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Dennis Clark: Helping golfers find their own path

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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.

[youtube id=”OWRyyYBIaw0″ width=”600″ height=”350″]

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’s background

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.”

Click here for discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum.

You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz and GolfWRX @GolfWRX

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. dennis clark

    Sep 29, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Thx for the kind words Kevin; glad you’re enjoying the articles.

  2. Kevin Downer

    Sep 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I have had the privilege of working for and with DC. His wisdom of teaching people to play golf is remarkable and is equaled by his passion and knowledge not only associated with teaching golf but all aspects of the game from its history through the business side of the game. I learned from him not only ways to improve my game but also how the business operates and most importantly from his stories which in addition to being entertaining provided great life lessons. Thanks for being a great mentor and friend DC.God Bless!

  3. WVUfore

    Sep 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Your golf knowledge will increase with every strike you make. I have had the priviledge of receiving instruction and golf history lessons both from Mr Clark. Unfortunately I am not a single handicap, but each round played in the presence of DC I received SCRATCH instruction.

  4. Pingback: GolfWRX.com – Dennis Clark: Helping golfers find their own path | Golf Grip Instruction

  5. joe the pro

    Sep 8, 2012 at 11:06 am

    DC is a GREAT teacher; fastest to diagnose and correct I’ve ever seen.

  6. Turn&Release

    Sep 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    I have been a student of Dennis Clark for many years. He has been amazing for game and my knowledge of Golf. Not only has he turned me into low single digit handicap, but he increased my knowledge in golf history, rules, and (most of all) my own swing. After working with Dennis, even one time, anybody will know 10 times more about their personal golf swing then they did before. He is the best teacher I have ever met and I would recomend him for instuction to all players at all levels. Thank you Dennis!!!

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Instruction

Fixing the shanks: How to stop shanking the golf ball (GolfWRX Explains)

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May you never be concerned about fixing the shanks! But if you’re begging the golf gods for guidance how to stop shanking the golf ball? Ready to offer up your first-born child for the wisdom how to stop shanking irons? Frantically asking Google how to never shank a golf ball again?

Fear not. We’ll get to drills to stop shanking irons shortly that are guaranteed to ingrain the proper feel and anti-shank action, but first, a brief discussion of what exactly a shank is (other than will-to-live crushing).

More often than not, a shank occurs when a player’s weight gets too far onto the toes, causing a lean forward. Instead of the center of the clubface striking the ball—as you intended at address—the hosel makes contact with your Titleist, and—cover your ears and guard your soul—a shank occurs.

How to stop shanking the golf ball

If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded hosel rocket departing your club at a 90-degree angle, you know how quickly confidence can evaporate and terror can set in.

Fortunately, the shanks are curable and largely preventable ailment. While there are drills to fix your fault you once the malady has taken hold, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

How to stop shanking the golf ball

If you’re trying to understand how to stop shanking the golf ball, you need to understand where the ball makes contact with the club during a shank.

Fixing the shanks

To avoid shanking the golf ball, it’s important to lock in on some keys…

  • Have a proper setup and posture…Athletic posture, arms hang down, neither too bent over nor too upright, weight on the balls of the feet.
  • Keep your grip light and arms tension free…If 10 is a death grip of golf club and 1 is the club falling out of your hand, aim for a grip in the 4-6 range. Make sure your forearms aren’t clenched.
  • Maintain proper balance throughout the swing…50/50 weight to start (front foot/back foot). 60/40 at the top of the backswing. 90/10 at impact.
  • Avoid an excessively out-to-in or in-to-out swing path…Take the club straight back to start, rather than excessively inside (closer to the body) or outside (further away from the body).

The best drill to stop shanking the golf ball

Set up properly (as discussed above), flex your toes upward as you begin your swing and keep your chest high (maintain your spine angle) throughout the swing.

Other than those focal points, keep your brain free of any additional chatter, which only exacerbates shankitis.

(For more advice, be sure to check out what our friends at Me and My Golf have to say below)

Now you know how to stop shanking the golf ball and have the tools to never shank the golf ball again.

Praise the golf gods!

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Instruction

Cameron Smith’s 3-month Covid-19 training block

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Whilst Covid-19 has presented countless grave health and economic challenges to the world’s population, it has also provided opportunity for many people to focus their attention on projects that they normally wouldn’t have time for.

Turns out PGA Tour players are no different, and in the case of Cameron Smith, we used the enforced break from competitive golf to undertake a very rare, uninterrupted 3 month block of strength training.

Cam plays 25-30 events a year spread across 4 continents and this presents a number of challenges to overcome from a training and programming perspective:

– Varying facilities

– Travel fatigue and jet lag

– Concerns around muscle soreness affecting ability to perform on course

– Physical and mental cost of competing

When combined, these challenges can often render even the most carefully planned training programs redundant. So whilst many golf fans were coming to terms with a prolonged absence of PGA Tour events, I was getting stuck into designing programs that would hopefully elicit the following outcomes for Cam:

– More muscle mass

– More strength

– More power

In a normal season, I’m hesitant to prescribe programs that focus on muscle gain, because the nature of the training volume tends to tighten Cam up (reduce his range of motion), reduce his club-head speed and elicit a lot of muscle soreness…..not an ideal combination for short term performance! But I knew in this case, we could get stuck into some higher volume work because we would have plenty of time to recover from any lost mobility, reduced speed and increased soreness before tournaments started again.

 

Mid March – Program 1 – General Hypertrophy Focus

We decided with the global virus outlook looking dire and the PGA Tour promising to deliver a 30 day notice before resumption of play, we should focus on hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) until the 30 day notice period was delivered. At that point we would switch to a more familiar power based program in preparation for tournaments starting up again.

