Shoptalk with Laird Small, director of the Pebble Beach Golf Academy

By Zachary Michael Jack, Contributor

Director of the Pebble Beach Golf Academy since 1996 and the 2003 PGA Teacher of the Year, Laird Small embodies what the Academy Web site describes as the "Pebble Beach tradition of guest-services and individuals attention." A passionate supporter of junior golf in America and one of America's 50 Greatest Teachers as ranked by Golf Digest, Small utilizes the mecca of Pebble Beach as a classroom to teach a brand of club-awareness, swing sensitivity, and shotmaking prowess often lost in more mechanical approaches.

Laird Small - PGA Learning Center in Florida
"The job of the coach is to find a way to communicate with the student," PGA Professional Laird Small says, "because the learning occurs on the student end."
Laird Small - PGA Learning Center in FloridaLaird Small - PGA Learning Center
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On a recent, foggy morning at Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Small elaborated on his nurturing teaching philosophy and on the big-picture of amateur golf in America.

Laird Small on the damage of erroneous definitions in golf

"How do you define grip? In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, one of the definitions, I don't care which edition, is to hold onto something tightly.

"But if you grip tight on the golf club, what happens is you lose the feel for the weight of the club. The player's responsibility is to control the golf club. One of the ways they control the golf club is that they have a relationship between the handle, or the grip, and the club head.

"In hitting most shots, we want the handle to be slightly ahead of the club head. To hit a different type of shot we want the blade of the club to be either open or square or closed. If we hang on to the club tightly, we lose the sensitivity and feel for what we're swinging. Then we're not able to hit shots.

"Operating under the wrong definition doesn't allow us to perform well. The effects of operating under the correct definition would be ... I can hit different shots, I can be creative. I can have the golf club serve my interests, versus the other way around.

"Grip is a simple definition, but many people confuse it. They have a data point, but the data point is incorrect or it's unstable. As soon as you unmask that that data is not right ... they have a chance to be able to create a different operating system."

Laird Small on the golf teacher respecting the learner

"The job of the coach is to find a way to communicate with the student, because the learning occurs on the student end. The teacher has to respect that the student is a perfect learner. They're doing what they're doing because that's what they think they should be doing or they'd be doing something different. So you have to ask why they're doing what they're doing, which goes back to they're concept of how they think it should be done. Otherwise they'd do it differently.

"It's been my experience that humans don't want to do things wrong. I don't know anyone who wants to do C-level work, do you? What's the difference between an A and a C? It's not because of their [the student's] capacity to learn, it's because of their understanding of certain things. I think [poor] work ethic is a reflection of [students] not getting it. If they don't understand, why would they go practice what they don't understand? But when someone sees value in practicing they are now motivated."

Laird Small on new golf equipment and the alleged taming of the slice

"When we used a wooden club, the wooden club by its nature demanded that the ball spin more. When we went to the metal club ... now they can use a lower spin ball with more glide path, which stays up in the air longer, so you have less sidespin. So the curve isn't as great from side to side.

"They [amateurs] still slice the ball, but not as much when you and I grew up playing the game. A true 'game-improvement club' is one that has nothing on the back of it, that's not giving you any slop - that you have to make a better swing to hit better. A true game-improvement club is not going to have any of the features of the capacity back or the lower center of gravity. In my point of view, they [some clubmakers] disguise the sweet spot and are not helping people distinguish the difference in a properly struck ball."

Laird Small on the improvement of the average golfer over the decades

"Handicap averages say they [golfers] are about the same. But you can make the argument that says, all the things being the same, they [golfers] have actually gotten better. Today's golfer is probably better but yet the handicap statistic doesn't show it because the environment they're playing in has also changed and because of shear numbers; you've got more people golfing than ever before. A larger demographic base to choose from [means] the numbers are now skewed. If you have the same base number you'd see an improvement in the scoring. Now, too, you're seeing more juniors, more highly skilled players at a younger age. So, that's driving the number downward. So, yes, golfers are better, even though the statistical analysis may not show it."

Laird Small on attempts to imitate the perfect golf swing

"They [average golfers] look at pictures of players and it's a stop-action sequence ... so they go to try to copy the position, not realizing that the motion created the position. So we lose the sense of flow and swing. From a teaching standpoint, players are losing their sense of feel, their awareness, their shotmaking abilities, their creativity and imagination. Teachers need to help players hit creative shots, especially under pressure."

Laird Small on Phil Mickelson's swing evolution

"The direction I think Phil Mickelson is going may not be right. Making it [his swing] shorter and more compact ... he loses some of his artistry. I don't know, I could be wrong about that. He's a wonderful athlete. He's has a great sense of feel for his golf ball, probably more than anybody but Tiger. He [Mickelson] may be the most gifted player on tour."

Laird Small on not beating yourself up on the golf course

"Bob Rotella was scheduled to be on one of the hijacked plans going from Boston to Washington D.C. on 9-11. His plane was pulled back at that end of the runway. He ended up telling the story to the tour players the following week. 'Guys, if you knew this was your last round of golf. How would you play it?' That was the question he stared his talk with. 'If there's a tight tee shot—trouble left and right—would you take your driver out or would you lay up and play safe?'

"They all said 'We'd go for it.'

"Then he'd say, 'Now you've got to hit a shot to a green where the pin is tucked back behind a bunker. Would you play to the fat side of the green or hit to the flagstick?'

"They said, 'We'd hit for the flagstick.'

"Then he said, 'If it didn't come out the way you wanted it to, would you beat yourself up if it?'

"Of course the answer was no. That's the story I want to share with people. Let go. Go play and see what happens. For many people it's very hard to let go ... because they see all the possible outcomes. They're not living in the present moment.

"Let it go, but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't come out. That's not saying be sloppy. Have some freedom, some athleticism, to what you do."

Zachary Michael JackZachary Michael Jack, Contributor

Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf

    Bill Peiler wrote on: Feb 12, 2010

    This message is for Mr. Small, I call Mr because he deserves it. I was in the military stationed at Fort Ord Ca. he was then working at the pro-shop, I was a hacker then, I met him one day When bought a set of ping woods, 1,3,& 5 he sent me to see Furgesson which taught me the basics in five free lessons, then met with Mr. Small and taught me the finer points of the golf swing I caddied for Mr. Small at Napa Valley C.C. trying to qaulify for the US open, all I can say is Mr. Small you have come along way in golf and I appreciate the things you taught me along the way. I was a 28HDCP'er then and now I'm an 8hdcper thanks to you.
    Aloha From me to you.
    Bill Peiler