-Or-

Do you ask a student what you both should work on that day, or ask what they are feeling when their swing reaches a certain point, present a couple different options to correct an error and let them choose or ask them which kind of swing “model” appeals the most to them?

The former example is closer to the rote approach, and the latter is more student-centered. Either approach can be used one-on-one, but will only work well for certain groups of students. If you are sincerely interested in addressing the needs of all of your students (and yes, even discover a hidden Einstein golfer), you must be able to identify which model is going to work for a given student, and have the pedagogical skill to switch modes as needed.

The really hard part comes when you are teaching groups of students and need to change modes constantly. This is called differentiating instruction, and is a concept that many public and private schools are having difficulty implementing, but is a hurdle you have to overcome in your own teaching studio/school if you want to avoid the inconsistent results that currently plague our school systems.

The easy part in all of this is that it can be fairly easy to identify which mode of instruction might work best for a student. In most cases, you simply have to ask. Think about it: you probably have already said to yourself, “Yep that’s how I learn best” after I listed some of the differences in approach. Older students will identify with a certain approach if you describe some of the ideas and differences I described above. I have also found that speaking with parents can identify the preferences of younger students – no one knows their child better, after all.

To close, I want remind you that this writing is intended primarily as a self-reflection piece for golf educators, though I feel the content is also relevant for golf students, and/or parents of students. I write from the perspective of someone who has realized that there is a LOT of hidden talent out there in any field that goes unrecognized because it doesn’t fit into the “bins” that are created by schools and instructors in an effort to teach to the middle (or majority). None of what I am suggesting is easy, especially if you have grooved a particular teaching approach.

I suggest a good starting point might be taking advantage of local resources: asking around at local universities or public schools about conferences including specific educational content. Also, use your local library (and reference librarian!) to gain access to research articles addressing the subjects I mentioned. Those of you who are PGA Professionals might look for opportunities for professional development through your organization that deal with instructional delivery.

If you have any further questions regarding the content of this writing, please leave your comments below – I will be happy to discuss!

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

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I am a professional musician, educator and researcher, in addition to being a golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine. Currently, I am pursuing a Ph.D., in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My past academic achievements include a Bachelor's degree (in music performance) from the University of Maine, a Master's degree (in jazz performance) from Florida State University, a second Master's degree (in education) from the University of Maine, and K-12 teacher and school administrator certifications in Maine. My current research interests include overlapping content points between music and golf, as well as studying/comparing/contrasting how people learn in both endeavors. I have worked in education for 12 years, including public school education and university instruction. I have taught in the Maine public school system, and at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Florida State University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My main area of musical endeavor is drumset performance with an emphasis in jazz, where I have performed with Chuck Winfield (of Blood Sweat and Tears), Dr. Billy Taylor (of the Kennedy Center), Yusef Lateef (jazz legend), and numerous local and regional groups in the New England area.

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TG2: What’s it like to caddie for Rory? GolfWRX Forum Member shares his experience

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Marine and GolfWRX forum member “djfalcone” explains the story of how he got to caddie for Rory McIlroy and Johnny Vegas through the Birdies for the Brave program, and how knowledgable Rory is about his equipment. Make sure to check out his full forum thread here.

Listen to our full podcast below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team

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With the Masters and the Players Championship complete, I wanted to examine the statistics of the current leaders in Ryder Cup Points for the U.S. Team. Over the history of the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Team has relied on pairings that were friends and practice-round companions instead of pairing players that were more compatible from a statistical standpoint. This has led to disappointing performances from the U.S. Team and top players such as Jim Furyk performing poorly at the Ryder Cup, as he is ill-suited for the Fourball format.

After a disastrous 2014 Ryder Cup where the U.S. Team lost by a score of 16.5-11.5, the U.S. decided to use a more statistical approach to Ryder Cup play. According to my calculations, the 2016 U.S. Team’s pairings were the closest to optimal that the U.S. Team has compiled in the last seven Ryder Cups. And not surprisingly, the U.S. Team won 17-11 over the Europeans.

Since there are several months to go before the Ryder Cup, I won’t get too much into potential pairings in this article. Instead, I will focus more on the current games of top-12 players in U.S. Ryder Cup Points Standings and how that translates to Ryder Cup performance.

About the Ryder Cup Format

In the Ryder Cup, there is the Foursome format (alternate shot) and the Fourball format (best score). There are distinctly different metrics in the game that correlate to quality performers in each format.

In the Foursome format, short game around the green performance is usually critical. In a typical stroke play event such as The Players Championship, short game around the green performance usually has a much smaller impact on player’s performance. But in a match play, alternate-shot format the opposite has been true. My conclusion is that with the alternate-shot format, more greens in regulation are likely to be missed. The team that can save par and extend holes is usually likely to come out on top. The European team has mostly dominated the U.S. team over the past 20 years in the Foursome format, and the European teams typically are stronger with their short game around the green.

