Advice From Westchester’s Five Top Teachers
By Dave Donelson
If your drives are dinky, your chips chunky, and your putts pathetic, you play golf like most of America. Phil Mickelson gets helps with his game from his swing coach, short game advisor, and sports psychologist, not to mention his caddy, talent agent, and personal dresser. Not all of us golfers are that fortunate. Most of us settle for swing tips from our stock broker, lawn guy, or barber. If we’re really desperate, we seek help from those other masters of pasture pool, our hacker buddies at the local muni.
But you don’t have to—there are more than 225 PGA-certified golf teaching professionals right here in Westchester to help straighten out that banana ball you’ve been calling a tee shot. Many of them are nationally recognized for their knowledge of the game and, more importantly, their ability to convey that know-how to their students.
I talked to the top golf instructors in Westchester--the five local pros most recently named Teacher of the Year by the Metropolitan PGA--to find out what you can do to reduce your handicap to a number smaller than the national debt. They offered us the same solid advice they give to the touring pros you’re liable to run into on their lesson tees.
Century Country Club
One-hour lesson: $130
Nelson Long was literally born to teach golf. His father, Nelson Long, Sr., worked alongside the legendary Sam Snead as an assistant pro at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, VA, then served as head pro there for forty years. “I used to watch my father teach for hours,” Long says of his childhood on the practice tee. “He taught me that people learn different ways. Some learn better by being shown, others by explanation.”
The greatest lesson he learned there was KISS (keep it simple, stupid), both in executing the golf swing and how to teach it. “The best golf swings in history are very simple. There aren’t a lot of moving parts,” he points out. As a teacher, he says, “It’s always a challenge to keep the explanation simple. This is a game prone to paralysis by analysis.”
“Long dissertations don’t work,” he observes. “I try to say things people remember, like ‘tight equals right’ when it comes to grip pressure.” Translation: if you squeeze the club in a death grip, your shot is going to sail away into slicer’s hell far beyond the right side of the fairway.
Long was Met PGA Teacher of the year for 1999 and received the Horton Smith Award for Educational Contributions to the game in 2005. He urges his students to invest more time in practice drills if they really want to improve their swings. “As Ben Hogan said, the secret’s in the dirt. It takes a lot of practice,” he says. How much is a enough? “If they take an hour lesson, they should practice for four or five hours before they take another one,” according to Long.
His advice on playing better golf: “Every week, check you grip, posture, and aim. Work on your tempo. Always check your basics.”
You don’t need to stop working on your game during the winter, by the way, since Long is available at the Tryall Golf Club in Jamaica, where he is also the head pro
Sunningdale Country Club
One-hour lesson: $350
In 2002, PGA Tour pro Chris Smith took a four-hour putting lesson from Michael Breed, then turned around and won the Westchester Classic at Westchester Country Club. The lesson helped, since putting on the West Course at Westchester is like rolling your ball across the hood of a 1943 Buick. Today, Breed is known not just as a flat-stick genius, but as one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Instructors. He was Met PGA Teacher of the Year in 2000.
He pays as much attention to the psychology of teaching as the mechanics of the game. “You can’t just watch somebody swing and say, ‘you suck at this’ and ‘you suck at that.’ You don’t want to destroy them,” he says.
Breed has been teaching for twenty years, the last six at Sunningdale. “I was fortunate to have some great opportunities. One was working at Augusta National for three years,” he says, then adds, “But the biggest opportunity for me was to work for Darrell Kestner.” Kestner is head pro at Deepdale Golf Club in Manhasset and one of the most successful players on the PGA’s club professional circuit. Among many other accomplishments, Kestner is a five-time winner of the Met PGA Championship. “When you give a lesson to somebody, you’re basically telling them what’s wrong with their swing. Darrell taught me to tell them how to get better in a positive light,” Breed says.
So what’s his advice for putting on Westchester’s linoleum-slick, roly-poly greens? Breed says your putting stroke has to give the ball top-spin to make it roll true. “You have to impact the ball with a de-lofted face. That’s completely opposite to what everybody else is saying now.” Who’s right? Ask Chris Smith.
Century Country Club
One-hour lesson: $120
C.J. Reeves is the first—and so far only—woman recognized as Teacher of the Year by the Met PGA (2001). She is also one of Golf for Women Magazine’s Top Fifty Instructors. She’s straight-forward and relaxed, qualities she tries to translate into her students’ golf swings.
“You have to know what you’re talking about, but you also have to make the person comfortable with you so they relax,” Reeves observes “You’re a mental coach a lot of the time.” After a shot at the mini-tour, Reeves landed a job as assistant pro at Old Oaks, where she stayed for nine years before moving to Century five years ago. She says she honed her teaching skills at PGA and LPGA seminars as well as from her bosses. “Nelson Long and Bobby Heins (at Old Oaks) are great teachers, so they influenced me a lot.” Her husband, John Reeves, is head pro at Willow Ridge Country Club in Harrison.
