Ask a handful of golf instructors to analyze a golfer’s swing and you will likely get a handful of different answers. It’s the nature of golf instruction – different teachers have found different answers to the question of how to best hit a golf ball toward a target.
Some golf instructors advocate certain methods and fundamentals, while others have pointed to the laws of physics and biomechanics as the basis of their teaching. Then there are teachers like Dennis Clark, an instructor who doesn’t promote any specific golf swing or methodology.
Clark, a PGA Master Professional, relies on the experience of the more than 30,000 lessons he’s given in his 25-year career as the foundation for his instruction. He is director of instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Penn., the site of the 84 Lumber Classic from 2003 to 2006, and has taught golfers of all levels from very beginners to tour pros. He was heavily influence by legendary English golf instructor John Jacobs, one of the first teachers to advocate the observation of ball flight as the key to successful coaching.
There are very few training aids at Clark’s teaching facility, because according to Clark there is only one thing great golfers have in common: their swings return the club to the same position at impact time after time. Training aids can help golfers alleviate certain flaws while using the aid, but Clark rarely sees much of a carry over when he puts their golf clubs back in their hands.
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While the 63-year-old teaching veteran identifies himself as being anti-method, he is certainly not anti-technology. Every lesson he gives employs high-speed video and a golf Doppler radar system (Clark uses Trackman) to help him learn as much as possible about his student’s swing.
According to Clark, golf Doppler radar systems have ushered in a new era of understanding for golf teaching professionals, what Clark calls an age of enlightenment for golf instruction. Thanks to these technologies, instructors know more about what the golf club is doing at impact than ever before.
The latest technology, however, tends to perform best in the hands of the most experienced professionals, which is why Clark said that there is no substitute for the knowledge he’s gained from nearly three decades on the lesson tee.
In the past, it had been typical for an established instructor like Clark to take on a starting pro and teach him his craft. But Clark has seen a trend developing in the golf teaching industry – there are fewer one-on-one learning situations for starting pros. Retail and management training often take away from a beginning instructor’s time on the lesson tee as well, but even with these added responsibilities many young teaching professionals are leaving the mentoring process as soon as they can to go out on their own as instructors.
“If you’re only popping your head out of the pro shop for five to 10 hours a week to give lessons, you’re not being exposed to enough situations to go out on your own. [Young golf instructors] leave, they think they have it, but they don’t.
Clark grew up in Southern Philadelphia, a scene much different than the AAA Five-Diamond resort that he currently occupies during Southwestern Pennsylvania’s golf season and the Marco Island Marriot Resort where he teaches from November to April in Naples, Fla. His underprivileged upbringing made a career in golf unlikely, but he fell in love with the game regardless. He was introduced to golf as a caddie, playing as many as 90 holes on Mondays when caddies were allowed to play the course.
*Clark’s teaching facility at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
As he got better, he took lessons, although he never considered himself good enough to turn professional. Clark was a good basketball player — talented enough to play in high school as well as in college at Glassboro State. But even though his focus was on basketball, he continued to play golf in the summers. He did so “quietly,” however; golf was not a sport he would brag about to his peers.
After college, Clark worked as a schoolteacher, which allowed him free time to play golf in the summers. He also worked restaurant jobs and continued to caddy, jobs that led to free afternoons and free golf. Clark’s skills improved, but even as they did he was reluctant to pursue a career playing golf. But he thought a career teaching golf might be feasible if he combined his background in education with his passion for golf.
Clark earned his PGA Professional card with a single focus. The operations side of golf wasn’t for him — he only wanted to teach people how to play golf, and spent his early years developing an eye for the swing and honing his communication skills. He refined these skills teaching long days in the John Jacobs Golf Schools and Golf Digest Schools. But when Clark started out, he made the same mistakes as most beginning teaching pros. He taught his students the things he did to hit the ball well.
Clark told me a story about a lesson he had very early in his career with a man that was occasionally shanking his wedges. Clark never had the shanks himself, so he wasn’t experienced at solving the problem. Clark told the man everything he knew about curing the shanks. He instructed him to move away from the ball, to get his weight more on his heels – anything to keep the man from swinging the heel of the club out toward the ball on the downswing. But what Clark didn’t tell the man was the actual cause of the shanks – a shank happens when the ball is struck off the hosel of the club.
