In most other professions, you’d look for an accreditation to show a person is competent in their role. A governing body will certify individuals so the general public know who they can trust to get a particular job done. In golf that’s not quite the case. Our sport’s governing body, the Professional Golfer’s Association (the PGA),(1) does indeed certify individuals as qualified golf instructors... but oddly enough it isn’t so earnest on teaching its members how the golf swing works, or indeed how best to teach it. Hence why there is so much diversity and disagreement on the understanding of the golf swing amongst instructors.
So on what basis are golf instructors qualified? They understand the rules of golf, business management, sports psychology, golf equipment and technology amongst other things, but the most important element, the requisite to becoming a qualified golf instructor, is that they are good at golf.(2)
But does being good at something naturally make you capable of teaching it? I’d argue no. Let’s take language as an example. I’m fluent in English, and by reading this I assume you are too. That doesn’t mean to say we’d make decent teachers of English to those who don’t understand the language. Where would we start? How do we articulate something we do naturally without conscious thought.
There’s the rub. Good golfers, especially teaching and touring professionals, are good for a reason - they’ve spent years, decades even, since childhood practicing. By the time they’re winning tournaments or teaching you, professional golfers give as much thought to their swings as you do when attempting to speak English - very little. That’s a definite advantage when playing, but can be a hindrance when teaching. That’s why most golf instruction is simplistic, because to the teaching and touring professional, golf is simple. To beginners, it is not. On one hand golf pros are advising you how to swing as well as they do. However, on the other hand, they most likely don’t understand exactly why or how they swing as well as they do.
I know that sounds patronising, suggesting professional golfers don’t really know what they’re doing, but think on the following; most of the players on the PGA tour rely on golf instructors to tell them how to swing. These are the best golfers on the planet and yet they go for lessons just as a beginner would. In what other sport or endeavour would the world’s best rely on someone else to show them how to do what they do? Fair enough they may employ a host of experts from different disciplines; dieticians, physiotherapists, fitness instructors and psychologists to help improve their minds and bodies... but for the most part they don’t employ someone to tell them how to do their activity.
Does Sebastian Vettel have a driving instructor at each race reminding him how to operate a car?(3) Does Albert Roux keep an expert chef in his kitchen instructing him how to cook?(4) Did Jimmy Page tour with a skilled guitarist to show him how to play difficult chords?(5) Of course not. They were and are amongst the best in the world at what they do. To suggest they need someone on hand to mentor them would be ridiculous. And yet, that situation is the norm in the upper echelons of the golfing world.(6)
So if we can’t depend on Touring Professionals to help improve mere mortal’s swings, logic dictates we should turn to the instructors who teach the Touring Pros. After all, they’re teaching the best in the world, so they must be the best instructors in the world, right? Not necessarily. Generally, instructors of Tour Professionals will begin working with their students at one of two stages in their pupil’s career. Either when the student is a young child, beginner or not, or when the player is already at a world class standard.
If it’s the latter, you can’t attribute the Touring Pro’s ability to their instructor because they were scoring in the 60s before they’d even begun taking their lessons. If it’s the former, the instructor has a better claim to knowing what they’re doing, having taken someone from potentially beginner standard to the PGA Tour. Even so, how much of that was the instructor’s doing? Children left to their own devices, with the opportunity to practice frequently and with an enjoyment of what they're doing, can achieve mastery of many things without any tuition.
Despite all this cynicism, there are excellent instructors out there, and there is an easy way to find them. You just need to apply some logic. Firstly, what is your current situation? Are you an adult with the usual time restraints and responsibilities, or younger with more time on your hands and opportunity to practice? What is your current level of play? Struggling to break 100, or mostly below 80? Take everything else significant about you into account - your health, flexibility, strength, physical limitations etc.
Secondly, what is your goal? What do you want to achieve with the help of an instructor? Did you want something specific like curing a particular errant shot, or maybe hitting the ball further? Or do you have a general goal to take your handicap down to single figures, or even play off scratch?
Now you know where you are, and where you want to be, simply ask your potential instructor if they’ve dealt with someone in your situation before, and if they’d helped them achieve a similar goal to your own. If they have and they’re true to their word, go for it. If not, maybe consider looking elsewhere.
The barometer for me when judging how good a golf instructor is is very simple. It’s not how many qualifications they have, how many students they’ve taught, how many articles they’ve published in magazines or awards they’ve won. It’s not about how profitable their schools are, how well known they are in the golfing world or even how much they know about the golf swing. For me it’s how many adults have they taken from a high handicap, to single figures. That’s the acid test for golf instructors. If you’re working with someone who can take a 40-year-old beginner and help them break 80 in a few years, you’re on to a winner.
(2) A handicap of at least 4.4 for gents and 6.4 for ladies. http://www.pga.info/media/119948/16trainingprogrammeentrycriteria.pdf
(6) Of course there are high profile exceptions, Bubba Watson being one off the top of my head.