My guest this episode is one of the world’s best and most respected golf instructors, Dr. Jim Suttie. Doc Suttie is a native of the Chicagoland area, and has been named Illinois PGA Teacher of the Year and PGA National Teacher of the Year. Over the course of his 40+ year career, he’s worked with numerous top PGA Tour golfers including Paul Azinger. He currently teaches at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Jeremy Ranch Golf & Country Club in Park City Utah and Twin Eagles Club in Naples, Florida. You can learn more about Jim Suttie on his website.
In this interview with Jim, we learn:
- How he balanced coaching college golf and teaching
- What he learned from teaching at elite Chicagoland courses including Shoreacres, Medinah Country Club, Pine Meadow, Cog Hill and Conway Farms
- Why he pursued a doctorate in biomechanics while also teaching golf
- How he created the perfect swing
- Why monitoring weight movement is important to studying the golf swing
- What amateur golfers can learn from his top students Paul Azinger and Loren Roberts
Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 27:27
Click here to download an MP3 file.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT Can you tell us a little bit about how you found the game of golf?
JIM SUTTIE I started when I was a kid. About six years old, my dad wanted me to play. I started playing and liked it at Kishwaukee Country Club in DeKalb, which is where I grew up and I set the course record there at one time, 63. From there I went to Northern Illinois University and got my undergraduate degree and my Masters.
After that I went to be an assistant professional at Shore Acres. And the only thing I remember about Shore Acres is I used to hit a lot of shots on my knees and members loved it and insurance hated it.
Then I just kind of wandered around the state of Illinois. I went to Pine Meadow and was kind of between coaching careers. I got my first job in coaching from 1974 to 1978 at Eastern Kentucky University and we won a couple of Ohio Valley Conference Championships there.
My next step brought me to Methodist College, where they had a golf management program and I was also a golf coach at the school in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I stayed there three years.Medinah Country Club came and recruited me to come teach at Medinah. So, I quit Methodist and went to Medinah and stayed there a few years under Bob Hickman.
While I was teaching at Medinah, the Northwestern University golf coaching job became available, and they wanted me to come over there to coach the golf team. I coached their team for four years.
We had some pretty good teams over there, but I was trying to do both and again you can’t do both. You can’t coach and also teach, so eventually I gave into what I guess what my true love is, is teaching. Jeff Mory was my assistant at Northwestern. Jeff is now at Conway Farms, he’s been there for about 25 years.
I went from Medinah to the public facility at Pine Meadow and stayed there for quite a few years. Then they asked me to come down to Cog Hill, where I stayed for about 13 years teaching golf. Then I ended up of where I am now at Conway Farms working for Jeff in the summer. I now teach full-time with no coaching anymore.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT In the early 1980s you earned a doctorate in biomechanics. Can you talk a little bit about why decided to pursue a doctorate in biomechanics?
JIM SUTTIE I saw the way golf was going with technology. From 1982 to 86, I went to get a doctorate. I attended Middle Tennessee State University and they didn’t have biomechanics, so every weekend I had to drive up to the University of Kentucky at Lexington.
What I did up there was to develop the first kind of model golf swing, where we took a number of players on the PGA Tour. We looked at the average of their field analysis in 10 different positions, as a swing from two different angles looking at virtually all kinds of movement from side movement, how they move their bodies side-to-side and back-and-forth.
We looked at all those and got the average with what they did with their body in 10 positions. And we also put markers on the club in the biomechanics laboratory at the University of Kentucky, because like I say they didn’t have a lab down at Tennessee State University.
It was what we called the perfect swing, and if you wanted to have a perfect swing of the stick figure, the first of its kind of model. When you put that stick figure model on top of an average golfer, and use a video of an average golfer, and if the stick figure moves a certain way, and you moved a different way then we called it an error. I knew that that wasn’t going to go very far because people can’t swing like a perfect golf swing. You can’t take a model and say, you have to swing this way.
Which kind of lead me to my theory that I do now which I call “matching swing elements”. Matching swing elements is simply you look at their body type and their physical structure, and flexibility, and the swing of their body type, muscle type. You look at all this and you say, well what sort of golfer is this in front of me? What can they actually do? And then you design a swing around what the golfer can do, and then match swing elements.
Just to give you an example, if a guy has real tight hips, he’s not going to be able to move his legs very well. Therefore, you put the ball back instead of forward. If you put it forward you would hit a pull, and if you put it back you would hit it straight. It’s a very simple explanation of it.
I was really into the body motion when I was getting my doctorate. That was a kind of interesting area in my life to getting that doctorate.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT How do you incorporate technology today? Do you still feel that it’s a significant part of what you do?
JIM SUTTIE Yes, after the perfect swing experience I said, well what is going to really work for people? I thought maybe high-speed video is the future, and nobody was doing high-speed video. I was running around with something on my back, and with the camera all the time and videoing people with high-speed video. And I would go from two or three angles, trying to identify what they do when they actually swing a golf club.
I started what I call the video computer graphics side-by-side comparison, where I would do computer graphics – which everybody is doing now. But I think I was about the first, if not the first, with side-by-side comparison where I would compare a certain golfer’s body type and put them side-by-side on the video and study what he does what his body is doing and what you’re doing.
