Thursday, June 23, 2011

What's Happened to Top American Golfers?

The most recent question being asked in the golf world is ‘what has happened to American golf?’ This has become the hot topic since this was the 5th major championship in a row without an American winner…a first in golf history. Also, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are back-to-back European winners of the US Open. Before McDowell’s victory, it had been 30 years since a European player had won the US Open.

There seems to be the theories that college golf, the turf and different styles of courses the Euros play and the friendship and mentoring that some European players do for younger European players is the reason. But, I don’t buy that because those things have been going on for decades and it’s only been recently since the international players have dominated the Americans. I don’t think those things finally reared their ugly heads, but I think some things that have changed quite a bit over the last 15 years have now finally reared its ugly head on American golf.

College golf in itself is not the issue. If it was, it wouldn’t explain why golfers like Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell and others have had success. And the reality is that most good college programs have coaches who have been with the team for 20+ years or have bounced around a tad on the college scene for about 20+ years. Reason being is that if the pay is decent enough, being a college coach is a good way to make a living.

Men’s college golf offers 5 full scholarships per team (for D-I golf programs). They typically have 10 players on a team, so each player gets a 50% scholarship. From there, each player typically gets some free financial aid which will come out to about 2/3rd of their tuition paid for. For the American golfer, typically that’s very affordable. For the international golfer, that’s problematic because they have to uproot their entire life to the United States. So not only is it often times not affordable, but there is a fear of becoming homesick as well. But, for the most part if the International Golfer can afford the cost to play college golf, they will play college golf if they are offered the scholarship.

What most people don’t understand is that about 95% of the college players have their own personal swing coach who is not the college golf coach. The college golf coach is more of an organizer and a coach who makes sure the players are following NCAA rules, preparing for the summer golf and trying to direct their careers with the team. If you get a really good coach, he’s there for the player on an emotional level and can help them mature as a person and a player over time.

So, if this doesn’t dispel the myth that ‘college golf is ruining American golfers’, I’m not sure what will.

However, that doesn’t mean that college golf is off the hook entirely. While I think college golf does a decent enough job of developing golfers, it tends to develop the ‘wrong players.’ In other words, I feel it does not recruit the best pool of players possible.

Mainly this is because that collegiate recruiting comes down to two main factors:

1. AJGA/IJGT playing resume
2. Swing coach recommendation.

And the players that can get those working for them are usually from wealthy families or from a warm weather climate.

A player who can play in almost every junior ‘tour’ event and major junior tournament may have a high stroke average. But, they can use the law of averages and have a few top 10’s and a couple of top 25’s. Add that to their playing resume and at least draw some good interest from mid-level Division 1 programs. Meanwhile, the golfer who lives in North Dakota and dominates his high school state championship and everything he plays in, but can’t make it to AJGA events, may be lucky to land a D-II scholarship.

Of course, this stuff was around when I was a junior golfer. But before that, one could be like that North Dakota player and be much more likely to land a scholarship. In fact, these days if a player doesn’t make it to AJGA/IJGT events it comes off to college coaches like they are not serious enough about their game. Which is a shame because often times it’s a case of a talented golfer who cannot afford to make it.

The same goes with the swing coach. And quite frankly, parents who are paying $40-$50K a year for their kid to attend a Hank Haney or David Leadbetter ‘School of Golf’, they are expecting…come hell or high water…that their child will wind up with a D-I scholarship.

Essentially, the recruiting game for American kids tends to be more about wealth and where they are located that purely finding the most talented players possible. I know the college golf coaches will say that they are on a limited budget and I agree with them on that point. It’s not like football or basketball where they have huge recruiting budges and coaches and assistants can scour the country for diamonds in the rough. However, when it comes to recruiting I think the less than prestigious programs have taken too easy of a path and that’s why they can never become substantially better over time because they are more or less waiting for a hidden gem to fall in their lap instead of using some alternative methods of discovering those diamonds in the rough.


I took a look at the world golf rankings and found that the top 10 ranked Americans had an average age of 35 years old. The average top 10 Euros was at 31 years old.

