Money Game: Will instruction apps ever beat one-on-one teaching?
The request was simple enough: Ask a buddy to record my swing using my phone and upload the file to an online lesson platform. A teaching pro in Australia, who normally charges $150 an hour for an in-person lesson, would analyze my swing and coach me from afar for a fraction of that fee.
I was skeptical; I also felt strange having myself filmed. Deep breath, just go. Three swings — a thin, a hook, a bomb. All different but truthful representations of my everyday game. I uploaded them and waited for the Aussie’s take.
The experience was new to me (you can read all about it here from my teacher’s perspective), but not to younger golfers who are flocking to online apps to get the inexpensive, qualified feedback they can’t glean from often gimmicky Instagram and YouTube videos. Older golfers are used to sweating out a lesson on the range, and tend to view golf-learning apps with understandable reservation. Specifically, are they worth the cost, both in terms of money and time?
On dollars alone, lessons via even the most expensive instruction app are affordable compared to an in-person session. Take Tour coach and GOLF Top 100 Teacher George Gankas, who positions, turns and adjusts students’ bodies in a very pre-social-distance way: Pay $49 a month for access to his online lesson platform or beg your way onto his coaching tee in Southern California to be wrestled in person at upwards of $1,000 an hour.
Some online platforms start with initial evaluations that cost less than $200 and are combined with monthly subscription fees. Other services are less, with $10 or $20 monthly fees, though the instruction is less personal.
There’s no shortage of top coaches with apps filled with student videos (learning by watching others’ mistakes is a proven improvement too) and plug-and-play tips. Some are built on subscription models while others charge so fulsomely for lessons—say, $3,500 for a day—that you can upload an entire practice session as a bridge to your next lesson.
“A lot of people seeking top-end golf instruction have disposable income, and think they’re going to take a lesson from a big-time coaching name and instantly play better,” says Mark Blackburn, a GOLF Top 100 Teacher who runs an academy in Birmingham, Ala. “The reality is that even if a teacher is considered ‘great,’ it’s just one-off. You need to find someone you have access to regularly.”
Just like one-off lessons with a top teaching pro don’t make much financial sense, the same holds true for paying for pre-shot video lessons, especially when you can visit a site like GOLF.com and get them for free. But if you find yourself wanting more one-on-one online instruction with some added convenience, the new breed of apps certainly do the trick.
Skillest and Swing AI both use video analysis by real teachers supported by strong technology platforms. Others like 18Birdies and Golfboost rely solely on AI to analyze swing faults. Progress is measured by changes in handicap.
With Skillest, the cost is what the instructor wants to charge. Some might ask for $200 a lesson while others have weekly or monthly plans that cost as little as $100 for regular video contact. Students select the teacher they want to work with or test out several by sending their videos and awaiting feedback (paying a fee for each one). From there, a back-and-forth starts.
Swing AI has a slightly different model. Initial consultations are set at $150 with the student receiving a “road map” of things to work on. Additional uploads are graded until the goals outlined in the road map are complete. Once all the boxes are checked, the student can continue for $15 a month for “swing maintenance.”
“Just sending out one-way videos is great, but it’s prescriptive,” says Joe Plecker, another Top 100 Teacher and director of instruction at the Landings Club in Savannah, Ga. (Plecker also serves as the chief swing officer at Swing AI.) “We set out to re-create the in-person process and not make it cookie-cutter.”
18Birdies’ approach relies on artificial intelligence to diagnose swing flaws and recommend fixes through videos of golfers capable of executing the correct moves. “It’s self-help,” says Eddie Lui, founder and chief executive. “We don’t have big names doing drills, but we have a system that works.” 18Birdies is free for 30 days and then $10 a month.
Not everything can be replicated online. Most good coaching relationships require a degree of personal connection. Baden Schaff, Skillest’s chief executive (and the coach who analyzed my videos), says teachers on his app have the moxie to create that in-person feeling. “I can watch a guy making swings in his living room or office in real time,” Schaff says. “I feel like we’re replacing the in-person experience yet maintaining the lesson prowess you’d expect from the best teachers in the world.”
Still, other coaching experts contend that students are better off paying for a hybrid model, a combo of in-person and online instruction. Blackburn charges $3,500 for a full day of instruction, but for a student who comes fairly regularly, he’ll review videos for free. For those who can access him and his staff only remotely, his app costs $100 a year, while a five- to 10-minute swing review, complete with suggestions, is $50 or $60.
Likewise, Top 100 Teacher Jon Tattersall, director of golf at Fusion Atlanta, says a hybrid model accelerates progress. “How do I keep someone compliant with what I’m asking him or her to do?” he says. “A blend of in-person and online really helps coaches do a better job and keep people connected.”
Reviewing my Skillest video, Schaff quickly showed why my handicap has been stuck at a shaky 8 for years. In my mind, my swing is Hogan-esque; in reality I over-rotate on my backswing. We jumped on a live video chat and he put me through some drills.
In the end, it was just like an in-person lesson — but on my time. And much less costly.