Before long, the man wasn’t just shanking his shots occasionally; he was shanking nearly all of his shots. Clark apologized to the man, saying he was new at teaching and really hadn’t earned his stripes yet. As Clark was walking away the man told Clark not to worry about it, “He would figure out how to stop hitting the ball off the toe of the club eventually.”
Clark realized his mistake, telling the man that he had it wrong — a shank happens when a golfer does the exact opposite, making contact well toward the heel of the club.
“Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” the man asked.
It was an important lesson for Clark. He realized that a simple explanation is often the best. And his choice of words would be very important when teaching golf, especially to high-handicap players.
On the lesson tee with Dennis Clark
I took a lesson from Clark before I interviewed him at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in late July. I had just finished playing a three-day amateur event where I had hit some very good shots, but also some very bad ones. Like every golfer, I wanted to know what was causing my bad shots, and what I could do to fix them.
Although Clark and I had been working together on instructional stories since April, it was the first time I had the chance to meet him in person. Like most of the readers that commented on his stories, I’d enjoyed his content. Click here for a list of Clark’s instruction stories. I was anxious to hear what he would say about my swing.
Taking a lesson can be an uneasy experience, but it was hard not be at ease at Nemacolin. The resort is located on 2,800 acres in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, about 1.5 hours south of Pittsburgh and 45 minutes away from any city that can be called a small town. But Joe Hardy, the owner of 84 Lumber and the founder of Nemacolin Woodlands, made sure there are countless attractions that make the resort’s isolation a non-factor.
The resort has a spa (one for humans, one for pets), a zoo that includes exotic animals such as lions and zebras, a 140-acre outdoor sporting facility for shooting and fly fishing, fine dining and quite a few other draws. But like most addicted golfers, I was most excited by the opportunity to improve my golf game.
It didn’t take long for Clark to recognize the recurring flaws in my swing. After a handful of 6 irons, Clark led me inside his studio to watch high-speed video of my swing on his V1 Golf Academy software. He showed me that during my downswing I had a “reverse twist” of the clubface; instead of the clubface rotating closed, my clubface was actually opening as it approached the ball. Close to impact, I was forced to roll the face shut in an attempt to square the clubface. Clark’s Trackman showed that many times I failed – my clubface was opened at impact sending shots to the right, the same misses I battled in my tournament.
To fix the problem, Clark had me hit shots where I felt like the clubface was rotating more closed during my downswing. This change was twofold – it eliminated the need for me to roll the club shut at impact, and because this created less hand action my body rotation also improved. The best part about the change was that it took only a few swings for me to start incorporate the changes Clark proposed. Less than 24 hours later I played Mystic Rock, a Pete Dye design on the Nemacolin property that hosted the 84 Lumber Classic and played a solid round working on the swing changes.
*No. 1 at the Pete Dye-designed Mystic Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
“It never gets old”
During my lesson, Clark emphasized the need for me to turn my upper body more behind the golf ball in the backswing, eliminating a reverse pivot in my lower body. When I watched him give lessons to a six handicap, however, he taught the exact opposite, having the golfer feel that he stayed on his left side during the backswing.
The reason Clark gave two contradictory lessons is simple. I tended to contact the golf ball “late,” hitting my shots thin, while the man from Clark’s other lesson tended to hit the ball early, shallowing out too soon and hitting the ball fat.
“His swing had never bottomed out in front of the ball in his life,” Clark said. “As soon as I got him to do that, he was hitting much better shots.”
To Clark, it is an absolute requirement that a student leaves the lesson hitting the ball better than when they arrived – it’s the way that he can best promote the game of golf.
“Most people quit [golf] or don’t play as much because the game gets frustrating to them,” Clark said. “I find that when they start hitting it a little better, they play more. And I owe everything to golf, so why not give something back?”
