The Big Golf Teacher Breakup

Ending a Golf Affair Ain’t As Easy As It Looks

breakup-butchBrad and Angelina may be headed to court, but their split is nothing compared to the anguish of when student and golf instructor part ways.

Nick Faldo sending a terse fax to David Leadbetter ending a 13-year relationship that produced six majors. David doesn’t even get to visit the trophies. Tiger Woods and Butch Harmon’s split — two greats in golf with egos to match. Tiger left Butch for another instructor who ended that relationship when Tiger needed him most, and then wrote a tell-all book about Tiger’s foibles and passions. Butch recovered by bringing Phil Mickelson into his fold. They had a lot of good times including the 2013 British Open, but they drifted apart when Phil couldn’t find a fairway. At least Phil told Butch face to face that he’d been seeing another instructor. Afterward, they issued statements saying they would always be friends, but Butch, having suffered two major losses, seemed shaken.

These breakups must have been hard. I should know. I need to break up with my golf instructor, Bruce. I just can’t find the right words or time to say goodbye. I think he knows that our relationship is over, but we are staying together out of respect, and for the sake of the money I have spent. Although I have been playing golf for several decades, Bruce was the first instructor with whom I made a serious commitment. Sure, I’ve been with other instructors, but Bruce felt like the one.

I had lived a sheltered golfing life. My parents didn’t have money for golf lessons, and I was a bit shy and awkward around golf professionals. Like many aspiring golfers, I tried to figure it out on my own, usually with a golf magazine in hand and imagining what it would be like to be with some noted instructor. I was a golf instruction romantic, hoping to find the one that would propel me to golfing bliss or at least to a scratch handicap.

breakup-tigerIn the 1980s, I read Jimmy Ballard’s How to Perfect Your Golf Swing and was smitten. The weekend after reading the book, I shot 67 and 65—never to be repeated. (The course was not hard.) Of course, hoping to have Jimmy Ballard as my instructor was a lot to ask. He had been with plenty of other golfers, and he had a reputation for being difficult, but I found myself attracted to “rebel” instructors. Jimmy had taken on the golfing establishment with his radical connection and “fire the right side” philosophy. Of course, the fact that he charged $250 per hour and only worked with some of the best players in the game was going to be a challenge. Okay, I probably had as much chance of Jimmy becoming my instructor as I had scoring a date with Nicole Kidman, but a fella can dream. (Nicole, call me.) Jimmy did let me come and visit him, along with a dozen other students at Doral. We spent three wonderful days in the Florida sun, but we knew it would never last because I couldn’t afford to see him and he had no interest in seeing me. I will always cherish the time we spent together.

After two decades of golf instruction abstinence, I fell for another instructor. My golf game was a hopeless mess, and on the advice of a mutual friend, I was introduced to David Lee via his book Gravity Golf. Although David had produced a video series about his theories, I only knew about his method from his sales booth in Concourse B at the Atlanta Airport. I don’t want to sound snobbish, but I was hesitant to work with an instructor I met while waiting in a boarding line, but David was another golf instructing rebel with concepts like “counterfall” and tension-free arms. Despite endorsements from Nicklaus and Trevino, establishment instructors said he was no good — just what I was looking for. After reading his book, I immediately started finding fairways, and a few years later met up with him in a remote location in the Arkansas woods. David had a golf course and driving range in Royal, Arkansas, which was so remote that my GPS couldn’t find it. Several winding country roads led to an opening in a patch of trees; it felt like a golfing Deliverance. David and I were the only ones there. I paid for a one-hour lesson, $150, but David spent at least three hours with me. What followed was several months of the best ball striking of my life, but David and I were destined for a long-distance relationship, and like most of these relationships, we didn’t last. I sent him a few videos, and we talked on the phone, but whatever we had was lost. Unable to spend quality time together, my game slowly stagnated and fell into a state of unsatisfying mediocrity.

Several years later, after playing 36 holes of hapless golf that included one birdie and five double bogeys, I made a 30-minute appointment with a local pro. Dean was top-ranked instructor, and I walked onto the lesson tee, forlorn.

“You have 30 minutes to straighten me out or I’m quitting the game,” I blurted out.

He laughed. Dean worked on my alignment and gave me a putting tip, but it didn’t help. I should have quit the game, but I was still a fool for it. Although Dean could not help me, he was fun to work with, and this fling made me believe that I could still find “the one.” I still see Dean every once in a while on the driving range, and we smile like friends who shared something special, but know we could never be together.

breakup-mickelsonOne night while surfing YouTube, I came across a three-minute video with Bruce. Bruce was a well-established instructor who taught a number of professionals and noted amateurs. He was also just 15 minutes away, and I made an appointment for the next day.

