The retired judge asked me to fix his slice and gain him a few yards off the tee—admirable goals and more or less achievable, in most cases. Unfortunately, along with his 80 percent hearing loss, the 70-year-old jurist suffered early-stage dementia. What few instructions he was able to hear he had great trouble following.
But I was a dedicated teaching pro, so I soldiered on. After several warm-up swings and a few weak pitches, we progressed to the driver—a laminated antique with Tommy Bolt’s signature on the clubhead and most of its varnish chipped off. Bad now turned to worse. To call this gentleman’s tee shot a slice was the most liberal use of terminology since they tried to slip “peacekeeping missile” past us. His swing was a concoction of twitches and spasms that reminded me of frat-house hangover scenes from Sunday mornings long past.
But there had to be something I could do. My aged student had played and practiced every day since beginning his retirement, hacking his way to and fro with no flicker of improvement and no idea where to turn. I was his last hope, and with that in mind, I unleashed every ounce of swingological knowledge the PGA of America had taught me. It seemed impossible for him to play any worse, so what did I have to lose?
Perhaps just a career. Putting my theories into practice, His Honor proceeded to whiff, whiff again, then stick his driver in the ground with a swing straight out of the chainsaw-murder movies. I made up my mind to get “hands on.” Carefully walking the judge through every stage of the swing, I held the shaft of his Bolt-autograph driver in my left hand and gently applied pressure to his arms and shoulders with my right, all the while prattling out swing wisdom. When he finally paused at the top of the backswing, I slowly took my hands off the club. “Now, from this position you should ...” I never finished.
He had taken removal of my hands as his cue to let fly. Down toward impact the chipped clubhead whizzed, stopping only to make its most solid contact of the day—with the crown of my kneecap. I gasped, and the world stood still. I yelped and hopped like a whipped puppy, alarming (or, more likely, amusing) the members practicing nearby. The pain somehow increased. Everything went white, then black. I heard ambulance sirens that weren’t there, then I vomited.
“I think I’ve got it,” the judge cried triumphantly. “It’s all in the legs.”
Within two weeks, I was retired, myself— from the ranks of the teaching profession. I vowed never to give another golf lesson, and I never have.Bad-lesson stories range from indelicate to outrageous, and anyone who has ever hung a shingle has one to tell. The late Harvey Penick once stood along a student’s swing path and told the pupil to “swing the club toward me.” Since the nearest ball was a good foot away from the normal impact spot, Penick assumed his student knew to make a practice swing. The famed instructor’s heart jumped into his throat when the student stretched out and smacked one of the nearby range balls, sending it within inches of Penick’s head.
The dangers of teaching golf can be moral as well as physical. A PGA pro in Atlanta—who requested anonymity—fell into a quandary when one of his female students, an attractive 30-year-old, offered a well-known sexual favor in exchange for the cure to her topping problem. “I figured I could either give her bad advice, so she’d continue to top the ball, or I could turn down the lesson, or else tell her, ‘No thanks, I’ll take cash.’ Orrrr, I could go through with it and let the chips fall where they may,” the pro says.
But letting the chips (or the trousers) fall where they may was never really an option. Not only was the pro happily married, the woman in question was the wife of a prominent Atlanta divorce lawyer. “For a brief instant I saw my life flash before my eyes,” the pro recalls. Ultimately he gave the lesson for cash and a promise that the barter system wouldn’t be discussed again.
There can also be innocent moments of embarrassment between a male instructor and his female student. “Early in my career,” recalls Gary Smith, who now oversees a string of golf schools around the country, “I was attempting to teach a female Fortune 500 executive how to hit a bunker shot. Her lower body was overactive during the swing, and nothing I said would convince her to steady it. I told her I was going to kneel down behind her and lightly grasp her knees to keep them in place.” Just as Smith got into position, the student broke wind—forcefully. “Neither of us said a word for what seemed like a minute or two,” Smith reports. “Then the lesson went on as if nothing had happened.”
An example of true professionalism under harsh conditions. And yet, the harshest of all conditions for a teaching pro arise from a pure lack of results.
