Byron Nelson on Teaching Golf
This article first appeared in the Spring 1996 edition of Golf Teaching Pro, and is another in a series of looking back through the magazine archives. This interview with Byron Nelson was compiled by USGTF contributing writer Russ Pate and has never appeared in any other publication except for Golf Teaching Pro. The article is Nelson’s first person account on his thoughts on teaching golf.
By the time I got my first pro job in Texarkana, I had learned how to play really well, but I hadn’t done any teaching at all except for myself. After I was hired, I began to think, “Oh boy, if someone comes out and wants a lesson, I’ll have to give it.”
I was a little nervous about the prospect, but I just studied what I learned myself and the procedures I had gone through in learning to play well. I decided it was working pretty well for me, so I figured I could teach it. I’ve never felt I had much imagination, but what I did have came out when I played golf, and I felt I could use that in my teaching.
Sure enough, my first pupil, Mrs. Josh Morris, came along shortly after I started at Texarkana. Having studied how I had learned, and realizing I was only able to learn one thing at a time, I realized I had to do the same thing with Mrs. Morris – try to teach one thing at a time. This was necessary, because in golf, whenever you make a change, it doesn’t feel natural at first because your subconscious only knows what it’s been doing – it takes a while for any outside changes to sink in.
So, you work on one thing first and get to where it feels normal and natural to do, and then you don’t have to think about it at all. The only trouble with that when teaching yourself, you need to be very good at understanding what your biggest problem is. Then you work that problem and after you correct it, you go on to the next area. But, this isn’t easy for someone who doesn’t understand what their problems are, or how to rank them. That’s why teachers are necessary for most people trying to learn to play golf.
I was never a believer in taking a lot of lessons at once. It works best to take two or three lessons until you get an idea on what the teacher is saying, then go out and practice and play a little on your own for a couple of weeks. Then, take another lesson, practice and play a little, and so on. Learning golf efficiently is really a slow process, a little like recovering from an operation. You don’t all of a sudden begin walking or running, you have to take one step at a time. It’s the same way in golf.
Using these two main thoughts – teaching one thing at a time and not giving too many lessons at once – I basically had good results with the people I taught. And, most important, I didn’t confuse them.
One interesting thing I discovered about teaching was that sometimes when you’re on the practice range, people are so intent on hitting the ball itself that they’re not paying enough attention to what you’re saying about the mechanics of the swing.
For example, there was Zoe Tasker at Inverness. Her husband Eddie and I played together quite a lot, and Zoe was a pretty good player herself. She scored in the 90’s most of the time and that was good, because at that time ladies didn’t get much break off the tees at Inverness. The trouble was, Zoe had a very good swing and should have scored much better, but she was pitiful out of a bunker. She got in them a lot and didn’t get out the first time hardly ever.
I worked with her in the practice bunker at least three times and had not made the progress I wanted to, and she wasn’t happy with it, either. I got to thinking about it, and one day, after she had finished playing Ladies’ Day, I said, “How did you do, Mrs. Tasker?” She said, “I played pretty well, Byron, but if I could have gotten out of the bunkers, I could really have had a good score.” I replied, “Well, I’ve got an idea about that. When you get through having lunch with the ladies, I want to meet you in the mixed grill and talk to you about it.” She agreed, sent a message over when she was ready, and I went and had a Coke with her.
“I want to give you a lesson sitting right here,” I said, and that’s exactly what I did. She listened while I told her everything I’d told her when we’d practiced in the bunker. She asked a lot of questions and we spent about an hour on that “lesson.” The next time she played, she shot an 88 and she never had any more trouble getting out of bunkers.
Some of the best lessons I ever gave were like that, teaching someone without a ball in front of them or a club in their hands. Very often, especially on a cold or rainy day, I’d use the mirror in my pro shop. I feel it worked better even than the videotapes they use so much today, because the student is thinking about what they’re doing, rather than about hitting a ball.
Then, there was Izzy Danforth, who used to be married to Ted Danforth, the son of my wonderful friend Bill Danforth, one of the founding members of Augusta National. Bill lived in Hyannisport, and his children went to school with the Kennedys. One time in the late 1950s, I was up visiting Bill and we went out to play golf at Oyster Harbour with Ted and Izzy. Izzy had a pretty good golf swing, but like Zoe Tasker, she was also poor out of the sand. I watched her whole round – I’d seen her play before but had never played with her. Like Zoe, she, too, should have been in the 80s but she wasn’t because of her sand play.
Now, the whole time we’d played, the weather was getting gloomier and gloomier, and by the time we finished the 18th hole, it looked like it was going to pour. But, I had eight balls in my bag, and I said, “Izzy, come over here and get in this bunker. You’ve got a good swing, but you need to learn how to play out of the sand.”
