Fred Shoemaker: A prophet amid the vast golf instruction wilderness
I first met Fred Shoemaker through his book, Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible. Then, several years later, I had the opportunity to be a student in his Extraordinary Golf School. If it were anyone but Fred, I’d cast a skeptical eye on his liberal use of the word “extraordinary.” But in his case, it really does apply.
What’s so special about Fred and his teachings? It’s that, when it comes to the golf swing, he seeks the truth. Perhaps more significantly, he’s not afraid to speak that truth—even if doing so places him at odds with virtually all of his colleagues in his profession.
As such, I consider Fred to be a much-needed prophet who longs to lead us out of this vast golf swing instruction wilderness. After all, the USGA and R&A will tell you that—in spite of all the range balls, all the video replay, all of the latest analytical tools and all of the new equipment technology—the collective handicap of amateur golfers hasn’t budged a bit. Yet that doesn’t stop well-meaning teaching pros and ever-enthusiastic students from doubling down on the same failed formula. Albert Einstein, quoted as saying “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” would be dumbfounded.
I know. I’ve been there. If you read my last post, you’re aware I’m attempting to chart a different way forward. Time will tell whether I stay this new course and if it leads to the Promised Land. The mainstream’s current, much like that of the rain-swollen River Tweed that loops around my new hometown, is strong. I could easily get sucked back in.
So, as a preemptive strike, I gave Fred a call at his home in Carmel, California. And he very graciously shared an hour of his time with me, talking about the game we love and the ways in which it can transform us—if we have the courage to zig while nearly everyone else is zagging.
Wee Egg Mon: First off, Fred, thanks for your willingness to share. We’ve met and talked a bit in the past. But I’ve never really asked you what it was that led you down this path less traveled. Was there a specific turning point or “aha” moment?
Fred Shoemaker: Well, let me start by saying that I used to try to teach the game the way most people continue to try to teach it. And I got to be very good at diagnosing people’s swings. I was like an information machine. But when it came right down to it, all of my knowledge didn’t make much of a difference. My students either got a little better or a little worse. So what do you do when you try everything you know and it falls way short of what you know in your gut is possible? That’s where either despair or resignation sets in. Take your choice.
In fact, I reached a point where I stopped actively giving lessons. And then I saw this program on tennis on PBS. And there was this guy, Tim Gallwey, who was doing something that, to me, was obviously right on. Which left me with a choice: Do I walk away from what he’s saying and stay in the paradigm that I know? Or do I ask myself, “If what he’s saying is true, how do I apply it to the way I teach golf.”
So I contacted Tim. And he gave me a golf lesson, even though that’s not what he was about. This was before he published The Inner Game of Golf. And in that one lesson, I learned that there was this thing, that you could call ineffective, that had been in my golf swing for 22 years. And in 45 minutes with Tim, I was able to change it. And it never came back. One lesson.
WEM: Sounds like magic. What did he do?
FS: The first thing he did was create an environment without evaluation. He made it safe for me to do anything I wanted to do. He made it safe to look at things I’d never looked at before and not feel embarrassed or foolish or stupid. The second thing he did was make it clear that my awareness, not his information, was the only thing that was going to help me.
And so, pretty quickly, I came to realize that I had a blind spot in my swing and that I could put my attention there and feel what I was actually doing. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before. That allowed me to make a real change. It blew my mind. Those 45 minutes made a huge difference in my game.
The other thing I learned was that awareness isn’t about talent. During the two seconds of the swing, I probably experience a little bit more about what’s really going on than most people do. Like where the clubface might be. What allows for solid impact. Distinguishing my swing plane in the fast places, not just at the start, top and finish. That’s all. It’s just deliberate intentional practice to being present to something over time.
WEM: Which, for most people, is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
FS: Which makes golf even more important, doesn’t it? You can see that people are addicted to their devices. Whether that’s good or bad, you can decide for yourself. But the capacity to spend 15 minutes in a quiet, simple focus is not easy for people these days. But every scientific study that deals with our health, every single one of them, says it’s good for us. No one is saying that we’ll get healthier if we spend more time on more devices.