Program Breakdown:

– 4 weeks

– 3 sessions per week

– 1 x lower focus (legs, glutes, core)

– 1 x push focus (chest, shoulders, triceps, core)

– 1 x pull focus (back, biceps, core)

– Gradually increasing volume over 4 weeks (more reps and sets to failure)

Training Variables:

Sets: 3 to 4

Reps: 8 to 12

Tempo: 2-0-2 (2 seconds up, no pause, 2 seconds down)

Weight: around 70% of maximum

Rest: 60 seconds, but this can vary when pairing exercises together in supersets or mini circuits

 

Example Workout – Lower Body Focus (legs, glutes, core):

 

Example Exercises:

 

Mid April – Program 2 – Lower Body Hypertrophy Focus

As Cam was about to finish up his first hypertrophy program, there was a fairly clear indication that there would be no play until mid June at the earliest. Knowing that we had 2 more months of training, we decided to continue with another hypertrophy block. This time increasing the focus on the lower body by breaking down the leg work into 2 seperate sessions and ramping up the training volume.

Program Breakdown:

– 4 weeks

– 4 sessions per week

– 2 x lower body focus (1 x quad focused workout and 1 x hamstring / glute focused workout)

– 1 x push focus (chest, shoulders, triceps, core)

– 1 x pull focus (back, biceps, core)

– Gradually increasing volume over 4 weeks (more reps and sets)

Training Variables:

Sets: 3 to 4

Reps: 8 to 12

Tempo: 2-0-2 (2 seconds up, no pause, 2 seconds down)

Weight: around 70% of maximum

Rest: 60 seconds, but this can vary when pairing exercises together in supersets or mini circuits

 

Example Workout – Pull Focus (back, biceps, core):

 

Example Exercises:

Mid May – Program 3 – Power Focus

Once we received confirmation that play would be resuming 11th June at Colonial, we made the call to switch to a power focused program. Moving back to 3 days per week, lowering the volume and increasing the intensity (more weight and more speed in the main lifts).

The idea is to get the body used to moving fast again, reduce muscle soreness to allow better quality golf practice, and supplement the with more mobility work to re-gain any lost range of motion.

We also added some extra grip work because Cam discovered that with the muscle and strength gain, plus lifting increased weight, his grip was failing on key lifts…..not such a bad problem to have!

Program Breakdown:

– 4 weeks

– 3 sessions per week

– 1 x lower body focus (legs, glutes, core, grip)

– 1 x upper body focus (chest, back, biceps, triceps, core, grip)

– 1 x combined focus (legs, glutes, shoulders, core, grip)

– Volume remains constant (same sets and reps), aiming to increase intensity (either weight or speed) over the 4 weeks.

Training Variables:

Sets: 4 to 5

Reps: 3-5 for main exercises, 8-12 for accessory exercises.

Tempo: X-0-1 for main exercises (as fast as possible in up or effort phase, no pause, 1 second down). 2-0-2 for accessory exercises.

Weight: around 85% of maximum for main exercises, around 70% for accessory exercises.

Rest: 90 seconds, but this can vary when pairing exercises together in supersets or mini circuits

 

Example Workout – Combined (legs, glutes, core, shoulders, grip):

 

Example Exercises:

 

If you are interested in receiving some professional guidance for your training, then check out the services on offer from Nick at Golf Fit Pro

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Instruction

What you can learn from Steve Elkington

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When you think of great golf swings from the past and present time, Steve Elkington’s golf swing instantly comes to mind. His playing career has included a PGA championship, two Players Championships and more than 50 weeks inside the top-10 world golf rankings. This article will examine not only key moves you can take from Elk’s swing but learning to take your swing to the golf course.

As opposed to looking at a swing frame by frame at key positions, viewing a swing at normal speed can be just as beneficial. This can give students a look at the sequence of the swing as one dynamic motion. Research also suggests learning a motion as one movement as opposed to part-training (stopping the swing at certain points) will enhancing learning.

When viewed at full speed, the simplicity of Elk’s swing is made clear. There is minimal motion as he gets more out of less. This swing pattern can correlate to a conversation he once had with five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson.

When asking Thomson keys to his golf swing and it’s longevity, Thomson explained to Elk, “You have to have great hands and arms.” Thomson further elaborated on the arms and body relationship. “The older you get, you can’t move your body as well, but you can learn to swing your arms well.”

So what’s the best way to get the feel of this motion? Try practicing hitting drivers off your knees. This drill forces your upper body to coil in the proper direction and maintain your spine angle. If you have excess movement, tilt, or sway while doing this drill you will likely miss the ball. For more detail on this drill, read my Driver off the knees article.

Another key move you can take from Elk is in the set-up position. Note the structure of the trail arm. The arm is bent and tucked below his lead arm as well as his trail shoulder below the lead shoulder – he has angle in his trail wrist, a fixed impact position.

This position makes impact easier to find. From this position, Elk can use his right arm as a pushing motion though the ball.

A golf swing can look pretty, but it is of no use if you can’t perform when it matters, on the golf course. When Elk is playing his best, he never loses feel or awareness to the shaft or the clubface throughout the swing. This is critical to performing on the golf course. Using this awareness and a simple thought on the golf course will promote hitting shots on the course, rather than playing swing.

To enhance shaft and face awareness, next time you are on the range place an alignment stick 10 yards ahead of you down the target line. Practice shaping shots around the stick with different flights. Focus on the feel created by your hands through impact.

Twitter: @kkelley_golf

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