Interview: How To Become a Golf Instructor
I’m Shirley Furlong. I’m a golf instructor for Bird Golf Academy. We’re here at the beautiful Whirlwind Golf Club at Wild Horse Pass.
I have a student or two students and we have a six hour day. I will instruct the student to work on technique in the morning, have lunch with them, and then take them to the golf course and teach them how to take what they learned on the practice tee out to the golf course.
I started as a golf professional playing on the LPGA tour. As a playing professional, that was my living. That’s what I did was play golf competitively. Now I teach golf. So I teach people the game of golf and help them improve their games.
I started out playing when I was 11 years old. My dad taught me. I was 16 and I was playing golf on the high school team and I was watching the Dina Shore Tournament on TV with my dad. I saw Sandra Palmer competing to win the championship. I pointed to the TV and I said, ‘That’s where I’m going to be. I’m going to be playing in the Colgate Dina Shore. I want to be a golf professional.’
When I finished school, that’s when I’d go down to the golf course and practice every day. I quit the drill team and dance team, and focused on golf. I got a golf scholarship to Texas A&M. Played college golf and then made the tour and qualified for the LPGA Tour in 1984.
I played the tour and had one victory. I had to qualify for the Dina Shore by finishing top three in a tournament. I accomplished that in 1987. My first year was 1988 at the Dina Shore. I thought that was like sacred ground to me. It was really pretty neat. Over the years, I had a ten year exemption to play in it. So as the years went by, I became good friends with Sandra Palmer. She had asked me to play a practice round with her at the Dina Shore in 1990. I said, ‘Great I’d love to.’
We were out playing. I was on the 4th hole. I’ll never forget it. I teed off, and I just loved the beauty of it out there. The course was in perfect shape. And I’m walking down the fairway and I looked over and I went, ‘That’s Sandra Palmer. I’m here.’ I walked over to her and put my arm around her and I said, ‘Ms. P. This is it. This is my dream come true.’ I realized I had made it. I was playing the Dina Shore, walking the same golf course and playing the tournament with one of my idols. That’s pretty much was what the tour was about for me. It was about fulfilling a dream and playing with all those great legends.
I kept asking as my career starting coming to a close. My friends started retiring from the tour and I wondered, ‘How do you know when it’s time to leave?’ I kept asking everyone and they said, ‘You’ll just know.’ Sure enough, it was true. I woke up one morning in Canada. I got up and went to breakfast by myself. I went to the golf course and practiced extra long and hard that day. I went home and went to the room. Had dinner by myself. I got up the next morning and went, ‘You know? This isn’t fun anymore.’ So I knew it was time to retire.
My degree was in education. It was the closest I could get to golf. I started teaching here in Valley and doing corporate outings and working with some valley business women. That’s when I decided that I knew I wanted to teach golf, but not necessarily giving one hour lessons on a practice tee every day.
When the opportunity for Bird Golf came along, it blended everything that I wanted. I get to create a relationship with the students. I get to take them and see the progress over a three or four day period. And I actually get to help them advance their games. To take them on the course and teach them how to play golf. There’s more than just hitting a golf ball on the practice tee. It was a blend of everything that I wanted. I loved doing the golf school.
To draw upon my own experience, I think there was something in me that knew I loved the game. When my dad had said that I needed to take it on as a job, I took it on because yes it was a commitment I had to make. I had to go down and work on my game to get to a professional level.
I loved it. It wasn’t a job to me. It was my passion to do that. I really loved to practice. It wasn’t a hardship for me at all to give up other things I was doing and focus on this. Because the desire to be out there on the LPGA tour and to play in the Nabisco Dina Shore was just stronger than any other desire I’d had.
The other players on the high school team. They loved it and enjoyed playing the game, but that wasn’t their desire. To do something with it. Or to pursue it on professional ranks or even college ranks.
When I made the decision during that two weeks, I knew I wasn’t going to get a scholarship dancing, so I decided to stick with golf. That was my decision making.
I knew I wanted to go to college and I knew I wanted to play golf if I could.
Then it was like, you set the goal. Setting a bar high when you’re 16 that you want to be on television playing at the major championship on the LPGA tour and be one of the top female golfers in the world. It was really those ladies that inspired me to do that. Watching them and watching how they performed and how they carried themselves was my inspiration. I think you need an inspired and if it’s in your heart to do it, it’s not work. It’s fun. You enjoy it. I would live, eat, breath, sleep golf when I was young. Even in the early years of the tour, I loved it.
My advice is to gain as much experience. In my golf, you have to play as much golf as you can. As many tournaments as you can play in to gain experience. Every day this game teaches you something about yourself and about your life. The more experience you gain, it’s like filling up your arsenal. It’s like being ready.
And yet, every day is brand new. Every golf shot we hit is brand new. You can practice, you can be prepared, and yet when you’re in that situation you have to create it from nothing like a blank slate. If you can look at the game or look at your career as creating it new, being in the present, that’s the best you can be.
I don’t know how to explain it other than I was introduced to another golfer, Wendy Ward, when we 16 years old. We had the same instructor. My instructor called me and said, ‘Shirley, I want you to come meet this kid. She reminds me of you and I think she’s got something.’ When I went to meet Wendy, it’s a look in her eye that she has the desire and want to be good. She wants to be better.
