The golf student
Most of us have been good students, whether the subject was biology, history, math or Shakespeare; we studied, did our homework, passed and learned a few bits of knowledge. If we took lessons for hobbies such as guitar, swimming, dance, piano or photography, we listened to the instructor, practiced, and improved.
Why then is golf on such a different planet when it comes to learning and improving?
Golf is one game where statistically, amateurs have not improved and I can add my own personal experience to back up those sad stats. At least 75% of golfers do not break 100 and improvement is marginal even following a series of lessons with good instructors.
What’s going on?
My experience as a former golf instructor and great guru at guessing is that, aside from the fact golf is a most difficult game, golf students are adversarial and stubborn. In no other areas of learning does one show up to a lesson only to turn it into a debate with his teacher.
“Are you sure I should stand like this? The Golf Channel said to do this. Jack Nicklaus said the arms should be pointing here and you’re telling me something different. Shouldn’t I be swinging on a two plane axis? I was watching Youtube…”
Now you know why I no longer teach. I can’t imagine a medical student at U of T debating with his teacher, “You know professor, Youtube showed where they didn’t remove the aortic valve, they plastered around it. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
I don’t recall a student in math class debating the teacher about whether four times four is really sixteen.
Stubbornness is another blockade to good learning for a skill as technically difficult as golf. Everyone knows that to lower your scores you need to be really proficient at shots from 100 yards in, yet nobody spends more than two minutes at a range practicing these shots. In over two thousand lessons, I can count on one hand the number of students who asked for chipping, pitching, putting or bunker lessons.
As kids we accepted learning the fundamentals in reading, writing, arithmetic, and then more sophisticated basics such as the table of elements, and do-re-me in music. No one dared try and play Beethoven until there was a comfort level playing scales. But in this game we want to hit the most difficult instrument, the driver, before we can make a gentle on-plane swing with a wedge.
I have observed that my female students improved three times better than the guys. Sorry men but women are just better students. They listen to the teacher intently and even take notes (and write neater). Then they go home and practice with due diligence just as their teacher told them to do. I fear that men allow their egos to get in the way of good learning, added to that ancient programming in their heads that says, “Club that animal over the head with your killer swing.” Why can’t women run the world instead? Ah Hilary you let us down!
There is another major distraction or loose impediment that obstructs proper golf learning and that is the ‘tip’ phenomena. In no other activity does advice (solicited or unsolicited) serve as such a required lifeline. Golf Digest just published its 10,000th tip on curing your slice…forever!
Following each poor shot, a golfer looks around as if to say, “what did I do wrong, anybody know?”
“Ya, you lifted up, your arm was bent, and you flipped your wrist.”
A list of tips is the subject of a book. The most humorous part of these tips is that they always come from those who know the least. “I can’t break 100 but I’m going to tell you what you’re problem is so listen to me or you’re an idiot!”
What if the world ran on tips?
“Uh captain, can I tell you how to properly land this plane? Your angle of attack is a bit shallow.”
“By the way Milos, I suck at tennis but even I know that if you tuck your elbow in a bit more on your backhand you’ll take Wimbledon.”
There is no obstacle to learning for the player who is self taught. Whether by feel, observation, intuition, or the reading of books, the self learner rejects teachers in order to figure it out for himself. But for every Bill Gates, the high school dropout who achieved greatness on his own, most will struggle to find a high paying career.
The Bubba Watson type who apparently never took a lesson is extremely rare. I’m just glad my lawyer, accountant, doctor, dentist, house builder, car mechanic and airline pilot were not self taught. Nor was that Julliard school of acting wizard Robin Williams (you thought he was just so brilliant he could do it all on his own).
Come to think of it, the only professionals I know who are self taught are politicians. Hmm, enough said.
I’m not saying one has to take golf lessons to enjoy the game. Love the game, the nature walk and the afternoon with your friends. Just accept the fact you will not achieve your potential without proper instruction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Golf is also unique in that it contains an anomaly. For example, a beginner can get up to the tee and make a hole in one. High handicap golfers often make shots that would fill a tour pro with envy; chip-ins, sinking 50 foot putts, sand shots hit to a foot. I’ve never seen a beginner guitar player accidentally play a full song.
Unfortunately these anomalies tempt us into thinking we’re not that far from greatness. “I think I’ve got it” is the phrase heard within every Sunday foursome. Then it becomes one tip or one YouTube viewing away from ‘getting the game’.
But if we’re smart, and we are, we instinctively know that learning doesn’t occur in this manner. It’s slow, methodical, and continually evolves through the years. And it means ‘hitting the books’. If we can accept that and apply it to this game, I think we’d finally begin to see greater improvement in scores.