The Teacher

By Tod Leonard

January 18, 2008 10 min read


Legendary Jim Flick still studying the golf swing

By Tod Leonard

Copley News Service

Mike Wydra thought one of his kids was playing a prank on him. He answered his cell phone one day in the fall, and the man on the other end identified himself as Jim Flick.

In modern golf teaching circles, the names don't get much bigger than Flick, and yet the friendly gentleman on the line was speaking to Wydra, the men's golf coach at the University of California San Diego, as if he'd known him for years.

"I really didn't believe it was him," Wydra recalled with a laugh. "I'm glad I didn't hang up."

Taking a break from teaching a clinic in Mexico, Flick was calling to vouch for the character and golf game of one of his students, who was vying for a spot on the UCSD team. Forty-five minutes later, Wydra had been completely won over.

"It was the most convincing phone call in my 30 years of coaching," Wydra said. "It was wonderful ... really, really something.

"If Jesus was going to give another sermon on the mount, you wouldn't miss it. That's the way I feel about Jim Flick."

Such is the way of Jim Flick's entire career. Talk about a guy who makes a great first impression.

In 1990, a struggling and frustrated Jack Nicklaus solicited some advice from Flick on the driving range before the Golden Bear's Champions Tour debut. Something clicked with Flick. Nicklaus won the tournament, and he and Flick have worked together ever since.

That relationship, begun when Flick was 60 years old, vaulted the teacher into another echelon. In 2002 Flick became the ninth member of the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame, and in a 2007 Golf Digest survey, he was voted by his peers the fifth-best instructor in the country.

"Jim Flick understands the golf swing better than anyone I have ever met," Tom Lehman, one of his foremost students, has said.

At 77, Flick has not let up one bit. He teaches 5 1/2 days a week out of TaylorMade Golf's headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., and he's booked solid, at a rate of about $300 an hour, eight hours a day.

The soft-spoken, affable Indiana native sat down for a chat recently, and it's clear that his appreciation for golf and all it has done for him has not waned.

"I like to say that if it weren't for golf, I'd be pumping gas in Bedford, Indiana," Flick said.

Flick's first life-changing encounter came at Wake Forest, where he and Arnold Palmer were pulled together by tragedy. Flick was at Wake Forest on a basketball scholarship, and in 1950 his best friend, Gene Scheer, and Palmer's best friend, Buddy Worsham, were killed in a car accident on the night the four had worked selling tickets to a Wake Forest-Duke football game. Flick and Palmer had been left behind because their cash drawer wasn't balancing out. The survivors became roommates before Palmer, still troubled by the loss, dropped out to join the Coast Guard during the Korean War.

"The Coast Guard is where Arnold developed his personality. He was playing exhibitions with Bob Hope, and he never saw anybody who could handle people the way Bob Hope could.

"Arnold didn't come close to having that kind of charisma when he was in school. He was well-known by everybody, but his personality was nonexistent. When he came back (from the Coast Guard), he was a totally different person. Arnold received a lot of opportunities, which he used very well to become the person he is."

A walk-on golfer at Wake Forest, Flick was bright and inquisitive, but he was frustrated by his inability to keep up with the top-level players. He attributed that to too many swing thoughts that seized up his body's ability to make a smooth pass. He vowed to learn to teach others not to make the same mistake. His golf connections led him into relationships with renowned teachers such as Bob Toski and more than 150 professional tour players. He has always been a keen listener and student.

"Working with all of those great people, I've had the chance to see what they felt made them a success, from a physical and mental standpoint. I've collected data to pass on to people, to help them get through the challenges of their game.

"Golf is a lifetime pursuit of problem-solving. You've got to be honest with yourself. You've got to be able to identify your problems and fix them when they happen on the course. That's why guys who are champions can make adjustments. They know how to handle the challenges they are faced with."

Flick considers himself foremost a "feel" teacher. The golf club is your "instrument," he preaches, and success comes in finding your own best way to swing the instrument to impact. Though at TaylorMade he is surrounded by the latest and greatest teaching technology, he uses it only as a secondary tool. His goal with every student is to find a rhythm that works for him or her. He said the average person is making a big mistake trying to duplicate the positions they see in photos of the pros in golf magazines.

