Here are 10 names you should know: Bob Toski, Claude Harmon, Sam Snead, Paul Runyan, Henry Picard, Byron Nelson, John Jacobs, Henry Cotton, Tommy Armour and Mac O’Grady. What do they have in common? They were all exceptional players, but they were all also world-class teachers. Successful professionals turned teachers—that’s not something you see anymore. Why?
All but O’Grady played in an era when tournament winnings alone weren’t enough to make a great living. They had to augment their incomes by being club pros, which meant giving lessons to the members of the clubs where they practiced and played. It wasn’t until Toski created a series of golf schools (where I got started in the 1970s, incidentally) that it became viable to earn a living as a teacher. From that point on, golf instruction was never the same.
These days, people love to comment on the state of Tiger Woods’s swing or on modern-day instruction. The vast majority of those people have never given a lesson. They’re entitled to their opinions, of course, but to my ears those views ring hollow because these so-called experts have never stood on a driving range for 10 hours in the sun helping golfers fix their golf swing or improve their tempo. The teachers mentioned above did—and many of them won major championships, too! And they still found time to help regular people improve their games.
To me, the days of the “player-teacher” are clearly over. The money in today’s game has all but ensured this. The troubling thing? As I see it, the evolution in teaching is veering away from its purest form. Instead of helping people play better, we try to teach them how to swing the club better, or hit the ball better (using launch monitors). Playing, swinging and hitting are three very different art forms.
We need to get golfers back to playing better, especially everyday golfers like you. I may sound like a grumpy old man, but the way golf is taught has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Today, students learn the game in pristine conditions, and they strive to copy the technically perfect swings of Tour stars like Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy. What’s more, recreational golfers are taught with lie boards, range mats and launch monitors in an effort to help them make perfect contact—but they’re only learning to make one swing and hit one shot. People say you can’t curve the ball anymore. Well, they’re wrong. You can, if you learn to swing your way and with a little feel. If you copy one “perfect” swing, you’re limited to hitting one type of shot.
The 10 player-teachers I mentioned earlier taught their students how to think, imagine, visualize and feel: to be the best they can be, not to be like somebody else. Many teachers today try to fit every student into the same swing mold. Decades ago, before video or TrackMan, good teaching simply meant helping the student hit the ball toward the target to the best of his or her ability. This was a superior—and more individual—approach that accommodated every pupil’s natural rhythm and tendencies.
Look at the swings of two top players, Bubba Watson and Jim Furyk. Have they tried to hone a textbook motion? Not at all. Still, their swings work just as well—and sometimes better—than Adam’s or Rory’s.
My advice: Don’t fear being the best golfer that you can be. Swing your way. When you take lessons, make sure your teacher works to improve the swing and rhythm you have, rather than making you impersonate another player. Embrace your authentic swing. With time and work, the rest will fall into place.
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