I just think it’s within. You can see it. You can see that they really want it and it’s in their heart. They have that desire that they want to be on tour or want to be a professional athlete. I think it comes from within. I think that’s the desire.
Certainly talent. You have to have the talent and the desire. My brother was talented. He didn’t enjoy practicing. He never pursued it. Could he have pursued it? Yes. Did he have the talent and the ability to play on the tour? Certainly. He had the competitiveness. But it wasn’t his desire. It wasn’t his dream. So you can have a lot of talent. But unless it comes from within, it’s going to be a hard one.
I had a mental coach on tour. What I learned from him was that whatever was going on in my life, showed up in the golf course. If I was in emotional turmoil, I was pretty emotional out on the golf course. Whatever was happening in my life always showed up on the golf course and who I was being on the golf course. I had to learn how to sometimes check those things at the door the minute I went through the gates of the golf course. I’d have to leave some things there and set up a goal for the day. I set up a commitment I was ready to reach for each day. It helped compartmentalize things.
It’s just talking about how life shows up. If you’re not physically feeling well, it’s going to show up in the golf swing. We all bring our own baggage.
If I’m bringing that with me, I learn to check it at the gate. No matter what was going on in my life, when I drove through the gates, the golf course was my haven. It was a safe place. It was a place for me to go play. When I got done, and I finished, and I left the course, I could go deal with the things I needed to deal and take care of that were going on in my life. That’s how I got to that next level of being able to perform at my best. And yet, still try to balance a life.
Golf is a life long sport. You can play. There’s so many other sports where you get to a certain age and your body physically isn’t able to do it. Golf is a life long sport. And it’s brand new every day. You could play this golf course every day for a year, but every day would be different. Today it’s sunny and cool. The conditions always change. The course changes as far as grass, hole location. It brings people together. That’s the thing. I have created so many wonderful relationships through this game of golf.
You create life long friendships. You can conduct business. You can also learn about a business partner. Who they’re being on a golf course will show up in business. If they like to cheat a little bit on the golf course, you might want to know that they probably have a chance to do that in business.
You learn about each other. There’s a closeness because you’re together for four hours in a round. So you talk about everything and anything and you talk about nothing. I love the game.
You have to be able to commit your time and dedicate yourself to practicing, focusing, learn more about the sport or the game or the career you choose. You have to commit to it. That’s the biggest advice I could give. But it’s got to be coming from your heart. If it’s something that you go to do…
I come to play golf. I don’t come to work golf. That’s the big difference.
It’s got to be something you enjoy. Something…that you have a passion for.
I would say 80-90% of my life was golf when I committed. I was given advice on what it would take to get to the goal I had set for myself, and given myself the time to contemplate whether it was really something I wanted to do. By allowing myself to sit with it and stew with it, I made that decision. When I made that decision, I committed to it. It was something that was driving me, something that was inside of me. My dad never said I want you to be a professional golfer. No one ever asked me to do this. It was something that I wanted to do.
I don’t know if I’m lucky or blessed.
I have a pre shot routine, and that’s what I teach my students. For me, how I play the game is I get the information. The yardage, where I want to hit it, how far it is so I can choose a club. Then I picture the shot. How do I want the golf ball to look when it gets to that target? To get there, what do I want it to look like? So to picture it, for me is being creative. That’s the creative side of me.
The other side is I need to feel the swing. What kind of swing is going to make that golf ball travel that path to get there. So I have to feel the golf swing. Those are the two ways I go about hitting each golf shot. I picture what I want it to look like, and I feel the stroke and what I want it to feel like. Then I execute.
I’m still working on that routine. That’s how I learn and that’s how I perform to my best. That’s the beauty in being an instructor now. To find out how each student best approaches a golf ball. Some people have to have more details. Some people want bullet points. That is the beauty of being an instructor now is figuring out how the student learns, and how they best perform.
When you’re out they’re playing and you miss the putt and miss the cut, you say, ‘Wow. It’s going to be Taco Bell tonight.’ When you make the cut and have a good weekend, then you have a steak dinner coming.
You can put it in perspective that way. The beauty of it was I looked at it like I had a different office every week. A new golf course is a different office every week. I had the opportunity to meet new people every week and create new relationships.
The other side to that is, you travel every week. You live out of a suitcase. You wake up on Mondays to figure out where you are and what town you’re in and what you’re doing. At some point in there, you still have to take care of home. You have to pay bills while you’re away. You have to do your laundry!
You have to be your own travel agent. Schedule flights, schedule a car, schedule a hotel. There’s a lot more involved than just going to play golf.
You’re competing against the top players in the world. When it comes down to it, it’s you playing that golf course to the best of your ability. And hopefully you played it better than everyone else. And that’s how you win. You may play your best game, and you may play your best week of golf, and it may not be good enough to win a golf tournament.
So that’s why we set goals. I’d like to finish in this many top 10’s. I want to have this much on the money list. Things like that. It is an individual sport. It’s for your own self satisfaction that you set up your own goals and set the stage for yourself to perform. When you’re playing head to head with each other, some players are good at that. I never really performed my best when I did that. I figured that if I played my best golf, and I hit my best golf shot, and put all my energy into that one golf shot, every shot was brand new, I could finish knowing I did my best and had fun. I didn’t win, and there’s another week.