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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

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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Instruction

Walters: Try this practice hack for better bunker shots

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Your ability to hit better bunker shots is dramatically reduced if you have no facility to practice these shots. With so few facilities (especially in the UK) having a practice bunker it’s no wonder I see so many golfers struggle with this skill.

Yet the biggest issue they all seem to have is the inability to get the club to enter the sand (hit the ground) in a consistent spot. So here is a hack to use at the range to improve your bunker shots.

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Golf Blueprint: A plan for productive practice sessions

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Practice range at the Dormie Club. Photo credit: Scott Arden

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You’ve gotten lessons.  Several of them.  You’ve been custom fitted for everything in your bag.  You even bought another half a dozen driver shafts last year looking for an extra couple of yards.  And yet, you’re still…stuck.  Either your handicap hasn’t moved at all in years or you keep bouncing back and forth between the same two numbers.  You’ve had all the swing fixes and all the technological advances you could realistically hope to achieve, yet no appreciable result has been achieved in lowering your score.  What gives?

Sample Golf Blueprint practice plan for a client.

One could argue that no one scientifically disassembled and then systematically reassembled the game of golf quite like the great Ben Hogan.  His penchant for doing so created a mystique which is still the stuff of legend even today.  A great many people have tried to decipher his secret over the years and the inevitable conclusion is always a somewhat anticlimactic, “The secret’s in the dirt.”  Mr. Hogan’s ball striking prowess was carved one divot at a time from countless hours on the practice range.  In an interview with golf journalist George Peper in 1987, Mr. Hogan once said:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is— it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Let me guess.  You’ve tried that before, right?  You’ve hit buckets and buckets of range rocks trying to groove the perfect 7-iron swing and still to no avail, right?  Read that last sentence again closely and you might discover the problem.  There’s a difference between mindful practice and mindless practice.  Mindful practice, like Mr. Hogan undoubtedly employed, is structured, focused, and intentional.  It has specific targets and goals in mind and progresses in a systematic fashion until those goals are met.

This is exactly what Nico Darras and Kevin Moore had in mind when they started Golf Blueprint.  In truth, though, the journey actually started when Nico was a client of Kevin’s Squares2Circles project.  Nico is actually a former DI baseball player who suffered a career-ending injury and took up golf at 22 years old.  In a short time, he was approaching scratch and then getting into some mini tour events.  Kevin, as mentioned in the Squares2Circles piece, is a mathematics education professor and accomplished golfer who has played in several USGA events.  Their conversations quickly changed from refining course strategy to making targeted improvements in Nico’s game.  By analyzing the greatest weaknesses in Nico’s game and designing specific practice sessions (which they call “blueprints”) around them, Nico started reaching his goals.

The transition from client to partners was equal parts swift and organic, as they quickly realized they were on to something.  Nico and Kevin used their experiences to develop an algorithm which, when combined with the client’s feedback, establishes a player profile within Golf Blueprint’s system.  Clients get a plan with weekly, monthly, and long-term goals including all of the specific blueprints that target the areas of their game where they need it most.  Not to mention, clients get direct access to Nico and Kevin through Golf Blueprint.

Nico Darras, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

While this is approaching shades of Mr. Hogan’s practice method above, there is one key distinction here.  Kevin and Nico aren’t recommending practicing for hours at a time.  Far from it.  In Nico’s words:

“We recommend 3 days a week.  You can do more or less, for sure, but we’ve found that 3 days a week is within the realm of possibility for most of our clients.  Practice sessions are roughly 45-70 minutes each, but again, all of this depends on the client and what resources they have at their disposal.  Each blueprint card is roughly 10 minutes each, so you can choose which cards to do if you only have limited time to practice.  Nothing is worse than cranking 7 irons at the range for hours.  We want to make these engaging and rewarding.”

Kevin Moore, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

So far, Golf Blueprint has been working for a wide range of golfers – from tour pros to the No Laying Up crew to amateurs alike.  Kevin shares some key data in that regard:

“When we went into this, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Were we going to be an elite player product?  Were we going to be an amateur player product?  We didn’t know, honestly.  So far, what’s exciting is that we’ve had success with a huge range of players.  Probably 20-25% of our players (roughly speaking) are in that 7-11 handicap range.  That’s probably the center of the bell curve, if you will, right around that high-single-digit handicap range.  We have a huge range though, scratch handicap and tour players all the way to 20 handicaps.  It runs the full gamut.  What’s been so rewarding is that the handicap dropping has been significantly more than we anticipated.  The average handicap drop for our clients was about 2.7 in just 3 months’ time.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant drop in a short amount of time from only changing how you practice.  Maybe that Hogan guy was on to something.  I think these guys might be too.  To learn more about Golf Blueprint and get involved, visit their website. @Golf_Blueprint is their handle for both Twitter and Instagram.

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