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Teaching Low-Handicap Players
By Mark Harman
USGTF Level IV Member and National Course Director - Guyton, GA

You’ve been teaching mainly recreational players, gaining experience along the way, when it happens: the accomplished low-handicap player looking to shave a stroke or two off his game shows up.
After the appropriate interview, we watch him hit some balls. Shot after shot goes straight at the target.

To the naked eye, his set-up and swing look pretty good. We start to get worried. I can’t find anything wrong, we might think. Oh no, what do I do now?

This is bound to happen, sooner or later, to any teacher who’s taught for an appreciable amount of time. It doesn’t seem to matter who or where we’ve been teaching, or what our reputation is. Eventually, a low-handicap player will seek out our services.

No matter how well we may play the game ourselves, or how secure we are in our teaching abilities, handling the first few low-handicappers can be an intimidating experience. Fortunately, there are a number of effective strategies that can be employed that will allow you to be able to handle this situation.

The first thing to realize is that the basic fundamentals you’ve been teaching to higher-handicap players apply to low-handicappers, too. Take your time to watch some shots and see if any discernable pattern emerges. From your interview, you should know what happens when he hits a bad shot. See if you can see any correlation from the set-up and swing to what he said his bad shot is.

If you’re not using video, I’ll be honest and tell you it may be very hard to spot a flaw without it, especially if you don’t have much experience working with better players. There are teachers who never work with video, such as USGTF top teachers Julius Richardson and Bob Toski, but they are experienced veterans who have worked with many top players for years. 

We also have to realize that, with this level of player, some are going to be feel-oriented and some technically-oriented. One mistake many teachers make is trying to get technical players to become feel players. Even when Nick Faldo was in his prime, he received much criticism from some instructors for supposedly being “too technical,” and that he would be even better if he “played by feel.” 

USGTF Sport Psychology Consultant Dr. Gregg Steinberg writes in his book, Mental Rules for Teaching Golf, “One key to successful golf is to pinpoint which mental approach works best for you. If you are very analytical like Faldo, you will probably favor having at least a few swing thoughts in your routine. Blanking your mind of all thoughts might actually hinder your performance.”

With an expert or near-expert player, it is important to find if he prefers technical thoughts or likes to play by feel. As Gregg said in his book, giving a technical player a few swing thoughts, or getting him to concentrate on a proper position or two, will probably benefit him. For a feel player, giving instruction that begins, “You want to feel…” is perhaps best, or give him a drill to attain the correct feel. Don’t make the mistake of trying to turn a technical player into a feel player, and vice versa.

From a teacher’s standpoint, here are the main technical factors to look for:

  • Set-Up. Try to find any correlation from the set-up to the ball flight. For example, suppose the player is either pushing or hooking the ball, and you notice that the ball position is barely forward of center. Most good players need the ball quite a bit forward of center. If the ball position is too far back, the swing path will tend to be inside-out through impact.
  • Top of the Backswing. Is the swing on-plane? Is the golfer reverse-pivoted or reverse-tilted? Did he maintain posture or come out of it? Don’t focus so much on the backswing itself unless you see a direct correlation to the top-of-the-backswing position.
  • Transition. Does the lower body start unwinding forward while the upper body is still winding backwards? For a good player, it should. The proper timing of the transition move is perhaps the most highly-correlated factor between skill levels.

Beyond mechanics, most teachers automatically tell people that if they want to cut a few strokes from their average score, they need to work on the short game. This may or may not apply, as the following chart shows:

The above numbers come from a statistical analysis printed in Golf Digest a number of years ago, and apply to a par-72 course. Have your expert student keep track of the number of GIR and scores over at least 10 rounds. If he finds he is averaging 10 GIR but his scoring average is 73, you know he cannot get his scores down any lower through short game. Conversely, if he is averaging 77, you know he is wasting 2-4 shots around the green every round. If he is averaging 75, he has an average short game for his skill level and he needs to work on all phases of the game for lasting improvement.

Perhaps the best way to fully comprehend a good player’s game is through watching him play at least 18 holes. The driving range is such a completely different environment from the golf course that, even a thorough interview, coupled with intense observation and video work on the range, may not be enough. 

Finally, as you progress in your career, gain experience and stay current with the latest teaching methodology, you will gain a certain confidence in teaching students of all abilities. Furthermore, you can always contact the USGTF National Office and speak with one of our current examiners if you have certain specific questions.

If you have any questions regarding this article, or any concerns you may have in teaching better players, you are welcome to contact me at



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