News & Opinion

Nelford could teach ‘coaches’ thing or two

The PGA Championship is making its anticipated debut in May this week. So, it’s a time when we should be celebrating the PGA of America.

The PGA Championship probably will get more exposure in May and make more money than it did in its traditional August time slot. And the Ryder Cup mints money for the PGA every two years. They’re big successes, and getting bigger.

What about the PGA club professionals, who are the core of the PGA of America? They don’t have pension plans. They don’t have insurance plans. And the core of what they do – teaching – no longer is the bread and butter of the PGA. The organization is quietly slithering out of the teaching business.

Officially, PGA pros are now called “coaches,” not teachers. The focus is on giving future pros business skills, such as club management, more than helping them learn how to teach the game. Why? Because the PGA’s methods have proved too difficult for teachers and students to learn.

Seth Waugh, who became the PGA’s chief executive officer in August, has said he’s looking into pensions and insurance for the PGA’s approximately 29,000 members. Teaching traditionally has been a key part of pros’ incomes, but the PGA shingle, once seen as a doctorate degree in golf and proof of expertise, has become less relevant in the Internet world.

Jim Nelford

“It used to be we believed PGA professionals had the secrets of the golf swing and were holding on to some coveted knowledge,” said Jim Nelford, a former PGA Tour player and broadcaster. “That is no longer the case.”

Nelford, 63, believes he has a solution, a way to teach golf faster and learn the game more easily.

“Who needs this more than anyone?” Nelford said. “All of the assistant pros who support golf with their hard work. If we don’t start educating these people, they’re going away. Seth Waugh asks, ‘What can we do for these guys?’ The answer is, give them knowledge. You can give a guy a fish so he can eat for a day or teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”

Nelford became a serious student of the swing after a run-in with a propeller during a boating accident late in his career forced him to reinvent his game. The result is a teaching system that he calls Pure Athletic Golf. It’s based on the premise that the lower body controls the golf swing, just as it controls virtually every athletic move in other sports, from pitching and batting to shooting jump shots. Simply put, it’s an athletic approach to the golf swing.

Nelford’s method is contrary to the teachings of most mainstream golf instructors, many of whom rarely mention the role of the lower body in the swing.

“The lower body is the power and center of every sport,” Nelford said. “What keeps people from playing golf is the glacial pace of learning the game. If it took us that long to learn to hit a baseball or tennis ball, the games would never have been invented. Everybody would strike out or never hit a ball in the court.

“Everyone seems to take pride that, Oh, golf is so hard to learn. ‘Golf in a box’ has been the predominant way of teaching for the last 60 years. Has it failed golf? Absolutely. Pure Athletic Golf bridges the gap between the other sports and golf, something we haven’t been able to do before.”

A faster, more successful teaching approach could give PGA pros a mission and a method. A way to teach golfers that gets them playing better quickly and more athletically could be a way for the PGA of America to save golf … and itself.

Nelford is a Canadian who excelled in many sports growing up. He plays golf righty but putts the way he shoots a hockey puck: left-handed. He lives in The Villages, Fla., and has focused on teaching golf since his broadcasting days.

He has a strong track record as an instructor. Former NHL player Claude Lemieux sought Nelford’s help. Lemieux, 53, got down to a 6 handicap on his own, then took lessons and got worse and worse.

“At one point, Claude was so frustrated, he owned 30 sets of clubs,” Nelford said. “When he ordered golf balls, he’d order 80 dozen from TaylorMade. They said, Why do you want 80 dozen balls? He said, ‘I’m hoping they last through the season.’

“A guy who could shoot a slapshot while skating at 20 miles per hour on an angle and ring it off the post five times out of 10 if he wanted now couldn’t find a 50-yard fairway.”

Clubface awareness and a low center of gravity are two key components of Nelford’s program. By the second day, Lemieux was hitting straight, solid 7-iron shots. Then 6-irons. Then hybrids. And finally, the driver.

“He was just killing his driver,” Nelford said. “He looked down at the club after one shot and said, ‘Oh, my God. This feels so powerful. I thought this was a bad driver.’ Of course he did. He’d never hit it on the center of the face before.”

A few days later, Lemieux texted Nelford from California to report he’d shot 39 for nine holes, with two double bogeys. Nelford asked if he finished with the same ball with which he started. Lemieux responded, “Yes! And I even found two more!”

“We turned him back into an athlete,” Nelford said. “Claude was thrilled.”

Nelford had a similar experience with football player Rodney Harrison.

After working together for half an hour, Harrison told him, “This is the first time I’ve felt like an athlete since I made that interception in the end zone during the Super Bowl [XXXIX in 2005].”

Nelford has other success stories with a few tour players, but I can name two players who are more relevant to me: my son, Mike, 32, who has been on and off the Tour, and myself. We spent two days at TPC Tampa Bay with Nelford recently, and it was game-changing.

After an hour of listening to instruction from Nelford, Mike began striping shots, one after another, by his third swing. The grin on his face said it all.

Mike’s conversion to Nelford’s method, which includes a dramatically more athletic stance, was stunningly quick. It took me longer, but I’m twice his age and half as limber. I nearly quit golf after my left knee’s meniscus blew out four years ago and I was reduced to weakly slapping at the ball.

Stem-cell injections helped get me back into the game. Post-Nelford, I have regained the two clubs of distance I’d lost on my irons, not something most newly-eligible Medicare card-holders can say. Now I can’t wait to go hit balls. Golf is fun again.

And another thing: Everything I thought I knew about the golf swing, including my belief in the Ernest Jones swing-the-clubhead theory, is a swing and a miss. Nelford is right. Pure Athletic Golf is the way we learned every other sport. It’s the lower body; it’s the hips. I’m a believer.

If anyone at the PGA of America is listening, Jim Nelford has a bold idea that could get the PGA back into the teaching business. That would be cause for a real celebration.

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