INTERVIEW BY DAVID GOULD
When a highly skilled instructor begins working with a new student, particularly one who hasn’t taken golf lessons in a very long time—or never before—only the coach and the golfer know what transpires during their initial session.
But we’re pulling back the curtain to give readers a clear look at the first-lesson experience. And we’re going straight to the top of the profession to do so, interviewing three Golf Channel Academy (GCA) lead coaches who have won National Teacher of the Year awards from the PGA or LPGA—Mike Bender (2009, PGA; pictured above), Jane Frost (1994, LPGA) and Lynn Marriott (1992, LPGA). Here’s what you should come to expect from a lesson, as told by these three world-class coaches.
GCA: How should the student square their expectations with what actually happens? In other words, how will they know a successful first lesson when they see it?
Jane Frost: This may seem too obvious, but did you enjoy yourself? I tell students that some lessons will feel very challenging but often we’ll be making progress and having fun at the same time. Also, when the teacher wants you to make a certain move and they give you an image or a feeling to get the point across, was it effective? And if it wasn’t, did they move along quickly to another thought or analogy? A skilled teacher has a vast collection of these concepts, and one of them is going to click with you.
Lynn Marriott: Success on a first lesson usually means that we’ve made this whole proposition simpler. We’ve made it about golf, by going beyond the swing and by getting the golfer out to the course right away. New students figure out that we can very quickly help them enjoy the game a lot more. We had a 14-handicap gentleman come to one of our three-day programs recently. In the analysis we use, he was a high-handicapper in playing skills and a fairly low-handicapper in his physical technique. That first day, we played an 18-hole round in the afternoon and this gentleman made five birdies. He said, “I’m leaving now, thank you very much.”
Mike Bender: The new student is naturally going to ask: Can I relate well to this instructor? That’s what most students are evaluating. Does what he/she says make sense to them? Does it click? If you can answer yes, that indicates a positive first experience. Someone who has a first lesson with me will go away with specific exercises and drills, which they should feel confidence in. I want them to feel these will be good tools, and to understand why.
GCA: What do they need to do as a follow-up, so that they stay on a path of sustained improvement?
Lynn Marriott: Again, it’s about the individual golfer and what’s important to them. A lot of what we do as coaches is solve a particular problem and help people get out of their own way. At one point we took on a student who was extremely overweight and didn’t like to exercise. He had a big slice with a deep divot and at the same time, he played golf and he could get himself around the course at about a 16-handicap. We gave him a Fred Shoemaker exercise, the one where the person stands on an empty part of the range and throws golf clubs as far and as straight down the range as they can. We were trying to show him that his body was actually capable of producing quite a bit of power and remaining in balance throughout the athletic motion. In a fairly short amount of time he got down from a 16- to a 5-handicap. So, was this on a path of sustained improvement? He had a problem, it got solved, he was happy and off he went.
Mike Bender: The No. 1 question I get at the end of a first lesson is, “When should I come back?” The answer is: 1) It depends on how much you expect to practice; and 2) never longer than a month. Many of my longer-term students take 12 lessons a year from me—one each per month. Over time, they’re seeing progress, so they maintain their enthusiasm. At a certain point they will see the before-and-after video of their swing and usually as I put that up on the monitor I’m telling them, “You’re going to be shocked at the difference.” What’s great is that improvement opens the door for further improvement, if that’s what they want. We often compare our work to giving the student a road map of this long journey they can take, if they choose to. The map can take shape pretty quickly, and once it’s established they’ve got something they can rely on.
Jane Frost: At the end of any lesson, the coach should review what happened and what was accomplished and talk about what to do next, especially how that relates to the student’s goals. I’ve had students who were intimidated about playing with the Thursday night men’s group or the Wednesday ladies group, and after working with me they got over that and now they have a great time with that group. Sometimes that’s enough. It partly comes down to giving yourself permission to perform better on the golf course. That may sound strange, but you’d be surprised. It’s a breakthrough I’ve seen many times.