Why Old School Golf Coaching Matters

Technology Is Great, But Nothing Beats Learning By Playing
golf coaching tom patri
Tom Patri
golf coaching barry goldstein
Barry Goldstein

Barry Goldstein and Tom Patri have a lot in common. They are both golf instructors, with more than 60 years of experience between them. They both reside in South Florida for much of the year — Goldstein on the Atlantic side, where he teaches at Inverrary Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Patri on the Gulf side, where he teaches at the Esplanade in Naples (he moves north to teach on Long Island during summer). They share Northeast Roots. They love the game as much now as when they first picked up a club. They’re both Golf Tips Top 30 Instructors who believe in golf coaching, in building a deep relationship with their students.

Of course, they’re different in many ways, too. For one thing, Goldstein has never been a PGA Member, whereas Patri has been one for decades, racking up accolades along the way including Met PGA Teacher of the Year and South Florida Teacher of the Year. Long before that he was the 1981 NCAA Division II lndividual National Champion, while much of Goldstein’s collegiate glory came through his daughter, a standout player at LSU.

These two long-timers agree on many things, but one shared fear, based in fact, is this: that the very business of golf coaching — is in jeopardy thanks to the flood of technology that has overrun practice tees over the past 15 years. Raw, cold numbers spewing from TrackMan and other swing measurement gadgets have replaced feel and sensory savvy on the front lines of the battle for Old Man par. That’s not entirely a bad thing, particularly on the PGA and LPGA Tour fronts (though so many swings look suspiciously similar these days), but as far as they’re concerned, if today’s techie teachers don’t temper their digital addiction with flesh-and-blood real-world relational teaching, the student may not stick around long — and perhaps give up the game altogether. Numbers matter, but the human touch matters more.

I sat down with Goldstein and Patri to discuss the stage of golf instruction, how they built their own teaching philosophies and why, in the end, having fun is the ultimate goal for all golfers.

OVER-TAUGHT, UNDER-COACHED

You guys have been around the horn a few times. You’ve seen technology take over, or threaten to take over, the teaching game. So many guys are obsessed with getting up to 115 miles per hour swing speed, and that makes sense at the highest level, but what about with the students you see?

Patri: I always say this with the guys I hang around: I think golf in 2018 is really over-taught and under-coached. I think the numbers are relevant important, but when they become an obsession and you forget how to play the game and hit shots and score, you get into very dangerous waters. Most good junior players are fabulous talents, athletic, but they can’t hit partial shots, knockdown shots, they can’t shape the ball very well, they can’t play in the wind very well. I think we’re going in the wrong direction by having them stare at a video screen all the time.

Goldstein: I love the comment “overtaught and undercoached.” What I see a lot of people teaching golf swings on mats, with computers, never out on the golf course, never on grass, never teaching people how to play the game.

At the highest level, the TrackMan helped Dustin Johnson dial in his wedge distance. But 99 percent of people being taught that way won’t even continue to play golf because they’re not learning how to enjoy the game, play it out on the course.

A couple years ago I was at Dallas Athletic Club to watch my daughter play for LSU against SMU. There were 18 teams there. She played very well, finished second. Right after the event finished a guy came up to me and asked if I would take a look at his teaching area. I said I’d be right over after the awards ceremony. He was a young kid, nice kid, 30 years old. He had everything at his beautiful teaching facility — TrackMan, everything. But it’s a hitting bay, though the driving range out in front of him is grass. I asked him if he was busy. He said not at all. “If I give five or six lessons a week …”

‘Golf In 2018 Is Overtaught and Undercoached. The Numbers Are Important, But When You Forget How To Play The Game And Score, You Get Into Dangerous Waters.’ — Tom Patri


“Do you ever go out and play with people?” No.

“Do you ever just hang around the pro shop and asked people how they scored, what they shot, and hand them your card?”

He said, “I never do that. I basically hang out here, put all my stuff out, the TrackMan, so people can see it, and I wait for them to come over and take a lesson.”

I was just dead honest with him. I said, “I like to eat steak, not McDonalds. You’re going to be waiting a long time. Go out and play golf with these people. Can you break 80? Go out and show them how to be a player. You’re going about it the wrong way.”

Patri: The problem with most of those kids is that they can’t break 80. They have no credibility. I’m not saying all of them, but a lot of them hide behind that video screen. They hide behind the TrackMan, or V1 video, or K-Vest. They can’t go out and demonstrate how to hit a bunker shot, or how to hit a cut or a high draw, how to create a score, how to recover from a problem area.

