Learning the Game

Learning Alone Might Not Be the Way to Go

December 1, 2004

The young man, about sixteen years old, was a cart boy and snack bar attendant at a municipal golf course in Maryland. He had a mess of sandy 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 a beginner.

It took some arm twisting to get the pro to go to the range, and once they were there 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 do not care much about teaching golf or helping juniors get started in the game. It was a sad situation for a young man who wanted to learn the game of golf. I know, because I was that boy.

learning-q1Now that I am a teaching professional, I realize even more what a shame that experience was. After that apathetic lesson, I set off to learn golf on my own, which is a tough journey to make, especially if a golfer hopes to achieve a fairly high level of ability. 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 swing tendencies that I developed through years of self-instruction.

So there I was in the late 1980s learning golf by reading books 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 also read the golf magazines, skipping the personal interest stories to get to the important stuff—the tip of the week (How to Add 15 Yards to Your Drive in 15 Minutes), and the instructional articles.

I was doing a lot more good for my future career than I was for my golf game. There is a lot of valuable information to be learned from the great players, and usually from the magazines, but I am convinced that relying on books, videos, and magazines is an inefficient way to become a good player.

First of all, who needs twenty different coaches? Anyone who reads the books and magazines will find out soon enough that there are a lot of different opinions, styles, and schools of thought when it comes to swinging a golf club. I have seen two instructional articles in the same magazine that directly contradicted each other. And I have 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 with all of those random bits of information floating around in their heads.

Another concern about learning golf this way: how useful are great teachers when they are not there for the lesson? They cannot identify the student’s body types, level of athletic ability, or their mental tendencies. They cannot diagnose the golfer’s problems, or watch the flight of the ball. Having this kind of lesson is like ordering a tuxedo online, one size fits all; it will look better in the advertisement than it will when you try it on.

learning-q2Another similar problem: 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 reverse spine angle? And even if I perfectly applied everything written in a book, there could be a thousand other little pieces in my swing that do not match the swing I am trying to make. How would I know? Nothing beats a pro and a student working together.

It is true that I am a little biased. Shocking 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. Thirteen years after setting off to learn the game alone I managed to win a low-level professional tournament—so eventually I became a decent player–but I really believe that the guidance of a good teaching pro would have helped me reach my potential sooner and more fully.

Now the disclaimer (since I am, ironically, writing my own instructional column): there is a lot of good information available out there about the game of golf. Good literature, videos, and now there is the Golf Channel too. 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 seventeen years after that disappointing first lesson. A lot of the hair is gone, and what remains is not so blond. I ended up becoming a pretty good player, despite taking the long road, and now I help other golfers to tap into their potential. 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 it is a very satisfying job to have.

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