Golf Rants, Volume 1: Golf Instruction

Time to tee off on one of my pet peeves in our great game: instruction.

Thrash TalkAnyone who’s played golf for any length of time knows how difficult it is to improve. Therein lies the seed of my numero uno golf rant – modern golf instruction. As someone who’s tried it all, you might want to read what I have to say…it might save you some time and money.

My journey with golf began in earnest with a copy of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons in an empty field on the grounds of Fort Gordon, an Army base in Augusta, Georgia, in 1989. Oh, I had been fiddling around with golf for a few years, but it was during my Family Medicine clerkship at Eisenhower Army Medical Center that the golf bug really bit. Maybe it was the warm spring air, or, more likely, the afternoons off to attend Masters practice rounds (I timed my spring schedule perfectly), but whatever the reason, I set off that spring to try to master the golf swing, and was pretty confident I could do it. Little did I know what I was in for.

Like many of you, I suppose, the Hogan/Wind/Ravielli Magnum opus was my first foray into golf instruction. For a physician-in-training, everything about the book – the precise, scientific, dogmatic instruction, the anatomical drawings, the literary craft of Wind – was intoxicating, and filled me with delusions that conquering the game was as surely within my reach as, say, passing the next anatomy exam. And thus the groundwork was laid for about a decade of floundering around in my quest to become a low-handicap golfer.

I believe the field of golf instruction is the weakest part of our game, and by a large margin. We have excellent golf courses to suit people of all socioeconomic levels, a cornucopia of choices in high quality golf equipment, and a professional-level game and spectator experience that is as good as anything in the history of the game. We’ve made strides in just about every aspect of the game, with the exception of instruction. The fact is that the average handicap of golfers hasn’t really changed much in a century, and I think I know why.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not saying our teaching pros are all doofuses, or that they don’t understand the golf swing, or that they aren’t, on the whole, genuinely nice, helpful, dedicated people who really try to improve our games. I’m also not saying that it’s impossible to learn to be a good golfer within our current system of instruction. Finally, most of my rant concerns the role of instruction for the experienced, seasoned player; for the beginner, instruction on the basics of grip, stance, body alignment, etc., is imperative and is excellent. But for most of the golf enthusiasts out there who already know the basics – people who read about golf on the Web and in magazines and watch Golf Channel and take golf trips and genuinely yearn to improve – the whole philosophy of teaching, the whole approach we take to learning golf is wrong, backwards, inverted, and generally counterproductive.

Modern golf instruction is obsessed with swing mechanics, and consequently many recreational golfers who try to improve finds themselves adrift at sea, trying to use six or seven or eighty different maps to navigate. Most never reach port. Instead, many of us wobble aimlessly from theory to theory in instruction books to tips in magazines and on TV, mixed in with an occasional live lesson, never achieving meaningful progress.

What is largely absent from the world of golf instruction is a sensible methodology for practice and improvement. In other words, we get 99% on what to learn, but only 1% on how to learn it.

When I started medical school a couple of years before that fateful spring in Augusta, I was not given a stack of textbooks and told “go out and see some patients and come back next week and tell me how you did.” I was given many textbooks, yes, but was given them in a prescribed order, such that each subject could provide a platform for ascending to the next level. And although the program of medical education has changed and evolved through the years, the point is that there has always been some plan in place. Students are shepherded along so as to make the educational process efficient and to avoid dangerous gaps in knowledge.

When was the last time you had a lesson or read a book in which a teacher told you, specifically, how to practice? I’m not saying nobody teaches this, or even that many don’t touch on it a little, but generally if it is included in teaching it’s usually an afterthought.

What sells instruction books and makes for good TV is a new swing theory.

Jim McLean brought us “the X-factor” about eight years ago, and then about five years later brought us “the Y-factor.” I’m waiting to see how he’s able to work the Z in there. The current flavor of the month, the “Stack and Tilt,” seems pretty similar to the “one-plane” option of Jim Hardy’s method, and both borrow from the Homer Kelly “Golfing Machine.” Dave Pelz has written three books with detailed, engineering-style photos demonstrating the “pure in-line square” putting stroke, and Scotty Cameron uses similarly sophisticated methods to assert the opposite, that an “arc stroke” is the proper way to putt. Jim Flick says the hands control the body, and Jimmy Ballard, among others, wants the body to control the hands. David Leadbetter started with his own method, but in recent years has apparently run out of original ideas and has started rewriting classic instruction books with his own commentary.