Other factors involved with Foursome play are Red Zone Performance (shots from 175-225 yards) and being able to pair the right players together based on how they each play off the tee and with their approach shots from the rough. For example, a pairing of Phil Mickelson (who misses a lot of fairways) and Zach Johnson (who is not very good from the rough) would likely be a poor pairing.

In the Fourball format (lowest score), the best performers are high birdie makers and players that perform well on the par-4s, par-5s, and par-3s. Bubba Watson makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, thus making him a good candidate for the Fourball format. The only issue with Bubba in the past is he has occasionally struggled on the par-3s. That can be resolved by pairing him with a player who makes a lot of birdies and is a strong performer on the par-3s. The reason for Jim Furyk’s struggles in the Fourball format is that he does not make a lot of birdies and is a merely average performer on the par-5s.

Note: All rankings below are based out of 209 golfers.

1. Patrick Reed

In the past, it has been difficult to get an accurate depiction of Reed’s game. He was notorious for either getting into contention or blowing up if he wasn’t in contention after the first round. He is now far better at avoiding those blowup rounds and remaining competitive regardless of how he well he performs at the beginning of the tournament. His iron play has been excellent, and since he is good on approach shots from the rough, short game around the green and he makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, he should continue to be a great competitor in the Ryder Cup format. Given his inability to find the fairway off the tee, however, I would recommend pairing him with a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

2. Justin Thomas

On paper, Thomas should be Team USA’s toughest competitor as he has little in the way of holes in his game. He drives it great, hits his irons well from every distance, has a superb short game and can putt. He also makes a ton of birdies, plays every type of hole well and rarely makes bogeys. Like Reed, it would be advisable to pair him with a player that is a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

3. Dustin Johnson

DJ is the second-strongest performer on paper. The only thing that currently separates Justin Thomas from DJ is their Red Zone play. DJ has typically been a world-class performer from the Red Zone, however, and the data suggests that his ranking from the Red Zone should rapidly improve. He struck it well from the Red Zone in his last two events at Harbour Town Golf Links and TPC Sawgrass. And with his putting performance this season, he could make for a great competitor in this year’s Ryder Cup.

4. Jordan Spieth

Spieth has the metrics to be a strong Ryder Cup performer, as he strikes the ball well with his driver and his irons while having a superb short game around the green. His only weakness in the Fourball format is his performance on the par-3s, but that is due to his inability to make putts from 15-25 feet (198th). That is the crux of the situation for Spieth; can he get his old putting form back?

A look at previous great putters on Tour that inexplicably struggled with their putter shows that Spieth is going about his putting woes the correct way. He’s not making equipment or wholesale changes to his putting stroke. He is continuing to work with what made him a great putter just like Jason Day did last year when he inexplicably struggled with the putter early in the season… and then turned it around and regained his old putting form.

The question is, how long will it take for Spieth to regain his old form? Typically, players like Spieth that have a dramatic drop-off in their putting take about a year to regain their old form. He may not regain that form by the time the Ryder Cup takes place. If he does, Team USA is very strong with its top-4 points earners.

5. Bubba Watson

Bubba is off to a strong enough year to make the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, but the best bet for him is to stick to the Fourball format given his struggles around the green. Watson’s performance on the par-5s has not exactly been remarkable, but typically he’s one of the very best in the world on par-5s and can make a ton of birdies.

6. Rickie Fowler

Fowler has not been as strong in some areas of the game such as Red Zone, shots from the rough and putting as he has been in recent years. That makes him a little less appealing in the alternate shot format, but he still has a solid foundation to be a quality contributor in either format. The upside is if Rickie gets back to his old form with the putter and from the Red Zone, he should be a top-notch Ryder Cup performer because he is well suited to perform in either team format. At this time, he would be best suited to play with an accurate driver and very good performer around the green (i.e. Matt Kuchar) in the alternate shot format.

7. Brooks Koepka

There currently is not enough data on Koepka due to his wrist injury he suffered early in the season. Koepka is arguably the best bomber in the world who is also a great putter and a solid performer from the Red Zone. The main issue for Koepka has been his short game performance around the green. That would typically make for a weak partner in the alternate shot format, but Koepka was spectacular in the 2016 Ryder Cup. His combination of length and putting may make him a formidable Ryder Cup performer for years to come.

8. Phil Mickelson

As a statistical analyst for golf, I never quite know what I’m going to get from Lefty. This season Lefty has putted superbly, but his performance around the green has left a lot to be desired.

In recent Ryder Cups, he has been a quality performer in both the Foursome and Fourball formats. His recent success in the alternate shot format makes him a mandatory candidate, however, his inability to find the fairway means he would need a partner who is very good from the rough. The data suggests that his performance around the green should get closer to his old form as the season goes along.

9. Webb Simpson

Like Mickelson, it’s always a surprise as to what the strengths and weaknesses of Simpson’s game will be by the end of the season. Typically, he’s been a decent driver of the ball that is often a superb iron player and short game performer. With the anchoring ban, he has struggled with the putter up to this season. Lately, he has been an incredible putter that is struggling a bit with the irons.