We learned how to play golf as kids on the golf course. We learned how to, when we hit one in the trees, hit a knockdown under a branch and still make par. These kids are standing on the range and looking at their numbers. They hit it beautifully, make beautiful swings and hit beautiful shots, but they can’t shoot a score, a number. That’s great — you know what you should do? Go join a driving range and hang out! Who cares if you can hit it 320. You can’t play. Who cares!

Goldstein: Tom was a national champion in college. Our generations were always players first and then we realized, hey, we can’t play this game at the highest level, but I want to be around it — I’m gonna teach. I think there’s a lot of young guys, age 21, who decide they want to teach golf. That’s what they’re going to do for a living. They want to be a Top 100 teacher. There’s no way that was the case when Tom and I were younger. Guys in their fifties, we all played golf. Brady Riggs, a peer of ours, played golf. Never in a million years did I think I’d teach golf for a living. It hadn’t dawned on me. But these kids, that’s what they grow up wanting to do. They have no experience playing in tournaments, that’s fine, except for the fact that they’re not teaching people how to play golf, how to shoot, say, 83 for a recreational golfer. They get stuck shooting 100 or 97, and they don’t enjoy it that much.

As far as Tour players go, a lot of them work with coaches who may not be PGA of America members. You guys have worked with some of them, too — who are on the periphery of the system.

Goldstein: Yeah, like Butch Harmon or Jimmy Ballard. Wonderful, special teachers. That says a  lot. I don’t think Dave Pelz is a member, either [Golf Tips research could find no clue that he is, though he does work with the organization on various teaching schools]. Some of the greatest have not been members, and there are guys like Tom who are.

OLD SCHOOL STANDBYS

Let’s shift gears. Tom has written about this: things he’s learned through the years from “old school” teachers and Tour players like Seve Ballesteros. Can you name some of the old school stuff you guys still incorporate into your teaching?

Patri: People ask me what are my theories or methods. I say I don’t have a method or a theory, I believe in sound fundamentals. Everything that happens in golf is either a cancer or a cure of the set-up. If your lines are good, your ball position us good, you’re gripping the club reasonably, you can orient your body and have good posture, you have a helluva fighting chance. If a person grips the club poorly, or they aim too far to the right, have the ball too far back in the stance, or they’re standing too far from the golf ball, I think they have a really poor chance. If you gave Adam Scott the set-up of 90 percent of the people that Barry and I teach, he’d be bankrupt. If you gave those same 90 percent Adam Scott’s set-up, they’d be 10 shots better tomorrow.

‘I See A Lot Of Guys Who Are 28 Years Old Who Have Been Teaching A Couple Years And I Worry About Them. I Don’t Know How They’re Gonna Make A Living.’ — Barry Goldstein

I start there, and then I look at somebody face-on: How they’re distributing their weight, how they’re turning their body, how they’re balancing themselves. Then I look at them down the line: What the club is doing, where is it going, what’s its orientation, where is the club face. So once I get those two views and see if they can walk and chew gum, I can start the lesson.

Goldstein: Like Tom I’m a huge fundamentalist. I think the reason I’m always busy is that I’m able to make people better. You’re not just giving lessons, where you never see the person again. I get a lot of repeat business because I’m very into, you know, grip, aim, stance, posture, ball position, swing plane. But you ask what I do that’s old school — I don’t even know if it is old school.

Just today I had a lesson. I could do the same thing on a TrackMan, but I knew this young man, a talented player, was hitting the ball off the toe of the club, simply by the sound and where the ball was going. So rather than hook him up on a FlightScope or TrackMan, I simply grabbed one of the stickers TaylorMade sends me every year, put it on his club face, had him hit five shots, and every one of them was on the toe. So I moved him a half-inch closer to the ball. Everything was on the sweet spot after that. I guess that’s old school. A 25-year-old kid would have used TrackMan to do that.

Patri: What a miraculous lesson! Isn’t that unbelievable.

Goldstein [laughter]: He started flushing everything after that. He loved me. And it was someone I’d taught before. Stuff like that, I guess is considered old school. But this is horrible, and Tom will agree with me: I’ve actually heard young guys say that grip is not a fundamental. Every lesson I give, I look at the grip immediately. It just tells me so much about the golfer and where the ball is gonna go. But I’ve heard so many young guys stay grip is not a fundamental because there are so many different styles.

Patri: One of the things I say to people all the time is, if you’re a student of mine and we’ve been together for a long time, and in some part of our journey together — if you come to me and some part of our lesson is not about the set-up, you should fire me right away.

