Inside The Gates: What It’s Like To Be a Student at a High-Performance Golf Academy
The nerves are unbearable.
It’s February 10th, 2017, and I’m about to have my first lesson with a new golf instructor.
Everything feels uncomfortable and uneasy. My brain’s fight or flight response is sounding the alarm, “you’re somewhere you don’t recognize. You don’t know anyone. You don’t belong here!”
My hands are shaking as I hit some warm-up balls on the range. The drive here was a blur, security had my name and told me where to park, somebody loaded my bag on a cart, and now I am trying my best not to embarrass myself.
Despite having taken lessons before, this time is different: I’m at a high-performance golf facility.
It’s been over a year now. The nerves are (mostly) quelled, and my game keeps improving with every visit. While reflecting on my growth as a golfer, I wanted to share with you what it’s like as a recreational golfer sharing the range with the best of the best and the next generation of greatness.
How Did I Get Here?
When I decided to turn my game into a blog and passion project, I knew I needed a guide. Finding an instructor can feel like a monumental task. My first instinct was to leverage social media to get suggestions. And it worked! Kind of.
Two instructors reached out to me after my Twitter plea, but communication broke down quickly. I’m a very decisive person, but only when I have adequate information. Conversation gaps quickly turned into non-action, and I was back to where I started.
Desperation kicked in, and I was wandering down a Twitter rabbit-hole. Luckily around that time the 2017 PGA Teaching and Coaching Summit was taking place in Orlando and a few of my follows were leaving snippets of great presentations online. I caught part of a well-known instructor’s talk and figured I’d look into his teaching.
He had just opened a high-performance center at a new course in town. Right from the beginning, I could tell this place was different. Often if an instructor has a website, it looks unkempt and last updated circa 2010. This one was fresh and vivid. It looked like someone cared deeply enough to keep it up to date.
His business partner and coaching counterpart had an impressive list of accolades himself. I was reading Peak at the time, and Ander Ericsson’s advice was, “…while a good teacher does not have to be one of the best in the world, he or she should be accomplished in the field. Generally speaking, teachers will only be able to guide you to the level that they or their previous students have attained…. A good teacher should also have some skill and experience in teaching in that field.”
The thing that stood out to me was his partner’s willingness to continue his own education, which was, and still is, very important to me. I sent a carefully crafted email with my golfing background and interest in his coaching.
A few days later he pinged me back to set up the initial “interview and some full swing evaluation.”
Interview and Admission
My very first golf instructor was ranked among Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers since 2010. I only took one lesson before another opportunity presented itself to him. He couldn’t miss his chance and headed for California.
My second instructor gave lessons close to my apartment. I took four with him. The last one is where he asked me again for my name. He was too busy or didn’t care enough about my game. Either way, I felt my money was being wasted.
When I got on the books for an interview at a high-performance center, I knew this was going to be different. So I did what I usually do when presented with a scary, new experience: I prepared. Whether it was from an article I read or an attempt to make sure my name didn’t get forgotten, I wrote down some of my own interview questions to ask. I wanted this job.
Admission is not guaranteed. He didn’t have to take me as a student. He had to see enough potential in skill and persistence to make it worth his time, and that’s completely understandable. Students here aren’t just meal tickets.
These coaches have high standards as they elevate golf instruction, performance psychology, and the sport as a whole. You’re not going to find lots of weekend duffers getting help with their slice. You’re going to see the next generation of competitive golfers fine-tuning skills and developing an encyclopedia of golf knowledge.
So yes, you need to be interviewed. You have to be let in. The evaluation was actually a two-appointment deal. First was the interview and full swing evaluation. The second was to evaluate my short game and putting.
It wasn’t pretty, but I’m still able to book appointments there today. To be completely honest, I get imposter syndrome all the time. I know I’m a fringe player near the bottom of the priority list (no offense taken). What I lack in skill and career potential I have to make up for in dedication and hard work. Being on the “roster” becomes motivation and remotivation to apply myself.
There’s a long way to go, and I’m grateful to get all the help I can.
Since I have experience with different levels of golf instruction, I can tell you high-performance centers have tools to look much deeper into swings than you’ll find with your local instructor.
As you might expect Trackman plays a big role along with video feedback. All that data is overwhelming if you don’t know how to interpret it. Instructors here are polyglots when it comes to reading ball flight and Trackman.
Another tool available for in-depth studying is the Swingcatalyst force plate. Weight distribution and shift aren’t easily picked up by cameras or course pros’ eyes, unless it’s embarrassingly obvious. In one of my first sessions, we found that my weight was shifting too much on my toes which resulted in the awful “s”-words.
Then you have the SAM Puttlab for all your putting nuances. As cool as the other tools are, this one was my favorite because of the level of detail for such a small movement. I got to see my results and compare them with some of the best in the world. Let’s just say I’m surprised any of my putts go in after seeing how consistent pros are.
When it comes to technology, that’s all these coaches need. When it comes to learning, that’s only the visible tip of the iceberg. Below the surface lies miles and miles of experience, experimenting, and expanding wisdom.
Outside of hitting bays and appointments, students are invited to combines. Now I haven’t experienced one, but I have followed them closely on social media to see some of the going-ons. And much like other sport combines, athletes are challenged to various skill tests and workshops.
Coaches work with these elite performers on training technical elements, mental hurdles, and course strategy to take their game to the next level. Combines look like a high-level golf camp and a whole heap of fun!
Improvements and Process
At the end of every year, I take a step back and look at all the things that I’ve progressed on in my golf game. To the untrained eye, it probably doesn’t look like I’ve changed my swing. My golf partners have never asked anything about differences in my swing, though they’ve noticed the results.
From the beginning of 2017 to the end, my handicap dropped from 6.6 to 3.9. Along with it, I dropped three strokes off my scoring average while adding an extra green hit in regulation per round. I beat or tied my previous year’s best score 8 times, including my first even par round. On top of all that, I’m about two clubs longer than I was before taking lessons.
Getting a lesson doesn’t mean instant results. In my experience, I’ll have quick success the first weekend after an appointment, and by the next week, I struggle. Like any other type of learning, I have to dedicate time and effort to make the lesson stick. Trusting the process works, and results are just a byproduct.
One of the great things about high-performance coaches is their dedication to each student. At the beginning of every appointment, we do a quick check-in to see how things are going both on and off the course. It’s a little personal touch that tells me that they’re here for the long haul.
Is It Right for You?
I’ll defer to Mr. Ericsson on this one:
“If you’re a flat-out beginner, any reasonably skilled teacher will do, but once you’ve been training for a few years, you’ll need a teacher who is more advanced.”
You’ll have to use your own judgment as to whether or not your teacher is keeping up with you. You and your instructor have to be able to continue challenging your game to grow. I would say trust your instincts when it comes time to find a new coach.
Consider, truthfully, where you are in your game. Start local and slowly expand your golf education as you grow. You wouldn’t hand a quantum mechanics textbook to a first grader and expect them to understand it, so take it easy on yourself. Baby steps.
You have the chance to define your levels and handpick your teachers. Your progress belongs entirely to you. And before you know it, you might end up inside the gates, too!
For more information about the facility I visit, check out Altus Performance.