The examples above – and dozens of others I didn’t mention – are generally well-thought out, compelling, mostly mechanically sound ideas. But the point is, we don’t need them. We don’t need an endless litany of rehashings of how to swing a golf club. We need to teach people how to learn to repeat a few basic things well enough to play decent golf.

The over-emphasis on golf swing mechanics carries the implication that there is a perfect, Platonic, ideal, “genuine” swing, which, if we could execute perfectly, we would always hit perfect shots. I don’t believe this is true. The list of mechanical “flaws” in the swings of touring professionals should be enough to show us there is no one set of perfect mechanics. Jim Furyk stands too close to the ball, Arnold Palmer stood too far away. Corey Pavin’s grip was too weak, Paul Azinger’s too strong. Lee Trevino lined up 30 yards left, Sam Snead 30 yards right. All are major championship winners. Colin Montgomerie tilts and doesn’t turn, Allen Doyle has a short, fast backswing, and Craig Parry comes over the top.

With such a range of technique among the greatest in the world, how can anyone argue that there is a perfect swing out there, or even that mechanics really matter that much?

I know someone who in his youth was a six handicap and was in the final round of his club championship. He was a strong guy who could hit his steel-shafted, persimmon driver about 230 yards, pretty good in the mid-1970s. He lost in the championship match to a 50-something guy who couldn’t hit it more than about 180 yards, with a swing that was more Picasso than Hogan. But as my friend said, “he repeated it, and he could control the golf ball as well as anyone I’ve ever played.”

The above club champion played to a four handicap at the time. In the obsession with distance, hot equipment, leveling our shoulder turn, or honing our pre-shot routines, the message that you can play low-handicap golf hitting it 180 with an “ugly” swing has been lost. (Adjusting for the changes since the 1970s, maybe that number would be a little higher, but you get the idea.) You just have to be able to control the ball, which is accomplished by repeating a swing and trusting it.

This is what we all need to learn – how to repeat, and trust, our own, personal swing.

I’m not saying that mechanics are meaningless, and that better biomechanics can’t improve the efficiency of one’s action, add a few yards, control trajectory, etc. I just think that these are “fine points” that don’t matter very much to the average recreational player, including many in the single digits. Perfect mechanics may be a proper focus for the touring professional wanting to win a major, or the scratch player who wants to compete consistently in national or regional events, but for 99.999% of us, they ain’t that important.

And even for these elite players, before they reached their vaunted status, they all learned to repeat. How? Most pros and good amateurs will tell you that they learned the game in their youth by some variety of intense, total immersion. Some tell stories of playing 36 or 54 holes per day all summer long, and as much as possible during the school year, or of hitting balls on a range three hours per day for six years after school. The key is not the specific mechanics of the swing that evolved, but that they practiced it enough to make it repeat.

Most golfers take up the game as adults, and don’t have the opportunity for the immersion approach. So is it too much to ask our teaching professionals to figure out a way to teach us to repeat a servicable swing, rather than trying to make our swings look like Nick Faldo’s? If they can make a machine that tells us the spin and launch angle of a ball going 180 mph, why can’t they make a machine that gives us the sort of feedback we need to learn to repeat?

I’m sure it can be done. Someone just has to try.

25 thoughts on “Golf Rants, Volume 1: Golf Instruction”

  1. Great article !!

    I have had my frustrations with golf instruction too. You point about trusting your swing is a good one. When I got back into golf a few years ago I went straight to an instructor. I was a decent collage golfer and had the basics. First thing he did was change everything. There lies my biggest complaint. Every instructor I have seen wants to change my swing to fit his idea/teaching. Building on what you have already seems to be a lost art. If I was 14 and shooting to be a elite golfer, then fine, but I’m 40 and just want to get back to being able to ‘trust my swing’.

