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Making sense of the most difficult questions in golf instruction

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If you’re a GolfWRXer, there’s little chance you haven’t read at least a few instruction articles from Dennis Clark and Tom Stickney. They’re golf-instruction legends on GolfWRX, with a combined 57 years experience teaching the game and 8 million GolfWRX views… and counting.

The GolfWRX Editorial Team has the pleasure of working with Dennis and Tom almost every week as we assist them in crafting  golf-instruction gold. This week, we thought we’d try a different format. We came up with the best questions we could think to ask them about golf instruction, and sent them the way of Clark, our resident PGA Master Professional, and Stickney, our very own Trackman Master. It made for an epic email chain, which became this incredible Q&A.

If you haven’t kept up on Clark and Stickney, do yourself a favor and browse through their Featured Writer Profiles to see what they’ve been writing about (here’s Dennis Clark‘s, here’s Tom Stickney‘s). Then make sure to read the Q&A below, in which Clark and Stickney help you navigate the maze the golf-instruction industry has become.

WRX: OK Dennis and Tom, let’s start this Q&A off with a question that’s widely debated among our readers. Do swing mechanics matter, or is it all about consistency?

Tom Stickney: In my opinion, you cannot have long-term consistency without mechanical efficiency. You will always be limited by your mechanics, and it’s tough to work around poor mechanics at the higher-handicap level.

Dennis Clark: If by mechanics we are referring to the positions and motions that direct the golf club, of course they matter. But they are not immutable; they change from golfer to golfer. Consistent, solid impact stems from finding one’s own mechanics.

WRX: What comes first when you’re teaching a new golfer? Is it more important to help them score better or swing better in the beginning?

Tom Stickney: Personally, I first try to teach them to get the ball airborne each time in any way possible. After they can do this with some consistency, I then add one swing thought at a time. I try not to put any outcome goals on students at this phase so that golf remains fun at this point.

Dennis Clark: Well, when I’m working with a new golfer there is no such thing as “better” because there’s nothing that preceded it. I’m trying to teach them to swing period. I do that by first teaching a grip and a stance. There is nothing normal about holding a golf club or standing over a golf ball, so they have to get used to that. I agree with Tom that we have to get flight as early on as we can. If they continue to hit ground balls, they’re not going to stay with the game. Scoring does not even enter my mind with the new golfer.

WRX: When does scoring start to matter more than swing mechanics?

Tom Stickney: Anytime your score actually matters, but what you will find is that with poor mechanics you will have a miss that you are working to stop or you will not be able to hit certain types of shots. When this occurs, get around the golf course in the least amount of strokes possible. Then get to the practice facility and fix it. 

Dennis Clark: I try to introduce scoring when my students can get their golf ball into the scoring zone, an area I consider 50 yards from the green, in the regulation number of strokes. If it is taking a player four or five shots to get to that area, scoring cannot be a concern… yet.

WRX: What technologies do you use in your teaching, and how often do you use them?

Dennis Clark: FlightScope, V1 Sports video and BodiTrak. I use FlightScope and BodiTrak often with skilled players, less often for higher handicaps and never for new players. Video for everyone, every lesson.

Tom Stickney: I use V1 Sports video and Trackman 4. Technology is in every one of my lessons, regardless of handicap level or age. It’s for my own benefit. I might not ever mention it or show the client the results unless it’s necessary, though. As the teacher, I feel I need all the information I can possibly get to make the best decision for my clients. I believe using technology is necessary for the teacher, so mistakes are kept to a minimum on my end.

WRX: What have you learned from technology, and how has it changed how you teach?

Tom Stickney: Technology has taught me how to better apply what I know from understanding the mechanics of the golf swing and how the body works while doing so.  Secondly, it has helped modify any incorrect thoughts or ideas I had as I learned more about how the ball and club interact. Lastly, technology helps me to see instantly what’s going on, and from there I can use my experience, knowledge, and talent to make people better. It has accelerated my ability to help people improve and stops any arguments that might erupt between teacher and student, as all the information is right there.

Dennis Clark: It’s been a big help in the diagnosis part of the lesson for sure. Impact is much more clearly defined. The D-Plane, true path, centered contact, swing plane, are all quantified and illustrated scientifically. Guesswork is reduced to a minimum. What’s more, not only are certain impact factors more clearly defined, in some cases technology has dispelled certain misconceptions under which many labored in the pre-tech era. Having taught in both eras, I can say unequivocally, this time is better!

Technology has had little to no effect on my approach to teaching golf, though. While I believe my communication and correctional skills have improved, it has more to do with experience than technology. After I know all the data, I have to do something with it. Here, I’m leaving the science and headed into the art of golf instruction. Despite the all the revelations on the screen, I still have to use my eyes and my gut to teach golf. If I can’t sense where the student is at every moment, all the technology in the world is not going to help me. Working with different learning styles and personalities, using many ways of saying the same thing … I’m the same guy, I just know more.

WRX: How much variance is acceptable in golf-instruction technology? What we’re asking is, does an instructor need to have the most accurate technology, or can budget tools work, too? What about teachers who don’t have access to modern technology?

Tom Stickney: Anything is better than nothing. In regards to teachers who don’t use technology, there is no excuse not to have video or a basic launch monitor. These things have been made affordable through iPhone and iPad technology for under $5, and a basic launch monitor will run under $500. If you want to be the best, you have to take the steps to be the best if you are beginning in the business in today’s day and age. I worked extra hours, never took days off, taught free clinics, and gave my services away as cheaply as possible to afford the chance to teach golf for a living. Once I had a following, I took out loans in order to re-invest in my business and influence my success in this business. You are either serious about your teaching career or you are not. Every top teacher I know in the business today did the same thing.

Dennis Clark: Ditto. I agree with Tom 100 percent.

WRX: Does an aspiring golf instructor need to go to PGM school nowadays?

Tom Stickney: Not having your PGA Affiliation can hamper your ability to get hired at many golf courses.

Dennis Clark: If teaching is an aspiring golf professional’s passion, he/she needs to build a resume by getting their PGA affiliation and seeking the advice and guidance of an experienced instructor. You learn teaching from teachers.

WRX: What lesson or tip drives you crazy to hear it on the range or from another instructor?

Dennis Clark: Slow your swing down. Keep your head down. Take your pick!

Tom Stickney: Any lesson given by someone other than a teaching professional. Ninety-nine percent of the time the people teaching other people on the range are only seeing the results of previous swing flaws, not the cause of the flaw itself. You might think you know what you are doing, but most of the time your tips are harmful.

Dennis Clark: I’ll add to that. It takes a trained and experienced teaching professional to understand the dynamics of the swing. Others are simply passing on tips that they’ve heard or read, and hoping that they get lucky. Every lesson is different.

WRX: You both have been writing for GolfWRX for several years, published many stories and responded to many more comments. What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers to improve their golf games?

Tom Stickney: Have fun! Golf is a game, not a death march. Enjoy the process: read all you can on the internet, visit YouTube, google the top teachers, seek out the best teachers in your area. The information is out there for you to improve; it’s up to you to find it. Lastly, I sincerely thank each and every person who has taken the time to read what I have written on GolfWRX and responded positively or negatively. It is a true honor and blessing to have an outlet to reach out to the masses. I am very lucky.

Dennis Clark: Find a teacher you trust and with whom you’re comfortable. Ask questions. Understand why you’re being asked to do something, and don’t ever lose sight of the big picture when working toward a goal. Getting bogged down in details is a recipe for disaster. Never fix that which is not broken, and when you read or hear a “tip,” be certain it applies to your problem.

I have been uncommonly lucky to have forged a career in the game I love. Writing for GolfWRX has been a most pleasant chapter in that career. The satisfaction of hearing from a reader that something I suggested has helped them improve is truly gratifying.  And if, through that progress, some are enjoying the game more, well, what a nice thought that is, too. 

WRX: Thanks guys. Now back to teaching!

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. ignorance123

    May 22, 2016 at 7:34 am

    I listen to the responses and I immediately gravitate to one instructor over the other (I won’t say who)…sounds like one needs to talk to a few instructors and establish a rapport with an instructor before committing to a swing change.

  2. Ace

    May 20, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Uhhh… what about the question “why is it so expensive?”….
    (fitting, clubs, lessons, shoes, tee times, etc. the list goes on and on)
    As much as we continue to fight the impression it keeps getting reinforced that golf is an elite sport for wealthy individuals. Nothing against that but lets make sure we are all at the same starting point.

    • Ra

      May 20, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      This has nothing to do with money, that’s why

  3. Bob Jones

    May 19, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Why is “slow down your swing” bad advice?

      • Bob Jones

        May 19, 2016 at 8:51 pm

        Dennis, thank you for the link. I see what you mean. Much of this is confusion of terms, though, about which golf instruction does not have consistent definitions. Those terms are tempo, rhythm, and timing. The first two come from the world of music (I am a former professional opera singer), not golf. Tempo means the overall speed or pace of a piece of music. Rhythm is the varied duration of its parts (notes and rests). Stars and Stripes Forever can be played be played briskly or more stately (tempo), but the note values remain the same in either case (rhythm). In your article, the 3:1 ratio of backswing to downswing is the rhythm of the swing, not its timing. (And timing, it seems, means whatever the particular author/pro says it means. I have never found any consistency over this term.) If golfers only slow down part of their swing, then we can’t conclude that slowing down a swing is bad advice, because they didn’t follow the advice. While tempo is a preference, the golfers I play with swing on the fast side of how they should be swinging. Their swing is out of control. My own experience (which I could be projecting) is that whenever my ball striking goes south during a round, it’s because my tempo picked up, and rhythm consequently got disrupted. When I slow tempo back down, everything falls into place again. Swing speed for me is not a balance issue, but ultimately a club control issue.

