A hard lesson about lessons

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

I remember it clearly – the young man, about 16 or so years old, was a cart boy and snack-bar attendant at a municipal golf course in Maryland. He had a mess of blond hair, and an earnest look about him. He begged the club pro to come down to the driving range and help him with his swing. The young guy was still a beginner.

When they got to the range, the pro watched a few swings, offered a couple of disinterested and unmemorable suggestions, and walked away within five minutes. The young man did not learn much about his swing that day, but he did learn one frustrating thing: Some pros don’t care much about teaching golf or helping others. It was a sad situation for a junior golfer who wanted to learn the game of golf. I know, because I was that boy.

Now that I am a teaching professional, I realize even more what a shame it was. After that experience with the uncaring pro, I set off to learn golf on my own, which was a big mistake. At least eight years passed before I took another lesson with a pro, and by then I had some pretty nasty habits. To this day I fight some of the bad swing tendencies that I developed through years of self-instruction.

So there I was in the 1980s learning golf by reading and watching videos. I read Hogan’s Fundamentals, learned to golf Nicklaus’ way, studied Tommy Armour, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead. I watched videos with Curtis Strange, the top player at the time, as well as Ken Venturi, and a pro named Bob Mann. I read the golf magazines, skipping the personal-interest stories to get to the important stuff – the tip of the week (e.g. How to Add 15 Yards to Your Drive in 15 Minutes) and the instructional articles.

Looking back, I was doing a lot more good for my future career than I was for my golf game. There is something valuable to learn from all of the former great players, and usually from the magazines, but I’m convinced that relying on books, videos and magazines is an inefficient way to become a good player.

First of all, who needs 20 different coaches? Anyone who reads the books and magazines will find out soon enough that there are a lot of different opinions and styles when it comes to swinging a golf club. I’ve seen two instructional articles in the same magazine that directly contradicted each other. And I’ve seen plenty of golfers who show up at my lesson tee with a million different swing thoughts they picked out of the pages of their reading material. They can barely draw the club back.

Learning from a multitude of coaches, even if they’re all great players and teachers, is like taking the pieces from a bunch of different puzzles and forcing them together – even if you end up with something decent looking, it’s not likely to hold up in the long run.

I bet that a beginner would pick up the game more easily if he took a year’s worth of lessons with a run-of-the-mill club pro than he would bouncing back and forth between the 10 best teaching pros in the world.

Which brings up the second point. The teaching pros and former tour players aren’t even present for these lessons – only their words and videos. They can’t identify the student’s body type, level of athletic ability or their mental tendencies. They can’t diagnose the golfer’s problems or watch the flight of the ball. Having this kind of lesson is like ordering a tuxedo on-line, without even giving your measurements; it’ll look better in the advertisement than it will when you try it on.

The third point is almost the same. There is no dialogue or feedback for the student who learns from reading. Are my hands on the club the way it looked in the magazine? Did I actually get the club back on plane? Have I gotten rid of the old reverse spine angle? And even if I perfectly applied everything written in a book, there could be a thousand other little pieces gone wrong that prevent a good golf shot. How would I know? Nothing beats a pro and a student working together.

All right, I’m a little biased. Big shock that a teaching pro would be in favor of in-person golf instruction, right? But I can also say first-hand that golfers who teach themselves with the help of books, magazines and videos likely have a long, tough road ahead.

Now the disclaimer (since I’m writing my own column): There is a lot of good information available out there about the game of golf. Good literature, videos and now there’s The Golf Channel. What I’m saying is that those sources probably should not be the only sources of instruction, especially when confusion sets in. Custom fitted is the way to go for clubs, and the way to go for instruction, too, and that requires a good teacher.

So here I am 16 years after that disappointing first lesson. A lot of the hair is gone, and what’s left isn’t so blond. I ended up becoming a pretty good player, despite taking the long road, and now I help others to improve at, and enjoy, their own games. I especially take pride in working with junior golfers. So now that I think about it, maybe I should thank the club pro who was so reluctant to help me when I was young. He got me started towards this career, and most of the time it’s a very satisfying job to have.



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