The week’s high point

by Al Pastor

"CEO" Bryan Gathright caught in his office at the recently-concluded STPGA teaching summit in Bryan, Texas.

“CEO” Bryan Gathright caught in his office at the recently-concluded STPGA teaching summit in Bryan, Texas.

For about 10-to-12 minutes each week, for some 49 weeks a year, for nearly 17 years, San Antonio-based instructor Bryan Gathright and I have spoken publicly over the phone. Johnson to my Boswell, we’ve batted around many things, though I’m guessing he would agree we’ve barely scratched the surface of a topic of infinite depth such as golf in its many facets, borrowing a line from Red Smith, all of them turned on.

The time passes very quickly. Rarely, however, and often regrettably, are the conversations preserved. Here is a random sample transcribed, last Sunday as it happened. Several days earlier, I’d informally watched Bryan teach for the first time, part of a sectional PGA meeting. He happens to be left-handed. The late Harvey Penick, with whom Bryan spent formative time, recommended that he learn to execute shots right-handed for the benefit of his students, which he capably demonstrated.

We’ve never rehearsed. Nothing has been cleared in all the time we’ve spent chatting. We wing it. In fact, we went, I think, six or seven years, before even meeting. A small-town Texas boy, once a gutty collegiate kicker, Bryan, like those others at the top of his profession, is an excellent communicator. Conveying swing instruction over the radio can be tricky. Having worked with a very disparate group of exceptional golfers, including Notah Begay, a four-time PGA Tour winner, who once routinely putted from both sides of the ball, Bryan has shared numerous, memorable behind-the-scenes glimpses of his interesting career. Not only concerning Begay’s fascinating story, or those relating to Jimmy Walker, who just may be the hottest golfer going at the moment, but also superlative insights concerning Notah’s former and very private Stanford teammate, the world’s No. 1 golfer.

Bryan has also never shied away from the tough question, for which I’m also grateful. Walker, from nearby Boerne, Texas, recently severed his ties. They still talk, and the insights and perspective are no less riveting.

The following transcript, long overdue, covers what must be considered in the scheme of our visits typically wide-ranging. Occasionally a thinly-veiled question will concern my own delusional game for I make it a point not to directly discuss my golf – BORING.

There’s also a busy and varied (potential) audience to consider. So, we purposefully flit from one thread to another. Bryan has deftly and cheerfully fielded these along with numerous other unrelated tangents, some technical, others philosophical, one after another. A pleasure to talk to, and a lynchpin of clarity in an insane game, checking in with him remains one of the high points of my week.

I will say this particular conversation may have veered more into the philosophical only because the experience of listening to such gifted teachers talk earlier in the week about their craft was still so fresh.

HEADY STUFF FOR A MUNY CHOP, PRO. THANK YOU AGAIN FOR AGAIN LETTING ME BE A FLY ON THE WALL AT THE RECENT SOUTHERN TEXAS PGA MEETING.

Bryan Gathright: Well, it was a lot of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing ya, and glad you got a chance to experience it. We had a great time, and what a great group of guys to spend the day with.

(BRYAN PARTICIPATED IN A PANEL WITH SEVERAL OF THE PGA SECTION’S BEST TEACHERS INCLUDING: CHUCK COOK, JIM HARDY, KEVIN KIRK, BILL MORETTI, JIM MURPHY, MARC STEINBAUER, AND PAUL MARCHAND.)

THIS WILL COME AS A TERRIFIC SHOCK TO BOTH OUR LISTENERS, BUT I AM IN THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS. BUT I WAS SURPRISED TO HEAR ONE OF YOUR TOP 100 COLLEAGUES SUGGEST THAT ALL OF YOU WERE, TOO. WATCHING MARC STEINBAUER COVER AND STEP ON BALLS IN A BUNKER AND THEN HIT THEM OUT WITH A SAND WEDGE’S LEADING EDGE, AND THEN WATCH YOU SWIFTLY TEACH A CHIP SHOT TECHNIQUE THAT HAS LED SUFFERING MEMBERS TO KISS YOU IN GRATITUDE, I’M COMING AROUND.

