Coaching the Elite Golfer

January 6th, 2011 by John Graham Leave a reply »

Coaching the Elite GolferCoaching the ‘Elite’ Golfer – One Coaches Experience(not me)

“A relatively new relationship with a tour player came to an end this week (sometime in 2010) after a run of missed cuts.  A few emails back and forth failed to resolve anything but I thought I’d share the experience perhaps as a warning or to add some awareness to those who aspire to teach at this level.”

“I’ll try not to go into too much detail regarding the work we did together but will share the resulting facts as a basis for this piece. This player was struggling for distance, especially with driver. With an average carry of 248 yards he knew he was lagging behind his contemporaries.  His Trackman numbers read -5º Attack Angle, HSP -5º with a Club Path erring a little on the negative side but close to 0º. For those unfamiliar with Trackman terminology, HSP stands for Horizontal Swing Plane, which is the direction the plane is pointing at low point and Club Path is the direction the plane is pointing at impact (see D Plane).  A negative Attack Angle is a downward strike and a negative HSP or Club Path is a direction to the left of the target (positive numbers are directions right of the target).  With tour average Attack Angles less than -2º it was clear what was required.  He was swinging down on the ball too much for the distance he wanted based on his swing speed.”

Fast forward to a final practice a couple of weeks ago and we saw these numbers 0º Attack Angle, HSP 1º & path around 1º. This change in numbers picked up close to 30 yards carry, the one issue he was having was controlling the face. Here’s a picture of his Trackman Data:

Trackman Data

Come to present day once again and I receive the dreaded email… I’m too inside, shut face and too short… the ‘method’ you teach just doesn’t suit me… All this after a 6 degree change in club path and a 5 degree change in attack angle with the appropriate increase in distance associated with better impact conditions.  Supposedly, this ‘method’ always has too much downward for the driver. Some might want to investigate that point again.

Getting back to the players concerns about face control, “I’m going on record to point out that I highlighted the precise reasons for this on numerous occasions.  From very early on, I had to keep on at him to not pull the clubhead inside which tended to alter the left wrist condition he set at address, de-lofting and making it more difficult to avoid a closed face and impeded left wrist cock at the top of the swing. For a while he got this pretty well but didn’t seem to appreciate the importance of fighting this habit.  Looking back, I must consider what I could have done to convey this matter in a more significant way.”

“So, what happens when the player starts to struggle a bit? The whispers begin from other coaches and players. You(the coach) become the scapegoat, your beliefs become the problem and you lose a player. You start to question what you could have done differently and you question your desire to constantly put your neck out on the line . From there it goes one of two ways, either the information you gave was bad or the player just couldn’t do what you wanted, it’s a lose/lose.

If you’re at all thin skinned with a tendency to producing grey hairs at the slightest worry I have three words for you.”

Don’t do it.



  1. Another great piece John.
    I’m not even going to pretend I have a clue what you’re talking about in terms of the technical remit, however the final parargraph is spot on when you refer to the potential ‘lose/lose’ scenario.
    My mentor gave me a piece of advice which has stayed with me. When your coaching reaches a particuar level, in this case coaching the elite player, get real comfortable with being judged….all the time!
    I’ve had a few players walk away, some blamed me 100% for not delivering instant success, others admitting they didn’t do the tasks we discussed, others because in hindsight, I made mistakes.

    I took all this on board, regrouped and went again. 2 years down the road, I have no fear of having a crack at the elite. I’ll be judged, talked about and will go through periods of self doubt as a resut. But it’s what I do, it’s what you do John.
    Added challenge I’ve found is often, the majority of players have no reference of what I do….so it’s a constant remit of explaining how it could work for them BEFORE they hire me.
    I’m pleased you posted this article John because the public perception of ‘how it looks’….is often very different to the inside story. Keep sharing this stuff John, sure to aid all coaches, whatever ‘level’ they coach at.

    I’m sure one of the factors for your success John is how transparent you make your approach….players can take or leave your content but they certainly know where they stand.
    That’s a great skill to have John, keep up the solid work….I remain impressed!

  2. Jeffery Passage says:

    Thanks for the post. It is interesting to hear what happens with Tour players. So, it sounds like the elite players may be just as stubborn to forego an old habit as the high handicappers? What I wouldn’t give for a 248 yard drive!

  3. Jay Reid says:


    I think the majority of instructors feel like they want to coach tour players. This is in a number of instructors mind the only way you can be successful. I know from a personal standpoint that I work to improve the non tour player. They will play more golf and enjoy your efforts more also. I must say that I would enjoy teaching someone that plays on one of the big tours and if it happens that is fine. I will not go looking for that player however.

    Your post are great and the information you provide is helpful in many ways. Thank you for another nice post and may 2011 be a blessed year for you and your family.

