Suzy Whaley clearly remembers the first time she saw photos of her golf swing.
As a member of the University of North Carolina women’s team in the 1980s, she visited PGA professional Jim Suttie, who has a doctorate in biomechanics, at Pine Needles Resort and Golf Club. He wheeled out a giant cart that housed a camera.
“It was kind of like using those photo booths at a wedding,” said Whaley, who in 2014 became the first female officer of the PGA of America and this year is slated to become president of the organization. “So, you would get like 22 pictures per golf swing. And for me, that was amazing.
“Nobody had that. Nobody was doing that. … We used to hang those photos in our college bedroom and show people our golf swings. We thought it was the coolest thing on the planet.”
Things have changed dramatically in the past decade or so. Golf coaches have an almost overwhelming array of technological tools at their disposal: high-speed cameras, weight-sensing plates linked to computers, cloud-based data storage that relays information on thousands of swings, three-dimensional modeling, launch monitors, smartphone apps that keep students in touch with instructors away from the course. If there’s a perceived need, there’s probably an app for that.
“Fast forward to today, to the options a coach has to communicate with their clients and their customers, and it’s amazing how fast it’s happened,” said Whaley, who in 2003 became the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event in 58 years and who operates Suzy Whaley Golf in Cromwell, Conn. “I think technology has really given instructors a tool that is helping their diagnosis be far more accurate and really advancing the way people think about their golf swings.”
Far beyond a bucket of balls
For most of last century, a golf lesson involved a bucket of balls, a sunny patch of practice tee and a coach. A fancy lesson meant the coach likely was certified by the PGA of America, the turf was in good shape and the balls had fewer scuffs.
Sure, players could and did improve – it wasn’t exactly the Dark Ages. But players could not see their swings. And coaches could not measure specific motions, instead relying on ball flight and experience to nurture swing changes. Plenty of coaches are still helping students improve without the benefit of extensive gadgetry.
But that scenario is a different world from a modern, technology-based lesson.
GolfTEC, for example, was founded in 1995, just as technological teaching innovations began to pick up steam. GolfTEC reports that it has given more than 7 million lessons, operates nearly 200 off-course centers worldwide and says it is the largest of the many instructional companies offering students a chance to learn in a high-tech environment. Similar lessons are available with providers ranging from mom-and-pop studios all the way to PGA Tour Superstores.
GolfTEC uses proprietary motion-measuring software and video to ascertain data about a swing. The company touts that with all those lessons given, universal knowledge has been gained.
“We now know what good players do versus bad players, and we have the data to back that up,” said Austin Millet, a GolfTEC instructor in Orlando.
GolfTEC sells series of lessons that begin with an interview, the students explaining their tendencies, scoring abilities and goals. The first lesson typically involves analysis with a motion-sensing vest and video in an enclosed studio.
A detailed lesson plan is then developed, and GolfTEC has software to share swing video with the student via smartphone, tablet or PC. The coach can include voice-overs about the student’s swing, and the student can take that digital lesson to the range to continue practice.
It’s all very tidy and modern. But at the core of the whole process is GolfTEC’s SwingTRU Motion Study, which includes samples of 48 swing motions taken from more than 13,000 players. Those motions, as well as a set of swing positions, are correlated to various handicap levels, providing a roadmap to improvement.
“Every lesson is unique, even though every player wants to achieve the same thing – to get better,” Millet said. “I could set expectations on a regular driving range, but now I can show you the data. It really helps a player’s confidence that they’re doing the right thing.”
Not just new technology
Ben Hogan famously said of golf success, “The secret is in the dirt.” While it is still undoubtedly true that nothing beats practice, it is also true that some secrets are more readily available with the use of hardware and software.
“I’m not trying to beat people over the head with technology,” said Claude Harmon III, son of teaching legend Butch Harmon and himself a highly regarded instructor to major championship winners such as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, among others. “If all you’re doing is throwing technology at somebody, trying to overwhelm them with data, you’re going to miss something. But you also will miss something if you’re not using any technology.”
Harmon uses many tech tools as director of instruction at his father’s golf academy at Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City, Fla., including one of the techiest: K-Coach (formerly named K-Vest). The system includes a wearable harness that tracks a player’s motion and provides feedback on dynamic motion – it’s basically a swing geek’s dream tool. The system can provide multi-dimensional digital models of a player’s swing, revealing exact degrees of motions such as shoulder turn, hip turn, lift, sway and thrust. And it’s not cheap: Packages for coaches can cost more than $10,000.
“It’s a valuable tool, like all technology, that you can use to help students improve faster,” Harmon said. “It removes guesswork, so there’s less wasted time.”
Another widely used digital tool is V1 Sports’ golf software, which provides a video platform with tools that allow a coach to draw lines that appear on a screen and provide a voice-over, then easily share lesson content with a student or compare a student’s swing to a tour pro’s.
The most powerful version of the V1 platform works with PCs, often installed in teaching studios, but the company also offers a free consumer-facing smartphone app that has been downloaded almost 2 million times. More than 3,000 instructors in the U.S. and about double that number worldwide use the professional-facing versions of the system.
“Not only is it a great tool for the student, it really helps the instructor hone his craft,” said V1 chief executive officer Chris McGinley, a longtime industry executive who worked more than two decades for Titleist before joining V1 last year. “And that’s critical, because golf teachers typically get better by doing, through their experience. This gives people a chance to improve their whole ‘get better’ cycle. … If the end game is to make golfers better, V1, used appropriately, is an extremely powerful tool.”
Teacher still matters most
One warning about technology: It can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The vast majority of players need a qualified coach to sort through data, then make an assessment and recommendations. It’s easy for a novice to download an app and start tinkering, but probably not very productive.
“There’s a lot of white noise out there,” said Harmon, who likened the proliferation of technology in golf to the availability of medical information online – a patient still needs a doctor to make a trusted diagnosis. “Data just for the sake of data isn’t valuable.”
Whaley echoed those sentiments.
“It’s still all about the person standing in front of you, and technology doesn’t always do that,” said Whaley, a self-professed early adopter. “My first priority is that person standing in front of me, that connection I can make with them, understanding their needs and how I can help them and partner with them. And then we’re going to use technology to fill in the gaps.” Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golfweek.)