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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.

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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’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

Clement: Load up the full power package in the backswing!

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This video is FUNDAMENTAL FOR POWER GAINS in the golf swing; the arm anatomy BEGS TO BE USED in this manner from casting a fishing pole, to serving a tennis ball to batting a baseball to driving a golf ball. YOU WILL LOVE how much SNAP you will get through the ball and the sound the ball will make coming off the club from the compression off the face. BLISS ON A STICK!

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Clement: This wrist position can add 30 yards to your drive

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Drop the mic on how the wrists should load and be positioned for compressive power, accuracy, and longevity! There is a better way, and this is it!

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Short Game University: How to hit wedges 301

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In golf, there is nothing harder than judging a flop shot over a bunker to a tight pin out of long grass. Why? Because there are so many variables to account for — in addition to what you can and cannot do with a wedge. In fact, up until very recently in the world of wedge design, we were limited to only increasing the landing angle to stop the ball, because relying on spin from this lie and this close to the green was next to impossible.

Now with the advent of things like raw faces, different CG locations, new groove design, and micro-ribs between the grooves, we can now spin the ball out of lies that we never could have done so before. This is not to say that you can now zip the ball back from these types of lies, but we are seeing spin rates that have skyrocketed, and this allows us to not open the face as much as we needed to do before in order to stop the ball.

Before we get into the shot around the green itself, let’s talk a bit about wedge design. For that, I called a great friend of mine, Greg Cesario, TaylorMade’s Staff Manager to help us understand a bit more about wedges. Greg was a former PGA Tour Player and had a big hand in designing the new Milled Grind 3 Wedges.

Cesario said: “Wedge technology centers on two key areas- the first is optimizing its overall launch/spin (just like drivers) on all shots and the second is optimum ground interaction through the geometry of the sole (bounce, sole width, and sole shape).”

“Two key things impact spin: Groove design and face texture. Spin is the secondary effect of friction. This friction essentially helps the ball stick to the face a little longer and reduces slippage. We define slippage as how much the ball slides up the face at impact. That happens more when it’s wet outside during those early morning tee times, out of thicker lies, or after a bit of weather hits. Our Raised Micro-Ribs increase friction and reduce slippage on short partial shots around the round – that’s particularly true in wet conditions.”

“We’ve been experimenting with ways to find optimal CG (center of gravity) placement and how new geometries can influence that. We know that CG locations can influence launch, trajectory and spin. Everyone is chasing the ability to produce lower launching and higher spinning wedge shots to help players increase precision distance control. In that space, moving CG just a few millimeters can have big results. Beyond that, we’re continuing to advance our spin and friction capabilities – aiming to reduce the decay of spin from dry to fluffy, or wet conditions.”

Basically, what Greg is saying is that without improvements in design, we would never be able to spin the ball like we would normally when it’s dry and the lie is perfect. So, with this new design in a wedge like the Milled Grind 3 (and others!), how can we make sure we have the optimal opportunity to hit these faster-stopping pitch shots?

  1. Make sure the face is clean and dry
  2. Open the blade slightly, but not too much
  3. Set the wrists quicker on the backswing to increase the AoA
  4. Keep the rear shoulder moving through impact to keep the arms going

Make sure the face is clean and dry

If your thought is to use spin to stop the ball quicker under any situation, then you must give the club a chance to do its job. When the grooves are full of dirt and grass and the remaining exposed face is wet, then you are basically eliminating any opportunity to create spin. In fact, if you decide to hit the shot under these conditions, you might as well hit a flop shot as this would be the only opportunity to create a successful outcome. Don’t put yourself behind the eight-ball automatically, keep your club in a clean and dry condition so you have the best chance to do what you are capable of doing.

Open the blade slightly, but not too much

Without going into too much extra detail, spinloft is the difference between your angle of attack and your dynamic loft. And this difference is one of the main areas where you can maximize your spin output.

Too little or too much spinloft and you will not be able to get the maximum spin out of the shot at hand. With wedges, people equate an open clubface to spinning the ball, and this can be a problem due to excessive spinloft. Whenever you have too much dynamic loft, the ball will slide up the face (reduced friction equals reduced spin) and the ball will float out higher than expected and roll out upon landing.

My thought around the green is to open the face slightly, but not all the way, in efforts to reduce the probability of having too much spinloft during impact. Don’t forget under this scenario we are relying on additional spin to stop the ball. If you are using increased landing angle to stop the ball, then you would obviously not worry about increasing spinloft! Make sure you have these clear in your mind before you decide how much to open the blade.

Opened slightly

Opened too much

One final note: Please make sure you understand what bounce option you need for the type of conditions you normally play. Your professional can help you but I would say that more bounce is better than less bounce for the average player. You can find the bounce listed on the wedge itself. It will range between 4-14, with the mid-range bounce being around 10 degrees.

Set the wrists quicker on the backswing to increase the angle of attack

As we know, when debris gets in between the clubface and the ball (such as dirt/grass), you will have two problems. One, you will not be able to control the ball as much. Secondly, you will not be able to spin the ball as much due to the loss of friction.

So, what is the key to counteract this problem? Increasing the angle of attack by setting the wrists quicker on the backswing. Making your downswing look more like a V rather than a U allows less junk to get between the club and the ball. We are not using the bounce on this type of shot, we are using the leading edge to slice through the rough en route to the ball. Coming in too shallow is a huge problem with this shot, because you will tend to hit it high on the face reducing control.

Use your increased AoA on all of your crappy lies, and you will have a much better chance to get up and down more often!

Keep the rear shoulder moving through impact to keep the arms going

The final piece of the puzzle through the ball is speed through the pivot. You cannot hit shots around the green out of tall grass without keeping the club moving and having speed. A reduction of speed is obvious as the club enters into the tall grass, but you don’t want to exacerbate this problem by cutting off your pivot and letting the arms do all the work.

Sure, there are times when you want to cut off the body rotation through the ball, but not on the shot I am discussing here. When we are using spin, you must have speed to generate the spin itself. So, what is the key to maintaining your speed? Keeping the rear shoulder rotating long into the forward swing. If you do this, you will find that your arms, hands, and club will be pulled through the impact zone. If your pivot stalls, then your speed will decrease and your shots will suffer.

Hopefully, by now you understand how to create better shots around the green using the new wedge technology to create more spin with lies that we had no chance to do so before. Remembering these simple tips — coupled with your clean and dry wedge — will give you the best opportunity to be Tiger-like around the greens!

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