Success has come in many forms for some of today’s leading golf instructors, but they’ve all shared one common approach: being open-minded in their search for creative and unique “teaching moments” that can lead to customized solutions.
Golf is a unique sport—and one that many would say is uniquely frustrating. Just when newcomers to the game improve to the point where they can get the ball airborne off the tee, along come hooks, slices, sand shots, delicate chips and three-putts to bedevil them. Even experienced players who think they have the game under control are often introduced, with no warning, to the yips or the shanks.
The game’s best instructors understand that all players—and their golf swings, physical abilities and goals—are different, and that trying to force the same swing mechanics onto everyone is like trying to slam square, rectangular or oblong pegs into the same round hole.
“I don’t have one method of teaching; everybody is different,” says Dale Abraham, a two-time “Teacher of the Year” in the PGA’s Southwest and Southern California sections who is the Director of Instruction at Telluride Golf Club in Mountain Village, Colo., and will now be adding a similar position in the winter at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif.
“You have to measure [each player’s] golf goals, the time they have available to put into it, their bio-mechanics and their abilities, before you can determine the best way to work with them,” Abraham explains. “People today don’t have the patience for the old-school way [that tries] to teach everyone the same grip, swing and approach.”
For this installment of our “Growing the Game” series, we asked Abraham, and several other golf professionals, to share the specifics behind some of their more memorable successes with individual students. In all cases, their reports highlight the importance of being more open-minded and creative in attempting to find and fashion unique “teaching moments” that can lead to customized solutions. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, they emphasize instruction that meets the individual needs, goals and abilities of each student. While this takes more time than doling out the same cookie-cutter lessons to every student, the results have more than justified the added effort.
Like many of the instructors we spoke with for this story, Dale Abraham is proficient in the more cutting-edge teaching practices being used today. He is a Level 3 Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) Instructor, a graduate of the C.H.E.K. Institute’s Bio-Mechanic training, and a certified Aim Point Express Instructor. This last credential paid off recently when Abraham spied a 72-year-old club member attempting to use the Aim Point Express green-reading technique on the practice green, but with little success. Abraham showed him how to use the technique correctly, and all of a sudden the light came on and putts began dropping. Since then, Abraham reports, the gentleman has shot his age on a number of occasions, including his lowest-ever score of 69, and he also sank a clutch 20-foot putt on the final hole to win his club tournament.
While the Aim Point fix was an example of a relatively specific and quick solution to a particular problem, Abraham cites a couple of other students whose games required more comprehensive assistance—including a woman who has won the “most improved” award two years running, and another player who dropped from a 26 handicap to an 11 in one year.
Bob Pfeffer, Head Golf Professional at Belmont Country Club in Ashburn, Va., also does his own individual assessment of each student to not only determine their biggest issues, but the simplest and fastest ways to correct them. Within five or six minutes of observing and working with a player, Pfeffer says, he can typically get an idea of the best way to work with that particular student. Video from his iPad helps students see what they’re doing wrong, and then Pfeffer determines the best way to get a corrective action across.
“I try not to over-complicate it,” he says. “It’s usually a simple thing in the setup, and if there are other problems, I kind of play a chess match in my head to figure out a way to fix two things with one thing.
“One thing I always do when we’re working on the range is station the balls as far away from the student as possible, and then spoon-feed balls to them one at a time,” he adds, “That way you can control how fast they hit balls. You want to establish rhythm, pace, tempo and balance, just as if they were hitting shots on the course.”
Andrew Rice, Director of Instruction at Berkeley Hall in Bluffton, S.C. and a Top 100 Instructor, is also a strong proponent of technology, as a partner in the TrackMan University online instruction site that is built around the TrackMan radar-based launch monitor.
Rice also stresses that because there are different strokes for different folks, the instructor’s challenge, first and foremost, is to gauge each player’s capabilities and develop needed skills to maximize their overall results.
“It’s all about impact,” says Rice, a native of South Africa. “Six or so years ago, I realized that chasing after part of a golf swing or the way people swing the club was not always the best approach. Too many times, the textbook swing was being force-fed, so I decided to take what the golfer brings to the table and develop those skills.”