"(Sam) Snead and Toski stated it simply: You play golf with the head of the club. They didn't try to make their bodies do all kinds of gyrations or get into certain positions. They were of the philosophy of learning to use the club to control the ball into the target area. That's what I've tried to do. Instead of having a perfect golf swing, I try to teach them to use the golf club.

"The instruction has become too complex, too excessive, in my way of thinking. People become too conscious of their positions and they lose the rhythm aspect. It's like when they're told to have a one-piece takeaway or to turn their shoulders - that locks you up."

Probably no Flick student embodies the teacher's philosophy better than Lehman. Flick began working with Lehman while he was still a struggling minitour player, and he taught Lehman to excel with an extremely unorthodox swing. Lehman would eventually become the No. 1 player in the world and the 1996 British Open champion.

"One of my greatest moments in golf was watching Tom and Corey Pavin play the first match of the Ryder Cup in '95. Tom outplayed everybody, including Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie.

"On the way home after the matches, I said to Tom, 'You can be the best player in the world.' He said, 'Why would you say that to me?' And I said, 'Because I've watched all the best players, and your swing is the most consistent out there. I didn't say you have the best swing, but your control of the ball is better than anybody's.'"

Flick had been teaching golf for 38 years when he got the opportunity to work with Nicklaus after Nicklaus' instructor from childhood, Jack Grout, had died. In a meeting on the range at The Tradition tournament in 1990, Nicklaus was hitting the ball terribly and asked Flick what he saw. The reply, "I don't see Jack Nicklaus." In the following weeks, Flick drew out of Nicklaus the tenets of Grout's teaching, and in April 1990, Nicklaus tied for sixth in the Masters at age 50. The way Flick sees it, he was the one who did most of the learning.

"I've had a lot of breaks in my life, but getting to coach Jack is the biggest break I've ever had. It gave me the opportunity to understand the golf swing in a manner that I hadn't before.

"Jack helped me become less position-, less perfect-golf-swing-oriented. It was more about how to use the golf club. If he thought it would work, Jack would change something in his swing walking to the first tee. He knew his own swing that well."

You might assume that Flick's schedule book is filled with big-name players, but he says that's far from true. He works with all types of golfers, from scratch to 25-handicappers. Don't they get horribly intimidated?

"I don't try to put myself out there as a special person. I try to make people feel at ease. After three or four shots, people forget about it.

"But I enjoy it a little bit, too. I don't want to sound egotistical, but it helps me find the shot they are likely to play under pressure if they're uncomfortable with me watching them. So I say, 'Let's use this, and in time we'll be friends, and as long as you handle yourself properly, I'll be glad to see you.' "

Because of their potential, Flick particularly enjoys working with juniors, and he's coached some of the top players in the country, including both the boys and girls AJGA Player of the Year for 2006, Philip Francis and Esther Choe. Francis, with Flick since he was 6, won more than 140 tournaments in his junior career before starting in the fall at UCLA.

"All the kids see themselves becoming the next Tiger. All they want is the chance to show they are better than Tiger is. We know the chance of that happening isn't very realistic, but, by the same token, you don't know.

"Kids today have much loftier goals than they used to have. That's why I love Philip. When he wins, I say, 'I'm glad you won. What did you learn today?' Because it's a lifetime pursuit of improvement. It's not about where you are today."

Where is Jim Flick today? At a place in his life and his career where he can still marvel at a game he has been so obsessed with for 60 years.

"The game is going to tell you the truth. If your game has any weaknesses, the golf course will find it. Golf is not easy for anyone. You can't inherit a golf game. If you're good at it, you've earned it.

"You're going to have to bust your butt to get very good. You're going to have to learn to manage your time; you're going to have to learn about disappointment; and you're going to have to be honest with yourself.

"How many things in life are you going to have those things happen to you and become a better person?"

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