My Quest for Excellence… and What you Can Learn From It
When I started playing golf, at the age of 12, I dreamed of playing professionally. Jack Nicklaus was still dominating the majors, Johnny Miller was at the height of his powers, and Arnold Palmer was still contending for titles. I thought it would be great to join them.
There was just one little problem – I really wasn’t very good at the game. Although I was a decent Little League baseball player and fairly competent in football and basketball, golf was a different animal. I played nine holes every day (our course was only nine holes and didn’t have a driving range at the time), eventually averaging in the upper 40’s by summer’s end. This might sound good, but what is now the front nine at Fountain Head Golf Course (now called Plymouth Rock) in Plymouth, Indiana, might be the easiest nine of at least 3,000 yards in the whole country.
As I progressed into high school, the game still came very hard for me. I remember shooting 102 in a junior varsity match as a sophomore. My junior year saw me make somewhat of a breakthrough, as I worked my way to number one on the varsity squad. Again, this might sound good, but what happened was the players from the senior-dominated squad the previous year graduated, leaving me the best of the rest. I think I averaged around 86 for 18 holes, while no one else on our team averaged under 90. My senior year showed some more improvement, getting my scoring average down to 83.
For some reason, Dr. Richard Park, the golf coach at Franklin College in Indiana, wanted me for his NAIA squad, so that is where I matriculated in 1980. As a side note, Dr. Park only recently retired as the coach after the 2010 season. I guess he needed 25 more seasons to erase the memory of my hapless career there, because I never once averaged under 80 for any individual season at Franklin.
Since professional golfers who can’t break 80 aren’t in high demand, I went to work as a computer programmer and bill collector for a finance company in Michigan. Nevertheless, my schedule did permit me to play golf and work on my game on the weekends and after work. Mainly, this consisted of warming up before the round and then playing 9 or 18 holes.
Two years of the finance company was enough for me, so I left, but without any job prospects. By this time, I was down to a legitimate 2 handicap, and a friend of mine was teaching at a golf school. He thought I would be a good teacher, so he arranged an interview with the school owner. I demonstrated that I knew enough to teach beginners, so I was hired and I followed my girlfriend (now my wife), who already had an airline job in Tallahassee, to Florida.
I learned a lot from the more experienced instructors, and got to play after class with them. Over the next couple of years, my handicap went down to zero. By this time, I was directing a golf school in Palm Coast, Florida, and had plenty of down time after class.
During this entire process, from graduating college to my days at Palm Coast, I want to stress that I rarely hit more than 50-75 full shots a day for practice and really didn’t work on my short game all that much. This is not to say that hitting hundreds of balls a day, like we hear about some players, isn’t beneficial. Perhaps I would have been an even better player had I been more diligent about practice. But, I did get onto the course almost every day (no, my wife not only didn’t mind, she encouraged it – hopefully not just to get me out of the house), and found that very helpful in my development as a player.
During this time in Palm Coast, in 1992, I began the process of refining my swing mechanics. I had always been somewhat overactive in my legs during transition, so I set about correcting the problem. It took a year before I felt comfortable with the changes. The following year, with the help of my good friend Dr. Gregg Steinberg (who is also the USGTF sport psychology consultant), I began to improve my mental game, gaining confidence and banishing the negative thoughts that were pervading my game at the time.
Also, with Gregg’s encouragement, in 1995 I started to compete more often on the Emerald Coast Golf Tour, a mini-tour in the Florida panhandle. I had been playing on this tour for a few years, maybe 2-3 tournaments a year, without much success. Soon, I started cashing checks with regularity, and did so through the 1996 season, winning a big mini-tour event later that year against some good competition, including three players who were home that week from the Nationwide (then Nike) Tour. At my best, my handicap was a +4.
Overall, I’ve won 13 professional events, including five US Golf Teachers Cups and two World Golf Teachers Cups. While I don’t play as well today as I once did, I still remember the lessons I learned in striving to be the best I could be.
You might be teaching someone who has aspirations of playing to a high level, such as Division I college golf or even professionally. Here are some things I learned about truly becoming a good player, and some things I wished I had done differently:
Consistency in effort is important. I do not believe it is absolutely necessary to hit hundreds of balls a day, as some believe. As I pointed out earlier, I averaged maybe between 50-75 full practice shots a day, and rarely hit over 100. Now, it can be argued that I might have been a better player with more practice, and that, of course, is now a moot point. But what I did do was immerse myself in the game perhaps 5-6 days a week consistently, mainly by playing.
You better be good, real good, from tee to green. In past issues of Golf Teaching Pro, I am well on record as saying the importance of the short game is exaggerated by some teachers. Please note that I have never said that the short game is unimportant – it is. But some people seem to think you can slap it around all over the golf course and save yourself simply with a great short game. Sorry, this won’t happen, at least not on a consistent basis. If you go to a tour event, you will see how solid the guys are with their ballstriking, even those considered “poor” ballstrikers by tour standards.
You better be good, real good, around and on the greens. See! I do recognize that the short game is important. Just as you can’t consistently save yourself with your short game if you are a poor ballstriker, you can’t score if you can’t get up and down or make birdie putts. It does a professional no good to hit 14 greens in regulation, go 0-for-4 in getting up and down and take three 3-putts with just one birdie thrown in. That’s a score of +6 if you’re keeping track – and a sure way for a playing pro to have to find another career.
It’s not necessary to practice your strengths all the time. You hear how a prospective competitive player should practice X-amount of time on the short game. A former mini-tour rival named Boo Weekley (you might have heard of him) said I had a great short game, and I rarely practiced it. I guess it was just a gift I had. Since I always found the long game to be very difficult, I spent a lot of my practice time on this area. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to work on my short game if it was a little off.
Practice competitions help…and don’t help. Many teachers like to encourage their students to make their practice competitive, such as having a putting or chipping contest with a friend. This is no doubt extremely valuable for many players. I, on the other hand, was and remain a terrible practice contest competitor. Why this is, I don’t know, but if you want to make a few extra bucks, just engage me in a contest the next time you see me.
Find a coach, a good coach, and stick with him or her. I don’t necessarily mean someone who will break down the X’s and O’s of the swing to the minutest degree. A player looking to achieve excellence does need someone trustworthy to bounce ideas and concepts around with, and someone who truly knows their game. At my best, I relied mainly on myself, but I now wish I would have consulted more with our fine USGTF staff on certain matters.
Confidence is everything to a competitive player. When I started my professional competitive career, I hoped that I would get into the money. I almost never did. When I did start to have some success, I expected to not only get into the money, but contend. It made all the difference in the world. In large part, I have to thank my friend Dr. Steinberg for this, but he also made it clear that I played no small part in turning my mental game around, as it’s always the player’s responsibility. I think Gregg possesses one of the finest sport psychology minds in the game today. If you want to take your mental game, or that of your students’, to the next level, you can do worse than consult with him. You can always reach him at MentalRules24@msn.com.