The playing lesson is alive and well in Scotland. In fact, the playing lesson is so popular here that American golf professionals might learn something from the teaching philosophies of their Scottish counterparts.
In the United States, the playing lesson has become an endangered species. Most American teaching pros seem willing to stand endlessly on the practice tee, yet they infrequently venture onto the course with their students.
Here in Scotland, teaching has more of a practical foundation. It focuses on scoring rather than swinging. Be honest: How many times have you, as an avid American golfer, played a round of golf in which you were concentrating almost exclusively on your swing while disregarding your game plan or your score?
Americans are swing-oriented. Scottish golfers are not.
Teaching pros in Scotland demand that their students possess an on-course strategy and an array of shots. They emphasize proper course management and decision-making. They attempt to instill discipline and mental toughness.
The playing lesson is an excellent way – perhaps the best way – of teaching this.
At Turnberry Golf Club on the southwest coast of Scotland, head teaching professional Chris Brown is a staunch proponent of playing lessons.
“Playing lessons make a very strong impression on the golfers who take them,” Brown said, “and we give a lot of them. It’s part of what we believe in. Instructors in the United States don’t seem to deal as much with the playing side of things.”
Brown and the entire Turnberry professional staff, under director of golf Paul Burley, have an ideal setup for their playing lessons. In addition to the Ailsa Course, site of three British Opens, and the challenging new Kintyre Course, Turnberry has a nine-hole layout called the Arran Course that includes four par 4s and five par 3s. The Arran Course is the site of most playing lessons at Turnberry.
Just up the road at Prestwick Golf Club, head professional David Fleming is another advocate of playing lessons.
“Sometimes there is no way to teach some shots except to go out on the course,” Fleming said. “I am a very strong believer in playing lessons, and we intend to give more of them.
“If you consider when you play your best golf, you’re not thinking about technique. It just happens. If I can guide somebody around to hit the right shot at the right time, I think that’s a more valuable kind of lesson. This is particularly true in links golf, where you have to manufacture so many shots.”
At Turnberry and Prestwick, aspects of a playing lesson often include:
Standing on the tee, developing a plan for playing each hole.
Examining club selection on every shot.
Making alternative shotmaking suggestions.
Analyzing how to shape shots (high, low, fade, draw) to fit particular holes or situations.
Placing special emphasis on shots around the green.
Explaining any shots that may be troubling to a golfer.
Why don’t more American teachers advocate playing lessons with their students?
Noted instructor Bob Toski has a theory that does not enhance his popularity among fellow teachers. Toski says most American instructors are “too lazy or indifferent” to get out on the course with their pupils.
The importance of the playing lesson was highlighted after unheralded South Korean Birdie Kim won the U.S. Women’s Open. Toski, her instructor, revealed exactly how he molded a national champion.
“Just about all we do is play golf,” Toski said. “There are two or three courses we play a lot. I teach her how to play golf shots. I teach her club selection. I teach her how to get a feel for distance, related to clubhead speed at the point of impact.
“I’m convinced that if you’re going to teach people how to become great in this game, you have to get them on the golf course. It’s like baseball managers watching these guys play every day. They don’t watch them in the batting cage, hitting balls, and then go home and not watch the ballgame. They watch them perform on the field, right?
“That’s what I do. I teach the psychology of helping students become great at what they’re doing by giving them information and inspiring and motivating them that they are better than they think they are.”
Perhaps Toski is a Scotsman.
How does a golfer find a professional in the United States who will give a playing lesson?
Look around, ask local pros about the top teachers, be persistent.
A playing lesson doesn’t have to be nine holes.
It can be four or five.
Regardless of the number of holes, it has to mirror actual conditions during a round of golf. It has to contain candid dialogue between the student and teacher.
This being accomplished, the playing lesson just might be the most important type of instruction undertaken by any golfer.