The golfers could relate with that visual experience, which I think is really important. In teaching golf, people can’t identify too much with the spoken word only because they forget everything. So I got into the visual and even had at one time when I was at Medinah a center with a four-camera, indoor and outdoor system that we called visual golf. That was the first of its kind I believe. I don’t remember anybody doing indoor and outdoor training with cameras like I had – four angles, down the side, down the line, rear and top.
That’s when I really got into the technology and companies since then like V1 taking over the role in video. I use it a little differently in the sense that I still have four cameras and have a monitor on the ground, and they are looking right in the monitor when they are swinging.
They get feedback on every swing to see if they are doing it. With no feedback, there’s no learning. But if they go back and think they are doing it and they don’t, it’s because they’re not getting any feedback.
So computer graphics, side-by-side comparison and the indoor outdoor training centers that I had a lot to do with, which I think was part of my experience of becoming a better teacher at that point.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT It seems that you’ve always had your hand on the pulse of technology. I would be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on the importance of that technology.
JIM SUTTIE I think you should have some technology. To be very truthful and not being critical in bringing up names, but I think we overdo it right now. I mean we are using almost too much of it.
I think it’s for the teacher to say and to verify what they are teaching. For example I have a force platform and I use the force platform to see how their weight moves. But I did a study with Henry Griffin in 1990, which I think was the first force platform and weight transfer things that were done in the United States. Now it’s coming into fruition how important weight movement is in sequence of motion.
But I think that we do over use it a little bit and we rely on it, because it’s easy to use I guess. But you still have to have a feel for what this person is doing, and he’s in front of you for a reason. He wants to improve his ball flight, and he is not interested in how his left knee is moving. He is more interested in what is happening at the bottom of his swing. So therefore, the ball flight I think is extremely important and the monitors like Trackman are important to have, as well as the force platform.I have all this stuff, but I use it in a kind of a varied way, because I don’t want people to be relying on it. I want them to understand what they do and then you come up with a solution of how to make sense of it for them instead of becoming too reliant on the technology.
But I’ve seen the technology and the situations where they are becoming to be too reliant on it, especially the young teachers. They are too reliant on the technology, so you have to do it this way or have to do it that way and that’s not true. There is no have to when you learn the golf swing.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT What could you tell the average golfer here in Chicago, what could you pull from Paul Azinger that could help them. Maybe it’s in terms of Azinger’s approach to the game or how he became so great at wedge play. What bits of information would you pick from Paul Azinger to advise for the average golfer here in Chicago.
JIM SUTTIE Very good question. I would say most golfers now want tips. They don’t want you to redo their swing. But Paul learned with a strong grip under John Redman and I left it alone. But again, matching swing elements strong grip = strong swing. If you have a strong grip, you are likely to draw the ball and it’s going to make you use your hips a little bit.
Teachers need to know that stuff, and the training of teachers, some teachers don’t understand why he did that. It’s the way his arms hang, his hands kind of turned in at address when he stood up, so therefore it fit him, a stronger grip.
Where a weaker grip, like Corey Pavin, it would never have fit him. What I’m saying is the average guy in Chicago needs to understand that there are certain fundamentals that they have to have, but they are not written in stone. Like a grip can be strong, neutral or weak. But it has to do a lot with what the face is doing at impact and what creates that good impact for that particular person.
So it’s a good question, but every person that plays golf in Chicago or anywhere else has an individual pattern, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out that individual pattern and work with that.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT Another player that you worked with for a long time is Loren Roberts, who was known as a fantastic putter. Is there anything that you could recommend from his approach?
JIM SUTTIE Yes, Loren has short arms and wide shoulders, and his chest is kind of big, so he has to have the right balance at address. Postures, hands would be lower at address, so again looking at how his body is built dictates a lot about how he is going to swing.
But Loren doesn’t hit a long way. He is more of what we call a releasing type of swing, not a body player. Most players on the tour are body players. Lorne is not much of a body player, he is more of an arms swinger or he does things together.
His flexibility is not really good, I mean it’s better than most, but it’s not as good as some of the guys you see on the tour. Therefore, his hips are not going to be fast. So those are all of the things I look at when I look at his swing.
It’s looking at the body, eyeballing what his natural pattern is and kind of working with that natural pattern and saying to Loren, you’ve got to turn your hips hard here. Well, he can’t do that, so we are going up a wall there. So again, we go right back to what works for the individual, what the body is going to allow you to do, and what type of ball flight you want to hit.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT Any suggestions for the average golfer to keep their game going during the offseason in Chicago?
JIM SUTTIE Well even if they can’t go to the indoor area simulators, if they can swing a club, put a towel on the end of a driver and swing it all winter, that’s a real simple drill. They will end up feeling the club head more and have more lag in the way in their swing. Just swinging a towel on the end of a driver is one of the best exercises I’ve seen in the wintertime for people.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT What’s your take on the success of local golf programs at the schools you’ve been involved with – Northern Illinois University and Northwestern University? How does it feel to look back on those programs and your involvement, now to see sort of the prominence that they have risen to?
JIM SUTTIE It’s really great. I’m really honored that I was a coach there at Northwestern, and I was the assistant coach at Northern Illinois, when Jack Pheanis was the coach.
Coaching now has become recruiting. You have to go to the tournaments, make the calls, and do the recruiting. It has very little to do with what I did when I was coach. I actually didn’t recruit real well, but I taught them real well – I think.
It was a little different in my era because coaches were just getting into the recruiting process, but now it’s all recruitment. But that was a fun time in my life and I did coach young kids and the kids responded well to what I did.