Tim Mahoney, Director of Instruction for Troon Golf, is another Top 100 Instructor and devotee of the TrackMan technology. During his stints at Cordillera Golf Club in Edwards, Colo., Mahoney runs a series of popular TrackMan Thursday Clinics for groups of up to eight people, all of which sold out this season.
The TrackMan readouts, Mahoney says, provide the necessary validation to not only show students where their problem areas lie, but also to hopefully provide positive reinforcement by demonstrating measurable improvement.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it,” he says. “You can usually change the numbers just by adding some pre-swing instruction.”
While all of the instructors featured in this story present examples of veering from the path of traditional golf instruction methodology, our final two spend the majority of their time not on the physical execution of the golf swing, but primarily on the mental and fitness components of the sport, which can be just as important as a good shoulder turn.
Ann-Kristin Allen, the Norwegian-born Director of Fitness for Cordillera Ranch Golf Club in Boerne, Texas, combines the principles of yoga and fitness to help students execute an efficient golf swing, such as the one taught by her husband Devin Allen, the club’s Director of Instruction.
“It’s different than ‘yoga-yoga,’” says Allen, a Level 3 TPI Instructor and a devotee of Yoga for Golf guru Katherine Roberts. “Every single golfer I’ve worked with, the combination of TPI principles and yoga has worked perfectly. Particularly with people coming back from surgery, I’ve had 100 percent success in helping them continue to improve their golf game.”
Allen maintains a network of orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists as referral sources and consultants for students’ specific health concerns. “There are no boundaries in golf,” she says. “It’s up to the instructor to give the golfer what they need on a given day.”
Allen’s regimen is not just for the older generation. She has been working for several years with an 18-year-old woman who will be attending Arizona State University on a golf scholarship this year, and who drives an hour each way to see Allen. Allen communicates closely with the woman’s coach to monitor her progress and see if any particular areas need work.
It’s an indisputable fact that the top players on the world’s professional tours have more than their share of physical talent, an unlimited supply of customized equipment, personal coaches and trainers, and plenty of time to perfect their craft on the practice tee and course.
What many people don’t realize is that even the best players frequently encounter problems with the mental aspect of the game, too. One instructor who understands that very well is Jason Goldsmith, and his increasingly star-studded roster of students, both professional and amateur, is testimony to the importance of addressing the “mind game” as part of instructional regimens.
Goldsmith, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is a relative latecomer to the golf industry, after successful stints in the hospitality and real estate fields. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for knowledge, he soon determined that if he could find a way to help golfers help themselves, it would probably have more immediate and long-lasting value than trying to teach them the fine points of the stack-and-tilt swing process.
After completing TPI certification and becoming a leading instructor in the Aim Point green-reading technique, Goldsmith met, and soon partnered with, a young Australian whose family had developed a technology
known as FocusBand. Essentially, the device registers modulation of brain waves and, in the simplest possible terms, provides immediate feedback to iPhones or iPads that allows the wearer to see where his or her focus actually is, and how efficiently (or inefficiently) he or she is concentrating.
In addition to FocusBand technology and his green-reading expertise, Goldsmith focuses on the pre-shot routine and process, rather than the result of a particular shot. There is no denying the results. Goldsmith has worked with over 40 Tour players in one capacity or another, including this year’s British Open champion, Jason Day (who has had especially acute mental challenges, related to his battles with vertigo). Most recently, Goldsmith added 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose to his client list; he has also worked with a number of major-college golf teams, and coached a number of top-ranked Junior players.
“The first thing I teach is how to get into a neutral state,” Goldsmith said. “You are in control of where you place your awareness. Too many people are focused on a negative outcome, but if you can replace that with a neutral state and focus on the process, you’ll eventually see the outcome get better.”
In addition to working with individual students and Tour players, Goldsmith frequently gives demonstrations to clubs and their teaching pros who may be interested in adding FocusBand or other techniques to their teaching repertoire. His website is www.truegolfcompany.com.