The master of swing: Interview with golf coach Jim McLean

Jim McLean on the madness of method — and why teaching stars is no big deal.

Whoever said, “Those who can’t do, teach,” never saw Jim McLean draw a golf ball. Then fade it. Then pure it down the middle. Calling all three shots before hitting them. While on his knees. But the legendary golf instructor’s mastery transcends trick shots. A staple of television’s The Golf Channel, Florida-based McLean — author of the X-Factor Swing and the Eight-Step Swing, two of the most popular golf instruction books ever — has built a thriving business out of teaching the game. He now has 10 schools worldwide, including one in Calgary and another in Niagara Falls, Ont. McLean spoke recently to Canadian Business editor Joe Chidley.

CB: One thing people hate about golf instruction is that it’s always about the perfect swing. A guy’s like, ‘I’m short, I’m fat, I play five times a year — I want someone to work with what I got.’ Is that where you’re coming from?

McLean: Absolutely. We’re not working with the same kinds of people at all. We have to look at how athletic they are, how many times they’ve played, how often they practice, what their body types are, and then we compare that to other players who do things well — show them what they’re able to do.

I’m hiring teachers who want to be No. 1. If not, then we’re not interested. You have to find people who have a passion for teaching. You can see that in any business: the ones who are successful have to love what they’re doing.

You study other coaches. Why?

I got to know Bruce Coslet, who was coach of the New York Jets. He gave me his whole book, how he prepared for the year, how they ran the practices. Part of that is how I run my golf school — it’s like a football team. I don’t have everybody doing the same thing; I put everyone where they need to be. What I’ve seen in golf is a lot of methods. Teachers become famous through a method. They’ll get a few people who play really well by fitting into that method and then try to get everybody to play that way. But methods don’t work. It’s like having a shoe store that sells all nines. If you’re a nine, that’s the greatest store in the world. But if you’re a seven or 11, you’re out.

What can golfers do in the off-season to keep their game up?

The thing with working indoors is that if you’re not working on the right things, you can get worse. And you’ve got to be pretty dedicated to do it in your basement. But if you can get to a practice facility that’s fun, where you can get good instruction on a regular basis, you can come back considerably better at the game.

Which pros do you work with?

I still work with Len Mattiace. Dana Quigley on the Senior Tour. Cristie Kerr. But it’s a tremendous amount of time when you’re away from your business, away from the family, in a hotel, waiting for the pro, kinda hanging out. People love to hear you’ve worked with a Tour player, but it doesn’t really mean you’re a better teacher. You get too much credit, because the guys are already great.

It’s probably more of a challenge to get a guy under 90 than tweak a pro, right?

A lot of the teachers who are really well-known aren’t teaching that many average people. I actually have a business, where we have to be good at teaching 100-shooters. I get just as much satisfaction from a letter from somebody telling me they just shot the best round of their life. That’s one thing that’s great about teaching. People really are appreciative. You sell them a shirt in the pro shop — well, that’s part of being in the golf business. But people don’t write you and say, “Thanks for that great yellow shirt.”

Last question. Why don’t you just play from your knees all the time?

It’s funny, the trick shots are so reactive. They’re easy to do, but that’s the kind of thing people remember. You can go through the minutiae of a golf swing, and they’ll just drop over dead. But they’ll remember the shots off the knees.