Why is Golf Similar to Classical Music?

Where we are

Like classical music, golf is both a profession that engages an elite level of performers whose skills – and whose number – are generally far greater than those of previous generations of performers, and a pastime for non-elite players whose skills that are not even remotely comparable to those of the elite performers.  Classical music, despite the fanatical devotion of its recreational players, is today essentially a lost art in terms of popular appeal; major symphony orchestras, for example, are dwindling in number and are generally in a desperate struggle for financial survival.  Golf, while still financially viable as a professional sport, is no longer in growth mode at the level of either private clubs or public courses, and there are those who predict that its future might not be that much different from that of classical music – especially if the current recession continues.

For all but the supremely gifted, it is very hard to learn to play the violin.  For the less-gifted,  it is also very hard to learn to hit a 5-iron.  Most children who attempt to play the violin, give it up almost immediately; only a very few are initially able to produce a result that bears a sufficient resemblance to a musical sound that the child is tempted to continue.  In golf, a similar pattern is at work.  Most human beings, as they progress through childhood and young adulthood, acquire more patience and discipline along the way, and thus most of us would seem to become more-adaptable students as we age.  Unfortunately, as we age we also tend to lose the benefits of our unexploited gifts and talents, so the net result may be that the aging process is a zero-sum game: the older one is when one attempts to learn to play the violin or strike a 5-iron, the easier it becomes, mentally, but the harder it becomes, physically.  Result:  unless you are naturally gifted and take up the activity at a fairly young age, you are unlikely to become proficient with either a violin or a golf club.

In the case of classical music, the markets have spoken, and the genre (to our nation’s detriment and this writer’s sorrow) has been allowed to sink into a permanent state of cultural irrelevancy.  In the case of golf, there may be time for a turnaround, but how is it to happen, when statistics show that new golfers are no longer outnumbering people who are giving up the game or declining to take it up, and that the most commonly cited reason, other than matters of cost of play or the time involved, is that the game is just too hard?  Could the game somehow be taught in such a way that an ordinary person, whether age 10 or age 30, might stand at least a reasonable chance of becoming good enough, quickly enough, to become a lifelong customer for the golf industry rather than just another piece of statistical evidence that golf, like classical music, is soon to become no more than an amusing relic of another age?

To state the obvious:  it is no big deal to turn a gifted child into an accomplished performer.  Yes, Tiger had Earl (and a succession of fine professional instructors) from very early childhood, and Nicklaus had Jack Grout, etc.,  but it is common knowledge that virtually every person who has ever made a living playing tournament golf has done so with essentially the same golf swing that he or she had from the very first few swings taken, at a fairly early age.  The obvious exception is Larry Nelson, who took up golf in his early 20s (but was a scratch player within a year after taking his first practice swing), but we now know, from innumerable public statements by touring pros, that in golf, “the child is father to the man” – whether in the case of gorgeous swings like Rory McIlroy’s (check out the pictures of little Rory at age 6) or the eccentric ones (like Fred Couples, with his 2-piece backswing, or Jim Furyk, with his 12-piece backswing).  For the gifted child, golf instruction is a process of polishing the diamond, not cutting it.

So, what do we do about the millions of potential golf-lovers who have few natural gifts for golf – or who are well past the ages at which their limited gifts might have been more easily expoited?  Short answer:   better instruction, based more specifically upon the students’ non-gifted status and their uniquely individual characteristics.

Where We Need To Be

Let’s begin with what is wrong with the way golf is taught today – whether the source of instruction is direct one-on-one golf lessons from a teaching pro, group sessions or clinics, golf magazines or books, instructional shows on TV, “lessons from the pros” on TV, whatever.  Here are some of the obvious flaws in the instructions generally offered today.

  • Most instructors fail with most of their students, and they do so primarily because their fundamental teaching concept is, in effect, “here is how I do it – do it the way I do it.”  First problem: how they do it is almost certainly different from  how the student should do it, mainly because the student lacks the innate gifts of the instructor, and whatever gifts the student has are different from those of the instructor.  Second problem:  there is a good chance the instructor does not actually know how he does it – a’ la the infamous conflicts between what Ben Hogan thought he did (as he wrote about it in his books) and what it turned out (from later-discovered motion pictures of his swing) he actually did.  Third problem:  the student probably has no clue as to how to perform a successful imitation of what the instructor just did, even if he was talented enough to discern it from watching the instructor.  Telltale signs  to watch for:  whenever you see an instructor taking a complete swing (or actually hitting a shot) during a lesson, go home – the instructor is demonstrating that he actually does not know how to fix your swing.  Everyone knows pretty much what a good swing looks like, and if they don’t, all they need to do is watch a tournament on TV or spend maybe 2% of the price of a golf lesson and buy a golf magazine.  What the student does not know, and desperately needs to know, is, What do I need to do to my own instinctive swing in order to make it more effective (or at least to make it look more like the instructor’s)?  Should I alter my grip, or my set-up?  Should I consciously try to supinate my right hand during the backswing?  What do I look at during the backswing – do I peer at the club and try to keep the shaft on any particular plane?  Do I try to rotate my torso, my shoulders?  Do I think of lifting my arms over my right shoulder during the backswing?  Would you, dear instructor, be kind enough to manipulate my club and my body-parts into the various positions where they belong during what you would consider to be my ideal golf swing, so that I at least could know where I should be trying to put them?
  •   Most instructors assume that their student is as physically gifted as the instructor and that the student should therefore be able to make his or her body do whatever the instructor’s body can do.  (Or, in the case of a certain subculture of the teaching profession, they assume that all deficiencies in the student’s ability to achieve the model positions represent failures of physical conditioning and can therefore be totally corrected in the gym – in essence, they are in the body-building profession.)   Or, in the alternative, such instructors watch the student make a laughable attempt at a golf swing and infer that the student is hopeless, and so they make no real effort to unlock the secrets of the student’s individualistic strengths and limitations – they do not try to tailor an effective swing that, however homely it might be, would be one that the student could more easily execute and repeat.
  • These instructors fail to recognize that each student reacts differently to the same set of instructions – that there is no point to trying to get each student to achieve an orthodox modern golf swing and in trying to do so by providing a basic set of ideas and tools and drills with which to get to that idea.  They do not understand, or do not have the patience to accept and work with, the fact that no two golfers in the world present the same set of problems.  Golf clinics and group lessons generally fail, for precisely that reason, when they try to teach the entire group the same swing and  do not make adequate time for individual attention and instruction; for students who are not young and gifted, the molding of an effective golf swing is an extraordinarily individualistic enterprise, and there is no single swing thought or swing principle or swing fundamental that has universal application and utility.

The overarching point is that, while only a tiny fraction of the general population is ever going to be able to become single-digit-handicap golfers, there are potentially millions of people who could learn to become good enough to want to play a lot of golf on a regular basis.  The secret to making golf more popular is not making the hole bigger, or the courses shorter or easier, or the scoring system more entertaining, nor is it a matter of trying to blur the distinctions between a round of golf and a night at a sports bar.  The secret is to enable golfers and would-be golfers to develop a better golf swing, so that the real pleasures of the game are more easily attainable.  In short, don’t try to drag the game down, try to lift the golfers up!

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