RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links



Golf instructor looks for alternatives in the era of social distancing

May 05, 2020
James Hong Hero 2.jpg

Photos by Alan P. Pittman during video chat

How do you get ready for being completely shut down? I don’t know that you can, but in the weeks leading up to the March 13 notice that we got in the state of New York to close down, we heard that it could be a possibility, so I put some things in motion. I messaged all my students in late February links to purchase some simple home-practice items, like nets and putting mats. A few even bought some consumer-level launch monitors. I had been using a digital platform for video swing analysis and lesson summaries, and I had just started using it for live lessons, too, so when everything closed, I still had a way to interact with my students.

But like I said, you can’t be ready for everything to change. It’s been a big hit to my revenue in the short-term, for sure. There’s just no way to replicate being on the practice tee 10 hours a day, six days a week with the flip of a switch, from a business perspective. I’m probably doing about a quarter of the lessons I would normally give, and now is the time when our big (and full) junior programs would have been starting. I don’t know of many coaches who aren't hurting from this at least to some degree. It's been a massive hit to our industry.

But not all the changes have been bad. I’ve enjoyed being home with my boys and my wife—something a golf pro doesn’t get to say about early spring. Being able to experience that togetherness, cooking together, sharing meals, just being present, makes me appreciate even more what I have and what I’ve missed because of the demands of the job. I look at this time as an opportunity to start the projects I had on the shelf because I didn't have time, like developing my website and improving my online training programs. I’ve always had a certain paranoia about success—asking myself what I need to do to make my offerings better so I can stay fresh and relevant. I choose to look at the positive and see this as another step in that process. None of us can afford to waste time dwelling on what’s fair.

Staying positive is important to me because of the responsibility I feel from working with so many junior players. I have to be an example for my students. They need to see that things might be dark and scary in the moment, but it doesn’t mean that’s the future. We can be proactive and find opportunities to learn and enjoy and be together. I've been organizing group practices online, where 20 of my junior students age 5 to 16 have been connecting and working on their games. Sure, they’re hitting some shots and working on their swings, but it goes beyond that. It gives them encouragement and something to focus on. I don’t want any kid to feel left out or victimized by the situation, so it’s open to anyone—even if their parents are in an unstable financial situation right now in which golf lessons are understandably not the priority. Golf is supposed to teach us all how to pay it forward, and those kids are helping me stay motivated to find new ways of teaching and to not get down on myself.

It will be so interesting to see what comes out of this situation in terms of how coaches and players interact. We’re going to be so much better at communicating remotely and in person, and the technology a player can have in his or her home is going to be more common—and more affordable. The business will change, and I’m going to be ready. —with Matthew Rudy

James Hong is a golf instructor (juniors) at Harbor Links in North Hempstead, N.Y.