Why can’t people learn how to play golf?

Why Is It So Hard To Learn To Play Golf? Why Do Most Golfers Never Improve, Despite Taking Lessons Or Reading Golf Publications?

Despite huge improvements over the last 40 years in golf balls, golf clubs, and golf-course conditioning, and despite a tidal wave of golf instruction, there is abundant statistical evidence that the average golf score of the average golfer has not improved at all during that time, and there is also plenty of evidence that people are reluctant to take up the game (or to stay with it) because it just seems to be too darn hard to learn it and play it.

Here is one possible explanation, delivered from the perspective of a retired lawyer who finally has ample time to play and practice his golf (and still maintains a USGA 6.5 Index despite most of his fast-twitch muscles having become leisurely-twitch muscles).  In the view of this recreational, non-expert golfer, the lion’s share of the fault lies with instructors who do a poor job of instructing.

Here are some examples of the kinds of unproductive “swing tips” that are offered by today’s golf instructors:

  • Try to emulate the smooth, languorous tempo of Ernie Els, the glorious finish-position of Rory McElroy, etc.   Good luck with that one.  The odds on your average human being accomplishing that are roughly the same as the odds that Tulsa, Oklahoma will be struck by a tsunami.
  • Avoid laying-off the club-shaft at the end of the backswing.  (Or other similar advice regarding positions you should be in, at some point or another during the golf swing.)  Short of having a competent teaching pro (armed with a full array of video equipment) on your payroll and with you at all times, how is a normal human supposed to know where his club-shaft actually is, at any point during his swing?  What does it feel like?  What, exactly,  do you have to do in order to achieve the preferred positions?
  • Lead with your hands at impact – again, how are you supposed to accomplish that, if it does not happen naturally for you?  How are you supposed to know whether you actually did lead with your hands?  If you didn’t, how do you change your swing so that you do?
  • Create maximum club-shaft lag during the downswing.  Rotate your body during the downswing so that your hips are already facing halfway forward by the time the clubhead impacts the ball.  Etc., etc.  In this writer’s view, anyone who claims to have any control over what his body or his golf club is doing during the course of his downswing, is deluding himself;  I know for certain that once I pull the trigger and start down at the ball, I have no more control over what happens next, than I have over what my wife does with her credit card.
  • Make sure you are in perfect physical condition – for example, do 100 pushups and situps every morning (like Gary Player), master the one-handed pushup, and learn to take a complete golf swing while balancing on a rubber physio ball (like Dustin Johnson on a recent cover of a leading golf magazine).  To all those people who preach this type of preparation for golf, and who believe that there is no swing-flaw that cannot be cured in a gym, I have a 2-word answer:  Mark  Calcavecchia.   For that matter, I would also refer them to other such fitness icons as Colin Montgomery, the Stadler family, Raymond Floyd, Ed  (Porky) Oliver, and the legendary hustler Martin (Fat Man) Stanovich.   In fact, I should probably also mention David Duval, who lost his golf game when he went from pleasingly plump to an ersatz Tiger Woods  and who, just coincidentally, has started to get it back now that he again appears to be fat and happy.
  • Miscellaneous other  tips from the experts :  (i) bring right forearm almost parallel to spine at start of downswing (Note:  “almost,”  not entirely!); (ii)  hide the left shoulder – make sure your right shoulder is closer to the target than your left as you pass through impact; (iii) make sure the hips reach the ball first, then the hands, then the clubhead; (iv) plant your left heel, in order to initiate the downswing, like Jack Nicklaus does it.  (That last piece of advice  might have been more useful during the prime of Mr. Nicklaus, who was the last living human being to lift his left heel way off the ground during the backswing and get away with it, but for the modern golfer who does not, this leaves him with no way to start the downswing.)