To play golf well and develop your potential you have to be able to maintain a relaxed concentration. And you need to develop the ability to have direct experiences and replace old beliefs.
WEM: That speaks to where I seem to be heading in my own golf and writing. Rather than burden it with more technology, golf—it seems to me—offers the opportunity to separate ourselves from all of that. To disconnect from the devices.
FS: Yes. To me, that’s why golf is essential to my life right now. It’s about the walk, the connection of my feet on the ground. It’s about the connection with other people. All of that means so much more to me now than it did when I was 20.
I saw a study that said kids between the ages of 12 and 18 spend on average nine hours a day on their devices—either for entertainment or social media—outside of school. And many adults are moving in that direction, too. It’s reached a point where we feel uncomfortable unless we have our device in our pocket or on our wrist. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-technology. Not at all. Rather, I’m interested in finding the right balance.
And golf, especially for people who like sports, might be one of the greatest activities at restoring that balance. It can be this incredible experience where you not only learn about learning, but you get a chance to develop excellence. You can learn concentration and self-trust. You can learn how to be present. You can learn how to handle failure and deal with interference that pops up in everyday life.
And when you leave the course, you’ll be a better person for having played. What else can give you all of that?
WEM: I’m sure you know you’re preaching to the choir, but amen to that, brother!
FS: What’s important to remember is that all of that learning isn’t going to happen on its own. It has to be brought into being. Intentionally. Because these skills are no more inherent to golf than they are to playing checkers. They require a change in focus from the way you’ve been conditioned to play the game. That it’s about good and bad and right and wrong. That it’s about comparing yourself to other people. That it’s about winning and losing.
Changing that perspective is what our golf school is all about. Everyone who comes to us wants more consistency. They want solid contact. They want to hit the ball longer and straighter. We deal with all of that as best we can. But I’ve also found that people just want to feel the sun on their face. They want to feel comfortable playing with a new group of people. They want to feel connected to something and to believe that life makes sense to some degree. But they don’t usually ask for those things until they know it’s possible to ask for them.
That’s why we always start with questions: What do you really want? Why are you here? What’s valuable to you? What do you aspire to? What to you want to walk away with? We ask these questions, very intentionally, so our students realize they have a choice in how they play the game.
WEM: It seems to be working. You’ve hosted more than a thousand sessions, and counting.
FS: The funny thing about this is we’ve never advertised. If we don’t do a job in which people not only feel satisfied but feel compelled to tell others about it, we won’t be in business. And that’s the way we like it.
WEM: And that’s not how the other guys do it?
FS: Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, I was asked to speak at the PGA Coaching and Teaching Summit. The listed me as the last speaker. After three days of presentations, I just felt like I had to try something different. So I said, “After listening for three days, it’s pretty clear that the current golf culture revolves around the axis of people getting better. If they get better at golf, they’ll be happier. That’s the core message around the whole golf world: ‘Play better golf, enjoy golf. Enjoy golf, play better golf.’”
And then I said, “There are 1,100 people here today. So this is probably the largest group of low-handicap group of golfers that will come together this year. You’ve reached the epitome of the ‘getting better’ game. You have achieved what very few of the students you coach will ever achieve.” And then I asked some questions, “Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Does golf fill you with joy? Can you hardly tie your golf shoes you’re so excited to play again?” And it was like someone farted in an elevator! It was like, “We don’t want to look at that. We’d rather just stay with, ‘get better, get better, get better.’” As if the happiest golfer in the world right now is Rory McIlroy or somebody.
Here’s a funny aside: I did a workshop in England last year and met this guy who did a study on golf and happiness. And he determined that the happiest golfers were the people who had a 12 handicap. The people who go lower than that feel anxiety and the people who go higher feel like they’re no good. So whatever you do, don’t get below a 12!
WEM: So I need to get a little worse, not better!? Finally, a goal I can achieve.
