Mark Blackburn takes over for a legend by claiming the top spot in our latest teacher ranking
There’s a new face at the top of Golf Digest’s biennial 50 Best Teachers rankings, but if you’ve been watching any PGA Tour golf the last few years, it’s probably one you recognize. Mark Blackburn is the new No. 1 and recipient of the first-ever Butch Harmon Award, named for the longtime No. 1 who has graduated with the inaugural Golf Digest Legends class that also includes trailblazers like David Leadbetter, Jim McLean, Randy Smith and Hank Haney.
“It’s an honor to follow Butch Harmon as No. 1,” says Blackburn, who was also named the 2020 PGA Teacher and and Coach of the Year. “He’s the undisputed G.O.A.T., and he’s done it without a method. He teaches golf, not a set kind of golf swing, and all his players have done it differently. That’s something I’ve tried to pattern myself after.”
That’s evident in the styles of the Tour players Blackburn has under his care. The 48-year-old from Surrey, England works with, among others, Max Homa, Justin Rose and new student Collin Morikawa—who won his first start after the relationship began earlier this fall. At Marco Simone for the Ryder Cup, Blackburn was literally everywhere, ping-ponging between the American and European team rooms and practice areas working with both Homa and Rose. He had what might have been the most interesting seat in the house when he walked the match the two played against each other (Homa and Wyndham Clark won 17 and 18 to halve with Rose and Bob MacIntyre). Blackburn got even more airtime in between, where you could see him feeding balls to Homa in a Titleist commercial that got heavy rotation.
“My goal there was to work with Max and Justin as if each of them was my only assignment,” Blackburn says. “I wanted it to be seamless for them. For me, the worst-case scenario would be if they played each other, and that’s what ended up happening. The best you can do there is be Switzerland and hope they both play well, which, fortunately, they did.”
Blackburn runs his teaching operation at Greystone Golf & Country Club outside Birmingham, Alabama—not exactly a pro golf epicenter like Scottsdale, Jupiter or Dallas. He’s there for the quality of life it provides him and his family–wife Melissa and children Rex, Merrin and NIla—the ease of getting in and out of the airport and the command he has over his cutting-edge academy at Greystone, the host of the Regions Tradition on the PGA Tour Champions. Homa is unbothered when he comes for a visit, slugging his own clubs and staying in a guestroom at Blackburn’s house adjacent to the 11th green on Greystone’s Legacy Course.
The gregarious Blackburn thrives on the hectic and high-stakes nature of tour coaching, juggling two phones with persistent messages and swing videos from players and a travel schedule that sees him on the road 30 weeks a year. His style is a mix of modern data analysis and old-school human connection. “We’re in the days of objectivity. The data overwhelmingly shows what’s happening, and a player has to accept that he or she is what the data says,” he says. “One the other side, if you aren’t helping players get demonstrably better—better stats, better data, better scores, better finishes—it’s not going to work long-term.
“But unlike what you might hear on television or social media, it’s not as simple as telling somebody to fix this or that. Players interpret things differently, and they’re fundamentally different creatures than the rest of us,” he says. “The cameras are on, and the player is stressed and angry and swearing, and has to play an incredibly important round tomorrow and can’t hit the ball. What do you do? Personally, I love the adrenaline that comes from having to fix somebody in the crunch. That’s one of the greatest parts of coaching—and I think it’s where coaches sink or swim.”