Denis Pugh on the art of instruction
Golf Digest: You’ve credited Phil Ritson with getting you started as a teacher. Best advice he gave you?
He once said, “If you can’t help someone, don’t f--- them up.” That’s good advice for any teacher.
GD: What’s your primary goal when giving a lesson?
If you had a lesson with me right now, the things I would tell you, you could use on the course tomorrow. It wouldn’t be like, “Go to the range and hit 400 balls” to get it, because if it isn’t going to work inside of 10 balls, you’re probably not going to be able to do it.
GD: If I came to you and said I’m slicing the ball off the toe of the club, how would you fix me in 10 balls?
If you’re hitting it out on the toe, that’s a compensation for the fact you slice the ball. First thing I’d do is fix your path. It needs to be going farther right if you’re a right-handed player. In the old days, they’d tell you to swing so the clubface closed sooner—roll your wrists over. But the swing happens too fast to try to control the face with your hands. Better to get the path of your swing moving so it’s open in relation to the clubface at impact. If you’re out on the toe, you might snap-hook some to start, but I guarantee you won’t hit a slice.
GD: What was your first real coaching experience?
I got an offer of a job in 1983 at Wanstead Golf Club in London—running the pro shop, playing with the members and some coaching. But I started to realize that I loved teaching a lot more than trying to sell someone a shirt or a set of clubs. On Mondays, which was my day off, I used to hire some hitting bays at a local driving range and teach groups of four golfers at a time. I’d work with them for two hours and then cycle through three more groups each time. I was making more money in a day than I was making in a week as the club pro. I knew I was better off on the lesson tee.
GD: Any other teaching influences?
David Leadbetter. Everyone says he’s a great golf coach, but I think he’s just a great teacher. I always felt he could teach me Japanese if he wanted. That’s the type of teacher he is.
GD: How did your time with Colin Montgomerie help you as a teacher?
I learned that you don’t have to have a textbook swing to have great success in golf. If you have a player who can hit all the shots and play under pressure, what you have to do is figure out what makes his or her swing work and know how to put it back together when things are off. Some of the best sessions with Monty were when he was hitting it great. He’d say, “Remember what it looks like, Denis. You’re earning your money now. When it stops working, you need to tell me how to get this back.” Whether it’s dealing with the mind of a golfer going haywire, or it’s the last day of a major and your player’s swing is awful, you have to find something. The way I do it—I know this sounds crazy—is that I switch my brain off and just go with the first thing that pops into my mind that I think will help. Instead of thinking, I just react. And I don’t even question it.
GD: How surprised were you at Francesco Molinari’s improvement?
The change was amazing. He already had contended in majors and played on Ryder Cup teams, and I think he reached 14th in the World Golf Ranking. But he then went through a slump and was really struggling just to stay in the top 50. He didn’t want to be that sort of player. When he asked me what he needed to do, I said, “You’ve got to be 20 yards longer. You don’t hit the ball far enough, and your short game needs help.” So, what he did was get a physical trainer to get stronger, work with me to change his swing—to take the brakes off of it—and hire short-game coaches James Ridyard and Phil Kenyon. And a mental coach, too, Dave Alred.
GD: Elaborate on “taking the brakes off” Francesco’s swing.
What it means is eliminating any movement that is stopping the flow of power to the ball. It could be anywhere in the swing. Depends on the player. With Frankie, he was able to pick up 20 yards off the tee by making a better turn off the ball. His right leg straightens going back, and his right hip and shoulder get behind him way more than they used to. He’s definitely stretching out his body in the backswing, loading up. Then, in the downswing, we spent a lot of time getting him to make a move that I describe as a squat and jump. He’s pushing into the ground hard to generate power. There’s more to it than that, but the training focused on using his body to create power as effectively as possible knowing that it’s better to have a wedge in from the first cut of rough than a 5-iron from the middle of the fairway.
GD: Some players never recover from major overhauls. Was that a concern?
It was risky, but Frankie knew he didn’t want to stay put with his game. Something had to be done, and I think his ambition really came through. He’s a quiet man but very driven. He takes advice better than any athlete I’ve ever seen. He can process coaching really well. Maybe he’ll end up a golf coach, but I hope for his sanity he doesn’t do that.
GD: Your twitter account says you’re “semi-retired.” I don’t get that impression.
Ever since I’ve become semi-retired, I’ve gotten busier. I put that on Twitter to let people know that I’m at the end of the game now; I’m not taking on new students. I’ve got Frankie, Ross Fisher, some college kids and the members at The Wisley Club in England. And that’s it. That’s a lot. I have to tell you, recently I’ve turned down three or four well-known golfers who you would think I’m crazy to pass up a chance to work with. They’re good guys, but I’m too busy.
GD: How do you feel about technology reshaping golf instruction?
It’s a natural progression that mirrors technological advances in everything. It’s not the world I grew up in, but you’ve got to learn all these systems to stay relevant. I’m one of the old guys, and it’s easy to say we didn’t need that stuff back then. But nowadays, the whole field can win each week. You need every advantage you can get. You better know whether your player should have a banana on the fourth hole or the sixth hole, because if it helps, it helps. The terminology with all these tech systems is funny, though. It’s like learning a foreign language. A lot of it is things you should never say to a student. I wouldn’t even use some of these words with a tour pro. I just tell them what it should feel like. It’s for me to understand the technical stuff, but I want players to play.
GD: Is there anything out there in golf instruction that is hurting the average player?
Less now than perhaps in the past, when people were trying to concentrate on positions in the swing as being key positions. I think the guys who do good work on tour, and the guys who do good research on the swing, are learning that it’s not about a set of swing positions—it’s a flow.
GD: You have a reputation for being outspoken. Is that fair?
I tend to be a rebel, and I’ve upset a lot of people along the way. But it never worried me about being popular—I don’t give a s---. I really don’t. I don’t have intentions of leaving a legacy. My intention is to live my life and do what I do. The last time I got involved with talking technique on Twitter, about five or six years ago, was with the stack-and-tilt guys. They had so much good information, but they were telling everyone else they were wrong. They weren’t wrong. You look at those guys and say, “Some of your research is great, but don’t tell everyone they’ve got to get in these positions.” Monty didn’t need stack-and-tilt.
GD: What’s another example of a great coaching job?
It was with a lady member of Wanstead. We’re talking 30 years ago. She could not get the ball airborne. At the time in England, to play the course, you had to have a handicap of 36 or better. With my help, she got down to 29. From where she started to where she got, that’s the best coaching I ever did. She got it airborne and got it around the golf course with no talent for sports whatsoever. And my first lesson? It was a lady member, and I just thought, Let her still like me at the end of this lesson. That was back when I still cared.