FS: Seriously though, we can’t even begin to have a conversation until we have some agreement that golf isn’t just about getting better. But if it’s not about getting better, then what else could it be about? That’s the conversation I like to have with my students.
WEM: It must be very unsettling.
FS: It can be. What do we do when someone takes away our basic paradigm? How do we find another one? Most of the people on the range are diligently trying to get better. They’re working on things. But what if they spent that time in the joy of simply feeling their own golf swing? Dancers like to dance. It feels good. They like to be out on the floor. Most golfers, though, don’t like their swings. But they’ll keep doing something they don't like in the hope they’ll produce an outcome they do like. What if, instead, you fell in love with the process of learning, not simply learning something? Most people think learning is the accumulation of facts. That’s not true, not when you’re talking about learning a sport.
WEM: That reminds me of a phrase in your Extraordinary Golf book that’s always stuck with me: “Understanding is the booby prize.” Which I take to mean that the real benefits of playing golf are not to be found in figuring it out but in fully experiencing it. It’s clear to me that you practice what you preach. How else to explain your enduring enthusiasm for the game after more than 30 years of coaching.
FS: I’m more fascinated with it now than I’ve ever been. I started my day today practicing…in a garage. One of the things I’m exploring is if it’s possible to experience the wholeness of my swing plane from start to finish. After we’re done here, I’ll head out to the range for six hours and maybe spend some time on the course, too. I get to discover something new every day, about myself, about my coaching, about golf and about other people. I get to challenge the best of myself. How often do you get that in life?
If I’m writing something, I’m just average. If I’m doing things around the house, I’m a 15-handicap. Maybe more. But this thing about coaching and learning…I’ve put thousands of hours into that. And I really love it. It doesn't feel like work at all.
WEM: That’s when you know you’re on the track that was meant just for you.
FS: Like Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” I’m driven by the idea that anything is possible and that the world is wide open and we can create something that’s not there or has been lost. Meanwhile, the conventional approach is just different versions of the same thing—hope and hope.
Did you know that the golf swing is the most analyzed motion in the history of mankind? And nothing else is even close. Just since 1950, there have been something like 50,000 books written on it. Isn’t that amazing?
Yet, even with all the books and the technology, there’s still some guy out there who thinks if he just twists his hips at the start of his swing it will all work out for him. Everyone generally thinks they’re just one little thing away from figuring it out. For the rest of their life. And that’s how the game is promoted. All you need is this club. Or this magic move. Or the stack and tilt. Or whatever it is. And you’ll be better. And people will like you. And you’ll be accepted. And you won’t end up pushing your goods in a shopping cart down the street.
WEM: I agree. There are plenty of instruction books that attempt to answer the “how” question. There are a lot of biographies of the game’s greatest players, the “who” question. And then you have the travel books that attempt to answer the “where” question. But the only question that really interests me these days is “why.”
FS: Isn’t that the most fundamental question? Why would a human being spend five hours on a beautiful Sunday whacking a piece of polyurethane around a park and talking about it incessantly? I mean, it doesn’t feed us. It doesn't make our relationships with our spouses better. It doesn’t make us better citizens. Unless in some way you’ve grown during that time and come to see an expanded version of yourself, it would seem pointless, wouldn’t it?
And yet, in the end, every act is meaningless…until we bring meaning to it. I’m just interested that people don’t automatically bring the meaning to golf that they see on TV. That they realize they can choose their own meaning. Every tour pro reinforces the myth that better golf makes you happier. They come in after their round and say, “I shot 64 and it was a fun day. I had a great time.” Instead, just once, I’d like a pro to say, “I shot 77. And it was one of the most important and wonderful days of my life.’” Just one time.
WEM: Speaking of time, I need to let you go. Thanks for pep talk. It means a lot, more than just this blog post.
FS: Well, thank you for the conversation. You’re not alone. In the search for compatible life in the universe, I’m here to tell you there are other people out there like you. Keep searching and learning.
WEM: Will do, Fred!