News & Opinion

Golf 8.5 distills game to its essence

Thinking Outside the Tee Box: One in an occasional series about innovators who are making golf more attractive.

This may sound unlikely, but I’ll go ahead and write it anyway: Kay McMahon may be golf’s most important person.

Who is Kay McMahon? She played some on the LPGA tour in the late 1970s and 1980s – three U.S. Women’s Opens, nine qualifying schools – and eventually ended up where she belongs: teaching the game.

She is golf’s most important person because she has a Harvey Penick-like knack for keeping things simple and a nail-on-the-head mission statement: “To grow the game, we’ve got to grow more golfers,” she said. “We have to simplify the way we teach the golf swing so we can grow golfers and give them the confidence to start playing immediately.”

Kay McMahon

Kay McMahon

Immediately?  When have you heard anyone suggest that? It is no idle boast. McMahon’s innovative program is called Golf 8.5 because she has identified 8½ pieces to quickly create a successful golf swing. Her presentation is the key.

“Psychologists know that people learn faster if they do it in parts and slowly, allowing the brain to take in the information,” McMahon said. “Like learning the ABCs. Teachers started us slowly with A-B-C-D-E-F-G, but in the middle, they would speed up, and L-M-N-O-P sounded like a word. They would slow down again at the end, but everyone would get mixed up in the middle.”

So, McMahon teaches the golf swing in chunks, position by position, and in slow, repetitive motion.   

Golf 8.5 starts by establishing the setup, four pre-swing positions that McMahon calls G-CAP: grip, clubhead, alignment and posture. “If students do the first three things in order, they get into the proper posture without having to think about it,” McMahon said. “We never teach posture, which is a complete break from traditional instruction.”

My reaction to her bold posture statement was, “Wow.”

I wondered how long it takes to get a novice golfer through G-CAP. “About two minutes,” she said with a laugh. “Wow,” I repeated.

Here’s how it works: After the four pre-swing positions, there are 4.5 in-swing positions that begin with the takeaway. McMahon calls it the “Y” because as the golfer turns, the club and outstretched arms look like the letter Y, just like they appear at address.

The second position is the L, for leverage, at the top of the backswing. The student’s elbows bend, and the back arm makes the letter L. The arms form a box, which McMahon calls the elevator. You’ve just taken the elevator up, she tells her students. Now bring it down with the forward swing. This is the transition, which she counts as position 2½.

“Contrary to conventional instruction, the hips do not turn forward first,” McMahon said. “The arms come down first. I’m going against a million golf pros on this one and disrupting traditional teaching.”

As the elevator comes down with the forward swing, the student’s back knee releases and the foot ends up on its toes. “I call that the nylon,” McMahon says. “Meaning, if I had a run in the back of my right nylon (stocking), I’d have to turn my knee to look at it over my right shoulder.”

In the third position, the student’s arms become a Y as they fully extend through impact with the clubhead pointing along the target line. The final position is the finish. The golfer’s arms should look like double L’s bent at the elbows, hands above the body, creating an upright and balanced finish.

McMahon slowly moves her golfers – beginners and pros alike – through these positions and stitches the movements into a swing. How long does this process take? “Is 15 minutes too long?” McMahon asked with a chuckle.

Fifteen minutes? Yes, this is seriously radical.

I met McMahon last spring at an International Network of Golf conference at the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida. She watched a tall, athletic female beginner whiff on her first three swings. McMahon put her program into action and within 15 minutes, just as promised, the woman could hit the ball – not very far, but airborne and with solid contact.

“It was an emotional, life-changing experience for her,” McMahon said. “She felt successful. You could see her sheer excitement for the game being ignited.”

McMahon works with players of all skill levels, including pros. She is a PGA of America member and in the LPGA Teaching Hall of Fame. She is a native of Minnesota and was a multi-sport star at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is based in upstate New York and about to open a second Golf 8.5 location in Orlando, Fla. She has a website (, does online instruction and holds workshops around the country.

“What I’m trying to do is de-clutter everyone’s minds,” McMahon said. “My objective is for people to know their swings and identify what they should be doing. Too many swings are taught like Post-it notes: tack them on a wall, pick out one swing thought and try to go play that day.

“I say teaching the golf swing is like making margaritas. First you need the ingredients, then put them on a slow blend and go to a faster blend only after you’re ready.”

Golf desperately needs a better, faster way to create golfers. McMahon’s innovative methods provide an answer. She is changing the way golf is taught … one margarita at a time.

If you know someone doing innovative things in golf, contact the writer at

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle