Finding a Good Golf Teacher

A "good" teacher is the right teacher--right for your ability level and for your swing. Finding one that's right for your ability level isn't all that hard. But finding one that's right for your particular swing is real trick. Even touring professionals have made fatal miscalculations in that regard, and some previously stellar performers are now struggling.
(Orignally published in Golf Today magazine, Feb 2005)

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/golf

The Advantages of Having a Teacher

I took up golf mostly because I wanted to take nice long walks on soft ground, in pleasant surroundings. The idea was to get some sunshine, get some exercise, and swing a club once in a while. It sounded like a great idea. I was pretty athletic, and it looked pretty easy. So how hard could it be? I would soon find out.

I quickly developed a magnificent power slice, so I spent much of my time hiking in the woods, looking in vain for yet another lost ball. I gravitated towards courses in which fairways were divided by a narrow line of trees--and it wasn't uncommon to find me playing two fairways over from the hole I was aiming at. On a course with real rough, I needed an extra bag for my spare balls.

That wasn't even the worst of it. The worst was when I was looking at the shot I wanted next. I could visualize it perfectly. It would go up here, over that tree, land in the fairway over there, and run down to about there. Then I swung, and the ball did anything but follow the path I had visualized so perfectly in my mind's eye.

That was frustrating.

I still wanted those nice, pleasant walks though. So I decided I'd better get some instruction. I was lucky. I found a great teacher--and I really do mean I was lucky because, knowing what I know now, it would have been super easy to find one who didn't have a clue how to customize a training program that works for my body, and my ideal swing. We'll get to that in a moment. Right now, I want to focus on what I got out of the instruction I've taken.

In the 6 months or so that I've been training seriously I've taken somewhere in the neighborhood of 40. Some of them have been standard one-hour sessions at the range, and some were two-hour supervised group practice sessions. A few were evening seminars with dinner, and a couple were full-day group training sessions.

All of these sessions were with the same teacher (Ed Tischler of New Horizons Golf). Over time, the sessions have produced a series of small enlightenments that otherwise would have never occured to me. I mean, I've learned things that I never knew, that I never read (and I've read a lot), or that I never realized applied to me, even after I read them.

In future articles, I'll try to make sense out of the things I learned--I'll try to stack them up, one on top of the other, and see what they add up to. I can tell you that the shots are lengthening and straightening out, and that I've had the wonderfully rewarding sensation of watching a shot follow the path I visualized. There is still a lot of variation in my shots, but the percentage of outright doofs has dropped precipitously.

If I hadn't been quite so lucky, I would have found a teacher who teaches the "one correct swing"--the one swing that works for tall people, short people, thin people, pudgy people, pear-shaped people, apple-shaped people, and people who are perfectly average, with precisely 2.3 children.

I know I would have learned how that "magical swing" is supposed to work. And I'll bet I would have had a reasonable amount of success with it, because I'm pretty determined about such things. But knowing what I know now about just how many different ways there are to swing a club, the odds aren't good that I wouldn't have learned a swing that was both successful and comfortable--a natural swing that I could take out on the course and call mine--a swing I owned.

At the moment, though, I'm developing exactly that swing. It's a work in progress, and there are ups and downs, but it's working, and it feels good.

I was luckly. I found a teacher who has identified the many different swing elements that current and past touring pros have used. He helps you identify the elements that work best for you. He points you to pros who use them, so you know who to emulate. And he has has mastered the techniques himself, so he knows how they work and can demonstrate them.

His name is Ed Tischler, at New Horizons Golf. He currently teaches at Pin High Golf in Santa Clara, California, but his books, training aids, and other materials are available on the Web. (See the Resources for a link.)

Obviously, not everyone can avail themselves of the same teacher. The goal of this article is to show you what you need to know to find a teacher who's right for you, so you won't need to be quite as lucky as I was.

The Problem of Finding a Teacher

Even professionals make mistakes when it comes to finding a good teacher. They generally find a successful teacher--one who has demonstrated results with one or more pupils in the past. But there are so many different ways to swing a golf club that they frequently don't find one who understands how to make their swing work.

So maybe things are going a little south, and they want a tune up to get them back on track and running at high speed. They seek out a well-known teacher who has had success with others, and go for a visit. , they can wind up going to a well-known teacher who teaches a swing that is fundamentally different from theirs.

The important questions are:

If you have one kind of swing, going to a teacher that teaches a different kind of swing can really throw you off your game. If the swing they're teaching is the one that's right for you, eventually everything will work out for the best. If it isn't, you can be thrown off your game for a very long time--and that's true for professionals, as well as amateurs.

Until you can identify the kind of swing that's right for you, the safest course is to work with someone who understands them all. A teacher like that can help you figure out what works for you. If you have something that works, they'll help you build on your game rather than tearing down your swing to fit some sort of pre-conceived notion about what constitutes the correct swing (as though there is only one).

How Good Are Your (or Intend to Get)?

