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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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Instruction

Golf 101: Why do I chunk it?

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Whether you are a beginner, 10 handicaps, or Rory McIlroy, no one player is immune to the dreaded chunk. How many times have you hit a great drive, breathing down the flag from your favorite yardage and laid the holy sod over one? It’s awful and can be a total rally killer.

So what causes it? It could be several things, for some players, it could be a steep angle of attack, others, early extension and an early bottoming out and sometimes you’ve just had too many Coors Lights and the ground was closer than your eyes told you…been there.

This is Golf 101—let’s make it real simple and find one or two ways that a new golfer can self diagnose and treat themselves on the fly.

THE MAIN CAUSE

With beginners I have noticed there are two main things that cause the dreaded chunk:

  1. Players stand too close to the ball and have no way to get outta the way on the way down. This also really helps to hit Chunk’s skinny cousin: Skull.
  2. No rotation in any form causing a steep angle of attack. You’ve seen this, arms go back, the body stays static, the club comes back down and sticks a foot in the ground.

SO HOW DO I FIX MYSELF?

Without doing all-out brain surgery, here are two simple things you can do on the course (or the range) to get that strike behind the ball and not behind your trail foot.

This is what I was taught when I was a kid and it worked for years.

  1. Make baseball swings: Put the club up and in front of your body and make horizontal swings paying close attention to accelerating on the way through. After a few start to bend at the hips down and down until you are in the address position. This not only gives your body the sensation of turning but reorientates you to exactly where the bottom of your arc is.
  2. Drive a nail into the back of the ball: This was a cure-all for me. Whether I had the shanks, chunks, skulls, etc, focusing on putting the clubhead into the back of that nail seemed to give me a mental picture that just worked. When you are hammering a nail into a wall. you focus on the back of that nail and for the most part, hit it flush 9 outta 10 times. Not sure if its a Jedi mind trick or a real thing, but it has gotten me outta more pickles than I care to admit.

As you get better, the reason for the chunk may change, but regardless of my skill level, these two drills got me out of it faster than anything all while helping encourage better fundamentals. Nothing wrong with that.

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Instruction

Golf 101: How to hit a bunker shot

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I’ve heard from numerous people over the years that theoretically, the bunker shot should be the easiest shot in golf—you don’t even hit the ball.

Sounds romantic, but common sense would suggest the polar opposite. Any new golfer or one walking into the game knows that hitting it into the bunker can be a disaster if you don’t know what to do. Figuring out how to hit a bunker shot can be daunting. So in the spirit of the 101 series, I want to give the beginner a three-step strategy to playing out of a bunker with one goal in mind: get it out of the bunker.

Keep in mind, this is simply to get the ball outta the sand, not spin it, not get it close, just get it back on the grass.

How to hit a bunker shot

Use a 56-degree wedge. Non-negotiable. You need the loft, the bounce, and the forgiveness.

Dig in: Gives your feet and body not only a feel for the sand but also a firm base. The bunker shot isn’t a full swing but you need stability. So when you address the ball, wiggle your feet a bit to get in there. It also makes it look like you know what you are doing—that helps for social reasons.

Face open: Imagine if you had to hold an egg on the face, that’s the visual. If the face isn’t open enough to do that its not open. Remember also that when you open the face, you are not cranking your hands over to do so. Turn the club open, grip it normally, and there you go.

Thump

This is what I have taught beginners a few times, and I’m not a teacher, but I’m a pretty gnarly bunker player. It works. Now that you are dug in, the face is open and you are ready to hit it, pick a spot an inch behind the ball, and with some speed, control, and a firm grip (hold the face open) THUMP down on that spot. Even more, THUMP the heel down on that spot. When I saw THUMP I mean CHOP, BEAT down on it with some purpose. Two things will happen, the ball will pop up by simple momentum and the face will stay open because the lever (and meatiest part) that holds it open (the heel) is doing all the work. Your tempo is key, and yes, I’m telling you to beat down on it, but also be mindful of staying in your body.

Could you potentially stick the club in the ground? Yup. Maybe. But the odds of you skulling, whiffing, chunking are reduced to almost nothing.

The best way to get outta the sound is to use the sand to help you. That’s how to hit a bunker shot. Pounding down on it with an open face uses a ton of sand, a ton of energy, the bounce of the wedge, and requires you to do very little.

Give it a shot.

 

 

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How the direction of turn influences your swing

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Understanding the direction you turn in the backswing will help identify your swing pattern. To start, turn is simply a word for something going around or moving circularly. When teaching, the term turn is very broad. The spine, shoulders and pelvis can all move in different directions.

So what direction should you turn? After an efficient setup (How Posture Influences Your Swing) I want players to coil around their original spine angle. This gives players an efficient “shape” to the body at the top of the backswing. Shape is the relationship between the upper and lower half of the body. Shape retains body angles from the setup, which also mirror impact. The relationship between the upper and lower body are highlighted in the pictures below.

When in this shape, the downswing can become a reaction towards the target. The club and body can return to impact with efficiency and minimal timing required. The body doesn’t need to find the impact position. This impact position is a common look to all great ball-strikers.

An important concept to understand is the direction of turn is more important than the amount of turn. Think of throwing a ball towards a target. You don’t turn more to throw the ball further or for more accuracy. Your body coils the correct direction to go forward and around towards the target. The golf swing and direction of turn is similar to a throwing position.

A great drill to get the feeling of this coil is what I call off the wall on the wall. Start by setting up with your lead side against a wall. Make sure your trail shoulder is below the lead shoulder with a tucked trail arm. From this position, swing your arms to the top of your swing. Note the backswing position.

When doing this drill, note how your upper body moves off the wall, and the lower body stays on the wall. An important note to make is the hips and glutes don’t stay stagnant against the wall. They go around, sliding against the wall as the upper moves off.

The beauty of the golf swing is there is more than one way to do it. Many great players turn with lead side bend in the backswing. This is where the upper body tilts towards the target (lateral trunk flexion). However, these players will have to change their spine angle to find impact. This pattern isn’t incorrect, just needs more recovery in the downswing to find the impact position.

I do not prefer players having to recover in their downswing. I define recovery as having to re-position the body in the downswing to find impact. Think of a baseball player having to throw a ball to first base when his body starts in a contorted position. I the golf swing, this requires more talent and timing and can lead to inconsistency unless precisely practiced and trained.

Educating yourself on how your body coils in the backswing is critical when working on your swing. Remember, there is no one perfect swing and people have different physiologies. However, coil in a direction that will give you the most efficient swing and prevent injuries.

www.kelleygolf.com

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