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Golf instructors are both thrilled and frazzled by the biggest demand for lessons ever

September 18, 2021

In a matter of a few days in the summer of 2020, Jason Peterie went from fretting about the future of his livelihood and the job he loves to being so swamped with work that there were days he didn’t have time to eat lunch.

As a PGA teaching professional in San Diego, Peterie’s business of giving lessons literally disappeared overnight when much of American business shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than a dozen years he’d put in long hours, six days a week, arriving early in the morning to pick through baskets of range balls to find the shiniest nuggets for his clients and leaving after the lights illuminated the range at the scruffy Tecolote Canyon Golf Course that was his teaching home.

Then, the balls were locked up, the lights went out and the students disappeared. Most of California’s golf courses were shut down by health officials in mid-March 2020, and Peterie, 52, was left to pace at home, wondering how he’d continue to support his wife and two sons. No one knew when golf would come back and what it would look like when it did. “You try to do stuff around the house, but you start freaking out,” Peterie recalls. “It was scary.”

His worries were compounded by Tecolote's operators being cautious when golfers were allowed to play again, waiting months to allow lessons once more. People were clamoring for instruction; all Peterie could do was shrug. To survive, he had to make a move, and with the good graces of other pros, he found a spot on the teaching range at Riverwalk Golf Club in San Diego’s Mission Valley hotel district.

Jason Peterie works with student Allison Ward. Peterie says he is doing up to 14 lessons a day during the COVID-19 era. (Photo by Tod Leonard)

Peterie put out a few feelers to his clients: I’m back. Need a lesson? What happened next floored him.

“Boom! Within that first week I was booked out for a month,” Peterie says. “My schedule just went nuts.”

And it has been that way for more than 15 months now. Peterie says on most days he’s doing between 10 to 14 40-minute lessons, kneeling all the while on a cushioned mat because he has bad knees. His only day off is Monday, and there are plenty of occasions when food during the workday is an afterthought. “Sometimes, the only time I get to eat lunch is if somebody cancels,” he says with a laugh.

Peterie’s story is one being told by many golf teaching pros in the COVID-19 era. Instructors around the country are booked up like never before, happy to have the business, while also feeling a bit frazzled. As so much of golf has boomed—the National Golf Foundation reported 39.6 million rounds played in 2020, including 3 million people who tried it for the first time—the demand for instruction is greater than ever before. Golfers have had the time and disposable income to get lessons and practice. Their biggest issue became finding an instructor with the time to teach them. It can feel like trying to see a specialist through your HMO.

“Things obviously exploded,” Michelle Winkler said.

Winkler, named among Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers for 2021-22, worked for seven seasons as an instructor at The Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn. The only woman on the teaching staff, she said she’d fallen into a comfortable, “lackadaisical” routine of doing 10 to 15 lessons a week, along with conducting five to seven clinics in the spring and fall. Many of her clients were women, and a good portion either worked or lived in Manhattan.

“When the pandemic hit, no one had access to the city,” Winkler says. “Everyone was working from home. No one had an outlet to do anything that was active. They were getting stir crazy in their houses, and golf was their only outlet for social interactions.

“The floodgates opened,” she says. “Everyone and their mother came to Stanwich.”

Women whom Winkler said only played tennis or lunched on the club’s patio picked up golf clubs. That reenergized the instructor, who developed a fresh curriculum. Her clients loved it. The seven spring clinics begat seven more, and when those quickly sold out, Winkler scheduled another seven. The coach estimates that her work with non-members doubled from 2019 to 2021.

Michelle Winkler said she saw her non-member clientele at The Stanwich Club double between 2019 and 2021. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Winkler)

Steve Niemczyk

“It was just great,” Winkler says. “Because I finally had time to map everything out, and they had time to practice. They finally started to see real results, and now I’ve got them hooked.”

