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WSJ, Golf Journal
April 2, 2009, 12:27 P.M. ET

The Madness in the Method

Faddish Instruction Styles Come and Go, but the Best Golf Teachers Take a Different Tack

Perhaps you've read in the golf magazines about One Plane, Two Plane, an instructional philosophy now in vogue. Some of us swing back and down on one plane, some of us swing on two planes; either is OK, but there are different fundamentals for both approaches. One Plane, Two Plane is not to be confused with Stack and Tilt, an even newer approach that makes it feel as if the spine is tilting toward the target at the top of the backswing. This position used to be called "reverse pivot," and still is by traditionalists who contend it's harmful, but last year it helped pros Mike Weir and Aaron Baddeley earn $4.7 million on the PGA Tour.

The Stack and Tilt swing may remind some of the Natural Golf swing popularized by Canadian Moe Norman, but nobody would confuse Stack and Tilt with the swing detailed in "The Golfing Machine," a thick 1969 instruction manual by Homer Kelley which also has many devotees on the PGA Tour, including most avidly Steve Elkington.

One thing all these swing styles have in common is that they are marketed -- by some, at least -- as the one true way. In this respect, swing styles (or methods) have a lot in common with political ideologies. They attract fervent believers and detractors, but none can ever be proven definitively wrong for the simple reason that each has demonstrably helped many golfers get better.

Unfortunately, each has also led many golfers astray. That's because not every style works for every player, despite the marketing claims of their proponents.

"Most teachers are method teachers, and by most I mean way most -- like 90%," said Jim McLean, a Top 50 instructor who oversees the Jim McLean Golf Schools in Miami and elsewhere. Mr. McLean defines a method teacher as someone who gives essentially the same lesson to every student, whether those lessons revolve around a formal swing style with a name, like Stack and Tilt, or a less defined curriculum of the teacher's own devising.

"A lot of the time it works out well, because some methods are very good. And methods are appealing because they promise a simple answer. Do A, B, C and D and you'll have it. But the danger is that if a student isn't the right fit for a particular method and the teacher doesn't make adjustments, the student can get worse -- in some cases, a lot worse."

Teachers stick to one method in some cases because they are financially or ideologically bound to it. But more often, Mr. McLean said, it's simply because they lack the knowledge or experience to teach any other way. It's the old "If all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail" syndrome.

Golfers don't mesh with certain methods for any number of reasons. Sometimes a player's body can't easily make the movements required, but often the mismatch is inexplicable. Golfers talk about having an "eye" for certain types of shots and not for others. The same goes for swing styles. Whatever the cause, the results can be maddening. I have two friends who have fallen victim to method teaching. One, a longtime five handicapper, watched his index soar to the low teens after an intense week at a golf school and wasn't able to wrestle it back into single-digit territory for many angry years.

Luckily, golf instruction is an open market and it's easy, if occasionally awkward, to shop around. The next method or instructor you try may suit you to a T. The ideal scenario, however, is to find an experienced, deeply knowledgeable teacher who isn't devoted to one way of doing things. Such teachers are rare, but they're out there, and the best way to find them is same way you find the right psychologist or other medical specialist: by asking around locally. Look for someone who has taught for many years, who makes teaching his or her highest priority and has a roster of satisfied, successful students. Avoid the guy who only sometimes gives a few lessons when he can get out from behind the pro-shop counter. He might be fine for a quick fix here and there, but if you're serious about getting better over the long-term, you're far better off with a master.

The person you want is someone like Harvey Penick, the legendary author of "The Little Red Book," who taught Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite in Austin, Texas, when they were boys. He wasn't flashy, he didn't trumpet any kind of "system." He just knew golf, and people, and had learned over the years to boil down his advice to the simplest possible terms.

Or Butch Harmon, who grew up in a golf family and not only knows the swing inside and out, but also the intangible qualities it takes to excel. Years ago I had the pleasure of attending a three-day school with Mr. Harmon, at Sea Island, Ga., and I was most impressed with how little he told me. He quickly discerned the two or three things I needed to work on next and had the confidence to leave it at that, knowing that to tell me more (as most teachers do) would only leave my head spinning.

In recent years, there seems to be increasing emphasis in the teaching ranks on the value of less rigid instruction. Charlie King, the director of instruction at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia, has just come out with a free download called "The New Rules of Golf Instruction." In it he specifically takes old-style method instructors to task, based on his own frustrations as a student and teacher. "The old rules preached that golfers were supposed to look a certain way when they swing, without the information they need to understand why the golf ball behaves the way it does," he said. His "new rules" describe seven essential skills in a good swing but place just as much emphasis on the short game, mental toughness, fitness and smart practice.

Another experienced Top 100 golf instructor who has thoroughly revamped his approach is Michael Hebron of Smithtown Landing, N.Y., on Long Island. He has written and lectured extensively in the last few years that the goal of a good instructor should not be to teach the student, but rather to facilitate the student learning for himself through directed play and experimentation. His ideas make use of recent research into how the brain absorbs knowledge and the body masters new skills.

Even so, good teaching has always been more art than science. Instructional books that have stood the test of time, like Percy Boomer's "On Learning Golf" from 1946 and John Jacobs's "Practical Golf" from 1972, are notable primarily because their authors do not attempt to describe exact swing models, but rather reduce instruction to key concepts that define ranges of acceptable swing positions, and encourage students to feel their own way to success within those ranges. Even method teachers, if they are experienced and confident, will sign on to that approach.

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