Local Golf Instructors Advise on How to Improve Your Game in Delaware

The region’s top instructors share some tricks of the trade.

When John Dunigan hears golfers complaining about how hard the game is, he can’t help but laugh a bit—and think about a pretty successful practitioner of the craft. “Tiger Woods said he only has his A game three times a year,” Dunigan says. “Nobody listened to that. The thing about Tiger Woods was that he was 100% prepared, ready and expecting that his A game wouldn’t show up. Average golfers don’t get that.”

Only the 16th Master PGA Professional ever, Dunigan is director of instruction at Applebrook Golf Club in Malvern, Pennsylvania. He’s worked with golfers of all calibers and is convinced that those who are most successful commit to the struggle inherent in playing the game well. If Woods can admit that he rarely plays to his capabilities, it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect anything different. “Everybody expects that, ‘This is the round where everything will go my way,’” Dunigan says. “I say, ‘Expect an ass-whupping and adjust on the fly.’”

Dunigan and other top instructors around the region spend countless hours each year helping golfers unlock the physical, mental and emotional mysteries of the game. They combine old and new, blending the latest technology with the basic tenets of golf. “I like to find out where the golfers are coming from so I can help them faster,” says Eric MacCluen, director of instruction at Downingtown, Pennsylvania’s Applecross Country Club and founder of the Eric MacCluen Golf Academy. “I enjoy what I do, and I don’t feel like it’s work. Likely, I’ll teach until I’m in the ground.”

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What MacCluen and others are teaching now is a game that continues to grow throughout the area, thanks to increasing membership at clubs and growing interest among young people hoping to play better in high school and land college scholarships. That’s kept top instructors busy—and they’ve had to adapt to the universe of players more interested in the latest technology associated with the game.

Wayne Defrancesco

“IT’S NOT A STRAIGHT LINE. IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. SOMETIMES, SOMEONE PLAYS A ROUND OF GOLF AND ISN’T HAPPY. SOMETIMES, ENOUGH GOES RIGHT TO KEEP YOU COMING BACK.”
—WAYNE DEFRANCESCO

Yardage books have been replaced by range finders of every kind. Driving ranges have surrendered to simulators. When once a cell phone video was sufficient for providing feedback during lessons, devices like the Foresight GCHawk provide almost endless data that can help players improve.

But even the best golfers must understand that there’s no clear path to improvement. “Most of the people who want to pay as much as teachers charge are interested in improving,” says Wayne DeFrancesco, director of instruction at Peninsula Golf and Country Club in Millsboro, Delaware. “I try to be honest with them and say, ‘Here’s what it takes.’ It’s not a straight line. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you play a round of golf and aren’t happy. Sometimes enough goes right to keep you coming back.”

There’s no set way to teach golf. MacCluen learned that when he was growing up in the Wilmington area. He played at Salesianum School, Greensboro College and North Carolina State University before returning to the area. “You have to be able to pull a teaching aid out of a tree to explain plane and impact,” he says. “There are so many ways to say something. You have to have a zillion of them in your pocket.”

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One of the biggest challenges of teaching golf is that there are so many variables. Players’ capabilities, mixed with the unpredictability of the course and conditions, make for an array of possible (sometimes impossible) situations. Throw in psychological factors, and MacCluen’s belief in the need for an infinite number of teaching tools doesn’t sound so drastic.

But there are, of course, the basics. “You have to have good fundamentals,” MacCluen says. “You’re not getting better without that.” A good grip, posture and setup only go so far. Some players just want to hit it straight, but golf courses aren’t designed to allow people to be successful with just one shot. “You need to learn what goes into hitting a hook or hitting a fade,” MacCluen says.

Dunigan relies on his ability to play and understand golf at a high level and his strong background in motor-learning science—“the science of skill acquisition,” he says. At his High Performance Golf Academy at Applebrook, Dunigan and his team use biomechanics to help players understand how to strike the ball more effectively and efficiently. Dunigan is also involved with the Skilled Coaching Alliance, a worldwide confederation of 180 instructors who “blend golf science with motor-learning science.”

“The goal is to take the biomechanical information and distill it into something that’s very, very simple,” Dunigan says. “That’s the art.”

But the art is ineffective if players don’t take what they learn and apply it repeatedly. All the coaches interviewed for this article stressed the importance of practicing—and they don’t mean just hitting the range once or twice a week and scraping ball after ball from the pile. It must be done intentionally, often, and with the goal of taking what’s learned during an hour-long lesson and making it a consistent part of your game. Duffers try to become more consistent. Veteran players look for ways to shave a few strokes off a round. Scratch golfers want to break par consistently and compete at higher levels. None of the improvement comes without a fight.

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Golfers who can’t handle tough coaching or honest assessments of their game shouldn’t expect to improve. “I encourage struggle during a lesson,” Dunigan says. “As parents or coaches, we try to remove struggles. What if I told you that the struggle is where the magic is at?”

As director of instruction at Fieldstone Golf Club in Wilmington, John Rudolph is a big believer in the value of technology in teaching. Using the Trackman launch monitor and BodiTrak Golf Mat, he finds subtle variations in players’ swings to help them make adjustments. “If you can measure something in someone’s swing that shows their club face is off by eight degrees to the left, you can make a change and get their buy-in,” Rudolph says. “I use technology to make my message super simple. Technology helps me help people more quickly.”

golf lessons

“I ENCOURAGE STRUGGLE DURING A LESSON. WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT THE STRUGGLE IS WHERE THE MAGIC IS AT?”
—JOHN DUNIGAN

As golf technology continues to evolve, the ongoing development of artificial intelligence could have a huge impact on the game. Players who can input video into apps that use AI could end up with helpful information. It won’t replace instructors, but it will provide another tool. And perhaps more hope—and success—for golfers.

Related: Tutoring Programs Can Be Game-Changing for Delaware Students

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