Less than 2 percent of PGA professionals can call themselves Master Professionals. To earn it, you have to possess the expertise and experience that Dennis Clark has.
The current leader of the Dennis Clark Golf Academy on Marco Island in Naples, Fla., Clark was formerly the Director of Instruction at the Marriott Seaview Golf Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., before a stint as the Director of Golf Operations at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort outside of Pittsburgh. A native of Philadelphia, Clark has been a PGA pro for over 35 years and writes popular instruction columns for GoflWRX.com. Among his many awards, he was named PGA Teacher of the Year in 1996 for the Philadelphia Section.
In this conversation with fellow PGA member Sean Fairholm, Clark gets into detail about how he fixes a player’s slice and what most golfers misunderstand about the swing.
Sean Fairholm: When you first meet someone for a lesson, what do you want to know as a teacher?
Dennis Clark: It may sound simple, but the first thing I want to know is what they want out of a lesson. And the second thing is any physical restrictions they may have. And of course you want to know where they are currently, what was the lowest handicap they ever were, how much time do they have… all of this goes on while they are hitting balls. You have to establish early on whether their goals are realistic. I’m not going to take someone from a 29 handicap to a 9 handicap unless they are recently retired or very athletic and have a lot of time to work on it.
SF: I know you teach players of all calibers, but if you have someone who is just a beginner or returning to the game after a long layoff, what are some of the first building blocks in that teaching process?
DC: There are two different types of lessons. You can have a creation lesson or a correction lesson. If you’ve played for many years, you are looking to correct something that is already there. If you’re just starting, we’re on the creation side; I’m going to get you acquainted with the fundamentals before we do anything else.
I’m a ball flight teacher and not a method teacher, so when someone comes to me and they are hitting a slice for instance, we’re going to zero in on a couple of drills to break that pattern. A new player without habits, we’re trying to build a framework for them.
SF: I know everyone is different — different body types, different athletic abilities — but what are some of the central messages about the golf swing that you find yourself repeating?
DC: What people don’t understand is that everyone that hits a golf ball is reacting to the shot they just hit or the shot they usually hit. Golf is often perceived as an action game whereas baseball is perceived as a reaction game, but golf is very much a reaction game. If your golf ball has been going to the right for 10 years, you are going to aim or swing to the left. It’s deeply embedded in your subconscious.
How do you correct that? We first have to stop the ball flight. No matter what drills I give you, if the ball keeps going to the right, you are going to keep coming over the top.
SF: Would you like to see someone hit a hook in that scenario so they have that feeling?
DC: You have to. Hank Haney said, “On the road to good golf, there is no place for a slice. But there is room for a hook.” When I’m teaching and someone hooks the ball for the first time and I tell them how great it is, they want to know why 40 yards left of the target is great. You have to go 180 degrees — if you go halfway, the player is going to end up right back to where they started, reacting to the ball going right.
SF: So specifically what are you looking at in the body to try to get someone to hit a hook if they are accustomed to slicing it?
DC: If someone is hitting the ball to the right, it’s guaranteed that one of two things is happening: the upper body is opening so your shoulders are pointing well left of the target or your arms are coming out away from your body instead of down closer to your hips. So all of the drills are designed to counter those motions. One I use is having a Bender Stik that forces players into the downward motion from the top of the swing. If we can change the ball flight, those drills can be effective.
SF: If you are just introducing someone into swing analytics, where should their eyes be drawn to first?
DC: A lot of people get hung up on different numbers, but I think the shape of the shot and the ground is the most important. The biggest problem recreational players have is there is a great dispersion in the bottom of their swing arc, so the angle of attack is always changing. It goes from two inches behind, to the top of the ball, to two inches in front. You need someone to become more consistent bottoming out their swing before you can go anywhere else past that.
If I have someone who is really shallow coming into the ball and catching everything on the way up, I’m going to narrow their stance, put a lot of weight on the left side, bring the right shoulder high, all like they are on a downhill lie… there are a lot of ways to correct shallow or steep, and that first comes from seeing the angle into the ball.
SF: What relationship do you normally see between angle of attack and ball flight?
DC: A shallow angle of attack, you are producing a closed clubface. If you are steep, you are usually producing an open clubface. When you first start out in golf, you know there is an object in front of you that has to get in the air. The most logical thing is to help the ball up into the air by staying on your back foot and scooping it. That’s a natural instinct, so people don’t learn that they actually need to get their hands in front of the golf ball at impact.
SF: What are some of your favorite drills for someone who is unable to maintain a good impact position and struggles with solid contact?
DC: The simplest training aid and the most available training aid are moguls. You can build me a driving range with all the swing hoops and new-fangled gadgets you want, but give me one good hill and I can reshape and retrain pretty much any swing.
If you are really steep, I’ll put you on the back of the hill so you feel the upswing. If you are really shallow, I’ll put on the front of the hill so you are forced to get steeper. If your swing is very vertical, I’m going to put the ball on the sidehill above your feet. That’s been my go-to for 40 years of teaching.
SF: What should divot pattern tell someone about their game?
DC: A divot can tell you a lot, but your swing path and swing direction are not always the same thing. One thing to look at is whether it’s equally deep on each side. If it looks one inch deep on the heel side and four inches deep on the toe side, because then you are hitting near the heel.
The direction of the divot is really dependent on the player. A good divot could be aimed to the right if someone has been coming over the top for many years. The thing is, for the skilled golfers, a divot pointing to the left is definitely better than to the right as long as the player is finishing with their weight towards the target. As long as the angle of attack isn’t too shallow, you can play golf hitting an out-to-in fade all day long.
SF: Before I let you go, I wanted to touch on the mental game a little bit. Golf is one of the few sports where you don’t typically practice the way you play. How do you recommend the best way to practice to get the most out of your game?
DC: In my opinion, you can really only simulate a golf course situation on the course. But one thing I like to do in practice is to lay someone’s clubs out on the ground and simulate the rhythm of taking time between shots and having to refocus. I’ll have them hit a driver, we’ll talk for a couple of minutes and then I’ll give them a 7-iron approach shot.
Ben Hogan used to hit 40 balls over the course of four hours to simulate a round. You don’t have to take it that far, but hitting one ball after another with the same club isn’t how you would play golf.