A Lesson on Lessons - How to Work More Effectively With a Golf Coach

This is a guest post by Rusty Cage

Lee Trevino, whose talent for turning a phrase was nearly on par with his ability to hit a golf ball, had famously suggested that “a good golf lesson is worth 1,000 range balls.”

That’s a pretty telling statement coming from a man like Trevino, who along with Bubba Watson, are but a few self-taught golfing savants who can just show up and play. You and I - we’re not anything like Watson or Trevino. Even for many elite players, golf is a counterintuitive activity that leaves us dangling on the precipice of failure (even on those days when things appear to be clicking). So consider Trevino’s full-throated endorsement for coaching a pretty good piece of advice, unlike that free tip you got from your buddy to keep your head still and your elbow tucked in.

Recreational golfers, as you might suspect, tend to spend an inordinate amount of time digging it out on their own like its some kind of badge of honor. They are also far more likely to seek out a random tip than a qualified instructor. The National Golf Foundation estimated that only 11 percent of all golfers took lessons, according to a report they published in 2011. I would say that’s pretty astonishing given how much time and money is sacrificed annually by weekend warriors playing the game or trying to get better at it, whether that takes the form of scraping balls at the range, reading Golf Digest or buying a new driver.

So if none of those things are working (reinforced by the fact that the average male handicap has hardly budged after so many decades) why aren’t more golfers taking lessons?

What I’ve gleamed from speaking with other golfers, while by no means a large sample size, is that lessons are expensive. And it takes a lot of time and dedication to get better. And you need to work with a world-class instructor. And most of those guys have academies at warm-weather destinations like Orlando and Scottsdale. And of course that’s nowhere near where most of us live and play.

Sarcasm aside, golfers have a ton of reasons why they can’t make golf instruction work for them. But the underlying concern is the most obvious one: becoming a better player is the goal, but it’s hardly a given. So let’s talk about how to make instruction less of a gamble and more of a sure thing.

Sweating the Right Details

When it comes to finding and evaluating an instructor, golfers tend to ascribe too much value to the following criteria: cost, convenience and stature. Undoubtedly, these things do matter to an extent. And it’s up to the individual to determine how much of their discretionary budget to set aside for lessons, or how far they’re willing to travel to see an instructor.

That being said, you don’t have to work with the likes of a Butch Harmon or a Dave Stockton to have a meaningful impact on your game. There are many qualified individuals in your own backyard. The key is finding someone you can build trust and rapport with. So what it really boils down to is communication.

“You need a connection with your teacher,” Dana Rader, a Charlotte-based instructor told the New York Times in 2010. “The teacher needs to make the student comfortable. And the teacher needs to adjust to the student; it’s certainly not the other way around. Students should make sure that is the kind of teacher they are getting.”

That connection, Rader alludes to, can’t be overstated. Phil Mickelson’s decision to hire Andrew Getson after so many years with Harmon said more about Phil’s desire to hear ideas delivered from a fresh perspective than it did about Butch’s ability to teach the swing.

Far too often, instructors are graded on the basis of style over substance. And from a player’s perspective, you’re often left wondering (that is to say debating) if a certain swing method is better than another one. Yet you can take any two instructors like Sean Foley and Jimmy Ballard with completely different perspectives on the golf swing and make a case for or against them. And in the process, you’d miss the most important point entirely. The quality of instruction is only as good as the teacher’s ability to effectively communicate ideas to his or her students. That, and you have to tailor your communication style to the golfer, since no two are identical.

Cultivating a Relationship

When we think of the iconic partnerships between coaches and golfers - Nicklaus and Grout, Crenshaw and Penick, Faldo and Leadbetter, Stenson and Cowen - it becomes clear that it’s never been about validating one coaching style over another; rather, it’s about working with the right person at the right time.

As for my own experience with taking lessons, there were a few bumps in the road early on.

The first person I saw was obsessed with video. My second instructor didn’t rely on any technology at all. Both of them had ingrained beliefs about what a good golf swing should look like, and in both cases, I felt like they were trying to mold me into this narrow, but ideal model they had success teaching. Needless to say, I did not respond well to that type of coaching. But I did learn that you have to hold yourself at least partially accountable for how things turn out.

By the time I began working with Kirk Oguri, a well-deserved MET PGA Teacher of the Year recipient, I had a much better idea of my limitations as a golfer. I also realized, after much stubbornness, that improvement takes time, and that setbacks are not uncommon. I began to get a lot more out of my lessons with just that little change in perspective.

Working with Kirk over the past two years, we’ve analyzed my swing on a Foresight GC 2 launch monitor and have made some slight adjustments to improve my impact conditions. We’ve also been out to the course to hit full shots, to talk about strategy and improve all facets of my short game. I also took advantage of his expertise as a club fitter at Pete’s Golf Shop to evaluate the equipment I was playing.

Knowing my predisposition for being overly analytical, Kirk has always encouraged me to develop the ability to self-diagnose my mistakes. He’s a big believer in helping golfers help themselves. To date I’ve knocked 10 strokes off my average score and more importantly, I’ve become a happier, more confident player.

So when it comes to finding your own golf Svengali, do your homework. Create a short list of potential instructors within a reasonable travel distance and book a time to meet them. Come armed with questions and be prepared to answer a few of theirs. If the instructor doesn’t ask you about your immediate and long-term goals, or is looking to cut your visit short, consider that a red flag. A quality instructor might naturally suggest that you observe them giving a lesson. If they don’t, bring it up. Watching someone at their job is always going to be more revealing than anything you can take away from a typical sit-down.

If the coaches you initially interview don’t tick the boxes that matter the most, consider expanding your budget or going farther out of your way to get a lesson. You may have to make some tough choices in regards to your golfing priorities - perhaps a few less rounds a year. Or maybe it means spacing out your lessons. Just keep in mind, quality always trumps quantity when it comes to all things golf.

Final Thoughts

The process for selecting an instructor is at best, an inexact science. Finding an experienced professional with a proven track record can go a long way, but in the end it really does come down to chemistry. One resource you should check out to find instructors in your area is PlayYourCourse.

Here’s a few other things to consider:

  • Think outside the box - if your putting is holding you back, consider finding a coach who specializes in that area. Take a chance on an AimPoint Express class or book a session at a SAM PuttLab facility - it might make all the difference to a critical part of your golf game.
  • The fastest way to lowering your score is to make a glaring weakness into a strength. Make sure you and your instructor are on the same page spending time on the things that really matter. Track all your statistics with a product like GameGolf to find out where you are losing the most strokes relative to your handicap.
  • Make a commitment and stick with it. Learning new skills or refining existing ones is a time consuming process that will test your resolve. Having unreasonable goals, or expecting immediate gains without putting in the work is a sure fire way to sabotage your coaching relationship.
  • Last but not least, have fun. If you’re going into a lesson with a lot of pent-up frustration because you’re fighting a hook or a slice, don’t take it out on your instructor. In fact, do the opposite and maintain a positive attitude. Not only does it do wonders for your long-term relationship with that person, but it’s arguably the most crucial component for playing better golf.
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