    Jay Reid

  4. Bob says:


    In a smaller way you described what in my opinion happened to Tiger and his relationship with Hank. Tiger’s head wasn’t right and as a result he couldn’t find the winners circle with a map. It’s amazing to me given what we now know about Tiger activities prior to the crash that he was able to succeed at all much less be the dominant player he was. Credit for that in no small measure must be attributed to Hank and his efforts.

    I seldom see a player of better ability accept responsibility for his part in the problem. Your tour player and Tiger prove my point.

    Great post

  5. John Graham says:

    Just wanted to remind all the readers out there that this is not my story but a story of a friend of mine. They wished to remain anonymous but that everyone would be interested to read the story.

    Thanks for the flattery though =)


  6. Meindert Jan says:

    I know it’s not your story John ;-)

    I would just like to say that i’ve seen from close by how difficult it is to coach Tourplayers and/or find a place on Tour as a coach, certainly when you’re not ‘born in’ to the job. It’s extremely difficult and you’re always treading a very thin line … there are too many forces beyond once’s control.
    Just keep plotting along, building experience, picking your chances, building a network of equal-minded …. hard work that requires stamina and perseverance ….
    We’ll come back in 5 years and see how things have come along

    (btw it’s not me either ;- )

  7. DrGolf says:

    Good post John…I can always rely on you as putting things in the proper perspective.

    I have built my career around coaching junior golfers for the very reason this article was written. It started 18 years ago…and I am just now beginning to get a couple of players on each Tour. They have been with me the whole way….and I hope that this never changes. My focus will never leave the junior market….because in my mind…that is true coaching. Taking a player from age 8 to the Tour is the best coaching you can do, from an Elite Players perspective. Ever notice how many tour professionals end up going back to their original junior coach or mentor? It happens all the time. In 2010, I’ll have 3 on the PGA Tour, 3 on the LPGA Tour and 18 on the Nationwide, Hooters, eGolf and Futures Tour. They all started with me prior to the age of 17, but most have been with me since they were 14 or less. One of my students who just qualified for the PGA Tour at OCN is 22 years old and I have been coaching him since he was 5. Yes, we have had our ups and downs…..but never to the point of splitting. Maybe one day, he will leave me….but i will never give up the time that we have spent together gettting him to his dream….we are a formidable team.

    I prefer to actually not coach already established players……I would rather take them from day 1 to their ultimate goals. Besides….you create friendships with families and your clients that last a lifetime.

    Great article…..Keep it up!

  8. Ron Martin says:

    I love it! Although I have never worked with a “Big” tour player, I currently work with our section number one senior and a perennial top 5 that has the potential to the PGA Tour and we have gone around and around over what they perceive as my ” method”

    I use to lose sleep until I realized that wasn’t me, it’s them. With elite players they could play with almost any method, but more so than the average amateur, they want a magic bullet. They don’t want to hear that it’s about the development and refinement of skill. I thought I was the only coach in the world that taught people to “play golf” not the golf “swing”. Then I heard about a book called Easier Said Than Done” by Rick Jensen. It’s basically a text book on how to take golf instruction. I’m seriously thinking about making it required reading before I start a lesson program.

    Be prepared to have a lot of potential clients walk away because they don’t want to hear the stuff in this book. But the reality is that you probably couldn’t help that person anyway.


  9. John Graham says:


    I agree. Easier Said than Done should be required reading for all students.

    Great Book.


  10. John Graham says:

    Thanks Dr Golf,

    I can only imagine what it would be like to take a kid from 5, get him to the tour and then have him say back to me that I don’t believe in your ‘method’ anymore.

    Would be tough to swallow.

    Sounds like you are a great coach.

    Keep it going.


  11. DrGolf says:


    I have had players leave me for other instructors before. After 18 years of coaching….you come to a point where you just let it slide and move on. Sometimes it hurts when you see that person move on and they progressively get worse with various instructors…because it is in a coaches nature to care about players in the game, regardless of whether they are with you or with someone else.

    I’ve prepared myself for the day that one of my players that has been with me since junior golf finds a new method and gets excited about it…..and leaves me for additional coaching. I have always been captivated by what my two great coaches (Davis Love Jr. and Claude Harmon Sr.) taught me in the game as a junior golfer….they both said the same thing. The coaches are always meant to be behind the players, regardless of the circumstances. The more knowledge that a player acquires from multiple people over the course of their lifetime, the better off that they will ultimately be, if their life is very balanced. I agree with what they both mentored me about. So if one of my players leaves me for another coach… takes the “my player” and makes it “my friend”. Nothing could ever take away what I did for a junior golfer who made it that far…..regardless of who their new coach is. It is imperative, with all of the jealousies amongst coaches in this crazy game of golf, that we always remember what we did to help the player we had in front of us, both as a golfer and as a person.

