|Play Golf to Learn Golf
First Edition Introduction
The Good News- Modern science has uncovered previously unknown insights into the nature of the learning
process that allows individuals to have more influence over their own pace of progress when they are learning
anything, even golf.
The Bad News- Most individuals are unaware of this research into how they can enhance their ability to learn.
The views and research presented here put a light on the nature of learning and brain compatible learning
principles. This book mixes basic core information about the golf swing and playing golf with insights into how
human beings learn and go from not know to knowing. What follows is a self-discovery approach to progress that
is grounded in natural curiosity that can grow personal insights which have been found to be more valuable for long
term learning than following a list of details from a perceived expert.
The central theme of what is presented here in Play Golf to Learn Golf is the notion that when acts of learning
anything (even golf) are efficient, they are more about playing-to-learn, than learning-to-play. While this may seem
like a counterintuitive view, it’s supported by years of research from modern science into brain compatible learning
principles. These brain principles are the building blocks for making progress.
As I became more interested in golf instruction, I was also curious about how to improve someone’s ability to learn
the game. After I started a journey in this direction I soon discovered that there was a difference between trying to
help a golf swing and trying to help a golfer. Remember the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day;
teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.’ When you try to help a golf swing, unfortunately, you can
win or lose, but when you help a golfer you always win!
Perhaps the instruction industry should be seen as caretakers of a pleasurable game, not teachers of swings.
Trying to teach is different from helping someone learn. What I refer to as learning-developing environments have
been found to be more efficient for making progress than teaching-fixing to get-it-right environments which are self-
Golf instruction has been on a dynamic and ever changing journey that has offered up countless theories at least
since 1857. This was the year The Golfer’s Manual, considered golf’s first instruction book, was published. For
over 150 years most instruction offerings have read like the authors believed they had found something unknown
about the golf swing, some new truth, turning a corner that no one else could see. Yes, perceived experts all,
including myself at times. Hopefully I have moved on by gaining insights into the nature of learning and efficient
information delivery systems.
Many golf books seem to be trying to ring out every detailed description they could from the motions of a golfer’s
body and golf club. It is as if these many details are dusted with magic that was going to make swinging the club
and playing the game easier. It could seem like these books were in constant competition with each other, seeking
to crack some perceived secret about the art of playing golf. At the same time there is little or no mention about the
nature of learning in these books filled with details and how-to directions.
Play Golf to Learn Golf was written to help people discover they can learn to make progress without how-to advice
from perceived experts or excessive trying. Hopefully, every golfer’s self-esteem will soar as they are reminded that
playful learning and growth through playful self-discovery are pleasurable and natural, proactive experiences.
When a learner’s self-discovery efforts are encouraged and supported by advice givers who avoid how-to advice,
our earliest motion patterns (both sound and unsound) can plant the seeds of progress. This book is dedicated to
helping reader’s (both advice receivers and givers) discover their possibilities for growth through growth oriented
choices. Learning changes behavior. Changing behavior has always happened through playful self-discovery.
Studies show that when the opportunity to integrate playful self-discovery is overlooked, learning can be incomplete
The culture of golf is often divided by “low” and “high” handicaps. In this culture there are people who can and
people who cannot play what they themselves believe to be good golf. Unfortunately, in a can and cannot culture,
everything is set up for people to believe that their lack of progress is because of their own shortcomings and they
start looking for more how-to advice. Individuals rarely evaluate how they have been trying to learn. “How useful is
my current approach to learning the game?” “Should I be using a different approach?” Probably yes is the view here.
Jeff Silverman said, “Golf is a game that is often divided against its self.” For example, golf is fun to play, but can be
seen as not much fun to learn. He went on to say, “If we do not know who we are as golfers, and what connects us
to the game, we are not much more than the penciled in numbers on one’s score card.” Golf should not be reduced
to a mere number on a score card. If golfers are going to experience the joy of personal progress, the pleasure of
playing golf must be more significant than the pursuit of perfection. The pure pleasure of learning and playing a
game should be an ongoing experience.
