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Golf instruction: What is it?

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In my last article, I disputed the term “golf instruction,” because I feel it is too broad of a description. If that’s true, then just what is it that I, and 28,000-plus others, do for a living?

There is an endless debate in teaching golf with regard to methods, system, theories, modes of correction etc. Teacher A thinks this is best, teacher B thinks that is best, Teacher C has a completely different view. So, it’s no surprise then that teachers hear their students say things like, “well so-and-so says this” or “I read a book which suggested…I’m so confused.”

In other words, the students have a general view that one teacher said something that another contradicted, so what are they to do? But here is where it all gets quite intriguing: Teachers A, B and C may all be right. Or all be wrong.

Huh?

In my experience, there is no such thing as “golf instruction.” Collectively. There is only golf instruction by one particular instructor during one particular session. That same instructor is likely to give his/her next student completely different “golf instruction,” or in my opinion, should. It’s often been said that golf swings are like snowflakes, no two are alike.

So we have to ask the obvious question: How could “golf instruction” not vary from student to student? You show me one “fundamental” of the swing, and I can likely find a great player who did not execute that particular fundamental (other than solid contact of course), but I’m referring to the method one chooses to get there.

Of course, there are parameters by which we are all guided. Teaching golf is not some willy-nilly random act of calling out suggestions with no basis in fact. They must be based on certain principles of course, but mostly they must be relevant. That is why I argue there is no such animal as “golf instruction” per se.

So, what principles are directing these individual sessions? Well, let’s start at the beginning. And the end. Impact! The only purpose of any golf lesson is to help the golfer hit the ball better and more consistently. There can be an infinite number of ways to get there. No one way is necessarily superior to another. We have “classic” swings and “quirky” swings on the PGA Tour all making a great living playing golf.

As to the lesson itself, the great John Jacobs used to say a lesson is conducted in three distinct parts:  Diagnosis, Explanation, and Correction. One can substitute their own words for those segments but clearly here is what he meant: The individual swing flaw(s) is recognized, then it is explained to the student, and lastly teacher/student work on correcting it.

Now, here is where the debate may ensue and clearly where the student confusion is likely to arise. Teachers may have their unique style of explaining and their own individual tool kit (lesson plan) for correction, but there is little room for debate about the diagnosis. If there is an impact flaw, the swing is either too shallow or too steep, the clubface is either open or closed, and the swing direction is either too much to the left or too much to the right of the intended line.

In modern golf instruction, we have the aid of several diagnostic tools we did not have some years ago, but even with the advent of video, TrackMan, Boditrak etc, we still have to start at jump street: ball flight. What is the golf ball doing, and why is it doing it for that particular student? When a golfer develops a swing pattern, the ball flight characteristics are predictable and consistent. Nobody goes from steep to shallow or open to closed, or inside to outside from swing to swing. If they did, our jobs as instructors would be maddening.  Golfers all fall into patterns; once the pattern develops, the misses are predictable.

The problem can be caused by several different things, and the teacher may have a preference for which one he/she wants to attack first. They may also have different drills or training aids used to help correct the flaw, but again, the goal of the lesson remains the same:  correct impact to achieve better results. This is the tangible expression of “golf instruction.” It is the common ground where all teachers meet. All systems and theories of “golf instruction” are thrown out the window when the teacher is standing behind a golfer who is shanking four out of five shots. The challenge is clear here: help him/her find the face, understand why they tend to shank and what to do to avoid it.

The legendary Bob Toski told me recently that 80 percent of the golfers he worked with over his illustrious career were middle-to-high handicaps. This is true for probably 99 percent of the people teaching our game.  It is for me, I know. The vast majority of my students are not seeking optimal golf, they are looking for functional golf. Our students are not looking to play on the PGA or LPGA Tour, or even to win the club championship. They just want to hit the ball better, theories be damned! 

The great teacher Jim Hardy has said we have two different kinds of golf lessons: correction and creation. We are either trying to correct an existing move (90 percent of the time) or build a whole new swing. Teachers avoid the latter like the plague for two reasons: It is usually futile and often takes forever. I usually reserve it for brand new players, where the objective is to create a swing from scratch. But once a pattern is set, I have found it most effective to correct within that pattern.

Over the years, I have had any number of students. particularly seniors, who say something like, “Well, back when I first learned, they were teaching this or that.” I am always quick to ask in return: “Who is they?” See, again the student is making a collective reference-not an individual one. The list is endless—golf is a left-sided game, golf is a right-sided game, turn in a barrel, square-to-square, Stack and Tilt, the A-Swing, the Natural Golf swing—are likely all good-for some. But they are not a panacea. 

