Distance learning via the Internet is transforming the way golf is taught. But can it improve your swing? "We were fascinated by our initial research," says Ray Barger, chief executive of Astar Inc., one of the pioneers in golf video-analysis systems, which are used by nearly all instructors to scrutinize students' swings. "We saw this insatiable need among golfers to improve, but very few people were actually taking lessons -- less than 15 percent," he says.
At the top of Barger's list of why people didn't take lessons was fear of exposure. After all, a golf lesson entails putting an imperfect swing on display and asking -- paying -- to have it picked apart. "We humans don't like that experience," says Barger. "What we uncovered is that if we could find a way to keep the lesson personalized as opposed to exposing the individual, we could get them to take more lessons."
Enter the Internet, as personal as a buddy list, as remote as random-access memory. A host of companies are vying to hook up golfers and golf pros, and all it requires is a reasonably speedy computer, an online connection, and a digital video camera. Go to V1Golf.com, for instance, and you'll first find out how to videotape your swing and e-mail the file. Specially developed software allows you to "identify some basic faults and offers drills to work on, based on your actual video," says Chris Hart, president of Interactive Frontiers, which introduced V1 Golf last fall. (For a list of companies offering such services and an overview of the software and computer equipment you'll need, see page GD13.)
The next step is to send your video to an instructor and get even more personalized instruction online. It's the sharing of a student's videotaped swing that promises to elevate the online learning experience beyond today's use of videotape or even DVDs. "A lot of teachers record a lesson on DVD or video, but most of the people we interviewed were not watching it," says Victor Bergonzoli, president of Dartfish USA, whose motion-analysis technology is used by Olympic coaches and pro baseball and football teams, as well as a number of golf instructors. "Why would you want to watch a half-hour of a golf lesson you just took? How do you free up your VCR at home from your kids?" Dartfish solved these hurdles with the creation of a "video book" in which your swing is electronically parsed and then e-mailed to you. Bergonzoli, who has posted sample lessons on sites like lastminutegolfer.com, explains: "You can have a split screen, you can go frame by frame. Pick any position, and it appears full screen; click on a speaker button and hear comments from your teacher."
"It's really cool, how it's evolving," says Hart, whose video-analysis technology is used by nearly 3,000 golf professionals, including such top teachers as David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon. "We had 60 golf pros signed up to give online lessons a year ago. This year we have 500, and next year we figure we'll be somewhere north of 2,000 teachers."
Leadbetter stresses that the technology is best used to augment traditional hands-on learning -- particularly as a follow-up to in-person instruction. "There's nothing better than a one-on-one lesson, because you're doing a lot through verbalization, gestures, and physically putting someone in the right positions and giving them the right feel," he says. A few Leadbetter clients, such as Lee Westwood of England and Aaron Baddeley, a rising star from Australia, now e-mail their swings from afar to their Orlando-based instructor. Says Leadbetter: "It's the next-best thing to being there."
Laird Small, director of instruction at the Pebble Beach Golf Academy and 2003 PGA Teacher of the Year, uses software to capture his students' swings and e-mail video instruction to them as a follow-up to in-person lessons. He sees such software as a way to maintain a connection with students. "You can e-mail your swing to me, and I can give you personal instruction, drop-down models, audio, and everything necessary for ongoing learning." (See accompanying story for a case in point.)
Some distance-learning specialists don't see why the online connection should be limited to the golf pro and student. Astar is working with Body Balance for Performance, a fitness chain with 53 franchises, to include golf-fitness evaluations and recommended training regimens as part of online golf lessons.
One of the enterprising instructors working this new field is Paul Wilson, of Kansas City, Kan. Wilson is the author of Swing Machine Golf, an instruction book based on Iron Byron, the robotic golfer once used by the U.S. Golf Assn. to test balls. The $60 price of the coffee-table book includes weekly e-mail golf tips as well as online coaching via his Web site, swingmachinegolf.com.
"It's a great thing," says Scott Ferguson, a former University of Houston golfer who has been working with Wilson while competing on the Nationwide and Tight Lies tours this year. "I get whoever's around -- a friend or my caddie -- to videotape me, then I put the clip in my laptop and e-mail it with a Sprint wireless card. A video clip is only half a meg, so it takes 30 seconds. Paul can send me back frame-by-frame pictures with lines and comments. I've been meaning to see him a few times, but we usually get swing problems fixed via e-mail. It saves hours and hours not having to fly up to see him." Adds Wilson: "Scott's e-mails allow me to keep tabs on him, because at this level, the changes are pretty minute."
Such fine-tuning points up a potential drawback to online golf instruction. Says instructor Jim McLean: "Without precision in your camera setup, you've got random information. All I have to do is change the camera angle slightly, and I can have your swing look any way you want. But we have lots of video shot over time from the same angle, so it's a valuable tool.
"There's going to be great learning on the Internet, especially as a follow-up," McLean continues. "But I don't see that there are too many teachers who, after teaching all day on the range, are going to go home and do Internet lessons all night -- or sit in a room and wait for an Internet lesson to come in when you could actually be out giving a lesson."
V1 Golf's Hart thinks the biggest advocates of this technology will be young golfers. He points to the Junior Golf Showcase as a model. Operated by the Golf Coaches Association of America, which represents men's college golf, and the National Golf Coaches Assn., the women's equivalent, the Showcase serves as a clearinghouse for golfers hoping to play college golf. Young players from around the world post résumés and videos of their swings on collegiategolf.com. It's an electronic cattle call in which college golf coaches review the swings of prospects. "These young golfers have grown up with this technology, they understand the Internet," Barger says. "They are on it day in, day out."
The average handicap of golfers hasn't budged from about 19 in more than 20 years. Could the rise of e-mail coaching, not to mention Internet golf academies, cause this number to drop anytime soon?
Stay tuned. For the coming generation of golfers seeking to polish their swings, "This is going to feel like a learning experience," says Barger. "But it's going to be fun. It's got high entertainment value."
By Scott Smith