Goldstein: Amen. You know, the first day I worked for Jimmy Ballard, he told me, “If you want to be busy, work 90 percent set-up, 10 percent golf swing.” I’ve done that to this day. Always set-up.

Patri: It’s funny you say that, because Jim Flick, who was a big influence of mine, said, “Tom, if you teach strictly set-up for the rest of your career, you’ll be doing the game a helluva service.”

Goldstein: So true. Those two guys are two of the greatest teachers in the history of the game. Legendary. You don’t see that kind of guy anymore, but yeah, if you want to make someone a good player, you’ve got to work on their set-up all the time.

Even on Tour, you always see guys them checking their set-up, their alignment. And when they get out of whack and start putting a big fade on it, or not hitting it solid, you know it’s their set-up. The swing looks the same.

Goldstein: It’s huge. I was at this clinic and I heard a bunch of guys in their 20s and 30s arguing about whether grip was a fundamental. I didn’t get involved. I just chuckled. I just laughed to myself, because if they don’t think grip is important to teach, they won’t have a long lesson book. They won’t be very busy.

Another that would be considered old school, perhaps sadly, is giving playing lessons. I’m very  lucky, I’m at a facility that has 36 holes, so we’ll warm up on the range for 10 minutes, then go play. I can teach them things I could never teach on the driving range. How to be a good player. How to score. I don’t see that being done a lot.

WHERE TECH IS BEST

How much do you guys incorporate this new technology, and how much do you steer students away from it?

Patri: I use some video. I’m a longtime V1 customer. I use it very carefully and sparingly, because I think when you play video in front of people, they go, “What about, what about, what about,” when I’m trying to get them to focus on one thing. So I might cue up a video and bring them to a particular frame in their golf swing, then say, “I’d like something different to be happening at this juncture.”

I’m not a TrackMan guy. I have a little portable device that I use that gives me ball speed, clubhead speed and angle of attack. I don’t use it a lot. I just think you’ve got to be so careful with technology. I think it’s powerful and useful in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. It’s dangerous in someone’s hands to doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing and doesn’t have the faintest understanding that Barry has, and fundamentalists have, before they had the technology and had to use their eyes and their instincts.

Goldstein: I definitely use technology when someone wants help with a club fitting. I’ll always put them on FlightScope or TrackMan, because it helps me narrow down what shafts and club heads are best for them. As far as teaching goes, I used to use video for every golf lesson. And one day, there’s this girl that I taught who played in the U.S. Amateur, and we didn’t use video — she improved so much she went out and won her next tournament. I made the decision not to use anything for the next six months. My students started winning so many more tournaments, because I’d be out on the golf course with them more instead of on the range.

I just thought, wow. It was a huge eye-opener for me. I had all that stuff and always used video, but now I rarely use it. I never start a lesson with video or TrackMan. Sometimes I’ll just use my phone out on the golf course if I see someone make the same mistake repeatedly. I’ll record him and say, “Just look at this. You see the way you’re taking the club way inside?” “Yes.” “Let’s work on getting it back and up and little more.” Boom, it helps them. But I was probably guilty of using video a lot. Ballard was a huge video guy. But then I realized how much more benefit there is to taking them out on the golf course. Knock down shots into the wind — everything that goes into being a good player, you can’t do with that equipment.

Patri: Not only can they not hit those type of shots that Barry just mentioned, they don’t even know when to hit them. So that’s a double-edge sword. They can’t hit them, and even if they could, they don’t know when to make the right decision because nobody takes them on the golf course and puts them in situations.

Goldstein: Here’s a classic story. There was teacher on the range the day before the Florida state high school championship, which my daughter ended up winning. It was ridiculously windy — it was when Hurricane Sandy came through in 2012. They could have cancelled the tournament, but didn't. And I saw a guy teaching a girl, 15 feet from Carly and me, the day before the tournament. He’s got her on all kinds of machines, working on her swing changing things 24 hours before she tees off in what is probably her biggest tournament as a high school kid. I’m watching and thinking, wow — that poor girl has no chance to compete tomorrow. She might work her golf swing, but there’s no way she’s gonna compete. I don’t know where she finished, but I remember thinking, are you kidding? She had earned her way there, and I see him making all kinds of changes, overworking her swing and underworking what she should have been thinking about — “how do I shoot par or better tomorrow?”

I knew that people who could control their ball, like my daughter, who’s a great wind player, would separate who would play well. She was the only one to break par that day. She would hit a low 6-iron into a green and make a 20-footer for birdie. That’s how she played. She shot one under, which is like four under on a normal day. But I felt bad for that girl. It wasn’t my place to interfere. And I wasn’t teaching my daughter at that point, I was a cheerleader. We’d worked hard that week, played two practice rounds, worked on her swing and her short game, but the last thing you want to do the day before competition is start changing your golf swing. It makes no sense.