        • Dennis Clark

          May 20, 2016 at 11:41 am

          Bob, thx for the reply. I think the operative phrase in your piece, is “I could be projecting”. That distinction is critical. “Slowing down your swing often leads to swinging faster and harder on the downswing”. That is an empirical observation based on observing thousands of swings over 35+ years. I long ago abondoned the policy of explaining what works or doesn’t work for ME. I’m glad you replied because I’m about to write a piece for WRX on this very subject. Thx. DC

  4. Other Paul

    May 19, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Cool article. Well done you two.
    At one point Dennis says “It takes a trained and experienced teaching professional to understand the dynamics of the swing”. But then Dennis says “Never fix that which is not broken, and when you read or hear a “tip,” be certain it applies to your problem”
    How is the average golfer supposed to know if it applies if only the teachers know?

    I took a few lessons and played quite a bit the last few years. After having back pain the entire time i googled “golf without back pain” and found Kelvinmiyahira.com. since then i read everything he wrote or put on youtube. After learning his swing method i have had my back pain go away, i swing 20MPH faster (117 average 122 max) i have concluded that you pretty much need to pick a swing method and follow it. Dont read tips online or watch everything. I follow kelvin for full swing, and i take lessons from a local guy for short game and putting. The local guy has read kelvins stuff and doesn’t agree with it but likes my results. So my point is pick someone and follow, reading everything will mess you up.

    • Dennis Clark

      May 19, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Good. Glad Kelvin is helping you, especially with the upper end tour club head speed. That’s awesome.

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As I was thinking about some “gremlins” that have snuck into my own game the past few weeks, I recalled a visit I had with Dr. Bob Rotella some 10 years ago. That morning was one of the standout days of my 30-year golf industry career, getting to spend several hours with one of golf’s pre-eminent sports psychologists.

So, that brought me to my “Wedge Guy” archives to recall what I shared with my readers way back then, just to refresh my own memories and takeaways from that very interesting and enlightening session.

Dr. Rotella, as you probably know, has worked with dozens of tour professionals, and has authored numerous books on the subject of performance psychology, most notably “Golf Is Not A Game of Perfect.” If you haven’t read any of his works, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, we spent two hours talking about the performance challenges all of us golfers face, which led into a deep dive into the technologies I had built into the SCOR4161 precision scoring clubs (the forerunners of my work on Ben Hogan wedges and now the Edison Forged line). What I want to share with you today are some of the real “pearls of wisdom” that I gleaned from that very enjoyable visit:

Scoring is all about short range performance.

Dr. Rotella first enlightened me to the fact that tour players hit “10 and a half to 12 and a half” approach shots a round with an 8-iron or less (now even more than that!). For the modern tour players, that accounts for almost all the par fours and threes, because the par fives are two-shot holes. He went on to express his advice that you just try to not hurt yourself when you have a seven-iron or longer into the green, and you fire at flags with the short irons and wedges. In his words, “if you don’t feel like you can knock flags down with those scoring clubs this week, you might as well stay home.” I think we can all apply that wisdom by spending the vast majority of our range time working to improve our work with those high-lofted scoring clubs.

The tight fairways scare the pros, too

Over the past few decades, the mower heights on fairways have been moved closer and closer, so that the pros play tighter and tighter lies all the time. Back then I had just read where the fairway height at Merion, for example, was at one inch when David Graham won the U.S. Open there in 1981 but was increased from one quarter to on half inch for the 2013 U.S. Open. That’s a huge difference. Because the ball is sitting tighter, shots are hit lower on the clubface, which robotic testing reveals, produces lower and hotter flight with more spin. And it makes short range pitch and chip shots scary even for the pros. That’s because they play low bounce wedges to deal with the bunkers on tour. (Which I’m getting to in just a moment.) Watch TV and you’ll see tour pros putting from off the green more often than you used to, and now we know why. There’s a tip in there for all of us.

Those tour bunkers.

Did you know the PGA Tour had a standard for bunker sand. They like them firm and moist, so the players can hit those miraculous bunker shots with lots of spin, and they very rarely get a “down” or plugged lie. As I’ve written before, the PGA Tour appreciates that their “customer” is the television viewer – over 50% of which don’t even play golf – and they like to see these things. But I have a problem with the best players in the world enjoying bunkers that are not nearly as tough as the ones we all play every week. For most all of us, any bunker shot that gets out and leaves a putt of even 20 to 30 feet is not bad.

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