What Winkler saw was part of a nationwide trend. Among golf’s demographics, no group has experienced more growth during the pandemic than women. The NGF reported 6 million women playing golf in 2020, an increase of 450,000 from the year before. Twenty-four percent of all golfers were women.

“No one knew that this was going to happen,” Winkler said. “Three or four years ago, this was a dying industry. I joke about this, but I’m serious, too: All we needed was a pandemic to get this sport going again.”

The demand has been good for every teaching pro’s wallet, but it’s come with personal costs, too. Winkler wistfully recalls that before COVID she’d work her 10 hours days while looking forward to an evening nine holes, going solo or with friends. But she’s rarely played in the last year, with her schedule packed and Stanwich’s tee times booked from sunrise to sunset. One of the prime perks of the job is gone. So, too, are days off. Winkler says she essentially worked every day for at least six months.

“My bank account was very, very happy,” she says with a laugh. “But my mental state was not the best. It was a little much, a little crazy.”

The situation led to a life-changing decision for Winkler, who left Stanwich in August to join her boyfriend in Hermosa Beach, Calif. There, she’s teaching out of her home and pursuing other golf opportunities.

Out in California, the teaching business is just as hectic. Randy Chang, a two-time Southern California PGA Teacher of the Year, motors back and forth between Orange and Riverside counties to run his various golf schools. His home base is The Journey at Pechanga in Temecula, but Chang also runs teaching programs for kids in San Clemente, Laguna Niguel and Pasadena. The youngest groups of 3- to 6-year-olds are called the “Tiny Tees.”

Chang’s model has leaned heavily on group lessons, so when COVID first hit it was impossible to put together those types of programs. Then Chang lost coaches, who were leaving the area or pursuing other things, and it’s been difficult getting back up to speed as youth sports opened up in the summer. That didn’t alleviate the demand from parents, who either wanted their kids to take up a new sport or just get the heck out of the house.

“We’ve had people on a waiting list for three months,” Chang said. “They’re still on the waiting list.”

Chang suggests that one solution to some of the current bottlenecks for instruction starts with the teachers. He contends that too many coaches want to stick to personal lessons, when groups give so many more golfers access.

Randy Chang gives a lesson at The Journey at Pechanga in Temecula, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Randy Chang)

“It’s about getting some of these coaches to see the bigger picture,” Chang said. “There’s the old-school thinking that you want to do one-on-ones because you’re trying to get someone on [the pro] tour. But we’re trying to get all of these new people into the business of golf, and this is the perfect opportunity for people on the instructional side to change things a bit.”

It’s clear that prospective golfers will need some patience to get the best teaching experience. Jon Bartholomew, a 40-year-old multi-sport athlete, went looking for a teacher when his 13 buddies started planning a trip to Bandon Dunes. “I was the 14th seed as far as golf goes,” Bartholomew says, “but I couldn’t say no to a trip like that.”

Plus, COVID had eliminated his basketball league play and he had no competitive outlet. “You can only take so many hikes,” Bartholomew says.

He needed golf lessons, and he heard about Peterie. Bartholomew enjoyed the introductory time, but then Peterie delivered the bad news: He wouldn’t have another opening for three weeks.

Jon Bartholomew hits a shot at Sheep Ranch in Bandon Dunes, where he shot a lifetime-best 85 after starting lessons in the spring with Jason Peterie. (Photo courtesy of Jon Bartholomew)

“I was taken aback. I had no idea how busy he was,” Bartholomew said. “But I had a great first impression, so it seemed worth the wait.”

That was six months ago, and Bartholomew has had lessons with Peterie every Tuesday since. The Bandon trip was a dream, Bartholomew said, and he’s happily shooting in the 90s. He’s yet another golfer, borne out of a pandemic, who is lucky to have found an instructor—no matter how long it took.

“Golf is definitely something positive I can take away from this crazy year and a half,” Bartholomew said. “I found a new passion for the next chapter in my life. I doubt I would have dove headfirst if it wasn’t for the limitations for other things. It’s been a bright light at a weird time.”