A Panoramic View of Teaching

by Brian Dobak
August 30, 2010

This is an article about teaching and it's importance in our career. It's aim is to put teaching into perspective from a historical standpoint, as well as the standpoint of today and how it relates to everything else we do as assistant golf professionals.

First, allow me to begin by tying a few things together. Merchandising and tournament operations can be quickly learned by someone that is relatively unfamiliar with these areas. Both of these aspects of a golf operation are very step-by-step, procedure-based processes. I believe this because I know of clubs that have step-by-step, procedure-based checklists on “How to run an MGA event” or “How to run a Seniors event” or “How to run a Ladies Golf Association event” or “How to run a group outing”. By following these procedures, any new apprentice assigned to one of these groups will be able to run a successful event right away with little training. Will a few questions arise? Of course, but the process is spelled out and ready to be executed by someone new. Even someone who isn’t a golf professional could merchandise a golf shop or run a tournament with some success.

There are clubs that have a step-by-step, procedure-based document on how to successfully order product (special orders and pre-books) as well as enter inventory into the system, get it out onto the floor, when to rotate merchandise, when to change out mannequins, and how to dress mannequins. If the individual that was largely responsible for the retail component had a day off or was away on vacation, someone else could step in and almost seamlessly do the job and do it well.

There are clubs where the administrative aspects of tournament operations and even some of the tournament day logistics are run by paid tournament coordinators that are not golf professionals. One of them I personally know and she actually has a catering and event planning background. To her acknowledgment, she did the job very well. There are also clubs where the retail component is such a major source of revenue and service that the back-of-house administrative aspects (open to buy, selection, and purchasing) are run by retail professionals that are not golf professionals.

This brings us to teaching. It is nearly impossible to write a step-by-step, procedure-based document on how to teach the game. Can you offer best practices on how to give an effective lesson? Probably, but every swing and lesson is different and they all require different approaches to varying learning styles. Someone who is not sufficiently educated in the game and the business will not be able to teach the game with much success. That’s what makes us as golf professionals so important to the game. Teaching is ours.

Now let’s combine teaching with playing. The two are one-in-the-same for us. To play the game, it must be learned and/or taught to you (even in the smallest of degrees). To teach the game and be credible as an instructor, you have to play the game and you have to play it at a higher level. Although there are many amateurs who play better than golf professionals, the path amateurs take doesn’t hinge on their ability to play. As golf professionals, our path does to a large extent hinge on our ability to play. You may have even missed out on a job opportunity because you couldn't quite play as well as desired by those evaluating you during the "playing interview". Teaching can and will never be relegated to individuals other than golf professionals. Teaching and playing well will always be requirements of us that can potentially dictate our path as golf professionals.

Teaching and playing will always be embedded in an amateurs psyche as the basis of what golf professionals should be excellent at. When asked what I do and I tell them I am a golf professional, 100% of the time they say, “Oh! So you teach?!” I’ll confirm their assumption and then they will almost always say, “So I’ll bet you play a lot of golf to, you must be really good!” My answer to that usually is, “It depends” while accompanied by a laugh.

Everything (Merchandising, tournament operations, leadership, management, etc.) is very important these days, but above all else, amateurs (members/guests) want a golf professional that can teach and play the game well and know how to create and sustain excellent golfer development programs. Merchandising and tournament operations can be figured out by anyone, but teaching does not come easily, if at all, to everyone. As a golf professional, you certainly don’t have to be a major champion, those days are just about gone. But if you look at the hiring background of some of the top clubs in the country, you’ll see that they have historically hired great players who could also teach the game. Among many others from an earlier generation, you have Claude Harmon Jr. at Winged Foot, Jack Lumpkin at Oak Hill CC, Davis Love Jr. at Charlotte CC and Atlanta CC, Rudolph "Hubby" Habjan at Onwentsia Club, and Bob Ross at Baltusrol GC. Now you have a newer generation including, among many others, Mike Harmon at Secession GC, Rick Rhoads at San Francisco GC, Brendan Walsh at The Country Club, Bob Ford at Oakmont CC, Doug Steffen at Baltusrol GC, Charley Raudenbush at Pine Valley, Bob Dolan at Columbia CC, Bruce Carson at Onwentsia Club, and Craig Harmon at Oak Hill CC.