If you plan to play the game "just for fun", and you're the unique kind of person who can actually do that, then you may not need the most professionally accomplished of teachers. On the other hand, if you seriously pursue proficiency in the things you do, and if you're serious about golf in particular, then you'll want a teacher who's been there, who knows how to do it, and who knows how to teach it. You'll want a teacher who has played competitive golf but who, for one reason or another, is teaching rather than playing professionally. You'll want one who has experience teaching professionals, as well.

Ed Tischler, for an example, was an exceptional collegiate golfer who trained under Fred Shoemaker. (He became the #1 golfer at U.C. San Diego.) He was headed for a promising professional career, played on the Golden State Tour with +4.5 handicap, when he was sidelined by a massive shoulder injury that forced him to spend several years in rehabilitation--a process he had to undertake himself when the doctors gave up on him. After that, he focused much of his efforts on teaching, although his recovery was so successful that he contemplates returning to the tour. As for teaching credentials, he's helped several professional golfers attain their cards on a variety of tours. What more can you say?

That was the teacher for me. I've always tried to be as good as I can possibly be at everything I've taken seriously. I played volleyball at the highest amateur levels short of the Olympics, coached, and became a black belt in the martial art of Jung Su Won. That's one reason that golf was so darn frustrating. I mean, how can anything that looks so easy be so darn hard?! (Little did I know that there are an astonishing number of degrees of freedom in the golf swing, and making them all work together is the most complex feat of physical coordination imaginable, short of playing a Beethovon sonata!)

Given my somewhat "driven" approach to things, it's good to know that I have a teacher who can take me as far as I'll ever want to go. On the other hand, if your goals are more modest (as mine probably should be, at this point in my life!) you probably don't need a teacher who is quite that accomplished.

On the other hand, you do need a teacher who can coach the mental game as well as the physical swing. In fact, some of Ed's lessons center around managing your time (and your thoughts) between shots--which dwarfs the amount of time you actually spend planning and executing shots on the golf course.

For me, the driving range has become a kind of Zen Archery. Some of my most productive sessions with Ed haven't been about the swing at all, but about the Zen principles of awareness and non-attachment that lead to greater happiness and a more effortless, relaxed swing because you're not trying so hard to control the outcome--or taking it so personally that you experience the miserable frustration that kills your joy, interferes with learning, and inhibits performance.

Non-attachment: A mental state characterized by acute awareness of the present moment, where you're totally involved in what you're doing and totally committed, and yet you're emotionally unaffected by the outcome.

The result of those sessions has been a kind of learning that transcends the golf course. I've found myself learning lessons that I apply in every day life--at work on the road, and on social occasions. If you, too, like activities that teach you life lessons, then you should definitely seek out a coach who is capable of teaching the mental game, as well as the physical swing.

How Many Ways are There to Swing a Club?

Now that you've settled on the kind of teacher you want, the next thing to understand is how what they teach relates to what you do. In practice, that means you need to have some idea of just how many ways there are to swing a golf club--and swing it successfully--so that when a teacher tells you that need to make a fundamental change, you can determine whether:

  1. You're supposed to change something that doesn't work for anyone, so it's a change you probably need to make.
  2. You're supposed to change something that works for some people, but doesn't work for you, so it's probably a good change to make, in your case.
  3. You're supposed to change something that isn't part of the swing (the "standard" swing, the "perfect" swing), but which is part of your natural swing, so it's probably a better idea to change teachers than change your swing.

When you're first starting out, it's hard to make those determinations yourself. That's why it's a good idea to train with someone who understands them all. But you can approach the topic by asking this innocent question: "How many ways are there to swing a golf club well?" The answer, surprisingly, is in the thousands. If you don't get an answer like that, you may be talking to a one-dimensional teacher. That could still work out fine, if the swing they're teaching happens to be the one that's right for you. But don't bet your home on it.

Until I met Ed, I never knew there were so many ways to swing a golf club, and do it successfully. Even after you subtract the countless unsuccessful ways that I was in the process of mastering, dozens of possibilities remain. And when you look at the number of possible combinations of the different swing elements, there are literally thousands of ways to swing a club well.

Some of the possibilities relate to you, specifically. Once you've identified them, they won't change. Other choices depend on the kind of shot you want to make (or are forced to make) in any particular situation. Those choices will change from shot to shot. Others lie in the middle ground, where you'll have a tendency to stick with one method, but will choose a different method on some occasions.

Note:
I n reality, many of the swing choices have an infinite number of degrees. By breaking them down into a few distinct categories, Ed gives you a sense of the continuum and helps you identify a starting point that works for you. From there, you'll naturally shade things to get the swing that works best for you.

Swing Styles

Generally, one choice in each category is right for you. Your collection of choices constitutes your swing style. You find the one that works for you by trying out the different possibilities. Then you work to refine that swing with exercises that are tailored to that swing style.

