Kevin’s Lesson Philosophy

How, When and Most Importantly, from Whom?

So you’ve decided to learn how to play golf or it’s time to take your game to the next level. Even Tiger Woods, the greatest player ever, is constantly taking lessons and trying to improve. Jack Nicklaus took lessons right up until he retired. If these two believe they can improve through lessons, I’m sure we all can.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself what you want to get out of your lessons. Are you a beginner wanting to learn the basic skills in order to have fun and enjoy golf or are you looking to take the game more seriously and compete on some higher level? You need to decide how much time and money you are willing to invest in your question.

A large part of taking lessons is practicing and learning to repeat certain physical moves and skills. This can require a little independent practice time for some and lot for others. Once you have selected an instructor and established a dialogue with that person, he or she should help you answer certain questions.

Getting started…

How do I go about taking lessons and most importantly, who do I take them from? Just like a good restaurant, the best way to find a good PGA instructor is word of mouth. The letters PGA (professional golf association) are crucial whether they are preceded by (c Canadian, e European, j, Japanese etc). To become a member of any world pga one must pass a strict playability test and undergo multiple YEARS of training. There are many gumshoe certificates, basically for sale, that mislead the public into believing the holder is some sort of trained golf instructor. No matter how inexpensive their fees might appear, they are stealing your money. ASK AROUND! You definitely want someone who has a good reputation and a successful track record. Not only a good record with good golfers, but a good record with golfers like you or those in a similar situation. If you are a 60 year old retired female nurse for instance who has never played golf before, then find a coach who has helped middle aged female beginners. On the other hand, if you are a self-taught 15 year old boy with a 2 handicap and would like to compete at a higher level, then you’ll need to find a pro who has succeeded with young players in your situation. If you are wanting to play golf for a living and are competing at the highest level, you should be learning from an elite instructor who has played professionally. It is hard to have complete faith in someone who has never “been there” no matter how many books they’ve read or seminars they’ve attended. It is highly unlikely that they will be best suited to steer your career in the direction you want to go if they haven’t been there themselves. Great instructors pass along what they’ve been through and what they’ve witnessed playing alongside and inside the ropes with other great players. Although not multiple winners, Butch Harmon, Rick Smith, David Leadbetter,and John McLean have all competed on professional tours around the world before they became instructors. Should you be looking to drop your handicap from 16 to 8, or 3 to 1, you will need to find an instructor who has a good reputation for helping others do that. You don’t need Butch!

Look for an instructor who teaches everyone as an individual. Good instructors do not teach everyone using the same theory, the same method and the same language. Many instructors try to teach everyone the same thing and teach it the same way yet each player is unique. This is the major problem with what I call the “big brand name theories”, i.e. “Natural Golf”, or “The Stack and Tilt”. It should be logical that someone 6’2”, skinny and clumsy should not be taught the same way as someone 5’8” stocky, strong and athletic. One theory might work for the first player but be disastrous for the other. Everyone needs to be taught with a program designed just for him or her. If Jim Furyk had changed his unorthodox swing, he may not have become a great player. The same could be said for Mr. Palmer and Mr. Floyd, both of whom have unconventional swings but who have won multiple majors. There are some basic fundamentals that apply to everyone but within those fundamentals there needs to be some flexibility. For example, someone with small hands and small forearms may need a slightly stronger grip than someone with big hands and powerful forearms. Likewise, a person 6’5” will require more knee flex than someone who is 5’2”. Although different, they can both have sound posture and a good setup. There are many great instructors who believe in very different theories and teach using very different methods. Tiger Woods stated emphatically at a recent clinic with Anthony Kim, “There is NO one way to play golf.”

Establish a good verbal rapport with your instructor. Your new coach should be anxious to find out what kind of person you are. A good instructor will want to know what your golf tendencies are as well as what type of a person you are. Don’t be put off if he or she is asking you lots of questions. You should be asking lots of questions as well! Finding out if you are imaginative, creative, analytical, curious, rigid or easy going, will be essential to your instructor in establishing a good game plan to form a foundation for not only what message to give you but how to deliver it. As your lessons progress and you give your instructor more feedback, the easier it will be for him or her to best implement, modify and execute your ongoing program. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel things are not progressing well or if you do not understand exactly what and why you are doing what you are doing. Early in your lessons you should see some instant and relatively easy, positive results. It is imperative that a good instructor earns your faith quickly so you should receive a task or tip that helps you out fairly quickly. After the first 15 or 20 minutes, your instructor should be able to see 3, 6, or even 16 things that you need to work on. Rather than trying to fix the biggest problem or 6 individual problems at the same time, the relationship will be more successful if the focus is on a single simple task early on. If you have early success with small tasks, there is a greater chance of success with larger tasks. A good instructor not only spots problems but establishes a plan to deal with them in the best order.

While taking lessons and working on your game, the goal should be to build or acquire new “good” habits. As an instructor, I always try to avoid saying “don’t”. People often want to have their problems fixed but it is far more constructive to learn to build new “good” habits. Don’t be disappointed if EVERY lesson doesn’t work immediately. Any time you try something new or make even small changes from what you are accustomed to, they may feel awkward or even poor. You have heard the saying “one step back for every two forward”. This is very applicable to golf lessons. When you first make a change, it will most likely not feel comfortable and may not work right away, but if you stick to the game plan, you should see some positive results within two or three practice sessions.