This natural desire for amateurs goes all the way back to when golf came to America in the late 1800’s. Clubs hired and paid a nice salary to the champion golfers of the day – George Low Sr. at Baltusrol from the 1900’s to the 1920’s, Willie Anderson at The Philadelphia Cricket Club in the 1910’s, Jim Barnes at Whitemarsh Valley CC in the 1910’s and The Broadmoor in the 1920’s, Walter Hagen at Oak Hill in the 1920’s, Gene Sarazen at Titusville CC and Highland CC in the 1920’s, Gil Nicholls at Seminole GC in the 1930’s, Byron Nelson at Inverness in the 1940’s, and Alec Ross at Detroit GC from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. I could go on if you wanted me to.

Many successful tour professionals started off as assistant golf professionals – Horace Rawlins at Newport GC, George Izett at Merion, Sam Snead at The Homestead, Byron Nelson at Ridgewood CC. When you really take the time to look deeper into the history and long standing traditions of the game, being a part of the business is something to be proud of. But that was the way it was back then. When the game was just a game and it wasn’t quite a business yet, that is where clubs found there help. They went to the thoroughbred players of the day, not only because of their fame and their ability to play, but because they seemingly understood the swing like no other amateur did and they could teach it.

Nowadays, there is too much money to be had as a tour professional to let your talent go untested. So you likely won’t see Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, or Jim Furyk as club professionals any time soon. However credit must go to the Walsh’s, the Fords, the Dolan’s, the Steffen’s, and the Carson’s of the golf business because they can play at a high level and teach well and they probably are where they are because of it. It is arguable that they may have not been able to get those dream jobs if they they didn't have a few teaching stripes and couldn’t play the game well to..

Although other aspects of a golf operation have grown in stature, this ideology of teaching and playing well really hasn’t changed much. If you are going to stretch yourself and be as successful as you possibly can be and strive to one day have one of those dream jobs let alone any HP job, you would be well served by polishing your teaching skills and maintaining a solid game of golf. Do you have to be capable of qualifying for a PGA Championship? Not so much these days. But the principles of what we do as golf professionals (teaching and playing) have not changed much since golf came to America in the late 1800’s.

The business has certainly evolved and we must be well-rounded in all facets of a golf operation. However, teaching the game is in the very fabric of what it means to be a golf professional. There are weeks where we are in a merchandising and tournament operations zone and we may not teach a lesson or play a round of golf. Although those areas are as much a part of being a golf professional today as teaching and playing are, if you fall under this category, do you feel somewhat less of a golf professional when you are not in a teaching and playing zone? As golf professionals, we’re meant to teach and play and do them well. Merchandising on a club level barely existed 100 years ago and tournament operations on a club and corporate level definitely was not what it is today.

Today, teaching and playing are exactly what they were 100+ years ago and they will not change. A perfect example of this is the book “Hints on Golf” by Horace Hutchinson written in 1886! The language and concepts found in his manuscript still translate today and are still read and applied by many teaching professionals! We can take it back even further! – The Kincaid Manuscripts. The book is a collection of seventeenth century journals kept by a Scot named Thomas Kincaid. Kincaid had insights on the swing, over three centuries ago, that have not been improved upon since!

Teaching and playing are in us. If you have a passion for this game and the business surrounding it, teaching and playing want to be drawn out. Teaching and playing well are ours and nobody elses. Do what you have to do to nurture your teaching skills and although it is often difficult, do what you have to do to cultivate your playing ability and make them a consistent part of your schedule as a golf professional. Observe instructors, try and learn from the best, read books….and keep playing, practicing, and improving.

Being a well-rounded golf professional is of utmost importance in todays environment, however great knowledge in teaching and playing the game will take you places in this business. Always has and always will.