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What's it like to be Michael Jordan's golf coach? This recent PGA of America Hall of Fame inductee explains

December 26, 2021

Ed Ibarguen (blue jacket) works with Michael Jordan in 2009 ahead of the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge at Bethpage.

Ed Ibarguen is easy to talk to, that much is immediately apparent during a phone call after he’d been inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame in November. He has a lot of stories to tell, and a humble, optimistic outlook that makes conversation flow. You can imagine what a lesson with him would be like, how he’d relate to you in between swings. Ibarguen, 70, has been a PGA of America member for more than 40 years, and has won two of the association's national awards: the Bill Stransbaugh Award in 1995 and the Professional Development Award in 1998. His has been a career highlighted by the people he’s met through golf.

Ibarguen has been at Duke University Golf Club since 1988—he calls getting the job there one of the luckiest things that’s happened to him. The university shut down the golf course so staff could go to Ibarguen’s Hall of Fame ceremony. However, Ibarguen’s most famous student came from Duke’s most bitter sports rival: the University of North Carolina. Before coming to Duke, Ibarguen worked 10½ miles away at UNC Finley Golf Course. Among his students in Chapel Hill were famed basketball coach Dean Smith and one of Smith’s players who wanted to get into golf.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time when Michael Jordan took an interest in golf,” Ibarguen says. Smith made the connection, and a time was set for the first lesson. “He came into the pro shop and asked, ‘Are you Ed Ibagoogen?’ I said, ‘I’m Ed Ibarguen.’”

Ibarguen laughs as he recalls that first meeting with his now close friend, and adds the reminder that this is Michael Jordan the collegiate player, not Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest NBA player of all time and most recognizable athlete of the last half century.

“I was excited to teach him, but he told me, ‘We might have a problem. I don’t have any money to pay you.’ I only had so many lessons to give and my son had just been born six months earlier, but I asked him, ‘Are you serious about learning, or would you be wasting our time?’ He said, ‘I really love this game, and I want to learn how to play it the right way.’ ”

They got to work, and Jordan continued coming to Ibarguen for lessons after Jordan left North Carolina and turned pro. His love of golf was undeniable.

“It’d be 30 minutes until pitch black, he’d have already played at least 36 holes that day, and he’d be saying, 'Come on, we can get in a few more holes.’ He just fell in love with the game,” Ibarguen said.

Jordan’s physical abilities made him an ideal student. “He was willing to try anything,” Ibarguen said. But there were a few things about him that made golf a little more difficult than the average student.

“I think the hardest thing he had to overcome was, he has very large hands,” Ibarguen explained. “The guys at Ping told me the grips they put on Jordan’s clubs were the biggest they ever put on a golf club. It’d be the equivalent of holding a baseball bat. When you get the grips that heavy, it makes the clubhead very light. So we’d keep putting lead tape on the clubhead.”

Of Jordan’s many physical gifts, his ability to visualize shots on the course stuck out to Ibarguen. “He’s so visual, you could show him a shot, like a short shot with a wedge. His ability to imitate it is amazing."

Ibarguen told the story of how Jordan would come see him in the off-season in the summers when he was a pro. "He was able to play with a lot of tour players,” Ibarguen said. “He comes in one time and he’s taking it very deep inside and lifting it up. I knew he’d been visiting with Ray Floyd and I said, ‘Did you get a lesson with Ray Floyd?’ And he said, ‘No, I've just been playing golf with him.’ The same year, he comes back and now he’s taking it outside, lifting it up, crossing the line. He looked like Freddie Couples. So I asked him, ‘Have you been playing with any tour players?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I played a bit with Freddie Couples.’ This is someone who is incredible in his ability to see things visually and implement them in his body.”

Ibarguen teaches a golf clinic.

Ibarguen says his friends joke with him that he’s the luckiest guy they know, having had the opportunity to foster a relationship with Jordan, who he stays in touch with but hasn't given a formal lesson in a while. Ibarguen agrees—there was a lot of luck involved. But at the same time, he was ready for that lucky moment when it arrived. Ibarguen teaches other instructors, and he uses the example of Jordan as a lesson in preparedness.

“All my friends tease me about being in the right place at the right time,” Ibarguen says. “But I had my Class A certification, I was the most active teacher, I spent more hours trying to improve myself. I was prepared for the opportunity. You never know when something good is going to happen, but you have to be prepared for the opportunity.”

When teaching golf instructors, Ibarguen says he uses a lot of anecdotes, not just about some of the players he’s worked with and who've become lifelong friends, like Jordan, Arnold Palmer’s grandson, Will Wears, and Jack Nicklaus' son, Jackie (who also went to UNC), but also from the teachers he spent years learning from. When Ibarguen was beginning his career, he didn’t have YouTube as a resource. If you wanted to learn something from another teacher, you had to either read about it in book or magazine (Ibarguen’s golf library now has 450 books) or go find a teacher and watch them in person.

“I’d attend seminars, go to workshops or travel somewhere. I’d call a pro and see if I could watch them teach. After the lesson, you’d have lunch and ask questions about what you saw. The more people you’d watch, the more you’d start to figure out,” Ibarguen says. “Through me, my students have learned how my mentors taught.”

Ed Ibarguen receiving his plaque from PGA of America president Jim Richerson during his induction into the PGA of America Hall of Fame in November.

Montana Pritchard/PGA of America

When teaching other instructors, Ibarguen stresses the importance of communication, because with good communication a student will gain ownership of the information.

“Coach in a way so that they can get better when you’re not around,” Ibarguen explains. “You spend 2 percent of your time with your coach and 98 percent of your time alone. You have to make sure they understand what’s going on so that they can help themselves in the process. If I can go to a student an hour after a lesson and say what were your big takeaways? And if they can explain it quickly, it was a good lesson. There was some understanding.”

Ibarguen’s been teaching for decades, and while he’s accrued awards along the way, but induction into the PGA of America Hall of Fame he says is his greatest achievement.

“It’s the pinnacle of my professional career, to be in the same hall as the real giants of the game Palmer, Nicklaus, Snead, Jones, just to name a few,” Ibarguen said. “It’s pretty amazing.”