Room for Improvement: What I learned taking golf lessons for the first time
At GOLF.com, we live and breathe golf, but it still leaves us perplexed. So we sent eight staffers on a game improvement journey, courtesy of GOLFTEC.
This was the summer, I declared to no one in particular, I vowed to get better at golf. But you know what I found out? That’s no easy task, and it can’t be done by yourself.
In the last year I moved from New York City to Minneapolis, meaning that for the first time in about seven years I could actually play and practice golf as much as I’d like. Anyone who lives in Manhattan would tell you that it takes a special commitment to play golf in the city, and it’s not done easily. Throw in dad duties, and it’s hard to get away.
From 2018 to 2020 I played less than 20 times and hit a driving range maybe once or twice, and my handicap was stuck at 17. But now, armed with a car — ah, the simple luxuries of life — and dozens of courses and ranges within a 20-mile vicinity, I was ready to get back to my better days, when I was a consistent mid-80s shooter in my early 20s. And then I found out about our new partnership with GOLFTEC and that I would get help along the way. Yes, please!
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Swing Evaluation for GOLF.com Readers
So that’s where Nick Pelle, my instructor from GOLFTEC Minnetonka, comes in. I met with him for the first time in March and we put my swing through the gauntlet. The first thing we needed to fix was its steepness, which he said was the cause of a two-way miss and inconsistent ball-striking.
The plan was to work on my hand path, allow my hips and shoulders to turn and keep my hands behind my trail shoulder at the top. Then, keep the hands low on the downswing and, as Nick said, avoid swinging from the top like a guillotine.
And guess what? It was hard. Really hard. But I kept at it, and check out the swings below. The photos on the left are from a recent lesson, and they are compared with my first lesson on the right.
Eventually I started to put together better scores on the course, too. A 91-85-93-91 stretch proved I was on the right track, especially since the three 90s rounds were marred by some disastrous blowup holes.
Here are a few other things I learned along the way:
— You need to practice. I called our instruction editor, Luke Kerr-Dineen, on the way home from the range one day. It was kind of a eureka moment: Getting good at golf is a lot of work! You can’t just take lessons; you have to put in the time on your own.
— Phones are your friend. You also need to practice with a purpose so you don’t revert to old habits. I still don’t like being that guy who has to video his own swing at the range — balancing my phone on a nearby bench or putting it on a mini tripod — but it’s essential. You need to make sure you aren’t picking up on bad habits, and if you are, you need to see what they are.
— The GOLFTEC app is awesome. I had never taken a lesson before so was blown away at its capabilities. Within a couple of hours after each lesson my session was uploaded to the app on my phone (it’s also accessible via desktop), and I had a cache of tools at my disposal. Not only are sessions recorded, but my instructions from Nick are saved and clipped into a handful of 90-second tutorials I can watch at home, at the range or in the doctor’s office waiting room. There’s also tailored analysis, drills and notes left after every lesson. The best part? I’ll have these forever, so if my game ever goes sideways I can dig back into the app for guidance.
— You need a coach who cares. What I enjoy about working with Nick is that I can tell he actually wants me to get better. He’s not just going through the motions. We’ve texted and he’s checked in after he knows I played. He’s invested, and having people in your corner is good motivation.
— Find mini victories. Besides finding a better swing for more consistent ball-striking, I made big strides on little things. I found out my alignment was, well, terrible, and that I was often aiming well left of my target. We addressed that, I have a new pre-shot routine and it’s made a big difference. Another key fix for me: chipping. I’ve long been a mess around the greens and am quick to pull putter to avoid any chunked or thinned chips, but we worked on my stance and technique and I’m starting to see great improvements there. Every time I play I’m pulling wedge more and more often and knocking it closer and closer. Confidence is key there, and I’m gaining it.
And, finally, the last thing I learned? Golf is hard. Nick said that to me that after I played a rough round and it’s a good reminder for everyone. One day everything is working and the next it’s not, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to tear down the house and start rebuilding. Practice, practice and more practice, and little victories can turn into big wins.
So, where do I go from here? My swing is 10-times better, my good strikes are way more pure, I feel confident in my alignment and I’m no longer shaking when I pull wedge from off the green. Heck, just a few days ago I knocked a wedge from about 40 yards to 12 feet and made the birdie putt. That yardage would have terrified me months ago.
But I still have a long way to go. We haven’t even focused too much on my putting yet, a problem area of my game, but you have to walk before you can run, so we worked on my full swing first. My handicap dropped to a 15 but recently crept back up to a 16.3 after a brutal stretch of tough courses — thanks, Whistling Straits! — but my game feels better and I know I’m on the right track. I’m still working on eliminating blowup holes and mental mistakes that have hurt some rounds, but I’ve had some really promising signs and scores this year that justify everything is moving in the right direction. Now it’s time to put it all together and start playing the golf I know I can play.
Check out my full GOLFTEC journey in the video above.