Golf is not a swinging contest; it is a scoring contest!

Make sure your new coach will not only teach you how to technically swing, chip and putt, but will also teach you how to play golf. If you spend all of your time on the range hitting balls from a flat, perfect lie, you will need a lot more than a good swing to hit a good shot on the first hole from 4” of rough with the ball way above your feet. When you get out on the course, you are going to face many situations that require a wide base of knowledge, some of which can be learned on the practice tee, but much of which needs to be learned on the golf course. Things like bad lies, rainy conditions, and how to go over, under or around a tree are all best learned on the golf course. I was very lucky as a young teenager in that I got to play a lot with a very good player and my instructor, John Boyle. Later, in college, my teammate Brad Faxon showed me what scoring was all about. I came to realize the importance of learning how to play golf, not just how to swing. It might be expensive but you should invest as much time and money in playing lessons as you do in swing lessons. I would like to stress that only a very good quality instructor will distinguish between teaching you to practice and teaching you to play. Far too much time proportionally is spent on teaching mechanics and often not enough time is spent on teaching people to play and enjoy this great game. I guarantee that should you find a professional who will help you learn how to swing and how to play golf, you will be more successful and will enjoy the game a lot more.

Look for an instructor who is fun and upbeat.

We go out to play golf to enjoy ourselves and there is no reason why learning cannot be enjoyable. An upbeat, positive and happy golf instructor should not only make your lessons more enjoyable but should also help you improve your outlook on golf as a whole. Lessons and learning should not feel like work or toil. Your instructor should be implementing little games and drills into your practice to make it more fun.

What are drills and training aids?

As well as asking you to practice, you instructor should be showing you drills. Drills are usually an exaggeration to help you acquire a certain feeling. They will often involve training aids such as heavy clubs or impact bags. Once you have spent some time doing your “drills”, you should be able to take the “feeling” from those drills and install them in your golf swing. Your coach should also be asking you to watch golf on television. Many of us learn best visually so if we watch the pros and imitate them, it can be a very valuable tool in our progression. If you are working on your posture, find a pro on TV who is built similar to you and imitate that person. If you are working on your footwork, watch the feet of great players as they swing. Then go out and practice. Then practice some more.

There should be plenty of time to hit balls at each lesson.

You want your instructor to first see what you can do before being told what to do. It is imperative that you have enough time to warm up and hit some shots before being asked to perform anything new. This is key to the instructor in assessing your ability before trying anything new. The initial lesson or two should involve a great deal of dialogue where the instructor is learning about the student and vice versa. This will help the instructor gather information to design a game plan and then explain it to the student. But, after the initial sessions there should be more time for the student to hit balls and give his or her feedback. Watch out for an instructor who loves the sound of his own voice. You should never have to stand and listen to a 20 minute speech. Less is often more.

Lessons need not be too long.

The average club player or beginner should be looking for 30-minute lessons spread out over numerous days or even weeks depending on the amount of time each student has to practice. Each lesson should involve one or two major themes and/or goals where the student leaves with a clear understanding of what he or she is to practice. A good instructor should be able to spot numerous flaws and areas where improvement is needed in a student’s game or swing within 5 to 10 minutes. It would be easy to rhyme off five or six things the student needs to work on and although the student may be smart enough to remember them all, standing over the ball thinking about five or six things is counter-productive. Build one new good habit at a time. Once you have practiced, done your drills, copied the pros on TV and can perform the task without thinking a lot about it, it is time for your next lesson. Now that you have attained one good habit, it is time to work on your creating a second one. The first lesson or two may require a bit more time in order to format an overall game plan for your lessons, but from that point on it should take your instructor only a few minutes to see if you have conquered the last lesson’s tasks and to know if you’re ready to move on. From there, it should take approximately ten minutes to convey the next goal and to show you new drills and how to practice them.

Your instructor should let you try things out and allow you to give feedback. Although the goal may be definitive and singular, there may be 3 or 4 ways to accomplish it. The first two may not work so it is important that the majority of the lesson be used for this specific 15 to 20 minute requirement. For instance, if the goal is to slow down your hips, simply saying so may work. Often though, thinking about another body part will be an easier way to accomplish the same goal. If one’s hips tend to clear or turn to fast for instance, attempting to keep the back heel on the ground longer may be an easier way to slow down that turn of the hips. It may be a simpler thought that accomplishes a major goal. This should leave about five minutes for any questions, niceties and setting up of the next lesson. It is far tougher for an instructor to stay on task if lessons run longer. It is also tough to maintain concentration for longer periods of time, both for the instructor and for the student. If a student arrives 10 minutes prior to the lesson, warms up and is ready to go at the arranged lesson start time, a 30 minute lesson should be plenty of time to assess the previous goal and learn how to achieve the next. Low handicappers or very competitive players often require longer sessions as their means of improvement is more finite and complex.

Avoid group lessons.