ARE YOU IN THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS?

BG: Well, I think we all are. And the thing you have to remember, for the majority of players that we work with, they’re playing golf because of a passion they have for the game, and a love of the game. All of us up there on the stage have worked with tour players and it’s a little different there. But with the rest of the people playing the game, it because they want to play better but at the same point in time, they’re coming to you for information and most importantly to learn how to better enjoy the game they love.

AND, YOU ALSO POINTED OUT THAT YOU’RE THE C.E.O. ON THE LESSON TEE. SOME STUDENTS, APPARENTLY, HAVE A LITTLE DIFFICULTY WITH THAT. HOW DO YOU, AS YOU SAID ON TUESDAY, ALMOST HAVE TO TRICK A DEMANDING STUDENT INTO LISTENING?

BG: Some of the more difficult pupils that you work with – they like to do a lot of the talking – and you’ve got to listen, and you’ve also got to know how to very respectfully take charge of that lesson. it’s something that’s just kind of a feel. You have to know your pupil, and most importantly, we all try and be as good communicators as we can but at the same point in time you’ve got to be confident to know that for that person, to get the help that they’re there for, you’ve got to be strong enough in your personality to take over that lesson at the appropriate time.

DO YOU ALSO CHARGE THE DIFFICULT STUDENT MORE?

BG: (Laughs) Well, I won’t say who… I don’t but one of my colleagues certainly mentioned that you might be able to price some of those out, if you needed to.

ATTITUDE IS SO IMPORTANT. YOURS AND YOUR STUDENT’S. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE FROM SOMEONE WHO COMES FOR A LESSON?

BG: On almost every occasion that you find, you want a willingness and openness for that student to kind of expose their flaws and weaknesses. So many times they’re embarrassed, especially if they’re a strong personality type. They’re embarrassed to not be good so they want to show what they do well as opposed to what they need to work on.

THIS WASN’T IN A GOLF CONTEXT, BUT THERE IS RESEARCH THAT SHOWS THAT BEGINNERS BENEFIT MORE FROM POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT AND THAT THE HIGHLY SKILLED BENEFIT MORE FROM CRITICISM. A BLANKET STATEMENT – BUT IS THERE FIELD EVIDENCE IN YOUR EXPERIENCE TO SUPPORT THAT?

BG: I think as a general rule there is but if that advanced player is a person that’s quite hard on themselves you’ve still got to blend it and give them some positives to go along with it because if they beat themselves up repetitively, and really don’t enjoy the better parts of their game, you’ve got to be careful and keep it on a nice positive mix. Certainly tour players want to work on what they don’t do well, but if you’ve got a personality that’s a little frail with their confidence, it’s still our job as a teacher to bring out the best in them and I think that’s a real tricky slope to slide down. You’ve got to be careful. You want to expose a way to improve on those weaknesses but you don’t want that weakness to turn into something that they beat themselves up on.

YOU’VE HAD ACCOMPLISHED PLAYERS WITH STRONG, DOMINANT PERSONALITIES WHO WEREN’T AFRAID TO MIX IT UP WITH YOU.

BG: Oh, absolutely. I mentioned during the session that Notah and I used to go at it pretty well, and, always with each other, in a fairly respectable way but there were always those times where two strong personalities and two strong-willed personalities – we still had a common goal. So you always have to remember that and just know that some of the stronger personalities tend to question things. And the one thing you have to understand as a teacher, that’s the one fiber in their make-up that makes them as good as they are anyway. So you’ve got to be careful and let them do it. I think, occasionally, they enjoy the scrape as well.

AND WITH ANOTHER PLAYER, SAY [LPGA TOUR PLAYER] DOROTHY DELASIN, IT MIGHT BE A DIFFERENT APPROACH.