To best promote the game, he can’t teach everyone the same way because every golfer’s swing is different. That’s why Clark has become so excited about golf Doppler teaching systems like his Trackman. They provide an avenue for further learning and understanding, and have helped Clark become a better teacher. Even more importantly, golf Doppler radar systems have provided information that in some cases has been contradictory to what some golf experts regard as truth.
For example, instructors not using a golf Doppler radar system might assume that a ball that started left of the target and moved to the right (for a right-handed golfer) did so because the club was moving on an out-to-in path at impact. While this is often the case, sometimes it is not.
Golf Doppler radar has shown that for every 0.5 inches a golfer (right-handed in this example) hits a ball toward the heel of the club, a counter-clockwise (or closing) rotation of 2.5 degrees occurs in the clubface. So a golfer could actually have an in-to-out path at impact, the type of movement that is typically associated with draw, and hit a fade. The same is true of a toe strike – a golfer could swing out-to-in, the type of move associated with a fade, and with toe contact he or she could hit a draw.
Clark said that if I came to his lesson tee for six hours, I would see six different lessons. That’s why after more than 25 years teaching golf, he still hasn’t tired of his job.
“Every lesson is a little different,” Clark said. “A different puzzle that I have to solve.”
Students who overload on instruction articles and videos sometimes complicate that puzzle. While Clark has found truth in nearly all the articles and videos he has seen, he said that the average golfer doesn’t know what tips apply to them. This can do more harm than good to their golf games. That’s why Clark maintains that he doesn’t teach golf, he teaches people to play golf.
“When some golfers take their first lesson from me, they think I’m giving them a Band-Aid fix because they start hitting the ball better in 10 minutes,” Clark said. “But it’s not a Band-Aid. I’m just starting them on the path to making a better swing within their limits.”
You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz and GolfWRX @GolfWRX
The Wedge Guy: My top 5 practice tips
While there are many golfers who barely know where the practice (I don’t like calling it a “driving”) range is located, there are many who find it a place of adventure, discovery and fun. I’m in the latter group, which could be accented by the fact that I make my living in this industry. But then, I’ve always been a “ball beater,” since I was a kid, but now I approach my practice sessions with more purpose and excitement. There’s no question that practice is the key to improvement in anything, so today’s topic is on making practice as much fun as playing.
As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the range, and always embrace the challenge of learning new ways to make a golf ball do what I would like it to do. So, today I’m sharing my “top 5” tips for making practice fun and productive.
- Have a mission/goal/objective. Whether it is a practice range session or practice time on the course, make sure you have a clearly defined objective…how else will you know how you’re doing? It might be to work on iron trajectory, or finding out why you’ve developed a push with your driver. Could be to learn how to hit a little softer lob shot or a knockdown pitch. But practice with a purpose …always.
- Don’t just “do”…observe. There are two elements of learning something new. The first is to figure out what it is you need to change. Then you work toward that solution. If your practice session is to address that push with the driver, hit a few shots to start out, and rather than try to fix it, make those first few your “lab rats”. Focus on what your swing is doing. Do you feel anything different? Check your alignment carefully, and your ball position. After each shot, step away and process what you think you felt during the swing.
- Make it real. To just rake ball after ball in front of you and pound away is marginally valuable at best. To make practice productive, step away from your hitting station after each shot, rake another ball to the hitting area, then approach the shot as if it was a real one on the course. Pick a target line from behind the ball, meticulously step into your set-up position, take your grip, process your one swing thought and hit it. Then evaluate how you did, based on the shot result and how it felt.
- Challenge yourself. One of my favorite on-course practice games is to spend a few minutes around each green after I’ve played the hole, tossing three balls into various positions in an area off the green. I don’t let myself go to the next tee until I put all three within three feet of the hole. If I don’t, I toss them to another area and do it again. You can do the same thing on the range. Define a challenge and a limited number of shots to achieve it.
- Don’t get in a groove. I was privileged enough to watch Harvey Penick give Tom Kite a golf lesson one day, and was struck by the fact that he would not let Tom hit more than five to six shots in a row with the same club. Tom would hit a few 5-irons, and Mr. Penick would say, “hit the 8”, then “hit the driver.” He changed it up so that Tom would not just find a groove. That paved the way for real learning, Mr. Penick told me.