    I now have a nice little video system and a good understanding of the golf swing. Practice is far more enjoyable and productive for me now. Not to mention that the stack and tilt has brought me back to what made me a much better golfer in the past.

  2. Great article.

    I too taught myself a basic swing from 5 Lessons, and it served me somewhat well, but, after hitting the wall in terms of being able to improve the parts of my game that were deficient, I started taking lessons. A few lessons later, I know what I’m doing when an issue rears its head, and can stop, minimize or at least cope with it for that round – the sum of this is really only 4 swing concepts, which when remembered and acted on, lead to that “aha, I remember how that felt” moment. From my experience, I think part of the issue is that many average or worse golfers expect that a simple swing gimmick will “fix” what’s wrong. But, what’s even worse, they think they can fix their swing flaw by buying a new club, a message driven home by advertising, over and over. A coworker is dying to buy a draw-weighted driver to “fix his slice”, a purchase that could fund 8+ lessons which would certainly be more effective in the long run. It certainly doesn’t seem to be in the interest of, say Taylor Made, to convince the average player that the slice he’s fighting comes from his head, not the clubhead.

  3. Great rant and absolutely on target response from Myke. I have been playing for some 60 years now and after having rotator cuff surgery decided to get some lessons so as to hurry my recovery to a decent game. (hccp index now 9.1)
    I engaged a pro who had all the newest analysts equipment and took his series of six lessons. What I learned was 1) how tiger swings and 2) what excercise I need to swing like tiger. All in all not much help.
    I have all the newletters, books and instructional information that’s out there but I am still looking for someone who can help me build on my swing, give me pointers about trusting and repeating a swing I can use and hopefully, find a nuance that will cause the light to go on. And so…the quest goes on.

  4. Great article. As I’ve started the process of working my way down from being a high handicapper (30+), this is the biggest problem I’ve faced.

    I have a decent feel for the mechanics and can tell when a swing feels good. I just have a problem replicating that swing to be able to put two good shots together. I’ve only been able to play about a round a week this summer so progress has been very slow.

    So, now that you’ve identified the problem, any idea on how to fix it other than pure immersion?

  5. So, now that you’ve identified the problem, any idea on how to fix it other than pure immersion?

    I don’t have a ready solution, but I think there is probably a way to accelerate the immersion process. Perhaps it’s a video system that saves key elements of your swing (stance width, ball position, alignment, weight distribution through the swing, tempo, transition, etc.), and then provides visual and auditory feedback while you swing. Perhaps an adaptation of any number of the solid fundamentals books, but with specifically programmed practice schemes. Not “try this drill,” but “do this drill 20 times, then the next drill 20 times, then hit 5 balls, then…” To make it work, though, someone has to actually do research and see what combination of drills, how much repetition, etc., works.

    This comparison may be too weird for some, but what I am after is something like what is known in the clinical psychology world as “behavior modification.” The first attempts by psychiatrists and psychologists to cure neurosis–such as a phobia like fear of snakes–were psychoanalytic. Delve into the person’s subconscious and past, figure out what caused the phobia, and then try to fix what’s wrong so the fear will stop. This is “psychoanalysis.” Behavior modification takes another approach, saying “I don’t care what causes it, but this is how we extinguish it.” So you start by talking about snakes…then looking at pictures…then touching pictures…then looking at snakes in cages…and so on until the fear is extinguished. It works extremely well.

    We need behavior mod for golf, but someone has to actually study the process to find what will work. The casual musings of a golf pro or even a sports psychologist are not guaranteed to work, you have to experiment to see what works.

    And of course, we need to convince people that they don’t need to swing like Tiger, and that they probably are hurting themselves by trying ever other new swing theory that comes along…people have to really want to get better and allow it to happen.

    Thanks for all of your interest. I had fun writing the article.