  12. John Graham says:

    Dr Golf,

    That was so well written. I love it when coaches display a behavior that clearly shows the student as the primary importance. I think it sometimes gets forgotten that the coach never hits any of the shots.

    I wished all beginning teachers would read this and adopt your attitude.


  13. John Graham says:


    Best reply so far.

    I completely agree.


  14. David Wurzer says:


    Most players taking lessons are looking for magic. They have no idea of the research on changing behavior especially behaviors they have been using for years. Understanding the process of changing a behavior should be explained to the player. Most do not understand it takes time to change any behavior. Ask Tiger! You give the student your best.

    How many tour players would be much better if they stuck to the one that got them there?


  15. Jason Helman says:

    Very Good JG. If I could throw my 2 cent in. I haven’t read all the above comments yet.

    I have worked with several guys in various capacities and enjoyed every single experience and continue to do so. The key thing in working with a tour player is to build a solid friendship and working relationship and make sure you can both distinguish between the two. It’s the coaches job to to coach and instruct, there is a difference between them. Instructing is the easier part of the two. Identify, Present, Focus on the process, apply practice and voila desired result or continue to work on the process until the player gets it. Most do, the question is whether or not they can build trust in it and repeat. This is where the coaching part comes into it. Being able to “take control “of the player and manage their expectations, frustrations, ego or attitude is the key! In the end the player has to believe in the coach and have the ability to tune out any outside negative influences such as other coaches in some cases trying to steal a player or other players that think their coaches.

    Depending on the person, if a player has too much knowledge I believe it can be more harmful than beneficial. i.e. Reversion or more trial & Error.

  16. John Graham says:


    I thought that was an excellent comment as well. I’m excited to know that if I ever work with a tour player, that I will be able to come back here and study all this great advice.

    I hope other teachers will find these comments as useful as I have.


  17. Motleygolf says:

    Really good read.

    sometimes as coaches we have to take things on the chin.

    in years to come if i am ever at this level in my coaching i have saved this peice and shall look back on it.

    would love to see more of this JG

  18. John Graham says:


    Thanks doesn’t go to me as I am just retelling anothers story.

    I will look back on this also if it ever becomes applicable.


  19. Ron Martin says:

    I’d like to get some feedback from you guys on an issue.

    When I meet a prospect one of my first questions is if they have taken lessons before. Then the progression goes something like this:
    1. Who have you taken from?
    2. Are you currently working with them?
    3. If not, why?

    Typically the offer most of the answers without having to ask them. Many times they come to me for just another set of eyes. But I make it clear that I won’t take them on unless they are prepared to make a clean break. I believe in one voice. Thats just me. I have a Top 50 guy that will take a student no matter what. He charges $200 and all ge cares about is the $$$$$$.

    I care too much about reputation to just allow my clients to jump around from teacher to teacher. I also respect my fellow PGA members to much to not give them a heads up when a student of theirs comes to me.

    I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me when a student leaves me for another instructor. But if they feel like it’s not working hopefully our relationship is such that they are not afraid to talk about it with me. I can’t tell you how many prospects have come to me wanting lessons but dont want their former instructor to find put because they don’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s a shame because I hope I don’t make people feel that way.

    If someone is not getting it it’s typically my fault. I should have done a better job of explaining to them in the beggining of how it’s going to be. I find myself turning away more prospects because of the vibe I get in the Eval/ interview. It’s much easier to get it all out in the open at the start, that way everyone knows what the expectations are.

    I just wish that everyone would respect the professional ettiquet that is supposed to exist.
    has come to me without

  20. Ron Martin says:

    Sorry about the length and poor grammar and spelling. I can’t spell check in my iPhone.

  21. Martin Chuck says:

    John, in hind sight would you have trained the fellow differently?? Just now reading the post, I can see where you wanted to fix the down and across to help his distance, but his “down and across” gave him some face control buffer to hit the peeler and find the ball. (assuming he didn’t hit toe draws) Not good, but “comfort food” for a lot of guys hitting driver. Even if you flipped that buffer around to 5 up, 5 out with a 2.5 open face, hitting long high draws, he may have never trusted the aim and optics of the change. Tough to change optics. Love reading your stuff. You are an admirable coach indeed.

  22. Adam Young says:

    Nice article John. I have seen the difficulties of teaching top level golfers and trying to tie in theory with practice. It’s unfortunate that the coach is the first one to get it in the neck – I have also seen this. What is more unfortunate is when other coaches attack another coach. Sure, of course ‘their method’ would have worked, undoubtedly.

    I suppose coaching golf at the highest level is like playing golf at the highest level. you have more to lose by smaller mistakes. But I suppose it’s what we play and coach for.

  23. John, thanks for putting your neck out there. Forgive them they know not what they do. This guy should realize that changes that big aren’t going to systemize over a short period of time. You deserve better players to help.

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