Most of Simpson’s struggles with the irons have been from the rough, so a partner who finds a lot of fairways off the tee could be an excellent pairing in the foursome format with Simpson.

10. Matt Kuchar

Kuchar could be a very critical player for Team USA down the stretch. There are potential players on the team that could be valuable in the alternate shot format if they can find a teammate to find fairways off the tee to make up for their struggles on approach shots from the rough. Historically, Kuchar has been the most accurate off the tee of the players mentioned thus far.

This season, however, Kuchar has been underwhelming in his ability to find the fairway. The next most-accurate drivers of the ball that are near the top-12 in Ryder Cup points are Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Kisner and Andrew Landry, and none of them have nearly the experience in the Ryder Cup as Kuchar has. If Kuchar continues to miss fairways, his chances of making the team are not good unless he’s a Captain’s pick. If he cannot find the fairway, he has little-projected value as a member of the team. He is not making a lot of birdies, and his struggles on the par-3s and does not make him a favorable teammate in the Fourball format either.

11. Brian Harman

Harman’s value is that he has fairly decent Fourball metrics and his accuracy off the tee, putting, and iron play can work well with players like Fowler, Simpson, and Kuchar in the alternate shot format.

Harman has not performed that well from around the green using the Strokes Gained methodology, however; he ranks 15th on shots from 10-20 yards. I placed that metric in there as strokes gained takes into account all shots from less than 30 yards, but 10-20 yards is the most common distance range from which scrambling opportunities occur on Tour. Thus, Harman is an excellent performer from 10-20 yards and is only losing strokes around the green due to poor performance from 20-30 yards, and those shots occur less frequently on Tour. His struggles from 20-30 yards would also explain why his par-5 performance is roughly average, as that is the distance players typically finish from the hole when they go for par-5s in two and do not make the green.

And even though Harman is not very long off the tee (147th in Measured Driving Distance), he is a quality performer from the rough and thus he does not have to be tethered to another short-hitting, accurate driver in the alternate shot format.

12. Bryson DeChambeau

Dechambeau makes for a solid Ryder Cup candidate, as he has no outstanding weaknesses in his game this season as he appears to have rid himself of the putting woes that have hurt him in the past. I think he is better suited for the Fourball format, however, given how many birdies he makes. Pair him with a strong performer on the par-3s like Rickie Fowler or Phil Mickelson and it would make a very formidable duo in that format.

A pairing with Mickelson in the Fourball format would be intriguing given DeChambeau’s excellent driving. DeChambeau could hit first and — if he continues to drive it superbly — that would free up Mickelson to not worry so much about his woeful driving and focus more on making birdies. Perhaps a Fourball pairing with Bubba would make for a situation where DeChambeau could tee off first and pipe his drive, and then give Bubba a free rip to hit it as far as he possibly can and give them a sizeable advantage over their opponents.

31. Tiger Woods

I know I said I was only going to look at the top-12 players in Ryder Cup points, but the readers would inevitably ask about Tiger anyway. Furthermore, Tiger is an intriguing candidate for the team given his current game.

Tiger has struggled in both the Foursome and Fourball format. He seems to not play that great in alternate shot. In Fourball, it appears that he plays well by himself, but he is often let down by his teammates. The Europeans have always gunned for Tiger in the Ryder Cup, and it takes a special type of teammate to deal with the hysteria of having Tiger as their partner.

There are the makings of a very good alternate shot partner with Tiger, as his iron play and putting are still really good and his short game has been incredible this season. In the Fourball format, it would be advisable to find a strong par-5 performer, as Tiger’s performance on the par-5s has not been outstanding thus far. Having said that, I could see three excellent partners for Tiger in either format.

Patrick Reed has the numbers to be compatible with Tiger’s game, and he also has the track record of living up to the moment in the Ryder Cup. Dustin Johnson is can make up for Tiger’s possible big misses off the tee and can overpower a course with Tiger. And Phil Mickelson, whose game is compatible with Tiger’s, and could provide a symbol of the old guard working together to beat the Europeans.

There are certainly a lot of compelling possible pairings for Team USA, and there is still a long way to go before we start to see what pairings are available. The European Team looks like one of the strongest in years, and with all of the potential storylines for the 2018 Ryder Cup, it could be one of the greatest Ryder Cups of all time.

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Gear Dive: How Tiger Woods used to adjust his clubs based on swing changes

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Ben Giunta, a former Nike Tour Rep and now owner of the TheTourVan.com, joins host Johnny Wunder and TXG’s Ian Fraser on this episode of The Gear Dive. Ben discusses working in-depth with Nike Athletes before the company stopped producing hard goods. He has some fantastic intel on TW and the setup of his sticks (around the 14-minute mark). They also discuss Ben’s new endeavor.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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