September 28, 2020

Q&A With J.C. Deacon of Florida Gators Golf

Being the head men’s golf coach at the University of Florida is a full-time job for J.C. Deacon, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play just as well as some the players he coaches.  

Deacon recently completed a wire-to-wire victory at the Florida Open, his second win at the tournament in the past four years, beating several current and former Florida Gators in the process. It’s not necessarily a surprise that the college coach can still compete at a high level given his pedigree — Deacon had a stellar college career at UNLV, reached the semifinals of the 2005 U.S. Amateur and played on the Mackenzie Tour for three years — but the wins say a lot about his mentality on the course. 

In this conversation with Graff Golf’s Sean Fairholm, Deacon explains what he has learned from coaching that has helped him as a player. That relationship has been particularly powerful as he mentors emerging star Ricky Castillo, the No. 2 amateur in the world who was the national freshman of the year in college golf. 

Sean Fairholm: So two Florida Open wins in four years. How would you compare the two wins?

J.C. Deacon: The first one I was neck and neck with Matt Borchert and we kept on taking the lead from each other, it was wild. I went up a stroke heading into 18 and we both made birdie, so I only won by a shot. I remember that week, I just found something in my swing right before the tournament and it ended up working out. 

I’ve been playing solid for a few years now, but leading into this week I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t feel perfect on Thursday before the tournament but just kind of eased into the first round and didn’t make many mistakes. It just went from there. I felt really, really good on Saturday when I shot 65. It could have been 60 pretty easily. 

SF: Has the pandemic helped with getting more playing time leading into the tournament? 

JD: I really got to prepare. Other than being a dad and chasing two little girls, I haven’t had any other responsibilities because we can’t be on the road to recruit. I practiced and prepared almost like a tour player could. It was a huge advantage and made a very big difference. 

Having said that, I’m desperately ready to get back to my job. We have a great team and I’m just hoping we get a chance to play. If we don’t play this fall, I may look into playing a little more. 

SF: When you are able to play at a level like this, what kind of impact does that have on recruiting and just the overall respect players have when they see you performing like that? 

JD: I think it does help. It’s not just all talk when I’m coaching them. I’ve been where they are and I’ve proved it in competition. I think it adds a little more credibility to what I’m saying. I beat two current players this past tournament, so if they aren’t beating me they have to have an open ear when I’m talking to them. 

SF: How often do you actually get to play with your team during practice rounds? 

JD: I did a better job of this when I was an assistant coach at UNLV because I didn’t have as many administrative responsibilities than I do now. I want to get back to doing that, because I haven’t played as much with our guys here as I’ve wanted to. I think it’s important, because I learn a lot about their games, more so than what you can learn on the range. When you spend four hours with a young man in a cart, you can really develop a relationship and learn a lot about them as human beings. 

SF: When you watch one of your players in competition, does it help coaching-wise when you’ve gone through those experiences recently? Of course you’ve played a lot of golf in your life, but being reminded of what those nerves are like when you step to the first tee. 

JD: It absolutely does. If you haven’t experienced what it actually feels like to be nervous or to hold the lead before the final round or to make a double and know what is going through your body and mind, it’s hard to tell a kid how to act. I know how much it can hurt.

I ask myself the question a lot, “What would I want to hear right now?” before I talk to our guys. Playing every year and staying sharp is a reminder of how hard the game is… as coaches, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and expect greatness from your players, but it’s a hard game that humbles you. 

SF: When you are only playing a couple of tournaments a year, what do you go through mentally to turn that switch on? Because it’s a different feel than just going to the range and hitting balls. 

JD: That’s where I’ve changed the most from coaching. When I was playing professionally on the Mackenzie Tour, I was very poor mentally. That’s why I never made it. After 11 years of coaching, just watching what the great ones do on our team and also on other teams, you see trends in what the best guys are doing. I’ve just picked those up throughout a lot of conversations with people. 

As a 23 or 24-year-old pro, you just think that you’ll hit it long and straight and putt well and then you’ll beat everyone. It just doesn’t work like that. If you’re not ready to respond to adversity, you’re just not going to play well. 

SF: Has there been an example of something you’ve seen that’s made you change your mental game? 

