Meet the PGA Pro: The teaching professional
Ian Clark’s mobile phone message says it all: “I can’t get to the phone right now as I am improving someone’s golf game. If you’d like to improve your game, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
As one of the leading PGA golf instructors in the country, Clark is very much in demand with the waiting list for a lesson upwards of four weeks – and that’s with him working close on 50 hours a week.
The 40-year-old has earned his ‘in-demand’ status via a 21-year career that has taken him from East Anglia to Surrey, via the Middle East.
He has also continued his professional development and is a ‘Golfing Machine’ accredited coach and Titleist Performance Institution golf fitness instructor. In May 2012 he was elevated to PGA ‘Advanced Fellow’ status.
Clark is one of a number of full-time teaching professionals at the 60-bay World of Golf facility in New Malden, which is the busiest golf range in Europe with up to 40,000 balls a day aimed at the A3.
His academy is at the end of the range and equipped with state-of-the-art technology including two high-speed cameras, GASP, force plate and K-Vest.
His office is full of coaching manuals, including two books festooned with post-it notes as markers, while he always has three notebooks on the go to jot down notes.
“Butch Harmon said being a full-time teaching professional is the toughest job in the golf industry,” said Clark. “I agree, but when a new professional comes here, I tell them if you can’t make a living here teaching then go do something else.”
Teaching golf is a way of life for Clark, who, after three years as an assistant at Fornham Park Golf & Country Club in Bury St Edmund’s, discovered his passion when, immediately after qualifying, he quit for Dubai and learned about life, golf coaching and business that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career.
“In 1994 I went to Dubai Golf and Racing Club as it was then, which is a nine-hole floodlit course out in the middle of the race track. I was 22 and had never lived away from home so it was a good education. I’d gone from doing traditional club duties to suddenly doing 80 per cent coaching.
“As an assistant I’d worked with beginners, groups and juniors but now I was coaching anyone and everyone. We helped run competitions and did a little bit of work in the shop.
“It was here my bug for teaching started to evolve. I started to study golf swings and golf instructors. The Middle East golf scene was influenced by the USA. They had the Golf Channel on TV, showed PGA Tour coverage, which you wouldn’t see in the UK, and I was finding out what the likes of David Leadbetter, Butch Harmon and Chuck Cook were doing. It inspired me.”
Clark then moved to Abu Dhabi, where he played a key role in designing a golf course and setting up a teaching academy, including an indoor coaching studio and consultation rooms.
But a desire to teach, once the project was completed, saw Clark come back to the UK and invest in his career initially at the Nicklaus / Flick Golf School in Sidcup.
“I liked the idea of full-time teaching and I’d been looking to come back to the UK. It fitted and I was fortunate to get the job,” he said. “I was entirely self-employed. I was on a driving range where there were six teaching pros. We had to become Nicklaus / Flick certified instructors, and there is still stuff I use today from then.”
But Clark admitted there are skills that all teaching professionals need to possess if they are to be a success.
“You’ve got to have people skills. If you don’t have them and can’t get on with people you’ve got to find something else to do.
“You have to really understand each client and know more about them other than a golf swing.
“Pros also need to be seen. I tell new guys who come here – don’t go and hide in the staff room. Walk up and down the range as people are still unsure about approaching a golf pro. If you’re seen to be personable that makes a difference. Something as simple as wearing a badge with your name on it makes a difference.
“You also need sales and marketing. You need to be able to sell yourself and be able to sell a golf lesson. So take a course or read a book.
“Every student I have, I have their email address and mobile number, which is money in the bank. If you are not building up your database, then you are losing out.
“I send out a monthly newsletter which keeps me in the forefront of their mind. I have found it captures guys who have fallen off the schedule for six or nine months but then call out the blue.
“When you work in golf instruction, you need them to think your name, like any other brand. You need to make sure you are their brand and the reason for picking up the phone.
“Over the years I used all sorts to engage with potential students, from testing a new camera to having ‘lucky bays’ offering a free lesson if the recipient buys one, to just being seen.”
Clark’s bookings are done for him, as part of his monthly fee to the owners of the facility, enabling him to fully focus on teaching. As one of the more experienced instructors, he also takes time to pass on his knowledge to the new pros.
“We have a split here – some guys are employed by World of Golf and a couple, like me, are self employed,” he said. “I don’t have to do any training with them but I tend to help them out. As the Trackman and force plate are my own, I get the guys in and give them a lesson and go through the data, which also helps me understand it better. It also encourages them.
“I now only do lessons for an hour because I find them more beneficial. I also do half-day lessons and they can be individual or two or three people.
“Every lesson I do uses the equipment I have. You have got to invest in technology – even if it’s a tripod. If you don’t invest in yourself, you can’t expect your students to invest in you. I see it as a good way to illustrate that I am trying to make myself a better coach.
“I also help my students with club fitting. I don’t own any stock so liaise with the guys from American Golf to sit in on a lesson and explain it all. It makes my job easier in the long run as I know the student has a club or set of clubs he’s going to use and he’s going to hit better. As a result they’ll come back and have more lessons.”
As well as advice for his students, Clark has some key pointers that have benefitted his career.
“Have a good coaching CV and a willingness to learn. Possess an ability to draw up lesson plans and schedules, put them into practice and see what does and doesn’t work. Always keep notes. I have three or four notebooks running at any one time and I will write down notes to myself about what does work or what doesn’t. Finally, look the part, teach smart.”
Lee McLaughlan is PR and communications coordinator for the PGA
If you want to learn more about the key responsibilities of a PGA teaching professional then download the PGA Role Descriptor document here.