Top Teachers for Top Execs

Imparting golf skills and wisdom is tough enough. Imagine trying to do it for a CEO who's used to giving orders and seeing results

As if anyone needs more proof, Michael Jordan's comeback to the National Basketball Assn. at age 38 shows he's one of the most gifted athletes of all time. But on the golf course, despite a single-digit handicap and boasts of shooting 68, Jordan is more everyman than superman.

When Jordan took a lesson from Jim Suttie at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club outside Chicago several years back, teacher and pupil hardly hit it off. Suttie looked at the way Jordan wrapped his hands around the club and barked this advice: "You'd better change your left-hand grip, or you'll never be a golfer." Jordan bristled. He resisted the coaching, says Suttie, coolly finished the lesson, and never came back. It's an experience that Suttie, who ranks 11th on Golf Digest's list of America's greatest instructors, still takes to heart. "I've learned to not be so blunt with high-profile people," he says.

Suttie's experience is but one hard-earned lesson in the delicate art of teaching celebrities and CEOs to play golf. Given the elusiveness of success in golf -- even Tiger Woods is prone to slumps -- teaching the game to anyone can be an exercise in futility. But when the student is a famous athlete, actor, or, even more, a captain of industry accustomed to success, the task becomes all the more daunting.

CEOs, after all, are used to giving orders, not taking them. They're often too busy to practice, yet want immediate results. And they're demanding, expecting as sure-minded a solution from their golf pro as they do from the vice-president of a troubled division.


  One of the first steps in teaching a celebrity or top executive, golf instructors say, is establishing credibility -- and who's in charge. For starters, it means sizing up their swing in a few minutes and confidently identifying a key flaw. It also means literally putting your hands on them: fixing their grip or turning their shoulders away from and into the ball, says Jim McLean, No. 3 on the Golf Digest survey and guru at varying times to David Rockefeller, Henry Kravis, and Charles Schwab. "It's funny to think of one of those guys as a student, but that's what they are," he says.

McLean offers his experience with Kravis, the billionaire leveraged-buyout king, as Exhibit A. The former captain of his college golf team, Kravis had fallen into a rut when he went to McLean for a lesson at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Westchester County, N.Y. McLean spotted the problem quickly: Kravis was drawing the club back too far inside, or close to his body, creating a reverse pivot and causing him to hit the ball left.

"I laid it out for him and said, 'It's not looking good. You've got to make some changes here,'" recalls McLean. How did Kravis react? "He kind of laughed, but he got right after it," says McLean, who now operates golf schools at five resorts across the country, from Doral in Miami to La Quinta and PGA West in Southern California. Within a couple of months, he adds, Kravis knocked 10 shots off his game, bringing it to the mid-70s.


  Not every bigwig is so open to advice. As artisans of the country club life, many have taken golf lessons for years and heard the buzzwords before: weight shift, right elbow in, left shoulder high. And they've usually played enough golf to groove bad habits. When told to make a change, some execs disagree with the pro. Dave Pelz, an Austin-based teacher and author of the widely selling Dave Pelz's Short Game Bible (Broadway Books, 1999), sometimes uses a laser beam bounced off a CEO's putter to convince him that his aim is off.

More often, pros will videotape a person's swing and point out the problems in slow motion. "[When] they see the proof, they're more willing to do something," says Suttie. "If you don't use video, you can talk to them in 10 different languages, and you can't convince them."

Another key is moving beyond how-to advice -- the bane of so many golfers. Unlike other sports in which you just pick up a ball and play, golf has produced volumes of technical instruction. "The minute we own golf clubs, people start telling us what to do, and it fragments learning," says Michael Hebron, an award-winning pro at Smithtown Landing Country Club in Long Island, N.Y. Like many pros, Hebron sticks to the basics: Is the club on the proper plane at address (about a 45-degree angle with the ground)? Are the hands slightly ahead? Does the swing have timing and balance?


  Once a person grasps the basics, a feeling of being in command follows -- clearly the preference of a high-level exec, says Hebron, who has taught his share, including James Robinson while he was at American Express and Mickey Tarnopol of Bear Stearns. "During the second half of the lesson, they start to tell you what their swing did or didn't do," he says. "Now they have insights into the golf club, the blueprint of the golf club, and now they become their own coach. They're where they want to be -- they're in control."

Then a new challenge arises: High-powered execs are used to immediate results. After just a half-hour on the practice tee, some CEOs expect to hit every ball long, high, and straight. "These guys do not like to hit bad golf shots," says Pelz. "I think they have less tolerance for the poor shots than even the [PGA] Tour players. They're successful people. They don't want to stand there and hit stinkers."

In fairness, golf pros say CEOs can be a pleasure to teach. As in the boardroom, they respect good advice when they know and trust the source. They're bright and often very personable, the pros say. "They're much more real than most of the people who are striving to reach the top," says Chuck Cook, who ranks seventh on Golf Digest's list and who, based in Austin, has taught such CEOs as Nav Sooch of Silicon Labs and Greg Peters of Vignette.

And those who have time to focus on their golf game, the pros say, often make remarkable progress. George Roberts, Kravis' partner at KKR, was a middling player when he started seeing McLean. Unlike most golfers, Roberts could afford to take four- and five-hour lessons (the top instructors charge an average of about $150 to $200 an hour). He managed to lower his handicap from 15 to 3 over several years, says McLean -- satisfying for a teacher to see. If only they were all such model students.

By Paul Rogers in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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