Today it seems the present culture of the golf industry is promoting perfection, side stepping the pleasure of playing
a game (i.e. the perfect swing, the perfect ball, the perfect club). The call letters of the PGA of America could stand
for a Pleasurable Game for All. When trying for perfection, frustration becomes the end product. Progress arrives
through the pleasure of playing golf with self-discovery, self-assessment, and self-reliance as members of your
I have had the pleasure of being involved with golf instruction for over 40 years. I have visited more than 30 PGA
sections in the United States, traveling to Europe, Asia, Canada, Bermuda, and South America hopefully helping
people learn this game we care so much for.
Every student (junior, men, women, teaching, and touring professionals) has helped me make progress with my
profession. But my ability to communicate instruction information was enhanced after becoming aware of the
information you are about to read. I trust it will be as useful to you as it has been to students and to me. I have come
to realize that golf is a game to be played, not a subject to be taught.
The skills of playing are learned through acts of playing. We learn about cooking when we are cooking, we are
learning about skiing when we are skiing, we should play golf to learn about playing golf. This is a view that many
golfers overlook in favor of following how-to directions from a perceived expert. We are human beings, not human
followers. When we change the way we look at things, what we see changes. By seeing the value of playing to
learn, our ability to make progress is enhanced. Playful participation avoids how-to directions. Playful participation
with basic core knowledge is at the core of long term progress.
What approach to learning can help to transform information from books, magazines, teachers, experiences, etc.,
into personally usable, real world knowledge or know-how? Some research points to the “genius of play,” or “the
intelligence of play” (a Chuck Hogan term); which is at the core of integrative critical thinking and developmental
learning. For example, for making progress in golf it is more useful to playfully try different ball locations in the
stance, or different tempos, or different grip pressure, or different weight distribution, than trying to get-it-right by
following how-to directions from a perceived expert.
The topic of learning has several components; information, explanations, and demonstrations are some obvious
components, as is our memory. Other components include:
(1) the approach that is being used to deliver information,
(2) how individuals are being asked to learn, and
(3) past experiences.
These three components have a profound influence on the speed and quality of learning and on our ability to recall
information in school, business, and sports instruction.
After spending time in teaching-fixing to-get-it-right environments, when asked what they are learning many golfers
will answer I learned, “I have a bad swing,” “I can’t putt,” “I have poor alignment,” “I have so much to think about.”
Students in schools will often answer I learned, “I can’t spell,” and “I am bad at math,” or “I can’t read.” These
information delivering systems have a negative approach to progress that is overlooking the elements that make up
what the science of learning would define as a “proactive learning experience.”
Without consciously trying to get something right, unconscious, intuitive, and spontaneous acts of playing to learn
can lead us in the direction of reaching our potential. Perhaps when it comes to “letting it go” without conscious
thinking golfers may be at a disadvantage. When playing tennis, baseball, or basketball there is only a short time
span between each tennis return, each pitch and swing, or the act of shooting after receiving the basketball,
compared to how much time golfers have in between each swing. Golfers often have five or more minutes between
swings. When not playing up to their potential many golfers use the time between swings to consciously judge
what went wrong, thinking about the details of the golf swing, or how they should fix an unwanted outcome; all of
which can fragment one’s ability to “let it go” and just play golf.
When playing 18 holes golfers are on the golf course for four hours or more. When shooting a score of, let’s say
100, golfers would only be swinging their golf club for less than 200 seconds. During the time between golf swings
any conscious thinking about swing theory, or how to move one’s body is not as useful as staying engaged with the
present and allowing a general feel and a general visualization of what one wants to do with the golf club (based on
past experiences) unconsciously guide the next swing. US Olympic champion diver, Laura Wilkson said, “Once you
get to the end of the platform your body knows what to do – there is no thinking.”
The opinion here is that it is more useful to pretend and imagine you’re swinging a club like a Jack Nicklaus,
Annika Sorenstam, Tiger Woods, Lorena Ochoa, or a Ben Hogan, than trying to exactly copy computer models of
their swings. This view is also shared by the Sciences of Learning as well.