Another thing that might be considered old school is that, with all my good college players, we always work on short game more than full swing. It’s not done very often now. I see people in love with hitting balls on TrackMan, trying to get their swing as fast as they can, which usually means hitting it farther into the woods, because they can’t control it at normal speed. It’s kind of concerning. Golf is losing golfers. You don’t want to chase people away from the game.

Patri: You know, when you’re standing on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead, and you can’t breathe, you can’t call TrackMan.

Goldstein: With the top one-tenth of one percent, guys like Dustin Johnson, I understand how it works to his benefit, dialing in the distance with his wedges. I get that. But for so many players, I think it cripples them from being an artist on the golf course.

Patri: Let’s go back to Dustin Johnson for a second. I get what you can do with TrackMan, but 20, 25 years ago, when we’d stand on a range at a mini-tour event somewhere, and wanted to become a better wedge player, we’d pace off 50 yards, put a stick in the ground and hit 50-yard shots. Then we’d pace off 75 yards, put a stick in the ground, and hit shots 75 yards. We didn’t need a TrackMan to do that, did we? I mean, I understand Dustin wanting to use TrackMan, but dude, couldn’t you figure that out on your own?

Goldstein: My daughter and I would just go out on the course late in the day, nobody there, and drop ten balls at 40 yards, ten balls at 60, ten at 80, ten at 100, and and work over and over on getting the ball into 12-foot circle. The next day we’d do 50, 70, 90 and 110 yards. We’d do that all the time. I never used TrackMan with her. Maybe somebody stuck on a driving range with no opportunity to get out on the course, it might work for them, I don’t know.

FUN AND FRATERNITY

Dustin finally won a major when he figured out how to putt, chip and hit wedge shots. And now even he’ll say he works on his wedges 70 percent of the time. When Tiger was at his best, he had his wedges dialed in. Nicklaus was never the greatest wedge player, he was a great putter so he could work around it, but when he had the short game working he was unbeatable. I’ve never seen it any other way. Obviously Mickelson relies on his wedge, he’s a genius, and Seve was the same way. He’d hit it 50 yards sideways off the tee and it didn’t matter.

Goldstein: Tom mentioned earlier that the game has become so over-taught and under-coached. I also feel like the golf swing is over-coached and the short game is under-coached. Eight out of 10 teachers just love to teach golf swing on a mat, in a perfect environment, with a computer. I’ve seen that a lot.

The one thing I do respect about a lot of these young kids is that they love golf; they just don’t realize that how they teach often chases golfers away. They get so involved in computers and hitting numbers, but after a few lessons a student’s numbers might get a little better, but they don’t score any better. They still shoot 94. That gets frustrating, and they quit. They don’t play anymore. That hurts my feelings.

When you guys teach, you teach folks to have fun with it. Creating shots on the golf course and actually playing golf is fun; going to the range, beating balls and trying to hit it as hard as you can’t isn’t fun.

Goldstein: Let’s say with the average guy, guys I work with you shoot in the 90s and they’re all slicers — if I start to make their grip a little stronger and they start to hit pull-hooks, their whole game changes. They pick up 30 yards. That’s a big part of teaching that you can’t get on TrackMan or FlightScope.

Patri: Any time you can do something that’s relatively simple, that causes a different contact, different compression, a different ball flight or trajectory for somebody, the wow factor is huge. The enjoyment goes right through the ceiling. Once you do that with a student, they belong to you. They’re yours forever. And it’s not hard to do that; if you understand ball flight and the fundamentals, you can have someone hit a different shot inside of an hour.

Goldstein: Sometimes inside of two minutes! A guy who’s an open clubface player, you strengthen his grip and he thinks you’re a hero. Suddenly he can find his golf ball, it’s not in the right trees all day long. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. This is the most over-taught game in the world.

Patri: You know what’s really amazing about this to me? We’ve dedicated our whole lives to trying to figure out the mystery of golf. We’ve done that by being around other great teachers, by passing along information. It’s a huge fraternity. We learn from other people, from much better players than we are, who have more experience, who have dug it out of the dirt. Then you stand on the range, and you look down the tee line, and Mr. Smith, who’s a lawyer or doctor or accountant, is teaching his wife to play golf. And he’s a 23 handicap.

Barry and I are both big baseball fans. Could we imagine walking up to Derek Jeter and trying to give him advice on his batting stance? Not in a million years. You’d be the biggest idiot on the planet. But anybody who’s ever hit a golf shot in their life thinks they can teach the person next to them. It makes me nuts every time I see it.

