How Has the Golf Instruction Landscape Changed in the Digital Revolution?

By Erik Matuszewski

Michael Breed at Ferry Point G.C. in Ferry Point N.Y.

Michael Breed is only half-joking when he says he can’t even count the number of people he’s helped improve their golf swing in an elevator or with a spatula in the kitchen. His untold number has exploded again over the past decade, especially because golf instruction doesn’t always involve hitting a golf ball in today’s digital age.

Breed is unquestionably one of the most recognizable golf teachers in the world, a dynamic personality who rose to prominence as host of The Golf Fix, the highest-rated instructional series on Golf Channel. Today, in addition to his daily Sirius XM PGA TOUR Radio show and his eponymous golf academy in New York, Breed focuses on innovative instruction as the Chief Digital Instructor for Golf Digest.

Yes, teaching golf has come a long way since Breed bought his first video camera for about $1,000 back in 1988. Today, the camera he uses most during teaching is his phone. Today, there are online subscription instruction offerings from Golf Digest, Golf Channel’s Revolution Golf, and a growing number of other players. Golf professionals who once relied on lessons on the range are their own content providers, building large followings while dispensing tips and advice through social media sites. Some instructors never even meet any students in person, dealing exclusively in remote video lessons.

Golf Channel’s Revolution Golf

“There’s opportunity like crazy out there,” Breed says of the golf instruction market. “You’re not seeing people lose business. You’re seeing people create business. Let’s say I’m a head professional in New Jersey; I don’t just reach my club, or New Jersey, or the Tri-State area, I reach the world. So, I grow my client base.”

Bryan Gathright describes himself as an “old-school guy” and an instructional “dinosaur.”

He’s taught the game since the mid-1980s, including working with Harvey Penick at his golf academy in Austin, Texas. Named by GOLF Magazine as one of the top 100 golf instructors in America, Gathright now works out of Cordillera Ranch in the Texas Hill Country outside San Antonio. Among his students are several players on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour and SMU’s Mac Meissner, who broke Bryson DeChambeau’s record for the lowest score in the history of the American Conference championship. He regularly stays in touch with them remotely via FaceTime, using a second phone to record swings in slow motion.

“Penick would have embraced it,” Gathright says of golf instruction’s digital age. “He always counseled me to explore new things, listen to new teachers, but be careful not to overload the pupil. You have to find a balance. It’s ever-evolving and ever-changing, but it comes down to what helps communicate your message the best.”

Another Top 100 teacher, Kevin Sprecher at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in New York, says technology and the data it provides helps students learn faster.  

Sprecher regularly uses an app called CoachNow to stay in close contact with his pupils, particularly the ones who are remote. “It’s almost like I’m there,” he says.

Sprecher will do a voice-over on a video and upload it so his students can watch (and re-watch) it at any time. He’ll type in notes or add drills for them to do. He’ll also use it as an avenue for students to ask questions or have an open dialogue, about the swing or the process itself. And Sprecher says he, like many instructors, are still seeing as many, if not more, traditional lessons.

“Because of tech, I am seeing more people more often,” Sprecher says. “Those things you see online or on social media are great teasers. I just had a guy come because he liked what he saw on my Instagram page. It’s another medium for people to seek information.”

In the past, golfers used to buy videos or read tips on how to cure their slice in magazines. Not so much anymore.

“That space has been hurt more than the lesson-taking,” Sprecher adds. “Now you can go online and for $10 a month, you can see Jim McLean. The online subscription models have actually helped the one-on-one. But you can only get so much from a video. You can get some info and go try it, but who says you’re doing it right? I don’t think you’ll ever replace the one-on-one interaction outside on the range.”

Revolution Golf’s instructor Jim McLean

Still, Breed puts the percentage of golfers who actually take lessons at just under 10 percent. Most prefer to figure it out on their own, or by gleaning tips here and there. 

That’s the main reason Breed’s instructional outreach is mostly digital rather than in person, whether that’s through his content on Golf Digest’s new game improvement platform or through a collaboration with consulting firm MorganFranklin in which golfers can ask questions or upload swing videos for analysis (and an entry into a sweepstakes).

“Ninety percent of the market is away from the lesson tee,” Breed says. “Why would I stand on the lesson tee and give lessons where I’m only reaching 10 percent of the market? I want to go where the nine of 10 are. I’m still giving the same info and they can go out and work on it. In a DIY world, this has huge benefits.”

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Do you receive golf instruction digitally? If not, what’s holding you back? Tell us in the comments below!