Both young and adult golfers who are participating in a golf learning environment that is grounded in technical
information about the golf swing and playing the game are not experiencing a brain compatible approach to
progress. The value of promoting child like imagination, and the fantasy of pretending to be who you want to be like
is being side-stepped in favor of teaching-fixing to get-it-right approaches (like a computer printout) that are not
compatible with the nature of the learning process. Accurate information is only one side of the story. The nature of
the learning process and the transfer of information is the other side. Efficient approaches to learning are also
efficient approaches for remembering.
What has been compiled here shows on how acts of playing can enhance learning golf (or anything), relative to
insights from cognitive science and their underpinning. “Meaningful learning involves acknowledging the brain’s
rules for learning and teaching, and keeping those rules in mind.” The nature of brain compatible learning
principles transcends both partisan descriptions of content that are always changing, and many traditional
approaches to progress.
I am sure all golfers would like to feel they could improve their level of play. Instruction information can provide
several different choices when a golfer is looking for help but very few of those approaches take the nature of the
learning process into consideration. Any approach to instruction that is not improving the way a student plays, or
their enjoyment of the game, is instruction that is going in the wrong direction, or instruction that is misunderstood.
The view here is that golf, or any motor skill, really cannot be taught, but can be learned. Every student learns in his
or her own best way and at a different pace. The point here is that we play to learn, we do not have to learn to play.
NOTE: Normally when I ask someone to put all they know about what they do for a living in a box – then tell me how
much of that knowledge was taught to them and how much of it they learned, the typical answer is 10% taught and
In playing-to-learn environments students are being guided in the direction of reaching their optimal potential with
general (just in the ball park) concepts, free of technical details. The brain does not encode details; it encodes and
uses patterns and relationships. Playing-to-learn environments help individuals to invent skills that are personal in
nature. “I am here to help you invent your way of putting, swinging, or holding the club” is the aim of a playing-to-
learn golf environments.
The human race has always played to learn, we did not have to learn how to play. Golfers who are not pleased with
their pace of progress should consider a play-to-learn approach to progress that is grounded in self-determination
and novel diversity. I refer to playing-to-learn environments as “learning-developing” environments, and learning-to-
play environments as “teaching-fixing to get-it-right” environments that merely see students as objects to be fixed.
“Learning-developing” environments support growth, “teaching-fixing to get it right” environments try to manage
In my view, one of the main reasons some golfers are not happy with their level of play is because of how they are
trying or are asked to learn. Unsound approaches to the learning process puts limits on the progress that could be
made with any physical activity.
Suggestions and information here in Play Golf to Learn Golf come from many sources, including my previous
books. Information about the Genius of Play, Development of Physical Activities, The Discipline of Zen, Mind Sets for
Progress, Attention, and Awareness, follow with the hope that readers can develop personal insights into making
progress with their golf game.
I became aware of what is commonly known as the Eastern or Asian approaches to learning while flying to the
1982 Ladies U.S. Open in California. I was accompanying Anne Heuschneider, a 19-year-old who had qualified for
this prestigious tournament after playing golf for only 3 years. At the time I may have been more excited than she
was. Anne really had no idea how much she had accomplished in such a short period of time.
During our flight we were drawn into a conversation with a man who was in the recording business, producing
records in Los Angeles and New York. When Mr. Wear discovered we were on our way to the Ladies U.S. Open, he
wanted to know how or why Anne improved so quickly. First, I pointed out that Anne had put 6 or 7 years of work into
3 years, and that I believe that “Golf really cannot be taught, but it can be learned through acts of play”.
After explaining my approach to instruction, Mr. Wear suggested I read a few books about the Zen approach to
learning. He felt this was similar to the one I was using with students.
I took his suggestions to heart and set out to discover everything possible about the Eastern or Asian approach to
learning and how it could improve my ability as an instructor and the golf skills of students. I had done some
reading about Zen in the past and was excited about starting again. I would soon learn that the concept of
instructors learning from lessons as well as learning from their students was basic to all efficient instruction and
Perhaps this is the reason practice halls in the Far East are traditionally called “The Place of Enlightenment” (DOJO
in Japan, DQJANG in Korea, and KWOON in China). The DOJO (or Place of Enlightenment) is where we make
contact with fears - anxieties - reactions - our habits and ourselves. It is where the opponent is not an opponent but
a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. A DOJO can be any place where a source of self-
enlightenment is available and progress occurs through acts of play. Many golfers who want to improve often
overlook the genius of play in favor of focusing on technical information about the golf swing, and details about
moving their bodies.