Reeves emphasizes the short game in all her lessons. “You can buy a better driver that will give you a little more distance,” she points out, “But around the green is where people can improve their scores the most.” She starts each lesson with the short game, chipping and pitching, so the player starts by making good contact with the ball. Then she progresses up the club numbers to the full swing.
She makes good use of a wide variety of teaching tools. One is the V-1 System, which has digitized video of swing models for students to study. Along with some of the club pros like Met PGA Player of the Year Frank Bensel, the system has video of Tiger Woods and other touring pros. After the student’s swing is recorded, it can be put up side-by-side on the screen with Tiger’s. “It’s a neat system because having a mental picture is so important,” Reeves says. Personally, I’m afraid seeing my swing immortalized on video next to Tiger’s might give me nightmares, but that’s my hangup.
To improve your putting, she recommends another highly complex piece of technical equipment: a piece of string stretched between two nails high enough to place a ball underneath. If you swing the putter in a straight line under the string enough times, you’ll groove a good stroke, according to Reeves.
Old Oaks Country Club
One-hour lesson: $130
Pat Eggeling may be the most enthusiastic golf teacher—or human being—I’ve ever met. “The biggest factor in being a good teacher,” he says, “Is making sure your students have a good time during the lesson. Period.” That enthusiasm for the game and for teaching it is one big reason Eggeling was named Met PGA Teacher of the Year for 2005.
“You have to be one-third psychologist, one third golf-instructor, and one-third entertainer,” Eggeling says. “If you have those three things, people will keep coming back because they not only get a great lesson, they enjoy it.” Eggeling has been teaching at Old Oaks for sixteen years and runs his own facility, The Pure Golf School at Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club in the off-season.
Like all good instructors, Eggeling emphasizes the basics like grip, posture, and tempo. For him, though, one factor stands out from the rest: alignment. “The ability to aim properly is the number one fault in every single player in the world. I see it in tour players as well as amateurs,” he says.
He stresses proper alignment continually on the lesson tee. “Unless your swing is really, really brutal, I’m not going to touch it,” he says. “I’m going to teach you how to set up to accommodate it. An amateur can set up like a tour player even though they may not be able to swing like a tour player.” The end result: “If they’re set up right, they’re going to hit a much higher percentage of good shots.”
“When you go to the range, if you don’t lay a club on the ground to check your alignment and hit to a target, you’re wasting your time,” Eggeling says. “When you go to the tour driving range, every player has an club lying on the ground between their feet and the ball. Yet when you look at the range full of amateurs, you see no one with lines on the ground.”
Eggeling’s students include everyday hackers like you and me as well as Hollis Stacy, three-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Open. He’s also worked with notable athletes like Ivan Lendl, who became a scratch golfer after a fabulous tennis career, and former NFL Quarterback and current ESPN commentator Joe Theisman.
Eggeling’s advice to us mere mortals trying to keep out of the cabbage outside the fairway: “Remember, it’s a target game.”
Director of Golf
The Golf Club of Purchase
Lessons to members only
Carl Alexander learned to teach golf standing side-by-side at Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando with Phil Rodgers while the former PGA tour player and well-known instructor coached Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite, Ray Floyd, Paul Azinger, and many others. From that experience, Alexander, a Harrison native, built a teaching career that took him to Pine Hollow in Oyster Bay, GlenArbor in Bedford, and now back home to The Golf Club of Purchase. He was named Met PGA Teacher of the Year for 2006.
Like many of the super-achievers who belong to the exclusive club in Purchase, Alexander is very goal-oriented and takes a businesslike, organized approach to building a golf game. “Oftentimes, people come in literally feeling despair that they can’t get any better,” he says. Having played the game for more than forty years, I understand that particular feeling very well. Alexander is encouraging, though. “If nothing else, it’s important for people to understand that with practice and good instruction, they can achieve their goals.”
Alexander doesn’t only understand how the golfer’s body works, he knows what’s going on in their mind, as well. “I tell students to watch out for ‘feel versus real.’ What you’re feeling may not really be what’s happening in your swing.” He has an arsenal of weapons to conquer problems like that: “The best tools available now are video cameras and some of the software programs. But a mirror is still one of the best around.”
Four-time-PGA-tour-winner Chip Beck is one of Alexander’s best-known pupils. He also worked extensively with Michael Quagliano before the Ardsley phenom left to star on the golf team at Duke University. Today, he’s available for lessons only to Golf Club of Purchase members and their guests.