In the more general category, the writer has observed that teaching pros tend to fall into one or the other of these two categories:  (i) Instructors who want all their students to swing the way the instructor does (or thinks he does) and who make essentially the same one-size-fits-all recommendations to everyone; and (ii) instructors who want to help each student identify, and work from, the student’s very own, instinctive, natural golf swing.   Instructors who fall within the first category (which is by far the more populous) are easily identified by one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Drills, excessive use of. . .  The main point of most drills seems to be, to break you of a bad habit.  Within reasonable limits, these can occasionally be  helpful, but category-one instructors appear to believe that every golfer can learn to perform a successful imitation of a PGA Tour swing by mastering a dozen or so drills that address different parts of the perfect, prototypical swing.  (Don’t miss the Haney Project with Charles Barkley, in which Barkley is ordered to hit hundreds of balls in rapid succession, each of such balls having been pre-planted on a tee in neat rows and columns.)  These instructors believe this regardless of the extent to which the drill-positions feel unnatural and unattainable to the golfer.  Watch especially for instructors who assign the same drills to all customers regardless of age, size, skill level, swing flaws, etc.
  • “Watch me (the instructor) swing, then do it the way I do.”  Whenever I see a pro actually take a full swing at a real ball during a lesson, I know the only person who will be getting anything out of the lesson is the instructor, who is at least getting to have some fun.
  • Lots of talking about the nature of the golf swing.  Unless the player has literally never hit a golf ball before in his or her life, the nature of the swing is not the point at all; the point is, What must the player change, in order to hit the ball farther and straighter?
  • For that matter, lots of talking about anything, other than specific recommendations for the customer to follow with regard to static elements like posture, alignment, ball position, grip, etc., and specific things to do differently during the swing.  If the teacher can get the customer to hit the ball farther and straighter, further communication is superfluous – if the player wants to know the Why of anything, he will certainly ask.  Relationship-building results from success, not from lectures about the theory of the golf swing.
  • Addressing swing flaws by describing to the customer the specific result to be achieved (for example, a takeaway that does not pull the clubshaft inside the swingplane established by the address position).   Many of us know (or can be told) what a good golf swing is supposed to look like, but, try as we might, most of us cannot simply will our bodies into the textbook  positions during the swing.  The art of the superior instructor is to suggest the little things that are fully within the conscious control of the player, but that will enable the player to get into some workable approximation of the correct positions.   Often it may just be changes to the setup (grip, stance, posture, etc.), but sometimes it takes a visual or verbal image that enables the particular player to make the correction, and sometimes it takes grabbing some part of the player’s body, or the golf club, and physically placing it where it should be, so that the player has a trigger or an actual physical sensation to guide him or her.

Markers for the second category are, in many ways, the polar opposites of the markers of the inferior instructor.  The superior instructor succeeds on two different levels:  (i) he does not try to give the player an orthodox, technically “correct” golf swing, but instead identifies the golfer’s natural, instinctive swing, and tries to install only  the bare minimum package of alterations that will enable the golfer to hit relatively straight shots that go as far as the golfer’s talents potentially permit; and (ii) he tries to limit his corrections to those that the golfer has the best chance of being able to utilize under live fire, away from the range and the watchful eye of the instructor.  In other words, the good instructor tries to work with the player’s instincts and tendencies, because any swing, however “perfect,” that strays too far from the player’s natural swing, cannot be maintained without constant feedback and fine-tuning from the instructor.   The history of golf is loaded with examples of what happens when a golfer, at even the highest levels of skills and competition, strays too far from his natural swing in an effort to achieve a perfect swing.

Conclusion:  At the highest competitive levels of professional golf, there have been phenomenal improvements in the skills and performance-levels attainable by our most gifted players.  At most other levels, we have failed to achieve much at all, other than a generation of golfers who can occasionally hit their driver 250 yards (or much longer) but who can hardly keep the ball in-bounds and who still cannot improve their scores even a little bit, despite the improvements  in equipment and the proliferation of instructional resources.

One thought on “Why can’t people learn how to play golf?

  1. an insightful overview of how the game of golf is being taught today. your ideal teaching process is clearly the most productive if you can find an instructor who can leave his ego in the clubhouse. just finished a round with a group of seniors. Recalculated the loss to closer to 2 standard deviations

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