2004: Nothing but the truth about teaching
Welcome to the Truth in Teaching Tour. Having taken about a thousand golf lessons, I feel qualified to focus on this theme.
Why explore it? Because golf instruction can be foggy. It can be mysterious. It has a way of sidestepping the truth. And because, as some have said, the truth shall set you free.
The first stop on our freedom tour was Phoenix, where the Southwest Section of the PGA of America recently held its eighth Teaching Summit.
Truth No. 1: Golf professionals at the club level are heroes. Teaching professionals are essential to the progress of the game. Too much attention is given to touring pros and not enough to club pros and teaching pros.
Bill Forrest taught at the TPC of Scottsdale (Ariz.) and was the primary force in organizing the Southwest Section’s Teaching Summit. He has continued to supply the momentum behind the event, held this year at Camelback Golf Club. The gathering attracted 220 club pros and teaching pros, including members of 10 PGA sections.
Truth No. 2: Avoid teaching pros who are poor communicators. Effective communication is the first key to good teaching. If a teaching pro can’t motivate you with his words and insights, dump him.
Jim Hardy of Houston was the headliner and keynote speaker at this Teaching Summit. Hardy is the best communicator I have ever heard on the lesson tee, and I believe he is about to be recognized as one of the top three or four instructors in golf. He is that good.
Truth No. 3: When taking a lesson, you should be hitting the ball better at the end of the lesson than you were at the beginning. Period. Do not accept anything less. Hardy preaches such a message, and he means it.
“You are a failure if you don’t help a student by the end of the very first lesson,” he said.
Hardy divides all golf swings into two types – one-plane or two-plane. His use of the word “plane” has nothing to do with the position of the club. Instead, he compares the plane of the torso (upper body and shoulders) with the plane of the arms. One-plane swingers have the two in sync; they tend to bend more from the waist and generally employ a powerful rotating motion with the torso. Two-plane swingers usually have the torso more horizontal and the arms more vertical (upright); the arms drop in the two-plane swing but not in the one-plane.
Jim Furyk? Surprise, because Hardy said he is a one-plane swinger. Other one-planers are Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. Two-planers include Tom Watson, David Toms, Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie.
Truth No. 4: No single swing theory works for all swings. In fact, many golfers are harmed by trying to master a swing that doesn’t match their body type, fitness level and natural swing tendencies. It pays to shop around.
Following Hardy’s philosophy, the two groups must be taught differently because they swing the club differently. The width at the bottom of their swings can be drastically different. An instructor who teaches all pupils in the same fashion has no choice but to ruin some of them, Hardy said. Adaptability is the key.
Mike LaBauve and his wife, Sandy, are noted Arizona instructors. Together they have started the LaBauve Golf Academy (www.labauvegolf.com), with headquarters at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale. They offer a selection of three-day schools for men, women and couples.
Mike LaBauve has known Hardy for more than 20 years and, for ordinary golfers, is the best link to Hardy’s teaching methods. Hardy concentrates on offering his insights to teaching pros and to a limited number of touring pros, particularly those trying to make comebacks. He resurrected Scott McCarron after McCarron fell out of the top 100 on the money list, and now he is working with Paul Azinger.
LaBauve said of Hardy, “He is so brilliant, and what he teaches is so simple. He uses a language that all golfers can understand.”
One note of caution on the one-plane swing, which is sought by most players: It requires more athleticism and flexibility than the two-plane swing.
Truth No. 5: Beware of putting instructors. Putting fundamentals can be taught, but the ability to roll the ball consistently into the cup is a talent that often eludes instruction.
Stan Utley (www.stanutleygolf.com) is a PGA Tour player who teaches putting, chipping and pitching to other touring pros. He appeared at the Southwest Section’s Teaching Summit and spent an hour on the practice green, talking about putting.
One thing I really liked: Utley said he rarely gives a putting lesson without the presence of a loft and lie machine for bending putters. He finds that many golfers use putters that don’t have enough loft and are too upright.
Utley advocates an arc on the backswing that opens the putter blade. Then the blade closes on the through stroke. He likes the forward press, and he feels that he rotates his left forearm when he takes the putter back.
My reaction: Call the medics! Maybe tour pros can do it with regular practice, but it sounds to me as if it relies heavily on timing – which many regular golfers seem to lack.
What are Utley’s putter specs? He uses a Scotty Cameron putter that is 36 inches long and has 6 degrees of loft. He said he delofts the putter 2 degrees during his forward press, giving him the 4 degrees of loft that he seeks. His putter has a notch cut through the sole, similar to some old Ping and Ray Cook putters.
“I believe that sound is feel,” Utley said. “I like hearing that ringing sound (amplified by the notch).”
Truth No. 6: Find out who the teachers visit when they need help with their games. Chris Walkey, who teaches with Jim McLean, is one of these go-to guys.
That leads us to the second stop on our little freedom tour, the Jim McLean Golf School at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., where Walkey teaches.
Walkey is an incisive instructor, yet is quiet and unassuming. This brings up another teaching truth: In a world of self-promoters, beware of those who are too loud or too slick.
“I’m into my third year with Chris, and I think he is brilliant,” said Bob Moore, an amateur and frequent tournament player from North Hollywood, Calif. “He also doesn’t lie. He’s going to tell you the truth, which can really hurt. In the long run, though, this honesty makes him completely believable. When he’s teaching you, it’s like you are the most important person in his life.”
In two years, Walkey took Mhairi McKay from 91st to 24th on the LPGA money list, but he remains largely unknown on a national level because of his modest demeanor.
Truth No. 7: For years, Hardy and McLean agree, Peter Jacobsen has been one of the best ballstrikers in golf. Said Hardy: “Peter is known for all these impersonations. He can mimic all the famous swings. But what people don’t see is that he always hits the ball on the green, no matter which swing he uses. He is an amazing athlete.”
That didn’t surprise me, because Hardy and Jacobsen are partners in a golf course design firm. But then I listened to McLean, who made this comment out of the blue: “Peter Jacobsen has a phenomenal golf swing. He has a real modern, big-muscle golf swing if there ever was one.”
Truth No. 8: Don’t pretend that something works if it really doesn’t. Why do we have such a difficult time admitting the truth about golf instruction? It fails as often as it succeeds.
McLean, who originated the X-Factor (big shoulder turn, limited hip turn) in 1992, has been accused of teaching all golfers not to turn their lower bodies. Not true, he asserted. Some golfers simply can’t do it.
“I’ve always been clear,” McLean said. “Guys who aren’t supple need to use more of the lower body, or even lift the left heel. I am an all-body instructor. John Daly’s got perfect body movements, very simple and very powerful. It’s just that he takes the club way back.”
Truth No. 9: There is nothing wrong with switching instructors. There is nothing wrong with listening to instructors who preach different swing philosophies. Tom Kite has been brilliant at evaluating advice that has come his way over the years. He has listened to all of it, keeping what worked and discarding what didn’t.
Truth No. 10: There is no implicit relationship between the ability to play and the ability to teach. Curtis Strange won two consecutive U.S. Opens, the only golfer in the last 50 years to do so. As a television analyst, though, he has trouble stringing together two insights on the golf swing.
No, I am not picking on Strange. He has plenty of company, because the ability to visualize and understand the dynamic golf swing is rare.