Unless you are a raw beginner or looking to go over your swing fundamentals, group lessons are counter-productive. Group lessons are a good way for beginners to hear, not necessarily learn, a lot of general information in a relatively short period of time. People should not expect a lot or any personal attention during group lessons. Whether it is a group of 4 or 14, everyone’s level of skill will be different and if an instructor strays off course for one student for one minute, the instructor may have to spend additional time to accomplish the same thing for the next person. Group lessons may be less expensive but they are less personal and less constructive. They can even be destructive as there will certainly be areas covered that a particular student may not need to think about or should not think about. As mentioned earlier, everyone needs to hear different things in different ways.

Avoid instructors who are teaching the same thing to you as your neighbors.

Poor golf instructors tend to teach students what they themselves are working on. It may be a coincidence, but if you get a lesson from your pro on, let’s say, a bigger shoulder turn, and you hear some of your friends say they received the same lesson, chances are your instructor does not have a game plan for you alone. This does not mean that an instructor should not teach the similar set of basics to everyone, but it would be a huge coincidence to be taught on the same day or in the same week in the same way to numerous people. If this is the case, then a definite lack of planning and flexibility is obvious.

Avoid instructors who sound like they are reading out of textbook or reciting lines. If your instructor has a relaxed down home way of talking about the weather, then he should have a relaxed down home way of talking about golf. If when a lesson starts, the instructor suddenly sounds like he’s reading Shakespeare, chances are he has decided what to teach you before you have arrived. A golf pro might be book smart, but if he’s not golf smart, he’s not likely to help your golf game. You don’t want someone who talks to you in an overly technical dialogue unless you are a technical person.

When should I take my lessons?

There are good times and bad times to take a golf lesson. It is never a good idea to take a swing lesson right before you go out to play. In fact, it’s really not good to play for at least a few days after a major mechanical lesson. You need the opportunity and time to practice and learn the new habits before trying things on the course. Often a player can get stuck between the old habit and the new one resulting in numerous bad shots and a frustrating game. Remember, lessons involve generally learning to practice, and the practice range, not the golf course, is the place to practice. On the course there are a number of outside agents that require most of your thoughts and energy; you need to focus on where you are going; your target. You also need to be aware of your playing partners; not only their golf, but also the social part of the round. No one wants to play their one game a week with someone completely focused on their own game. Most of us play golf for fun and recreation. The 2 handicapper playing in “Men’s Night” as if it were the U.S. Open is annoying to say the least. Unless you’re getting a simple tip on something akin to ball position or alignment, take your lessons after your rounds with time to practice before your next outing.

If you are competitive, don’t take any kind of major technical or mechanical lesson before a tournament or competition. You will not have time to build a new habit and a day or two is not enough to fix any major problem. A good instructor will always ask when you are playing next and when your next competition is. Lessons are not for today or tomorrow; they are for next week, next month and next year. Of course everyone is trying to improve at a different pace and in varying degrees, but good results require time and effort. In the big picture, I have found the best time to make swing and mechanical improvements is in the off-season. Students can focus finitely on parts of their swing without needing to self-test on the golf course for long periods of time. This is a forced period of just mechanical practice and usually produces real and visible changes and improvements to a swing. As an instructor, my preference is to build swings in the winter and teach shot making and golf in the summer. Lessons tend to be more technical and more mechanical after golf rounds, after tournaments and after the end of the season. Alternatively, lessons tend to focus on pre-shot routine, shot making and course management the nearer it gets to rounds, tournaments and the spring.

When you go out to play, whether it is for fun or for competition, you need to use the swing you came with. It is very difficult to change or try new things on the course. Naturally you can adjust your timing, tempo, balance, etc., but not your over all mechanics. I have heard many great players, including Anthony Kim recently, say that if they go to the range before a round and they are hitting a small cut then they play their round that day hitting small cuts. If they go to the range and hit big hooks then they’ll play big hooks. It’s too late to change. Dance with the one you bring.

Don’t be over taught.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in unskilled or poorly qualified golf instructors is their tendency to “over teach”. These instructors tend to want to just fix everything at once or worse, they can’t help but impart their entire wealth of golf knowledge all at once. Because they don’t really know how to design a long term plan or accurately and skillfully deal with one problem at a time in the least confusing manner, it is easy for them to over teach a student. This is also a big problem with the “pushy parent”. Dad may be a 10 handicap and feel like he cannot only spot his son’s mistakes but also fix them. Even an intelligent adult would find it difficult to assess and interpret a large amount of golf information while putting it into practice but a child or teenager is going to be completely befuddled trying to apply numerous tasks to one golf swing. Techniques as simple as posture and alignment need to be learned gradually and slowly by children. Parents should leave the teaching to good instructors.

If you spend a lot of your hard earned money on golf lessons, you deserve a return for your money. It should be an enjoyable experience. There is no need for golf lessons to be laborious. Lessons should be fun and informative and you should be learning about golf, the golf swing and your own golf swing. With practice, you should see results. Your handicap should decline or at least your shot making and the feel of your shots should improve. Of great importance, there should be a bright light at the end of the tunnel and you will have a clearer picture of how and when things will get better.