My “bonus” tip addresses the difference between practicing on the course and keeping a real score. Don’t do both. A practice session is just that. On-course practice is hugely beneficial, and it’s best done by yourself, and at a casual pace. Playing three or four holes in an hour or so, taking time to hit real shots into and around the greens, will do more for your scoring skills than the same amount of range time.
So there you have my five practice tips. I’m sure I could come up with more, but then we always have more time, right?
More from the Wedge Guy
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The Wedge Guy: Anyone can be a better wedge player by doing these simple things
As someone who has observed rank-and-file recreational golfers for most of my life – over 50 years of it, anyway – I have always been baffled by why so many mid- to high-handicap golfers throw away so many strokes in prime scoring range.
For this purpose, let’s define “prime scoring range” as the distance when you have something less than a full-swing wedge shot ahead of you. Depending on your strength profile, that could be as far as 70 to 80 yards or as close as 30 to 40 yards. But regardless of whether you are trying to break par or 100, your ability to get the ball on the green and close enough to the hole for a one-putt at least some of the time will likely be one of the biggest factors in determining your score for the day.
All too often, I observe golfers hit two or even three wedge shots from prime scoring range before they are on the green — and all too often I see short-range pitch shots leave the golfer with little to no chance of making the putt.
This makes no sense, as attaining a level of reasonable proficiency from short range is not a matter of strength profile at all. But it does take a commitment to learning how to make a repeating and reliable half-swing and doing that repeatedly and consistently absolutely requires you to learn the basic fundamentals of how the body has to move the club back and through the impact zone.
So, let’s get down to the basics to see if I can shed some light on these ultra-important scoring shots.
- Your grip has to be correct. For the club to move back and through correctly, your grip on the club simply must be fundamentally sound. The club is held primarily in the last three fingers of the upper hand, and the middle two fingers of the lower hand. Period. The lower hand has to be “passive” to the upper hand, or the mini-swing will become a quick jab at the ball. For any shot, but particularly these short ones, that sound grip is essential for the club to move through impact properly and repeatedly.
- Your posture has to be correct. This means your body is open to the target, feet closer together than even a three-quarter swing, and the ball positioned slightly back of center.
- Your weight should be distributed about 70 percent on your lead foot and stay there through the mini-swing.
- Your hands should be “low” in that your lead arm is hanging naturally from your shoulder, not extended out toward the ball and not too close to the body to allow a smooth turn away and through. Gripping down on the club is helpful, as it gets you “closer to your work.
- This shot is hit with a good rotation of the body, not a “flip” or “jab” with the hands. Controlling these shots with your body core rotation and leading the swing with your body core and lead side will almost ensure proper contact. To hit crisp pitch shots, the hands have to lead the clubhead through impact.
- A great drill for this is to grip your wedge with an alignment rod next to the grip and extending up past your torso. With this in place, you simply have to rotate your body core through the shot, as the rod will hit your lead side and prevent you from flipping the clubhead at the ball. It doesn’t take but a few practice swings with this drill to give you an “ah ha” moment about how wedge shots are played.
- And finally, understand that YOU CANNOT HIT UP ON A GOLF BALL. The ball is sitting on the ground so the clubhead has to be moving down and through impact. I think one of the best ways to think of this is to remember this club is “a wedge.” So, your simple objective is to wedge the club between the ball and the ground. The loft of the wedge WILL make the ball go up, and the bounce of the sole of the wedge will prevent the club from digging.
So, why is mastering the simple pitch shot so important? Because my bet is that if you count up the strokes in your last round of golf, you’ll likely see that you left several shots out there by…
- Either hitting another wedge shot or chip after having one of these mid-range pitch shots, or
- You did not get the mid-range shot close enough to even have a chance at a makeable putt.
If you will spend even an hour on the range or course with that alignment rod and follow these tips, your scoring average will improve a ton, and getting better with these pitch shots will improve your overall ball striking as well.
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- The Wedge Guy: Understanding iron designs, Part 1
- The Wedge Guy: Understanding iron designs, Part 2
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