  6. You compare medical school to golf instruction. The point is valid about the process of learning, but no one expects to become a DR. in 4 easy lessons and fires you if it takes more or expects it cost less than a trip four four to Mickey Dees.
    Having said this I think the emphasis, before power golf, on the order and timing of movement in the golf swing needs to be given a renewed emphasis. Sending a golf ball on its way is IMO closer to throwing motions in Tennis serves, Bowling, or throwing a baseball. THe transition from backswing to down swing is difficult because there is no permanent connection to the ball and the club is long and at your feet. The emphasis on maximizing the power part of moves, arc, shoulder turn, leg drive etc. distorts this process. Trying to get power out of your head with all the attention paid to it is tough.

  7. I really enjoyed your article and think you came pretty close to hitting the nail on the head with it. Reminds me of a quotable John Jacobs statement:

    “The sole purpose of the golf swing is to produce a correct repetitive impact, and the method employed is of no significance as long as it is repetitive.”

    Kudos to Allen Doyle and many others who have learned to repeat in their own style.

  8. Great article, right on target!

    Last year I was about a 30 handicap, now I’m down to 21 (I’m hoping to break 20 this season). My largest gains have come when I started ignoring all the tips and advice from playing partners. In fact, sometimes I tell other people not to give me advice, that I like my swing just the way it is.

    When I started ignoring all that stuff, and just thinking about tempo and smoothness, the ball started behaving better. I happen to think that video analysis is the worst thing to ever happen to golf instruction. People are obsessed with mechanics rather than the smoothness and tempo of their own swings.

  9. Sounds great, Eric. Remember, I said that my comments pertain mainly to seasoned golfers who have an understanding of the basics. As a 21 you are either at or approaching that point, but I want to be clear for other readers that I believe formal instruction on swing mechanics, fundamentals, etc. is good and proper when you’re a beginner and first learning the game.

  10. Sounds great, Eric. Remember, I said that my comments pertain mainly to seasoned golfers who have an understanding of the basics. As a 21 you are either at or approaching that point, but I want to be clear for other readers that I believe formal instruction on swing mechanics, fundamentals, etc. is good and proper when you’re a beginner and first learning the game.

    Agreed. I did take lessons when I first started playing (about 5 years ago), and they were very helpful in getting the basics drilled into my head.

  11. I think I learned more about your medical school training than anything else in this article.

    I don’t understand why you are complaining that golf instruction is focused too much on technique. That is the main purpose of an instructor. Certainly having a repeating swing is a component to better golf. However, practicing a repeating swing, which has mediocre mechanics will do more harm than good.

  12. Hi Eric–thanks for your reply. I’m not sure you were asking for an answer to your questions, but I’d like to try to clarify things a little.

    Certainly having a repeating swing is a component to better golf. However, practicing a repeating swing, which has mediocre mechanics will do more harm than good.

    Well, certainly most of the golf world believes as you do, otherwise this wouldn’t be the focus of most instruction, so you may be right. If you have progressed in the game with this sort of instruction, I think that’s great and applaud your efforts. I certainly haven’t achieved the level of excellence I wanted to when I began in golf, so I admit I’m not arguing from a position of great authority.

    I don’t understand why you are complaining that golf instruction is focused too much on technique. That is the main purpose of an instructor.

    But that was the point of my article, that I’m not sure this should be the main purpose of an instructor, or at least it shouldn’t be the _only_ purpose. I don’t believe there are any “perfect” mechanics, and I’m not sure that any professional today can really prove that their idea of perfect mechanics is really correct. If Colin Montgomerie can win umpteen Order of Merit titles with a swaying, tilting hip action, certainly you or I can have an ugly, relatively weak swing and play to a 6 or 7…if you can repeat it and therefore know where the ball is going.

    Trends and fads in swing mechanics come and go like hairstyles. About 3 years after I took up golf there in Augusta, I received a series of about 12 lessons from a PGA Pro in Alabama, an accomplished player who had won his section of the club pro PGA tournament in the past, and who was highly respected as a teacher. One of the mechanical things we worked on most was my “problem” of straightening my right leg too much on the backswing, taking the club too far inside, and allowing my weight to remain too much on the left side or toward the ball on my backswing. The pro worked hard to help me retain the flex in my right knee, to take the club back more on-plane and less inside, and with my weight slightly favoring the right side, perhaps shifting a bit right with longer clubs. This teaching was entirely consistent with the swing positions taught at the time in David Leadbetter’s book on the golf swing. Fast forward to 2007, and now I’m told that my original move (straighten the right leg, no weight shift, club inside), which I spent months and years extinguishing, is actually the _proper_ way to swing back, at least under the “Stack and Tilt” swing.

