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the new No. 1

Mark Blackburn reveals some of the teaching insights that propelled him to the top

December 14, 2023

Mark Blackburn might not have the ubiquitous name recognition of Butch Harmon, his immediate predecessor as Golf Digest's No. 1 teacher and headliner of the new class of Golf Digest Legends of Golf Instruction. But among his peers—and the PGA Tour's best players—the Alabama-based Blackburn has built a formidable reputation. The 2020 PGA Teacher & Coach of the Year was voted to the top spot for his work helping players break through (Max Homa) and find success again (Justin Rose and Collin Morikawa). Here, in his own words, Blackburn tells the story of his development as a coach, what it's like to work with elite players—and what you can do to hit better shots more often.

I was a 23-year-old from England living in Alabama trying to play on the Hooters Tour. A sponsor gave me a spot to practice and a place to live—in a room above the maintenance shed at his course—but I needed to earn money. I started giving lessons to anybody and everybody and learned how to break the language barrier (so to speak) by connecting with people and fixing loads of slices. As good as that experience was, I was determined to make it as a player. I was getting ready for Q school in 2000 when I tore a bunch of ligaments in my wrist and couldn’t even hold the club. I had to withdraw, and my sponsor sat me down for a hard talk. He wasn’t going to give me any more money to play golf, but I seemed pretty good at this teaching thing. If I wanted to give that a go, he would build me a facility to get things started.

I traveled the Hooters Tour with D.J. Nelson, who ended up as Heath Slocum’s caddie. In 2004, Heath was struggling with his game, and D.J. suggested Heath come talk to me. We worked together that week, and Heath ended up winning later that season. That was my golden ticket. He took a chance on me and turned into a phenomenal ball-striker. He even beat Tiger at the Barclays in a playoff event.

Golf is a small world, really. Robert Karlsson is from Sweden, but his caddie was somebody I had met through college golf. That was the link that got us together, and Robert became the No. 1 player in Europe in 2008. Four years later, Kevin Chappell asked Sean Foley for help, but Sean was busy with Tiger and suggested me instead. That started a nice 10-year run. I met Joe Greiner when he was Kevin’s caddie. Joe went on to work for Max Homa, and at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Max was struggling. Joe asked if I’d be willing to take a look. We identified the issue straight away, and Max wanted to test it, so we set up a round at nearby Westchester Country Club. He liked what I had to say, and he hit it great. I also happened to make a hole-in-one that day, which is a good marketing strategy but tough to repeat.

I started working with Justin Rose in November of 2022 when he was struggling with consistency. He had a lot of slide toward the target in his downswing, which makes it hard to control the low point of the swing. That almost always translates into having to manipulate the face to save shots. We fixed the issue, and you can eliminate that slide and get much more power and control by pushing off the ground more during the transition. You want to feel like you’re stuffing your toes into the front of your shoes at that point, and by the time the club gets here (above), push up, straightening your lead leg and feeling like your lead shoulder is pulling up, back and around. That lines up the club, so you can smash it.

If players know you come from a competitive background, it helps. If you can hit it decently far and shoot respectable scores, I think it gives you a different kind of credibility when compared to an instructor who comes at it more from an analytics or a data-driven perspective, without having the competitive experience.

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Teaching is part of coaching, but coaching isn’t necessarily part of teaching. If a player hasn’t got a mechanical skill, at some point he or she needs a mechanic to give them that skill. If a player can’t execute a shot, no amount of encouraging to go out and dig it out of the dirt is going to help.

Skills and strength marry together. You might love to hit driver and consider that a strength of your game, but if you’re a great driver, you’re going to have a lot of short irons into greens. If you can’t hit those shots well, that’s not good. Or, say you’re an aggressive player who goes at every flag.Practicing a 25-yard stock pitch from a tight lie in front of the green won’t help nearly as much as working on a lofted shot from deeper grass to a short-sided pin. See where this is going? What’s your best recipe for playing the game? Getting that right is the lowest hanging fruit for a player and coach.

When I saw Max, he was lifting his arms dramatically in the backswing, which prompted him to lose his posture in the downswing. He doesn’t have much shoulder flexion, and lifting his arms above his head is not easy. So by swinging back with less arm lift and getting it deeper behind him, he gets the face in a much stronger position. He rotates through and hits these low lasers with his wedges. If you struggle with wedges, think of it as a body swing instead of an arm swing. Take some set out of your wrists and use more rotation.

Coaches and players have lots of different deals. Mine’s not complicated. It’s 5 percent. If you can help a player win another million, $50,000 is a no brainer, right?

I’ve screened lots of tour players who don’t have ideal movement patterns, but they know how to apply force to the ball at the right time. That can work if you’re an incredible athlete with elite talent. Most of us aren’t that, so find a coach who will help you build a realistic body-swing connection. Ninety percent of the PGA Tour can’t move like Rory. Trying to copy somebody is almost always folly.

How do I feel about Instagram instruction? There’s so much great information out there thanks to social media, but you have to be careful. If you go to a pharmacy, there are lots of incredible drugs there that can help you, but if you take the wrong drug, it’s poison. Instagram has been good for my business. Lots of people take good information, apply it in a less-than-ideal way, and get into a pickle. It’s an opportunity for me.

It’s an honor to follow Butch Harmon as No. 1. He’s the undisputed GOAT, and he’s done it without a method. He teaches people, not a set kind of swing, and all his players have done it differently. That’s something I’ve tried to pattern my coaching after.

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