Navigating the Brave New World of Online Golf Instruction
By Rusty Cage
Online golf lessons are cheap and fast. And if you do a search on Google, the choices are extensive. Getting started can be summed up in three steps -- shoot a video with your mobile phone, upload it to the one of many different websites that offer the service and await feedback from a PGA professional of your choosing. By contrast, working with a local pro requires finding one nearby, booking their time in advance and driving however long to the course for the sake of making a couple of dozen supervised swings in less than the time it takes to bake a cake -- usually, for a premium fee.
If you believe the old axiom, “you get what you pay for”, then traditional instruction should easily trump any lesson you take online. The individualized attention you receive from working side-by-side with an instructor has undeniable merit. The question then is how much is that benefit worth? In 2011, I took lessons from a PGA professional twice a month, surrendering over $1400 in a single year. And that’s just a tiny fraction of the cost some recreational golfers pay to learn from a top-tier instructor. I could have justified the continued expense had I not felt that my golf (particularly the long game) had stagnated.
So after a some soul searching, not too mention being a little poorer in the pocket, I started tinkering with online golf lessons. With all the different choices that are available, finding the right program and instructor is a lot like auditioning a promising starlet. A lot can be determined when she starts reading her lines. One instructor I began working with barely had anything to say about my swing and immediately jumped to recommending that I practice the 9 to 3 drill to improve my sequencing. His response felt canned, and it probably was since the program consistently pushed its vast library of instructional videos as the primary means for self-improvement. After a little more research, I dived into using a different, and frankly, more popular online service that let me scrutinize different instructors by viewing actual sample lessons they gave. I ended up choosing a Golf Digest Top-50 Female Instructor. The cost of an individual lesson was $30, which could be further reduced by buying a pack of four lessons in advance. Considering my instructor’s pedigree, $30 was a bargain, and there’s no way I would’ve been able to afford her lesson fee under different circumstances.
Getting started was simple enough. I took two videos of my golf swing with my iPhone (down-the-line and face-on) and uploaded them to the website. I also took the time to describe my swing faults at great length. Communication is critical between between a student and teacher, probably more so since there’s no face-to-face component involved. I received a response from my instructor 24 hours later.
The first thing she wanted to address was my hunched over posture. To illustrate her point, she positioned my swing adjacent with that of Rory McIlroy’s. There was something humbling about seeing my swing in contrast to Rory’s and even my instructor sheepishly noted that it wasn’t her intention to “compare” my swing with the world’s No. 1 golfer. Rory, of course, has model posture at setup. He also has a neutral takeaway; mine is to the inside. My instructor filmed a nine-minute segment picking apart my swing, explaining how posture and takeaway influence the chain of events that follow. Her analysis concluded with a pair of additional videos that described corrections that I could incorporate into my swing.
To keep me from being overwhelmed, she advised me to fix my swing in chunks, starting with posture. To help me improve, she recommended that I increase my hamstring flexibility. So as part of my daily fitness routine, I began using an elastic stretch band to pull my legs straight back towards my chest while lying on my back. As for my takeaway, my instructor suggested an often-prescribed drill of placing a golf ball six inches behind my club and brushing it straight back when initiating my backswing.
I setup a homemade hitting station in my living room and worked on getting into textbook posture and making a proper takeaway. When learning new movement patterns, the going can be excruciatingly slow. On average it took me 20 minutes to execute 20 solid reps (the goal being 100 a week). It also took a degree of patience and blind faith to keep from going immediately to the driving range to scrape balls (or what most people confuse with practice).
After three weeks I finally took a trip to the range. Getting into my new posture required very little conscious effort and I made some half decent swings. I took a few new videos of myself and uploaded them for review. My instructor acknowledged the hard work I put in, noted that my takeaway was still going back a fraction inside and began to diagram the next phase of my swing reconstruction - improving my backswing. Although I am in reasonably good athletic shape, I tend to cheat a little bit taking the club up to the top. The current goal is to get my back to target so that I can finally feel what it means to be loaded onto my right side (as a right-handed golfer). I’ll need to ingrain this new movement before my instructor and I can tackle sequencing in my downswing.
So its back to working on my posture, takeaway and backswing in my living room. If it seems like I’m learning how to swing a golf club again, it’s probably because I’ve never been properly taught how to in the first place, in spite of all that time I clocked in beating balls with a golf pro hovering nearby. In retrospect, the only thing I managed to get good get at was launching scuffed up balls into a far-off net.
What I’m learning now, in addition to swinging a club correctly, is to hold myself more accountable for my golf game. Taking online golf lessons is akin to walking a tightrope without a safety net. There’s nobody around to observe your every swing and make corrections. In truth, this is more indicative of how golf is actually played - on your own, with nothing but the space between your ears to guide you. In an interview with pgatour.com, Sean Foley was asked if he envisioned a time when Tiger Woods wouldn’t need a coach.
“I think you would hope for everybody that that would be the case,” Foley said.
The ability for golfers to self-diagnose and to fix their swings when shots start flying into neighboring fairways is the end game we all continually strive for. Golf instruction, whether it takes the form of a one-on-one lesson or is given online with the help of video, is at the end of the day, just a tool to help us teach ourselves. Learning how to do something well takes time, dedication and focused practice, concepts that are as old as dirt and are the hallmarks of all great golfers, as well as those of us who are aspiring to be great. With all that being said, it’s time that I got back to digging.