Let me first recognize that the dynamic my husband and I have on the golf course is opposite of most. More often, husbands are the better golfers, tasked with giving pointers to their wives. But my husband happens to be married to me, a former college golfer who grew up a quarter of a mile from her childhood club in a golf-centric family. And he grew up playing only once or twice a year.
Some guys might find it tough to check their egos in this situation, but John has a great sense of humor about the gap in our abilities. I’ve tried to help him out with tips at the range and on-course, but for the five years we’ve known each other, we had never been able to make the significant gains I felt he could make in his game.
It was frustrating for me. I felt like I had some sort of duty, and the ability, to help him. Surely, some information that I’ve gathered after a lifetime around golf, which includes the tutelage of my mother, who played on the LPGA Tour in the 1980s, had to be useful to his development as a golfer. It was frustrating for him, too, to not see any immediate improvement, even as he was playing more and trying things I’d been telling him.
But this summer, it clicked.
He has broken 90 and has flirted with hitting it 300 yards off the tee. His average is more around 280—a good 20 yards farther than he'd been hitting it before. And, more important, he's in the fairway much more frequently. Given what it can be like for some spouses to agree about things, let alone to teach each other one of the most difficult hobbies there is, we thought the insights from our successes this summer might lead to your partner's breakthrough.
A few words of warning: Though I have a good handle on instruction, I am not an instructor. Having such a cool job, I get to be around instructors and tour pros a lot, talking about the golf swing. And I had my mom's effortless swing as a great model to gear my own around. So though I’ve been exposed to a lot of great instruction, I am not an instructor.
OK, disclaimer over. Let’s get into it.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF TRUE FOCUS
The biggest issue holding John back was an issue we didn't realize existed until we solved it by accident. John was headed on a golf trip with some friends and asked for a tune-up. We went to the range, and I left my clubs at home.
It sounds really simple, but my being at the range without my clubs was pivotal to his improvement. This let me focus on his swing, instead of hitting a couple balls in my own bay, ruminating on my deficiencies, then turning around to watch him hit a few, tossing a pointer in his direction, then hitting a few more of my own shots.
This had created a vicious cycle of half-focusing on John's game, which didn't allow me to hone in on what he needed to work on, and it wasn’t helping my game, either. If you’re trying to help your partner, choose when it’s time to work on their swing, and when it’s time to work on your own. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn by devoting your full attention.
2. ACCURACY OFF THE TEE
One of the things I realized was that as much as I wanted to work on his wedges or get him over to the putting green, the only way we’d really get anywhere was to make him good at the thing that he valued most: ripping the driver.
He’s a big, athletic guy, so he was hitting it pretty far. His drives were just going 40 yards right most of the time. The list of tips that I’d given him were long, and in hindsight, a lot of them contained too much golf jargon. Things like create more width, or your hands are too high at the top, or you’re getting really steep, which made perfect sense to me but weren’t translating to someone who doesn’t think about golf all day, every day. So, that day, I got rid of all the verbiage. And it worked.
The tip that really straightened him out off the tee is kind of two tips that came from the time I've spent on LPGA and PGA Tour ranges, and doing instruction stories with tour pros.
John grew up playing baseball, and I figured that there had to be some way to use those athletic moves to help him with his golf swing. I was thinking about a conversation I'd had with Jamie Lovemark on a photo shoot, where he talked about reminding himself to be an athlete while putting. It's a way for him to stop being overly technical, and instead focus on reacting to the putt in front of him and trusting his athleticism. He talked about the automatic feeling of shooting a free throw—and how there's no reason a putting stroke shouldn't feel like that.
I thought the philosophy would help John's full swing, but there were a couple fundamentals that needed to be fixed first. I changed John's position at the top. His hands were too high. It was all a bit too upright and caused him to get steep and jammed up when he started his downswing. I showed him video of how he looked. With my weak baseball knowledge, I attempted to compare the top of the backswing to the hitting stance a baseball player would take over the plate. I put his hands where they should be at the top of the takeaway. And I told him to remember that feeling.
Then I did the same thing for his finish position. Successful swings look very different on tour, but if you look at all players' finish positions, they look quite similar. To get to that position, you have to do a lot of things right in the golf swing—an idea I've heard a lot of instructors talk about. So I moved John into a good position at the finish: club wrapped all the way around, hips facing the target, all the weight on the left foot. I told him to remember that feeling, and then be an athlete: Trust your body to make the right moves between that spot at the top of the backswing and the finish. "Just make sure you hit those two spots, and forget everything else I told you," I said.
He let it rip. That crappy range ball was hauling down the middle of the range and hit the net at the end of the range, 235 yards away. I put another ball on the tee, told him to do the same thing, and another one, dead down the middle. Another. And another.
I had finally, after five years, said something that made sense, that worked, that he wanted to do, and he was all in.
3. TURNING TO THE IRONS
Getting rid of dozens of swing thoughts helped relieve tension that I’d been noticing creep into his setup. That helped his iron game, too.
The one big change we made was in the shoulders. His left shoulder was high at address—nearly every tour pro and coach will say that's a great position for the driver, because it helps catch the ball on the upswing, launching it high. But that's not useful for an iron swing, where the ball isn't on a tee. Look at the iron setup of virtually any tour player, and you'll see the shoulders are square. I showed John what his setup looked like, and then showed him a picture of Brooks Koepka at setup. We shifted John's shoulders, and then it was back to that same feeling—get to the right spot at the top, get to the right spot at the finish.
With the driver going straight and the irons more consistent, I felt better about trying to add some instruction in to the casual rounds we played.
4. TEACHING ON THE COURSE
Out on the course, I hopped into a greenside bunker with him and gave him one of the classic bunker tips—you've probably seen it in Golf Digest. Draw a line an inch and a half behind the ball, ignore the ball, and hit that line in the sand. I'd seen him decelerate in the bunker before and thought of the classic Gary Player tip to imagine you're striking a match when you're hitting a bunker shot. I altered it a bit, and told John to think fast hands, and to leave the clubface open for as long as possible. (You'll never see tour pros turn the clubface over when they're in a bunker.) Thirty seconds later, John was putting for par.
On the green, I’d noticed John's putting stroke was getting really long. You can say "shorten your takeaway" as many times as you want, but it wasn’t changing anything. This called for a drill my mom had taught me at a time when my putting was horrid. I put a quarter down five inches behind his ball when he lined up a five-footer. I told him: Don’t let your takeaway go past that quarter. With the shorter takeaway, he was forced to accelerate through the ball, producing crisper contact and the end-over-end roll I’d been looking for.
I also took his blade putter away and gave him a mallet I had. With more weight came a putting stroke that stayed on line more consistently—advice I've heard from our Senior Equipment Editor, Mike Stachura.
This isn’t to say John had a perfect summer of golf. There are still some wild drives and tough holes. But he broke 90 for the first time, then a second and third time, this summer. And honestly, just as important, I no longer feel like a failure as a better golfer not being able to help my partner improve.
We hope these lessons help you and your significant other on the path to better golf, too.