BG: Oh, absolutely. Dorothy is a wonderful lady and someone with her background growing up and playing golf and everything you had to be much more careful and choose your words wisely and always try and instill confidence. And, more importantly, instill fun. She was certainly someone who was never confrontational.

ONE THING AT THE TEACHER’S SUMMIT THAT I THINK THOSE RELUCTANT TO TAKE A LESSON SHOULD KNOW. HERE WAS AN EXCEPTIONAL GROUP OF TEACHERS, WHO’VE WORKED WITH SOME OF THE BEST PLAYERS IN THE GAME, AND THEY ARE DETERMINED AND PASSIONATE ABOUT HELPING THEIR STUDENTS – HOWEVER THEY PLAY – TO ENJOY THE GAME. IT MAY SOUND CLICHED, BUT THAT IS A VERY SINCERE COMMON BOND, IS THERE NOT?

BG: I think that’s very evident. When you get an opportunity to sit in and listen, like you did – we all have a passion to help people and help them improve. You could see that with every person that was in that room. No matter what their style, no matter what their method, it’s always, always visible when you sit down and talk with everyone and see how much concern and care for the pupil there is, and especially in that room.

FINALLY, PRO, I HEARD A BASEBALL COACH ADVOCATE HOLDING THE FINISH OF THE SWING. YOU LIKE THIS, AS MANY GOLF INSTRUCTORS DO, INCLUDING THE LATE HARVEY PENICK. WHY SHOULD IT MATTER WHAT WE LOOK LIKE AFTER THE BALL HAS GONE?

BG: Well, it’s a great test for us to learn just what happened. If you can hold your finish and it’s in a perfect balanced position, you’ll know that a lot of good had to occur to put you into that good position. You didn’t make a swing like an octopus falling out of a tree and automatically just end up in perfect balance in a perfect finish position facing the target. If you’re a little off balance, if the club’s not finished in the proper position – whatever the case might be – it’s a real good indicator of what might have gone wrong in the swing. And, certainly, it may not have helped the one that you just made but it can be invaluable information to figure out what you need to do on the next one.

THERE WAS A CHIP SHOT YOU TAUGHT, AND I DON’T WANT TO DENY YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE YOUR LIVING BY SHARING THAT PRICELESS INFORMATION, BUT YOU DID SHARE IT WITH SOME OF YOUR FELLOW TEACHERS. IT’S AN INTERESTING SHOT, AND IT IS TRUE WITH A TIGHT LIE TO IMAGINE – WERE PEOPLE ACTUALLY BOUNCING THE CLUB OVER THE BALL?

BG: I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag but, as I mentioned, I actually had a kiss on the range from one of our members. When he had played his previous round of golf he had actually missed it completely twice in a single round, where the club hit the ground behind the ball and hopped over it. And when we went out for the lesson, I think he literally bounced three of the first four over the top of the ball. So that uphill into the grain shot is a wonderful shot which, as you could tell, is complex but – I had two Houston-area club pros who were terribly struggling…

I SAW IT! I WAS WATCHING YOU.

BG: And it was amazing that by the end of that session [minutes!] how that ball was coming off. And most importantly  you could see a real shift in their confidence in the ability to hit that soft shot.

YOU ALL HAVE DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS. YOU ALL HAVE DIFFERENT APPROACHES. YOU’RE ALL EXCELLENT COMMUNICATORS. WAS THERE SOMETHING YOU HEARD FORMALLY, OR INFORMALLY, IN THE COURSE OF THE MEETING THAT YOU TOOK AWAY?

BG: Well, I think the one thing you always remember in those sessions, not as much as what was being said as how it was being said. I loved working with Marc Steinbauer. He and I have actually done a lot of things together over the years, and just the remembrance of that it’s okay to show them some fun things, and the next time we’re together I’ll show you how he was hitting that [bunker] shot, the one where it looks like it’s the edge. If you watch that club real closely going back there might be a little voodoo going on there.

THERE’S A LITTLE BIT OF THE ENTERTAINER…

There might be a lot of the entertainer in that shot, okay?

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