Goldstein: The scary part is, I see professional golf instructors like that. I see a lot of guys who are 28 years old who have been teaching a couple years, and I worry about them. I don’t know how they’re gonna pay their bills. They don’t get a lot of return business, they don’t see customers over and over. And if you don’t do that, you’re not going to be in this business a long time. That guy I mentioned from the Dallas Athletic Club? He’s doing something else now, and that’s good, because I couldn’t imagine him making a halfway decent living doing what he was doing.

TEACHING TO THE PLACE

Both of you go up north in the summer. What differences do you come across teaching people up there? Does setting matter? Does season matter? Is the strata of golfers different from what you work with in Florida during winter?

Patri: Barry’s on the east coast of Florida, I’m on the west coast. When I first came to Naples, I had no clue about the difference between an east coast person and a west coast person. They’re very different animals. I have 18 years in Naples now, but my New York clientele is close to the city, very fast-paced, high-energy, instant gratification. Maybe the toughest client on the planet to teach is the metropolitan New York student. The Midwesterner is a much more patient animal, much more process oriented, just a different attitude. A different kind of aggression that requires a much stronger teacher to deal with. In Naples you can be in a low vibe mode and make it work. In New York, you’d better have your boxing gloves on when you get out of the car.

Goldstein: The east coast of Florida, Fort Lauderdale, is a little more New York City-ish. I’m in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, in the summer. The only different I see is, perhaps because the season is so short in the Northeast, the passion level is huge. Down here in Florida, we get 12 months a year, and the urgency in a student here isn’t as big. Up north they’re so hungry to play for those five, six, seven months, that their passion level is off the charts. Which I love.

I don’t use much technology up north, and I’m packed. I use impact bags, grip training aids, and I don’t miss the stuff we have down here. I talked to Butch Harmon once in Las Vegas about that, and he said he shies away from the technology too. His son uses a lot more of it, but he doesn’t want to be tied down to it.

All the golf clinic guys who use the technology, I love those guys and have fun with them, but I heard one of them say that any time he has a student with a flying right elbow [in the backswing], he puts a credit card under it. I thought, well there would go Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples! If you took someone like Nicklaus and pinned his right arm down, we would have never heard of him. Who’s to say what’s exactly right and exactly wrong. Couples is a great player and Tom’s personal friend.

GOLF COACHING MENTORS

Patri: I spent a lot of time with Bill Strasbaugh, who’s passed now. He was a very dear friend and a big influence in my life. I observed him give 100 lessons probably. A person would 10 or 12 balls and look back, and Bill hadn’t said anything. He’d hit 10 or 12 more and he still didn’t say anything. I said, “Coach, why won’t you say anything?” He said, “There’s no need to rush it, Tom. I want to be sure what I’m going to say. I want to see a pattern, and it takes 10 or 15 balls to see what the pattern really is. I don’t want them to fool me.”

Goldstein: The greatest teachers I’ve ever been around, and some great players, are never in a hurry. They might work on two or three things in a lesson, but not 10. There’s a lot of that out there, too — “let’s work on your angle of approach on TrackMan.” “You’re attacking too much from the inside.” Whatever. It’s awful hard to work on five things and try to help somebody.

I met Tom back in 2001, and I had admired him. We talked and he introduced me to an LPGA player of his. I’m from the next generation down, but a lot of the guys just behind me, the recognized teachers, very few of them have “raised” a champion. They get somebody who’s already a PGA Tour player, and just tweak and work on this or that. That’s cake compared to raising a player, like Tom has done, from scratch to a collegiate or tour player. That’s hard teaching. So I knew when I started teaching, that’s what I wanted to do. The best part of teaching is taking a person from 8 years old to 22 years old, and they’ve got a full ride to college. Maybe they’ll turn professional. But I notice that a lot of teachers who are getting accolades now, they’ve never raised a champion.

Patri: As a teacher I have a huge responsibility. Every time somebody writes you a check, you have a responsibility to give them information that will make the game more enjoyable, that will make them come back again and again and bring their friends to learn the game. If you overload them, hurt their psyche and make it a tough road for them, you’re not doing the game justice. We owe the game so much more than that.

Barry Goldstein teaches at Inverrary Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during the winter and in Binghamton, New York, during the summer. Reach him at [email protected]

Tom Patri teaches at Esplanade in Naples, Florida in winter and Mill Pond Golf Course on Long Island during the summer. Reach him at [email protected] and visit his website, www.tompatri.com

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