I could tell she didn’t want to do it, and then just as we got down in there, it started raining. Now, Izzy really wanted to quit, but I told her, “I don’t care how wet you get, you’re going to learn to play out of this bunker or drown!” That got her attention, so she really listened to me. We stayed in that bunker about a half-hour, got soaking wet, and the next year she won the club championship.
That kind of teaching, where a student learns how to do one simple thing well enough so that they can really enjoy the game, is very satisfying to me. One more example is my good friend Ed Haggar, who loves to play, but has often had trouble with his short chips, 10 to 20 feet off the green, which is where a lot of the scoring is done in golf. He’d flub it or top it quite often, and the reason was he didn’t move his feet at all. He used only his wrists and hands and just chopped at the ball. I worked with him every time I’d play with him, and after awhile, he began to chip rather well. Some time afterwards, I saw him playing at Dallas Country Club, and he hollered across the course to me, “Hey, Byron, I just chipped one in!” It always makes you feel good when you can help a friend that way.
The teaching pros who stand out in my mind all have different personalities and somewhat different teaching methods, but they also have one thing in common – they like to help people. To me, that’s very necessary if you want to be a good teacher. You must be patient also, because if you’re not, your students will feel it and that will be harmful both to their game and your ability to teach.
And again, you must not try to teach too many things at once. Concentrate on one problem at a time, and let the student work with that for awhile before you move on to something else. I’m sure most good teachers understand the fundamentals of the game pretty much the same way, but the way they teach may sound different. That’s why golfers sometimes have to go to two or three different pros to fi nd one they can understand and relate to. Even the touring pros today sometimes go to several teachers to fi nd one who can really help them.
Many of the pros in my time were reluctant to teach a lot, because they were afraid the bad habits of their pupils might affect their own golf swing. That didn’t affect me much, fortunately, and I think it was because I didn’t try to teach anyone to swing the way I did – because golf is such an individual game. I simply taught what the right fundamentals were, and those are the same for everyone.
That really is a basic part of my teaching philosophy, that the golf swing is as different as your own personality. If you try to change someone’s natural rhythm, you won’t be very successful. You have to try and see what potential a person has in his or her swing. For instance, after I’d worked with Tom Watson, some people would tell me I needed to get him to slow down his swing. Well, Tom moves quickly, thinks quickly, does everything with a certain amount of quick energy. To try and change his swing speed would mean trying to change something very fundamental about his whole personality, and that just doesn’t work.
As for changing an amateur’s swing, it’s really kind of the same idea. You have to work with their own natural rhythm, their own build, and so on. Unless someone has a lot of time and money and is willing to work really hard, totally rebuilding the swing is just not very productive.
People sometimes ask me – and I sometimes wonder myself – why today’s touring pros can’t seem to correct their own swing faults. In my mind, it’s because so few of them have learned how to swing on their own. They’ve been taught by others from the time they were junior golfers, with rare exceptions. When you teach yourself something, you understand it better and remember it better than if someone else teaches you. Even when I was on the tour, though, there wasn’t much teaching done between the pros themselves as there is today. Unless you were to ask someone for help, they really pretty much let you alone. That might have been because there was so little money out there and the competition for it was pretty fierce at times, but I think it was mostly that the boys were more self-taught, more independent.
I’ve seen a lot of the gimmicks and gadgets on the market now, and I have to say I don’t really believe in them much. If you understand the basics of the swing thoroughly, you won’t have much trouble with your swing, ever. But, one thing I would have liked to have had when I was teaching is the video camera they have now. It really can be so helpful to see your own swing on film, so you can really be aware of what you need to change exactly. Sometimes it’s such a small thing that needs to change, but until you see it yourself on fi lm or in a photo, you aren’t convinced that’s even what you’re doing.
Some people rely too much on what someone tells them to improve their swing or their ability to score. You do need some help sometimes to expedite the process, but rather than running to a teacher every time you have a bad game, you need to analyze the situation yourself first. Decide where the problem is – your driver, long irons, fairways woods, chipping, putting – and work to correct it with what you already know. It’s really best to go to a pro when you decide you really want to improve your overall game and you’re ready to commit the resources it will take to do that. Now, if you all of a sudden start slicing everything, that’s one thing, but your pro has already given you the keys to correcting that, and you just have to go back to the fundamentals.
When you make the decision to take your game to the next level, be sure you’re ready to listen. I’ve had more than my share of pupils who would take lessons, but would just keep doing things their own way. That’s a waste of everyone’s time. Sometimes, you may have to search for a pro who speaks your own language, but when you find one, you’ll be pleased with the results.
I guess my final thought on teaching golf is that professionals need to impart a solid, basic understanding of the swing – the first, middle, and last. When they do that, and do it well, their students will improve steadily, be able to correct temporary problems on their own, be enthused about learning more, and, most important, they’ll enjoy the game as it’s meant to be enjoyed. You can’t ask for more than that.