Once one choice is fixed, other choices tend to fall into place, because some collections of things tend to work better together--usually, but not always. So a really good teacher doesn't automatically assume that if you do one thing, you will automatically do the others as well. They'll have you try things out, and make sure.

Once you find what works, you stick with it and refine it. If you find a teacher who doesn't understand that style and wants you to change, you'll generally be better off changing teachers, instead, until you find one who does understand that style.

Note:
Ed has a collection of photos from magazine articles and video clips that show accomplished professional golfers using--and recommending--each of the possible swings. He also has a number of horror stories about tour contenders who were convinced to change their basic style, because it was "wrong", with distastrous results--and he has the before/after photos to prove it.

Swing Methods

You'll have one or more choice in these categories, depending on how serious you are and what works for you. A recreational golfer may settle on a single method they use all the time. A more competetive golfer will master as many variations as they can so they have more subtle shot-making choices.

Swing Choices

The way you approach any particular shot depends on the kind of ball flight you want and what it's supposed to do when it lands. Your choices include:

Choosing Your Swing

All told, there are thousands of ways to combine the possible swing elements. And even when you nail your down personal swing style, there are still hundreds of ways to approach any given shot.

I used to have one swing. That was it. It wasn't very good. In fact, it was horridly undependable. But it was simple. As I've engrossed myself in the training, I've found more and more possibilities opening up. And for each kind of swing, there are multiple drills to choose from to help train it! As much as possible, though, Ed works with me to narrow things down to the choices that work for me.

As the different swing elements become unified into a single, coherent motion, I'm beginning to get back to that original simplicity, where I just chose a club and swung. To paraphrase Bruce Lee: "When I started, a swing was just a swing. As I progressed, a swing was no longer a swing. But when I achieved mastery, a swing was once again just a swing." Only now, there multiple possible actions that are "just a swing", just as Bruce Lee had many possible kicks that were "just a kick".

What Kind of Swing Works for You?

This is the key question, of course. Out of all the possible variations in swing style, which is the one that works best for you. Obviously, there are many successful variations. And no matter which variation you use, there is some famous golfer who has made a success of it.

The only good way to answer that question, really, is to try each of the possibilities and find out what works. Most of them are described in the 17 books and 10 training guides that Ed has published over the years.

At first, it takes a lot of experimenting. When you're first learning, you don't have much control over the club head--or your own body, for that matter, so you can't just try something once--or even 20 times--and be sure that it works or doesn't.

A good teacher is an invaluable part of the process, because most of us aren't really aware of what we're doing. Our body may not be performing the required action, even when it feels like it is. Or we may be doing something else that is affecting the outcome, and be totally unaware of it. (Becoming aware of those things constitute the "mini enlightenments" that make lessons so rewarding--even when our own resistance to the process makes it painful!)

So a good teacher can help you determine when you really are doing a particular action. If the results with that action are good (on those rare occasions when it actually came out right), and it feels good, then you've found an action that is part of your personal swing style.

When you're beginning, of course, you're swings are pretty inconsistent. "All over the map" is probably more accurate. So a good teacher waits. Instead of prejudging that this or that is right for you, the teacher waits the days, weeks, and (all too often) months it takes for you to develop the control you need to create a consistent action. Then the teacher can help you identify the things that work for you. In the meantime, you're trying different things. In the process, you're gaining that control.

At that point, the many different drills you've been learning different techniques begin to reduce down to the drills you need to dial in your particular swing--the one that works for you, the one you'll "own" as you take it around the course.

Summary

The idea that there is "one standard swing" needs to die. There is no one swing that is right for all, any more than there is one shoe size, one way to wash the dishes (there are hundreds), or one way to drive a car.

There have always been attempts to define a standard swing. And they do work, for some percentage of the population. So you can pick up most any golf magazine and find comprehensive, authoritative articles that teach different, fundamentally conflicting elements of swing style--frequently in the same issue! The person who is trying hard to improve can wind up practicing things that don't work together and making fundamental changes to their swing style from article to article, and be completely unware of the discrepancies.

Standards change over time, too. A couple of decades ago, the swing was supposed to be all about the left hand. Ed's teaching ran against the grain, at the time. He was teaching right hand control for people with a dominant right hand. Now right hand control is all the rage--but it's still wrong for people with a dominant left hand.

The key to finding the right teacher is finding one who can teach you a swing that will work for you. In the end, a good teacher will help you develop an approach to the game that works for you, too. You might want a one-swing-for-all-occasions approach that keeps things simple, so you minimize practice time and maximize fun, and even win a few bets. Or you might want a multi-dimensional, different-swings-for-different-situations approach that takes longer to master, but which gives you an infinite variety of ways to tackle problems on the course.

Whichever approach you choose, I hope that you are fortunate enough to find a teacher who will help you develop your swing, and who will help you discover practice the Zen meditation--the walking meditation and the swing meditation--that you can experience and enjoy on a golf course.

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