I use bold print, quotes and italics throughout this book to encourage readers to “think a bit.” My intent is for readers
to draw their own personal meanings from the quotes. If you do not ponder what is presented here, this book is
less useful than it’s intended it to be. To be informed is not enough when trying to improve. Information must be
experienced and personalized if you are going to learn from it. I hope some of these quotes give you new insights,
and lead to new ideas that open your own pathway to progress. The quoted phrases may give you a different way of
looking at yourself and your golf. The bold print quotes and italics are meant to be embellished and expanded, to
cause a bigger and clearer personal picture to learn from.
This book does not make suggestions on how to play golf, but it makes some suggestions about playfully learning
and improving your golf game. Any golfer, from beginner to professional, can use this information. Play Golf to
Learn Golf is less about the skills that you use to play golf with, than how you are trying to learn them.
Some points that will be highlighted:
Learning golf is a creative, playful process.
Golf is not a subject; it is a physical activity or motor skill.
Physical activities are created in the brain, not by the body.
Everyone learns in his or her own best way and at a different pace.
Unfortunately, most of us have been inbred with the Puritan work ethic: “If you don’t try hard, you will not succeed.”
Hopefully you will come to understand that the very act of trying brings tension and rigidity. Once we understand how
we learn through playing, we will stop trying.
T R Y could stand for the mnemonic:
Yourself when learning
Denise McCluggage’s book, The Centered Skier, gave me some wonderful insights into the thinking process and
learning. The following came from notes I made from this must read book. In it, Denise may have given the best
description of the golf swing I have ever heard or read, “The swing is an action in which certain things are caused to
happen and certain things are allowed to happen. Faults arise in trying to cause what should be allowed.”
When we go to school or take lessons to get something, we tend to look upon learning as acquisition, adding to an
existing fund of knowledge just as we would add to a bookshelf. Thus, we put ourselves under the tension of
searching out and adding to our knowledge. Our brow furrows, our neck tenses, and we direct our fierce attention
outward, ever fearful of missing something. And thus we do miss it; for what we are looking for is not outside; it is
inside, awaiting self-discovery, awaiting awakening, awaiting the spark that is based on our past experiences.
Playful learning is not adding on; it is paring down. It is replacing old patterns; it is recording and reconnecting. Most
efficient learning is replacing a complicated, less complete way with a simpler, more encompassing way. It is
seeing the picture as a whole. At an early age we know everything we need to know. Learning stems from what
happens when I do this or don’t do that. Playful learning merely brings awareness. Learning does not stem from do
this or don’t do that. Learning happens when you notice what happens as you playfully move in different ways. If you
like what happens then continue to do what you did. Attend to the process and the desired result will follow -- like
grass grows. See it – feel it- avoid using words as you play to learn.
Teaching-fixing environments can destroy most of the intuitive and creative capacity of individuals by the things we
say or make them do. We destroy this capacity by making them afraid; afraid of not doing what other people want, or
not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong. Thus, we make them afraid to gamble, afraid to
experiment, afraid to try the difficult and unknown. (There is no failure, only usable feedback when playing to learn.)
We use physical, emotional, and intellectual functions. The important thing to remember about these three
functions is that we do have a choice about the way we employ them. The most fundamental misuse is the failure
to make choices. The body is our instrument for fulfilling our purpose on earth. This instrument can be coarse and
dull in a teaching environment or tuned and receptive in learning environments — the choice is ours. Most
problems are the result of conflict; our bodies tell us one thing, our thoughts another and our emotions yet another.
In most people the idea “Am I right?” seems to be associated with a fixed pattern of tension that prevents
experiencing a new and freer balance. Trust, (at the risk of feeling disoriented), venturing from the known to the
unknown. This journey necessitates a willingness both to make mistakes and to profit by them. Feedback is the
essence of progress.
The last chapter of the book is called Extra Credit. Reading this chapter is similar to extra credit work in classroom
settings. It contains details that may interest some readers but it is information that can be used by every reader.