Delving a bit further I noticed that the Americans were far entirely more likely to make major swing changes throughout their career whereas the international players almost exclusively did not make any noticeable swing changes.

Not only that, the American golfers on Tour tend to gravitate towards 4 instructors (or their disciples)

1. Butch Harmon
2. David Leadbetter
3. Hank Haney
4. Jim McLean

Let’s call a spade a spade, I do not think that highly of the teaching philosophies of those instructors listed. However, that does not mean that I think there are not a lot of mediocre method instructors outside the United States and that top International players are avoiding these instructors.

But where I see the difference is that the International players tend to seek a much wider ranging pool of instructors. Outside of Pete Cowen, who has had nowhere near the amount of Tour players see him as the instructors listed above, the International stars have swing instructors of all types, methods and systems.

What I believe happens is that once a teacher develops enough popularity, they will likely find themselves teaching in the States. And what happens is because the teacher is supposed to be the best or the next big thing, American golfers flock to that teacher. The juniors seek them out so they can get a golf scholarship in college. The mini-tour players seek them out so they can make the PGA Tour. And the PGA Tour player seeks them out to take their game to the next level.

And it doesn’t make a difference how good the teacher actually is, just as long as they are perceived to be a world class instructor, denizens of American golfers will seek out their service.

So what happens is if a teacher who is more or less a so-so method instructor who has had some success with a couple of players all of the sudden becomes extremely popular, they eventually find themselves in America where they can ruin American golfer’s swings and the European golfers can’t afford to see them.

It’s not that method instruction never works. It certainly can and I would imagine that for at least our generation, the top 20 golfers in the world will be predominantly taught by a method instructor of their choice. But the difference is that because the Europeans utilize a wider range of method instructors, the chances are better that they will find the method teacher that fits them better than the American golfer who is basically choosing from 4 methods.

Also, when the teacher becomes popular enough, their instruction becomes mass produced and it loses some of its luster as it doesn’t quite translate as well to ‘certified instructors.’ I’m pretty positive that each of the 4 instructors I have listed have big-time agencies that have campaigns geared around them and their ‘brand’ and thus the focus shifts away from being on the leading edge of instruction to brand development and marketing. This just isn’t nearly the same over in the international countries.

I also don’t like how the current PGA Tour system is setup as well. It allows the aging veteran who is just good enough to make cuts at the big events, but nowhere near good enough to be a contender and really has reached their ceiling as a golfer to keep their Tour card while the young, budding golfer has to actually play better because they are playing smaller purse events. I think they need to level the playing field for the young budding players like Kevin Chappell, Justin Hicks, Scott Stallings and Jamie Lovemarks so they have a better chance to possibly develop into superstars. Don’t get me wrong, I understand a golfer like Billy Mayfair qualified thru Q-School this year. He should be on a more level playing field as well. But most Q-school qualifiers and Nationwide qualifiers are in their 20’s and they have wind up having to out-perform veteran performers with no upside if they want to keep their Tour card. And it’s not good for the PGA Tour or for American golf.



Julia Cates said...

informative blog.
Thanks for share.
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Anonymous said...

Interesting article, lots of good points however, I think you are missing out on a few important ones. The USA has so many young players, that they tend to become very sloppy in the development of talent.The system provides an opportunity for players to compete and the best ones survive.
The US system breeds winners, look at the number of quirky swings out on tour, lot s of players that will swing the club in very much their own way, but they sure can play. Not a lot of time and effort is being pored into the 2nd or 3rd tier. In Europe, the countries, with their small talent base, will do the utmost to squeeze every bit of talent out of the junior players. Youngsters with a modicum of talent get the possibility from the national federations to fully develop. They tend to use templates for training and swings. Being big has its advantages but being able to quickly adapt is not one of them.
When I started out 30 years ago, all the instruction available would be found in an old Golf Magazine of Golf Digest floating around on a Golf course. The continental bookstores offered no books on the game and there was nothing to be found in the media on Golf, unless it would be in a derogatory way, ridiculing the plaid pants and lack of athleticism of the weekend golfer. In the last few years, all possible information is to be found on blogs, fora and websites.