How instructors are catering to tour pros and an ever-increasing demand for virtual lessons
Tour golf is in a holding pattern right now, but that doesn't mean elite golfers are waiting for quarantine to end to resume their work.
Whether players are in places like Phoenix—where courses and ranges are still open—or in other states where facilities are closed, they're still in many cases isolated from coaches and trainers with the challenges cross-country travel presents.
That means players and golf instructors are relying even more on video lessons and virtual teaching than ever before. We asked three top coaches—Golf Digest 50 Best Teachers Mark Blackburn and Dana Dahlquist and Golf Digest Best Young Teacher Jason Guss—to pull back the curtain on some of the hacks they're now using to keep their players in tune.
A virtual lesson plan
"With my guys, we have a specific plan, and the work we're doing now is still going toward the plan—there's just more free time to work on it. You can do the reps, whether it's at a range or on a mat in the yard or on a simulator in the basement," says Blackburn, who works with Chez Reavie, Charley Hoffman, Sean O'Hair and Kevin Chappell, among other tour players. "This is a 'free' off-season, or a reboot. There are certainly challenges doing stuff remotely, but if you're an optimist and you're creative, it's an opportunity.""
In addition to sharing photos and video through texts—something he did with players before the coronavirus—Blackburn has been using FaceTime to watch players hit shots from locations as baroque as the space between Chappell's couch and living room wall (below).
"Some of my guys like to play more when they have time like this, like Chez. Charley is home with his kids," says Blackburn, who is based at Greystone Golf Club in Birmingham, Ala. "Sean O'Hair does FaceTime from his backyard, because all the courses around Philly are closed. But for all of them, the goal is the same as it is during the regular season. I want them to be self-sufficient. My job is to provide feedback—measurables and specifics—so they can learn from 'failure.' We're just using different tools right now."
Guss is doing the same with his collection of Korn Ferry, mini-tour and elite high school players from his home in Michigan—improvising to maintain relationships and improvement. "I've been using a combination of iPad and iPhone—I have them set up their phone to hit balls, and I video the swing on my iPad. The resolution isn't perfect, but I can send them the swing I just took and talk about what they're doing," says Guss, who's based at Hawk Hollow in Bath Township and Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc.
Though the format for lessons has changed, players are still separating themselves with their work ethic and determination. "The same handful of players that are texting all the time and are determined to work on their games and keep ready are the ones who wanted the most interaction in normal times," says Guss.
"As a player, when the going gets tough, you can sit back and wait for it to get better, or you can take advantage of the fact that that's what most other people are doing and push yourself ahead."
Dahlquist says his players, which include tour veterans like Charles Howell III, are looking at it the same way. "You're not in competition right now, so you don't need to make a score. There's an opportunity to work on your game, rest and improve your body," he says. For a player like Howell, that translates into daily video exchanges and FaceTime lessons. "All you need is a mat, a net and a decent signal."
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All three coaches say that this strange new period—how ever long it lasts—will have a profound (and positive) impact on how players and coaches work together going forward.
"Players are only going to get more comfortable communicating this way, and I've never been a big fan of the whole 'tour coach on the road' thing anyway," says Dahlquist, who is based at El Dorado Park Golf Course in Long Beach, Calif. "This is an avenue for people to do things more efficiently. A decade from now, this is probably what a whole lot of golf instruction is going to look like. We might as well be getting ready now."
Blackburn says the enforced break will put pressure on coaches to show they aren't just hand-holders—literally and figuratively—but are actually producing value for their player clients. That's a point Guss echoed almost exactly, saying he's looking at this time as way to work on his coaching skills in addition to helping his players.
"This has been awesome because it's making me a better communicator," says Guss. "There isn't the crutch of just grabbing somebody and moving them if they aren't getting it. There's no excuse not to come out of this with some improved skills, whether you're a player or a coach."