“It was my first year teaching,” winces Jim McLean, now one of the world’s most recognized golf instructors. “A very nice man named Mr. Ott, a member of Westchester Country Club, showed up for a lesson and told me he was shanking the ball. I told him not to worry, but back then I didn’t know all the different causes of a shank. We went through the first lesson and nothing happened. Second lesson, same thing. Three lessons and he’s still shanking the ball. After seven lessons I gave him his money back. I told him, ‘I feel really terrible about this, I’m no help at all.’ The story’s not funny—it’s just embarrassing. That incident helped me a lot as a teacher because the frustration made me want to find out everything I could about shanking. But I certainly didn’t help Mr. Ott. He’s probably still shanking it.”
Former PGA champion and Ryder Cup captain Jackie Burke has a good one. Now the owner of Champions Golf Club in Houston, Burke teaches tour players as well as promising amateurs. During one recent lesson, Burke offered tips and demonstrated a few drills to a slightly pudgy, middle-aged student. When the lesson was over, the anxious student thanked Burke and said, “Mr. Burke, I’m 48 years old and I want to do whatever it takes in the next two years to make it on the senior tour. Can you help me?”Burke nodded. “Come with me,” he said. He led the student into the grill room and pointed to a man having lunch at the end of the bar. “You see that guy?” Burke asked.
The student nodded.
“That’s Tom Kite,” Burke said. “When you can beat him, you’re ready.”
There are some advantages to teaching golf to the elderly, as one central Florida assistant pro found out. “I had a student who could barely stand without assistance,” says the former pro, who is now a stockbroker. “He couldn’t swing, but the good news was, he couldn’t see, either. He would whiff the ball completely, look up and say, ‘How was that one?’ I would stare down range as I kicked the ball aside and say, ‘Looks like you caught that one pretty solid.’ I think he only hit about three balls the entire lesson, but he left satisfied. That’s all that counts.”
Plenty of teaching pros have had similar experiences. Some have joined me in a self-imposed exile from the lesson tee, but plenty of others have stayed in the business and gone on to become world-renowned teachers.
Cindy Reid, the current director of instruction at the TPC at Sawgrass, had an even more frustrating experience during her rookie year of teaching.
“It was the third lesson I had ever given,” Reid recalls. “I was teaching a staff member at the PGA Tour who was very pleased with the way he was hitting the ball. I was also anxious about my teaching, so every time he would swing I would jump in with as much praise as I could muster. But I got a little over-anxious when he was hitting drivers. After one swing, as he held his pose at the finish, I reached down to tee up another ball. He didn’t know my head was in the way as he recoiled. The clubhead caught me right in the temple and knocked me unconscious. It was my third lesson, and I had to be taken to the hospital! I remember waking up and saying to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ Thank goodness things improved after that.”
Since that inauspicious start, Reid has distinguished herself as one of the top female instructors in the world. Still, some of her students have a tough time putting her principles into practice.
“Marcus Allen has been a student of mine for years,” Reid says. “I think I’ve helped him. He’s certainly improved a lot since we started working together. But one thing I can’t get him over is hitting a shot when his shadow is over the ball. He can be playing the best golf of his life and the minute his shadow creeps over the ball, he shanks it. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I tell him to focus on his target or on the ball, but he says, ‘I can’t. When I see my shadow swing the club back, my eyes have to follow it.’ After a few more shanks I finally said, ‘Marcus, you’re just going to have to play all your golf in Seattle.’”
Then there’s the story of Bob Toski’s novel response to a student who complained he couldn’t “feel” what Toski was telling him. “Did you feel that?” Toski barked after sinking his teeth into the student’s forearm. The stunned student nodded. “Good,” Toski said before embarking on the rest of the lesson.
It’s important that every student remember these stories the next time they schedule a lesson with their local golf pro. The golf business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And those who persevere—who stick it out through the hot, humbling, humorous and humiliating days on the practice tee, trying with all they have to make better players out of all of us—should be treated with dignity and respect, and shown a little empathy when things don’t always go as planned.
Teaching golf is a hard way to make a living. To those who do it every day of the year, who have no doubt read this piece and said, “No, I’ve got one better than that,” we salute you. You truly do make golf a better game.