    I’m wonderring if it’s possible for an instructor to teach us a way to repeat our swings with more consistency, rather than worrying about ‘improving’ the mechanics, as they happen do define them. Maybe they have, and I’ve just missed it, but that’s the point of my rant.

    Thanks for your response and for reading the article! JP

  13. Great article. How many times have we seen someone with a “bad” swing that repeats consistently win? Lee trevino comes to mind. So does Allen Doyle. Possibly their secret is that they hit literally tousand upon thousands of balls with their less than perfect swings until they became totally ingrained. They did, however, find a swing that could put them in contention. There are certain moves that just don’t work, and they avoided employing them in their swings.

    I play in several senior groups with a lot of really bad golfers. They use “bad” swings that will never place them in contention even if they repeat perfectly. Some swings are possibly so bad they they cannot be repetitiive. These same golfers will spend $400-500 on a new Driver every 3-4 months rather than getting lessons to develop an emplyable swing. they are in denial and just are not willing to do the work to develop, with instruction or without, their own style of swing that will let them shoot in the 80’s. Shooting in the 80’s, at least to me, is what it takes to make you feel like a true golfer and enjoy golg.

    A very senior guy who played to a 10 Hdcp once told me that all you have to do is hit it one eight and straight (180 off the tee), have a good short game, and never three putt. He knew; most bad golfers don’t and never will wheter they get instruction or not.

  14. I too have experienced bad instruction that almost killed my game. I was playing good golf and got my handicap down to about 8, hitting the ball super solid. I then made the mistake of having a lesson and the pro told me that you can’t take the club back inside, and can’t tilt the shoulders.

    I then spent hours of practice and months of playing eradicating these things and ended up with an inconsistent strike and a weaker ball flight, and a handicap that went from 8 to 13 in one year. At .1 per round that’s 50 bad rounds in one year, not bad going.

    I have now tried to get the stack & tilt swing back and have got back to almost 10 with my ball strinking improving out of sight. I will never have a another full swing lesson again.

  15. Spot on article!

    Just wondering if the “Medicus” or “medicus-like” clubs would be a tool that would actually help with repetition and adapting your personal swing into a reliable personal swing.

    But again, great write up!

  16. There is an old adage in baseball…..once a .250 hitter always a .250 hitter……. with few exceptions.

    Stick to what you know and what works for you. It doesnt get any better than that.

  17. I agree with Mr. Bouffard that there is way too much emphasis on all of these “instruction” gurus. The problem with focusing on swing mechanics is that each golfer has individual physical components, abilities, and tendencies. Moreover, we each carry a certain “mindset” with us in life, and that carries over to the game. Each of these aspects brings a complex set of problems to the instruction of a physical act that is often unnatural and difficult to learn.

    I was one of those guys who took up golf at 35 years of age, bought some clubs, never took a lesson, and then struggled for fifteen years to reach an average of 95-100. To say the least, I had one of the most unconventional swing setups, all to compensate for a wicked slice. I finally surrendered to the fact that my game was never going to improve if I didn’t take a lesson.

    What I was fortunate enough to find was an instructor (Mark Nigro – Nigro’s Golf Academy, Kansas City, MO) who first utilized a computerized video imaging analysis of my swing after hitting several balls into an indoor net; he then compared it to a pro’s swing that best suited my swing characteristics. Then he assisted me in making some initially “ackward” adjustments (grip, setup, swing path, shoulder turn, wrist flip) to my swing that solved the basic errors in the mechanics. All of this was done in less than twenty minutes inside the training center. The results were short of miraculous!

