By Mark Harman USGTF Course Director Ridgeland, South Carolina
Let me give you a little background about myself. I’ve been teaching golf since 1989 and have been the USGTF national course director since 1993. That’s a long time! In my journey as a teacher, I’ve read many books, had many discussions with other teachers and am involved in a Facebook group where golf teachers from around the world congregate and throw ideas around. I’ve taught everyone from beginners to professionals.
The easy part of teaching is seeing what is wrong and what needs to be corrected. With the vast majority of players, even good ones, there is a clear path to improvement the player must take in order to achieve their goals. But there are still times when a student presents a puzzle that is difficult to solve. I think this happens to all teachers, no matter what their abilities are. This is especially true when the player is an extremely good player, or even a great player, and they want to improve.
The annals of professional golf are littered with players who tried to get better through changing their swings, only to find that what they previously had was what worked best for them. These players never again found the form that made them what they were.
At the USGTF certification classes, we advise prospective teachers that repeatability is more important than conforming to some sort of model. The trick is in figuring out when a student has the most repeatable swing they can execute and changing it will result in making that student worse, even if the changes make the swing more fundamentally correct according to an accepted swing model.
I teach at an indoor facility with a GC Quad from Foresight Sports, a launch monitor that gives me every piece of data about the ball and club that I could ever want. We also use high-speed video with two cameras running simultaneously. Combining the GC Quad with the video, there is absolutely no doubt as to what a particular student is or isn’t doing. Despite all this technology and my years of teaching experience, two dilemmas presented themselves to me recently where there may not be a clear path of what to do. I will present them, along with my thinking about why I took the course of action with each student that I did.
The first involves a young champion golfer who is the best for his age in the entire world. Yes, the entire world. I will not give his accomplishments in order to preserve some sense of anonymity for him. Although I am not his official coach, his father trusts me enough to consult with his son and to give him occasional lessons.
This kid has an ability for golf that is freakish, reminding one of a young Tiger Woods. Whether he becomes a major champion or never makes the tour remains to be seen, but for now he loves the game and is highly motivated. During his swing, he pushes off his right foot with such force that his right heel is well off the ground during the delivery position (club shaft parallel to the ground and butt end of club pointing to the target on the downswing). His father believes he should have his entire foot on the ground at this stage of his swing, as do the vast majority of tour players. The kid is so talented that he is easily able to do anything you ask him to do.
I voted that he keep pushing off his right foot and letting the heel come off the ground well before impact. My reasoning was threefold: 1) his swing repeats; 2) it’s a very natural move that kids make because the club is proportionally heavier to them that it is to adults, and 3) when he kept his right foot on the ground, his swing no longer looked smooth and fluid. His current swing also looks very much like what Justin Thomas does, and so far his career has turned out all right. Supremely gifted golfers also tend to find the swing that works best for them, because they are so in tune with their bodies kinesthetically that they can feel what it takes to hit good golf shots time and time again. My belief is as long as he doesn’t stray from the accepted general fundamentals – and it’s hard to see him doing that – he will continue to develop and improve.
The second dilemma involved a 51-year-old who has a handicap index of +1.3 and wants to get better. He aims with an open stance and his clubhead swing path through impact is approximately four degrees to the right of the target line. He does this because coming down, he drops the clubhead somewhat under the original shaft-plane line he had at address. Swinging in this manner risks “getting stuck” and having to flip and time the hands properly during the release.
He wanted to have a swing that is more on-plane, and during our first lesson we worked on this. I showed him how he needed to do this and the necessary drills. We left it at that. A couple of months later, he came back and had the exact same swing he had prior to the first lesson. I told him that because he did not change his swing in any appreciable manner, he needed to keep what he had: open stance and swinging inside-out. Zach Johnson and Tom Lehman immediately come to mind when you think of current players, not to mention Lee Trevino in the past.
He mildly objected because he wanted a swing that was more “correct.” I told him that his swing path was incredibly consistent, so why change it? The only problem he had was the occasional hook and block, and that was because his grip was too strong. A full release led to a hook and holding off the release led to a block right, so he was attempting to hit it at the target by half-releasing, which is the worst thing you can do. We weakened his left-hand grip slightly and had him fully release, which led to a beautiful little draw. The only problem was because his swing path was so far to the right, the ball kept finishing to the right of the target. Opening up the stance more than he had been doing was the easy solution to that problem. He now was able to fully release without fearing a hook and the ball was now finishing at the target.
Had this student brought a more on-plane swing to me for the second lesson, I would have kept him on that path. But because he didn’t, it seemed that his natural tendency to swing inside-out was too strong for him to overcome. Although the instruction I came up with left the student with a more “incorrect” swing according to presently accepted swing models, it fixed his problem and led to more consistent ballstriking.
Other teachers might have had the young champion golfer keep his right foot on the ground longer, and to keep directing the 51-year-old golfer to swing more on plane – and they may well not be incorrect. When there are multiple courses of possible action to take with a student, take time to think it through and then trust your instincts. Doing so will serve you well when faced with these teaching puzzles.