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Golf instruction: What is it?

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In my last article, I disputed the term “golf instruction,” because I feel it is too broad of a description. If that’s true, then just what is it that I, and 28,000-plus others, do for a living?

There is an endless debate in teaching golf with regard to methods, system, theories, modes of correction etc. Teacher A thinks this is best, teacher B thinks that is best, Teacher C has a completely different view. So, it’s no surprise then that teachers hear their students say things like, “well so-and-so says this” or “I read a book which suggested…I’m so confused.”

In other words, the students have a general view that one teacher said something that another contradicted, so what are they to do? But here is where it all gets quite intriguing: Teachers A, B and C may all be right. Or all be wrong.

Huh?

In my experience, there is no such thing as “golf instruction.” Collectively. There is only golf instruction by one particular instructor during one particular session. That same instructor is likely to give his/her next student completely different “golf instruction,” or in my opinion, should. It’s often been said that golf swings are like snowflakes, no two are alike.

So we have to ask the obvious question: How could “golf instruction” not vary from student to student? You show me one “fundamental” of the swing, and I can likely find a great player who did not execute that particular fundamental (other than solid contact of course), but I’m referring to the method one chooses to get there.

Of course, there are parameters by which we are all guided. Teaching golf is not some willy-nilly random act of calling out suggestions with no basis in fact. They must be based on certain principles of course, but mostly they must be relevant. That is why I argue there is no such animal as “golf instruction” per se.

So, what principles are directing these individual sessions? Well, let’s start at the beginning. And the end. Impact! The only purpose of any golf lesson is to help the golfer hit the ball better and more consistently. There can be an infinite number of ways to get there. No one way is necessarily superior to another. We have “classic” swings and “quirky” swings on the PGA Tour all making a great living playing golf.

As to the lesson itself, the great John Jacobs used to say a lesson is conducted in three distinct parts:  Diagnosis, Explanation, and Correction. One can substitute their own words for those segments but clearly here is what he meant: The individual swing flaw(s) is recognized, then it is explained to the student, and lastly teacher/student work on correcting it.

Now, here is where the debate may ensue and clearly where the student confusion is likely to arise. Teachers may have their unique style of explaining and their own individual tool kit (lesson plan) for correction, but there is little room for debate about the diagnosis. If there is an impact flaw, the swing is either too shallow or too steep, the clubface is either open or closed, and the swing direction is either too much to the left or too much to the right of the intended line.

In modern golf instruction, we have the aid of several diagnostic tools we did not have some years ago, but even with the advent of video, TrackMan, Boditrak etc, we still have to start at jump street: ball flight. What is the golf ball doing, and why is it doing it for that particular student? When a golfer develops a swing pattern, the ball flight characteristics are predictable and consistent. Nobody goes from steep to shallow or open to closed, or inside to outside from swing to swing. If they did, our jobs as instructors would be maddening.  Golfers all fall into patterns; once the pattern develops, the misses are predictable.

The problem can be caused by several different things, and the teacher may have a preference for which one he/she wants to attack first. They may also have different drills or training aids used to help correct the flaw, but again, the goal of the lesson remains the same:  correct impact to achieve better results. This is the tangible expression of “golf instruction.” It is the common ground where all teachers meet. All systems and theories of “golf instruction” are thrown out the window when the teacher is standing behind a golfer who is shanking four out of five shots. The challenge is clear here: help him/her find the face, understand why they tend to shank and what to do to avoid it.

The legendary Bob Toski told me recently that 80 percent of the golfers he worked with over his illustrious career were middle-to-high handicaps. This is true for probably 99 percent of the people teaching our game.  It is for me, I know. The vast majority of my students are not seeking optimal golf, they are looking for functional golf. Our students are not looking to play on the PGA or LPGA Tour, or even to win the club championship. They just want to hit the ball better, theories be damned! 

The great teacher Jim Hardy has said we have two different kinds of golf lessons: correction and creation. We are either trying to correct an existing move (90 percent of the time) or build a whole new swing. Teachers avoid the latter like the plague for two reasons: It is usually futile and often takes forever. I usually reserve it for brand new players, where the objective is to create a swing from scratch. But once a pattern is set, I have found it most effective to correct within that pattern.

Over the years, I have had any number of students. particularly seniors, who say something like, “Well, back when I first learned, they were teaching this or that.” I am always quick to ask in return: “Who is they?” See, again the student is making a collective reference-not an individual one. The list is endless—golf is a left-sided game, golf is a right-sided game, turn in a barrel, square-to-square, Stack and Tilt, the A-Swing, the Natural Golf swing—are likely all good-for some. But they are not a panacea. 

When teachers write books or instructional articles, they are type-cast into a mode. This is exactly why magazine articles and now the internet are double-edged swords. The articles can be interpreted in such a way, it may appear that the book is all that teacher teachers (I recently had a student who read or heard a tip on getting his swing wider. The problem was his swing was already wide. Now it was so wide, he was hitting a foot behind it! This is not unusual). The reality is that any teacher who is on top of their craft handles each student differently My approach, for example, is: Let me see what you’re doing, because then and only then can I make an accurate diagnosis, and set a lesson plan. When I’m asked, “Do you teach this”?  My response is “Well, let’s see.”

So, what is “golf instruction” then? Perhaps we could define it like this: A meeting of student and teacher to solve an individual problem, at a particular time to create, in that player, an awareness of their individual tendencies. Just as your equipment has to be fitted, so does your lesson.

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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

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Robert Johansson

    May 19, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    Its easy to teach the same thing to all students so they can have a good swing and play fun golf.
    except you guys cant teach it.

  2. geohogan

    May 16, 2020 at 8:11 am

    “….brain research proves it. As the most advanced part of the body, the hand is capable of detailed and refined motor movements. So instead of taking the hands out of the golf swing, we should train them to perform correctly. Concentrating on the role of the hands during the swing results in a more intuitive, athletic action and better shots under pressure. The golfer who does this is more in tune with the club throughout the swing, especially at impact, and will perform at a higher level with greater consistency.” Golf Digest,Bob Toski

    https://www.golfdigest.com/story/what-bob-toski-tells-young-players

  3. geohogan

    May 6, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    To understand any type of instruction for complex chain action movements
    requires at a minimum to understand how the subconscious and motor cortex coordinate
    and limitations of proprioception and conscious muscle contractions.

    ie need to know what can be controlled consciously by practice and what has to be left to preprogram by our subconscious.

  4. A. Commoner

    Apr 23, 2020 at 9:34 am

    Where are ghost writers when you really need them?

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