    When he took me outside, I was instructed to hit my 6 Iron – a club I previously detested because of my inability to hit it with any degree of success more than 10% of the time. Viola! I was hitting the ball straight as a string an average of 55-60 yards shot after shot after shot. He even had me hooking and drawing the ball – something I had NEVER done in my life. I was even hitting a driver for the first time in my life. WOW!

    NOW FOR THE DOWNSIDE. Mark informed me that it would take at least 3000 (yes, count them) swings before the muscle memory would “set in”. His mantra? PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE (Tiger practices an average of 8 hours a day). Have I listened? NO! I am hitting the ball like I never have before, but the consistency is lacking and I am still very frustrated at times. Why? Because I know if I practiced, I would be much better.

    The Moral: Take a lesson and then PRACTICE until it is second nature.

    Nuf said?

  18. Lance has made a valid point.

    One thing that will improve anybody’s game is sound fundamentals, which should be the first thing a good teaher works on. A good athletic setup with a proper grip is the foundation of the swing. That is one thing that I learnt from my earliest lessons years ago and has remained the same throughout. If you have good grip and setup fundamentals, it will help you no matter how you swing it. The technical stuff they try to change like takeaway, backswing etc can ruin a natural swing, but solid fundamentals will always feel and perform better.

  19. Well I guess it depends on the instructor I did a lot of research before choosing mine and he has worked with my swing and taken 10 shots off my hcap in 18 months. The illustration of the fact that he has worked with MY SWING is that I foolishly had a 1 hour lesson with a pro who teaches my daughter when she could not make it . His analysis my swing plane far too shallow and I should change it! I asked my normal pro about this observation and his reply was that my swing plane was shallow but thats how we acheive a square club head at impact with my swing.

  20. Lance:

    That’s a great story, and encouraging.

    Jack Nicklaus has said as much, saying he knows many recreational golfers who, if they just stuck with one method and continued to practice it, would improve much more than going from swing to swing.

    My point about the whole matter is that I wish there could be a way to distill any individual’s natural motion to some set of essential elements–call them mechanics, that’s fine, but the point is they are simple, individual elements that a person already does in his existing swing. The teacher then devises a way for the person to practice repeating these key elements.

    I don’t mean this in a casual way, either. I think there should be a science to it, a studying of the thing. What moves, what biomechanical elements, are the ones that trigger the repeating motion? How can you accelerate the process of ingraining a movement, so that you don’t have to repeat it 3000 times? Maybe it’s possible to do it in 500, if you’re concentrating on the proper things.

    It’s all just speculation, but all I know is that if they taught sex like they teach golf, the human race would be extinct by now. There must be a better way.

  21. For the most part, recreational golfers will never improve their scores, as we do not devote enough time to practice.

    While the author equates a human swinging a club to a machine, humans are eminently fallible, and will never have a good, repeatable swing unless they are taught and then practice, practice, practice.

    Also there are plenty of places to get practice routines – Golf Magazine is filled with them every month. The problem is devoting time to these routines.

    The author says, “You just have to be able to control the ball, which is accomplished by repeating a swing and trusting it.” What I have come to accept this summer is that I will not get a repeatable good swing unless I practice; and I am not willing to devote the hours to practice. So I play with the game that I brought with me to the course. If you do that, and can hit the ball out of your shadow, you will beat 90% of the amateurs out there.

    So I have to disagree with the author. This is not a weakness in how we are instructed, instead it is a weakness in the golfer. There is no short cut to improving your game – it takes time in the dirt to do that, and while instructors can give you lesson plans, they cannot practice for you.

  22. Cliff: Your argument is the most logical refutation I can think of for what I said, and I can only say that you may be right.

    I hold out hope that there _is_ a way to circumvent human fallibility, to some degree, without spending eons “digging it out of the dirt.”

    But it is only hope…you may be correct.

    Thanks for reading the piece and adding thoughtful comments.

    Best Wishes–

    JP Bouffard

  23. JP – Great article. My main gripe with instructors is this obsession to change everything in the time span of one lesson (one hour). Rather than working on mastering one part of the swing (or incorporate what I did well) they want to completely rebuild my swing to what their idea of the “perfect swing” was or what the latest theory is in the shortest time possible.

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