JD: The biggest thing is averages and expectations. I only hit one shot shape with my driver now, whereas before I tried to work it both ways. I keep it super simple. And now there are times during a round where if I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll just hit it into the middle of the green. I never used to do that. I always thought I had to be aggressive. I’m a way better golfer hitting it to 30 or 40 feet and just trusting my lag putting. 

Ricky Castillo reinforced that for me. He’s 18 years old and you would think he would be this hot shot, but he will hit it in the center of the green and be totally happy with it. I have never seen that in a kid that young. That type of maturity sets him apart and it really helped me as a player to see him go through that process. 

SF: When you are coaching a player like Ricky who has that type of composure and the physical tools to win just about any event he plays, how do you handle that as a coach? 

JD: He’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s had to grow up a lot. He had a tough round at Olympia Fields during an event last year, and the two of us sat down at a Starbucks and I just asked him — do you want to be the best player in the world? He said yes and I told him exactly what he needed to do to get there. 

We talked about his emotions and his self-talk, needing to be a lot more positive. He was never the same after that. He was the mentally strongest player in college golf. I think only five people total beat him in the spring season before we stopped. 

SF: Given what’s he has accomplished, how do you see him evolving at UF and what will his progression be like? 

JD: Now that he’s right near the top of the amateur rankings, he’s going to have a target on his back every week. This past year he was a freshman who had to prove himself, and now he has to go and back it up. Getting stronger in the gym is going to help, but being able to control his emotions and go through life experiences in college is really going to help him. It sounds scary, but I can see him making a big jump and playing even better than he did last year. 

He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. He has something in him that I’ve never seen before. 

August 12, 2020

Q&A With Jim Smith Jr. of Philadelphia Cricket Club

The game can bring a golf professional to a lot of locations throughout a career, but Jim Smith Jr. has been incredibly successful despite barely leaving his hometown zip code. 

Born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, Smith Jr. graduated from Temple University and has been running golf courses around Philadelphia since the age of 23 when he started at The Abington Club. After a 10-year run as the Director of Golf at Talamore Country Club, he left for the same job at Philadelphia Cricket Club — despite its peculiar name, the club is one of the most prestigious golf venues on the east coast and oozes history. Founded in 1854, the club twice hosted the U.S. Open and one of its courses is designed by the famed A.W. Tillinghast, architect of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Bethpage Black. 

Smith Jr. has been at Philadelphia Cricket Club for 14 years and brings a wealth of experience to understanding and playing golf. In this conversation with Graff Golf’s Sean Fairholm, the two discuss his career and how he approaches game improvement with his members. 

Sean Fairholm: How did you get involved in golf in the first place? 

Jim Smith Jr.: I started a painting business my senior year of high school that I ran through college. In college, I sort of got the bug to play so I would start my days telling the guys what to paint, play golf all day and then come back to check on them. Will Reilly was a pro at one of the public courses I would hang out at, and we would play golf together. He kind of got me thinking about being a golf pro. 

SF: A lot of people think a career in the golf industry is a lot of playing golf, but it can be quite the opposite of that. How did that part go for you trying to figure out your place? 

JS: I got lucky. I was actually a member at a little 9-hole club where I went to the gym but never really played golf. I got to know the owner there and he knew I was an assistant golf pro at another course. Well sadly the head pro got cancer and the owner approached me and asked if I would take over his position. Because I was a head pro at 23, I had to learn the business piece of it pretty quickly. It was kind of just do what you have to do to survive. 

SF: Fast forward to now where you are at Philadelphia Cricket Club, and you have one of the top gigs in the country. How has it been dealing with the membership throughout your time there? 

JS: The membership is off-the-charts good. It’s constantly changing, so I am always energized. I would not do well at a really sleepy, small place. I probably have ADHD, so I like action. There’s just constant stuff you have to be thinking about and dealing with and planning for, which keeps me interested. I’m in the relationship business. 

SF: When you are giving a lesson to a member, what are some of the things you see that are recurring that come up? 

JS: A couple of things. A lack of confidence often leads to a lack of results. When you’re not hitting the ball well, it’s easy to get a little disheartened. It’s kind of a cycle you have to break. A part of my role is psychological where when I’m asking them questions, we’re trying to talk about when they have played well. That’s true for everyone, whether they are a 1 handicap or a 20 handicap. 