When teachers write books or instructional articles, they are type-cast into a mode. This is exactly why magazine articles and now the internet are double-edged swords. The articles can be interpreted in such a way, it may appear that the book is all that teacher teachers (I recently had a student who read or heard a tip on getting his swing wider. The problem was his swing was already wide. Now it was so wide, he was hitting a foot behind it! This is not unusual). The reality is that any teacher who is on top of their craft handles each student differently My approach, for example, is: Let me see what you’re doing, because then and only then can I make an accurate diagnosis, and set a lesson plan. When I’m asked, “Do you teach this”?  My response is “Well, let’s see.”

So, what is “golf instruction” then? Perhaps we could define it like this: A meeting of student and teacher to solve an individual problem, at a particular time to create, in that player, an awareness of their individual tendencies. Just as your equipment has to be fitted, so does your lesson.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at [email protected]

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Robert Johansson

    May 19, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    Its easy to teach the same thing to all students so they can have a good swing and play fun golf.
    except you guys cant teach it.

  2. geohogan

    May 16, 2020 at 8:11 am

    “….brain research proves it. As the most advanced part of the body, the hand is capable of detailed and refined motor movements. So instead of taking the hands out of the golf swing, we should train them to perform correctly. Concentrating on the role of the hands during the swing results in a more intuitive, athletic action and better shots under pressure. The golfer who does this is more in tune with the club throughout the swing, especially at impact, and will perform at a higher level with greater consistency.” Golf Digest,Bob Toski

    https://www.golfdigest.com/story/what-bob-toski-tells-young-players

  3. geohogan

    May 6, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    To understand any type of instruction for complex chain action movements
    requires at a minimum to understand how the subconscious and motor cortex coordinate
    and limitations of proprioception and conscious muscle contractions.

    ie need to know what can be controlled consciously by practice and what has to be left to preprogram by our subconscious.

  4. A. Commoner

    Apr 23, 2020 at 9:34 am

    Where are ghost writers when you really need them?

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Instruction

Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf

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I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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Instruction

What you can learn from the rearview camera angle

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We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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How to stop 3-putting and start making putts

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When we are 3-putting we are ‘stuck in the box’. This means that when we are standing over the putt the second before we make our stroke everything happens to ‘go downhill.’ When this happens, depending on your playing level, things can become a bit erratic on the putting surface.

When a 3 putt happens, it is typically because you failed to do something before you made your stroke. The large majority of my 3 putts happen when I am not completely SOLD on the line of my putt, aka not committed. Questioning anything over the ball will lead to 3 putts.

Here is a breakdown/checklist on how to approach the green and get your ball in the cup without hesitation.

1. It starts with the approach shot into the green and the decision of direction you make to enter the hole. Scan the entire green with your eyes on the walk-up. Left to right and right to left. Look for a few seconds before you step onto the putting surface. This helps determine the high side and the low side, or if the green is relatively flat. Don’t be picky, just look and make a decision.

2. Once you get to the ball, mark it. Take 3 steps behind your ball mark. Now you must pick a line… Left, Center, or Right of the cup. (Skip step 3 if you know the line) It should take seconds but for those that are not sure it will take longer. Understand that every putt has a statistical level of difficulty. So to increase the odds, players must avoid putting in the unsure mind, and take the time to figure out a line. I also find that people who are 3 putting are overly confident and just not committed aka too quick to putt.

3. To commit, you must find the angle of entry into the cup. Walk up to the hole and look at the cup. How is it cut? Determine if it is cut flat or on a slope angle. This will help you see the break if you are having a hard time. Then determine how much break to play. Cut the hole into 4 quarters with your eyes standing right next to it. Ask yourself, which quarter of the cup does the ball need to enter to make the putt go in the hole?

I encourage using the phrases ‘in the hole’ or ‘to the hole’ as great reinforcement and end thoughts before stroking the ball. I personally visualize a dial on the cup. When my eyes scan the edges, I see tick marks of a clock or a masterlock – I see the dial pop open right when I pick the entry quadrant/tick mark because I cracked the code.

Remember, the most important parts of the putt are: 1.) Where it starts and 2. ) Where it ends.

4. To secure the line, pick something out as the apex of the putt on the walk back to the mark. Stand square behind the ball mark and the line you have chosen.

5. To further secure the line, place your ball down and step behind it to view the line from behind the ball. Don’t pick up the ball mark until you have looked from behind. When you look, you need to scan the line from the ball to the cup with your eyes. While you are scanning, you can make adjustments to the line – left, right or center. Now, on the walk into the box, pickup the mark. This seals the deal on the line. Square your putter head to the ball, with feet together, on the intended line.

6. To make the putt, look at the apex and then the cup while taking your stance and making practice strokes to calibrate and gauge how far back and through the stroke needs to be.

7. To prove the level of commitment, step up to the ball and look down the intended line to the apex back to the cup and then back to the apex down to your ball. As soon as you look down at the ball, never look up again. Complete one entire stroke. A good visual for a putting stroke is a battery percentage and comparing your ‘complete stroke’ to the percentage of battery in the bar.

8. Look over your shoulder once your putter has completed the stroke, i.e. listen for the ball to go in and then look up!

If you find a way that works, remember it, and use it!

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