Inside the ropes

How many tour golf coaches can break 80?

"The dirty secret is a number were never remotely competitive"


This article originally appeared in The Undercover Newsletter, where we grant anonymity to people who work in golf who’ve got something to say. Here a legendary coach is interviewed by Senior Writer Matthew Rudy. You can sign up via Golf Digest+ to make sure you receive this newsletter regularly.

If you want to get some uncomfortable looks, or start an argument on X, ask some of the prominent younger tour coaches that got so much screen time at the U.S. Open in Pinehurst the last time they played an 18-hole round, and what they shot.

The dirty little secret is that a significant number of coaches were never remotely competitive as players, even in high school or college. There's a reason why you don't ever see many of them hit a shot on any of their social media channels. And they obviously never tried to put food on the table with the quality of their playing. It's one area where they just can't relate to a PGA Tour or LIV player who is teeing it up for tens of millions of dollars.

Does that matter? It's a good question, and one I've thought about a lot over the last decade. I'm from a different generation, where a teacher's ability to demonstrate a technique—and essentially back up words with action—was a baseline qualification for the job. Butch Harmon is a perfect example: He comes from a family of golf instructors who all played the game at a high level. His father won a major as a club professional, and Butch also won out on tour. Playing success doesn't mean you're automatically going to know how to relate to people and give them the right information, but nobody will ever question Butch's credibility or authority to give an opinion.

I'm proud of my own playing record, and it's still important to me to be competitive in the few events I play every year—and the friendly rounds I play with the handful of PGA Tour players I coach. There's no question a part of my message gets through differently after I hit it inside my major-champion-winning client with a long iron on a 240-yard par-3. There are certainly a few younger coaches who have proven they can move it, and I’m sure it’s an asset when they deal with their players. Short game coach Parker McLachlin is a PGA Tour winner. Boyd Summerhays played on some great teams at Oklahoma State and made it to the tour before moving into coaching, and Mark Blackburn was a good college player who tried to play pro golf before getting injured, to name just a few.

But golf is changing just like every other sport. Look at the way coaching works in the NFL. The head coach has to be a CEO, strategist and psychologist, and those skills don't necessarily come from playing at a high level. Bill Belichick was a better lacrosse player than football player at Wesleyan University, and he never sniffed the NFL as a player. The authority he had in the New England Patriots locker room didn’t have anything to do with whether he could block somebody or throw the ball 60 yards downfield. Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel probably isn’t relating to his players by telling them what it was like playing wide receiver at Yale.

The "tour golf coach" job just has some different qualifications now. Getting—and keeping—a player's attention in a world where there is so much more distraction is a key skill. You must be able to promote your personality and your ideas clearly and convincingly on social media. And understanding all the data that's now available and helping a player navigate it is absolutely required if you want to successfully coach a player under, say, 30 years old. Look at what's happening between Viktor Hovland and Joseph Mayo. Hovland found Mayo on social media, tested him out and liked Mayo's take. Viktor even said at the Tour Championship last year that he loved the fact that Mayo literally never watches professional golf! Does it matter that I could give Mayo five shots a side and bet him my life savings without losing a minute of sleep? Hovland not only liked what he got in a season when he won $35 million, but also got back together with Mayo before the PGA this year after some time apart.

I will say that one place personal playing experience—and straight up teaching experience—comes more into play is when things start to go poorly. When you've played in high level competitive events, you have a visceral understanding of how things change when the gun goes off. I know what it's like to make a birdie on the 18th hole to win a national event, and also to collapse coming down the stretch. Those experiences make you very aware of how easy it is to do too much—or absorb too much. Insurance agencies across America are filled with players who were good enough to get out on tour but couldn't stick. For many of them, it isn't because they couldn't hit the shots. It's because they weren't mentally strong enough or mature enough to identify what parts of their game and themselves should not change.

That's the part that worries me about some of the very tech-focused teachers who don't have that playing experience. Don't get me wrong. I love golf science, and my studio is filled with cutting edge technology. But producing perfect launch monitor data on a driving range isn't the same as playing golf. Knowing what not to tell a player is almost as important as what you do say. Rickie Fowler didn't come out of his struggles because Butch Harmon figured out what TrackMan and force plate information to show him. Rickie started playing better because Butch used his authority to get Rickie to believe again.

Reading people, relating to them and giving them the information they need at the right time is how I would define great coaching at the tour level. I don't think you need to shoot in the 60s yourself to do that. But I'm glad I can still do it.