Bruce was probably in his early ’60s, but appeared at least 80. He looked and acted like Max Von Sydow in a bright yellow golf shirt and plaid pants. Wearing a white boonie golf hat, he watched me hit a few shots. He was a serious instructor who provided no entertainment, or praise for that matter. My jokes were met with silence. He filmed me from a couple of angles and then he took me to his office. When he displayed my swing on his television next to Tiger Woods’, it was obvious why one of us was the greatest golfer who ever lived. My posture was too upright, my swing too long, my arms too all over the place. We went to work, and I was infatuated. Bruce put me in positions I never imagined I would try, and by the end of the lesson, I was convinced I had found my match. What he wanted me to do would be difficult, but I was ready to do whatever he asked. I texted my wife to say I had found the one.

“I think I am in love with an 80-year-old man,” I wrote.

“If he likes to cook and clean, bring him home,” she replied, showing little concern that this fling would last.

I signed up for a series of five lessons. I practiced for hours and struck the ball with an authority that made me believe I was destined for greatness. Like any relationship, however, there were some early signs of problems. While my range-ball striking was excellent, my on-course performance was pathetic, and I started to experience back pain, which had never been a problem. Still, I knew we were on the path of instructor-student bliss. I signed up for 10 more lessons, even though Bruce seemed surprised by this. Was he a commitment phobic? I was giving our relationship my best effort, but he seemed distant and disinterested.

My game slowly got worse. Hitting a fairway was now novel. A green in regulation was a surprise. The relationship that had started with such promise now felt stifling. I began to think more and more about other instructors. I would surf the net, just out of curiosity. Then one day on the range, I watched Raoul, another local instructor, giving a lesson. I snuck up and hit a bucket of balls next to Raoul and his student. His student’s swing was impressive, clearly the result of Raoul’s knowledgeable instruction. Was it wrong of me to stare? Every golfer looks occasionally, right? As my game drifted into freefall, I thought more and more about Raoul, and after one particularly frustrating nine holes, I picked up the phone and called him.

I felt a little guilty, but Bruce and I had grown apart when it came to my golf swing. Raoul was glad I called and offered me a discrete 7 a.m. appointment at his indoor facility. I had never taken a lesson indoors and was a little nervous, but Raoul put me at ease. He was probably the same age as Bruce, but lookeded much younger. He drove up in a pristine Toyota Highlander and was dressed in a bright orange shirt with matching shoes and white shorts. His black hair was firmly in place and contrasted with his bleached white, crooked smile. Raoul’s studio used multiple cameras from different angles. The videos quickly revealed my problems—my stance was so wide that I could not turn my hips. I told Raoul about my frustrations with Bruce, but he didn’t judge. “Sometimes you just need a different set of ideas,” he said. His gentle, caring manner was a refreshing change from Bruce’s humorless admonishments. At the end of the lesson, I knew that Bruce and I were through, but I was not willing to get into a committed relationship with Raoul just yet. Raoul offered me a series of lessons at a discount, but I told him I had been hurt doing this before. We needed to take our relationship slow.

How could I tell Bruce that we were through? At breakfast the next morning, my wife looked at me and said, “You’re thinking about Bruce aren’t you — and what’s for dinner.” She knows me well. I confessed she was right. I had been thinking about what to say to Bruce. “Bruce, you are a great instructor. You are really just too good for me.” Or “Bruce, it’s me, not you. I am just not willing to work hard enough to make this relationship work.” My wife rolled her eyes. “You are not going to breakup over a text,” she scolded. Alas, I owed him an explanation, plus I had paid for seven more lessons.

I would like to say that I was honest with Bruce, got my money back, and parted as friends, but I can’t. I am still with Bruce although we are in separate places in regards to my swing. Someday I will use up the remaining lessons and move on. I will always treasure the time that Bruce and I spent together, but in the end, this relationship, like most, just cost me a lot of money and left me literally lost in the woods.

I have learned a few things about golf instructor relationships through all of this. First, I learned that I was putting too much pressure on my instructors. No golf instructor was going to complete me as a golfer. We enter our golfing life alone, and no one can hit the ball for us. The only person who responsible for your improvement is yourself. I wanted to find “the one” who would take me to golfing paradise, but the best any golfer can hope for is a few tips that will help them on their journey. Another thing I learned is that no instructor has some secret to great golf. I just Googled “golf secret” and got 121,000,000 hits. Either golf’s secrets are not secret or there really aren’t any secrets, and pursing some magical solution to golfing woes will cost you a lot of time and money. Golf is still a game of stance, grip, and posture and swinging the club and hitting the ball. Beyond that, it is figuring out what works for you. Finally, I realized that I just need to start having a little more fun playing golf. After all, it is just a game.

Who am I kidding? I just read about this pro in Denver who promises to cut your handicap in half in four easy lessons. Where did I put my Mastercard?

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