Interview with John Bierkan of Aronimink GC & Quail Valley GC

March 26, 2012

The PGA Tour has seen an influx of young phenom players in the past few years. But on practice tees all across the country, we are starting to see a similar rising of a new generation of young and dynamic golf instructors. This youth explosion is led by 36 year old Sean Foley, but John Bierkan isn't very far behind. John is on Golf Digests Best Young Teachers for 2010-2011. Not only is he a great teacher, but John has a background of teaching at some of the countries most storied and service-oriented clubs in the country including Caves Valley Golf Club, Quail Valley Golf Club, and Aronimink Golf Club. We hope you learn a few things from Johns perspective.

It’s important for young assistants to hear the perspectives of other professionals. Can you describe your background in the golf business and your progression through it?

My background is golf. My father has been a PGA Professional in Connecticut for 40 years. I literally grew up on a golf course. Early in my childhood, we lived 500 yards from the clubhouse and I spent every minute at the club. Here I learned the profession from my Dad and worked on my game. Many get into the business because they love playing golf, I became a professional because I love being at the club and like helping people improve.

I started working for my Dad when I was 16 (although I would help him when I was a kid too). I cleaned carts for two years and then worked in the golf shop at Lyman Orchards GC in Connecticut. I progressed through the ranks at his facility running member events, special outings, managing the handicap system, teaching, and conducting clubfittings. During one summer of college I worked the outside operations at Hartford Golf Club, one of the nicer private clubs in central Connecticut.

After I graduated from The University of Connecticut, I retained a job as Coordinator of Junior Golf Events with The Golf Channel in Orlando, Florida. I was part of a team of five who coordinated, organized, and ran The Drive, Chip & Putt Jr. Skills Competition in nearly 50 states over the course of an eight month period. This was a tremendous opportunity and learning experience. After that commitment was fulfilled, I focused my career on golf instruction (which is what I knew I wanted to do).

After considering my options and putting some feelers out, I cold called Top 100 Teacher, Dr. T.J. Tomasi. We met, talked and then I worked and studied with T.J. for three summers in Connecticut. He was responsible for showing me how to teach and jump starting my career. After T.J., I was fortunate to work for Jim McLean at Doral. Here Jim and Chris Toulson had a tremendous influence on my career. I learned so much about teaching, the golf swing, and running golf schools. My time at Doral afforded me great opportunities in the teaching world. If it wasn’t for Jim McLean and Chris Toulson, I would not be where I am today.

After a few years of working at the Jim McLean Golf School I taught at Caves Valley Golf Club in Maryland for five years. Caves is one of the very finest clubs on the East Coast and has one of the best Learning Centers in America. Recently, I accepted the Director of Instruction position at the historic, Aronimink Golf Club just outside of Philadelphia.

What did you do in your early years as a teaching professional to set yourself up for your current success and future success?

I would say there have been a few keys that have contributed to my success over the years. First is hard work. It sounds simple, but I really think this can help a young professional distinguish themselves from others. Second, just being myself and treating others as I would want to be treated. Third, I believe aligning myself and learning from the best in the business to grow and expand my knowledge base. I truly believe that success can be greatly attributed to who you are more than what you know. However, having both is a winning combination. Be passionate about what you want to do, it makes the journey more enjoyable and rewarding.

When you accept a position at a new club (for example Aronimink), what are some of things you like to do to hit the ground running and start your tenure off strong?

One of the major priorities is to get to know the membership. Establishing relationships is key to growing my business as a teacher. Second, it is important to formulate an instructional program that fits the demands of the membership. This might mean that I keep things the same if my predecessor was successful or change the structure if the club is ready for fresh ideas.

What are some aspects of your teaching business that if you didn't do them well, it would be detrimental to your business?

First, I need to have a strong teaching (and swing) knowledge base. Second, I better be pretty darn good with technology like video and Trackman (or Flightscope). Third, I should definitely be the biggest promoter of lessons and teaching at the club or the membership would not look to me as the expert. The bottom line is that I need to give quality golf lessons in order to be productive and create a demand. Bad lessons = bad business.

In most circumstances, assistant professionals wear all of the hats (tournament operations, merchandising, personnel leadership and management, etc.), some times instruction can get lost in the whirlwind of it all. Considering all of this, how do you think assistant professionals can be better teachers and take steps to really know the craft and teach the game well?

A few things I think Assistant’s can do to become better teachers include the following:

1. Read books and magazines
2. Observe other respected teachers (including their Head Pro)
3. Research the swing
4. Attend seminars
5. Become knowledgeable and share & show that knowledge to their boss so he/she has confidence in their teaching abilities (be viewed as the expert at your club)

What are the overarching principles you stand by as a teaching professional and would like other teachers/assistants to stand by?

1. Always be searching to learn more
2. Be passionate and show you care
3. Don’t be a strict method teacher
4. Understand ball flight
5. Get people better

If a young apprentice comes to you and says, "I want to be the best teaching professional I can be", what would you tell him/her and how to get there?

If someone wants to be the best teacher they can, they better commit nearly 100% of their effort to it. This means going to work for a top teacher and learning everything there is to know from swing technique, to short game, to technology….everything! That was my game plan and I have been fortunate so far with my career.

Who have been your mentors and what have you learned from them?

My biggest mentors include my Dad, Dick Bierkan, Dr. T.J. Tomasi, Jim McLean and Chris Toulson.

My father has been a PGA Professional for a long time. More than anything, he leads by example and exemplifies working hard with integrity and treating others as he would want to be treated.

T.J. Tomasi, who is one of the most brilliant minds in golf today, really showed me how to teach. It’s one thing to know your stuff, it’s another to communicate it successfully to a student and get them to improve.

Jim McLean has done so much for me (and many others in our business). He showed me how to give great lessons, how to be a great teacher, how to run a world-class teaching program, how to research and study the best players and how to organize the way I look at a golf swing. He is a great teacher of the short game too! He also showed me how to promote and market myself. Jim is a big reason why I was able to land some great jobs.

Chris Toulson oversees all of Jim McLean’s Golf Schools. Chris was my immediate boss for three years while working at Doral. Over the years, Chris has also become a good friend. Chris has maybe mentored more young professionals than anyone in recent history. Each year he has approximately ten assistant’s working for him just at Doral alone. Chris truly leads by example. He is inspiring simply by the way he acts, the way he carries himself, and the way he treats others. He is also a tremendous teacher and regarded as a great player. Chris has won several South Florida PGA Section and Chapter Awards for teaching and playing. In 2010, he was honored as the South Florida PGA Professional of the Year. This honor is rarely given to a teaching pro and shows exactly how much he is respected.

Do you have any books you could recommend aspiring teaching professionals to read?

There are so many books to read, however a few make my top list.

1. Jim McLean’s Eight-Step Swing
2. Golf Digest’s Ultimate Drill Book by Jim McLean
3. The 30 Second Golf Swing by T.J. Tomasi
4. Five Lessons by Ben Hogan
5. The Elements of Scoring by Raymond Floyd
6. The Mental Art of Putting by P.Cohn & R. Winters

In your experiences as a teaching professional, I'm sure you have seen and worked with your fair share of teaching professionals. What sets the great ones apart from others?

1. Extremely strong knowledge base
2. Ability to help golfers improve
3. Marketing
4. Great presence when teaching & speaking
5. Ability to motivate & inspire