And the other part that a lot of people misunderstand is about using leverage. Are you cocking your wrists properly? Most people don’t know what that is. You can’t hit a golf ball effortlessly without leverage and setting your wrists on your backswing. It’s a corny analogy, but back in physics class you learned the experiment where there’s a 500-pound weight and there’s one pulley and the rope goes through the pulley. The teacher asks you to pull the rope and lift the weight, but you can’t. But if you run the rope through a series of pulleys, that creates leverage and you lift the 500-pound weight. You are building power without extra effort. That’s what a golf swing is supposed to be. 

SF: In terms of course management and actual game play, what is one of the things that gets the average player in trouble? 

JS: I compare it a lot to chess. You have to know how the pieces move to play chess, right? But that has nothing to do with playing chess. Playing chess is understanding the strategy and why to move a piece to a certain position, so you can set up another move. Golf is the same way. Learning how to swing has nothing to do with playing golf. It just means you know how to swing a golf club. 

Teaching people how to play better is about understanding the lie of the ball and what that lie may allow you to do based on your skillset. I’ll give a lesson to someone who wants to hit a flop shot and I’ll put the ball on a tight lie in the fairway and ask them to hit it over a bunker. They can’t hit the shot. The reason is that even for the best players in the world, that’s a hard shot. The problem wasn’t the execution, the problem was that they tried to hit the wrong shot. They need to accept that hitting something lower and giving themselves a 20-foot putt may be a successful outcome. So much of golf is being in a position and understanding what gives you the best chance for success based on what you can do. 

How many times do you see someone who is 270 yards out in the rough and they are grabbing their 3-wood. Well where are you hitting it to and what are the chances you can hit that 3-wood well? Are you putting yourself in a better spot for your next shot or would a 6-iron make more sense? There’s risk-reward and there is reward-risk; players have to learn to pick the reward-risk. 

SF: And a lot of that is the ego of just wanting to hit certain clubs because players think they should be able to, right?

JS: That’s a great point. And that’s the psychological part of the game where you have to get someone to accept that without feeling like they suck. You don’t want them to think they don’t have it in them, but being honest about what you are capable of is the easiest way to improve your score. 

SF: Has your membership resisted moving up to shorter tees or have they generally embraced that? 

JS: I stole an idea from the Cal Club in San Francisco where we got rid of tee colors. We don’t have red, white, blue and black — we have 1, 2, 3 and 4. Men are conditioned to go right to the blue tees and women are conditioned to go right to the red tees. By going to numbers for the tees, they look at the yardage and are realizing where they should actually play. 

Another thing that I’ve done at previous courses but not at Philadelphia Cricket Club is to measure the golf course to the back of every green. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that adds about 250-300 yards to the scorecard. People are actually playing a 6,400-yard course but the scorecard says 6,700 yards, so that can influence them choosing different tees. 

SF: Going back to the teaching component, what kind of aid do you think swing analytics have had for the average person? Do they know how to effectively use the information yet or is that still a process? 

JS: It’s interesting you ask that question because out of our five instructors here, we have two of them who are geared more towards the heavy usage of that technology and three are more feel-oriented. In general, I would say it has been a huge help. 

The example I give is if someone comes to take a lesson and I tell them to strengthen their grip and they start hitting the ball better, that sequence is only useful if I’m telling them why that happened — in that case, their swing became flatter and changed their angle of attack. Because now they can evaluate that for themselves and understand it. What swing analytics does is it makes it easier to teach people how to teach themselves. 

Before technology, the student only knew they were getting better by ball flight and score. Now I can tell them their spin rate, launch angle and carry distance before we started working and here they are now after we’ve had four lessons and look at the change in the numbers. It validates that what we were doing is helping them, even if it may not feel like it to them. 

SF: In terms of comparing students to ideal numbers, what do you use? 

JS: It’s all about comparing it to yourself. You also have to be very careful with technology. One of the questions I always ask students is whether they are more of a technical learner or feel-oriented. Do you like to do it and learn it, or do you want someone to explain it to you before you do it? Some people want to rely on the data and some people don’t care about that. Swing analytics are a great tool, but we have to know how to harness it properly. 

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