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October 1, 2014

An Exclusive Q&A With 2011 PGA Teacher of the Year Mike Malaska

The veteran teacher says an open-minded, engaging approach to golf and instruction utilizing practice facilities can help grow the game in America

Golf is a sport experienced differently by players around the world. As the PGA director of instruction at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club and Las Sendas Golf Club in Arizona – and the 2011 PGA Teacher of the Year – Mike Malaska is well aware of the challenges and opportunities in the U.S. golf market.

He also has an international perspective, however, as the worldwide director of instruction for the Nicklaus Golf Academies. Through extensive international instruction experience, including three years spent teaching in Japan, Malaska has learned that playing golf doesn’t mean only playing 9- or 18-hole rounds. Malaska recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Golf Range Magazine to share his thoughts on how practice facilities can be part of a new era in U.S. golf, and how the range can play a key role in driving engagement at all types of golf facilities. Here’s what he had to say about the future of the game, and how the range should be at the center of it:

Golf Range Magazine: With your international experience as a teacher, what can we in the U.S. do to grow the game and redefine what it means to “play golf”?

Mike Malaska: I know the first and most important thing we need to do is change our perception of what golf is. What I mean by that is golf is not necessarily a 9- or 18-hole game – that’s just one game within the sport of golf. Playing the game can also be hitting balls and playing games on the range, or playing in a simulator, or even practicing at home. I learned the game by hitting a plastic ball around the neighborhood from yard to yard; that was golf to me. In Japan, 70 to 80 percent of my students never got on a golf course. To them, golf was going to a practice facility with their friends three or four times a week to get some exercise and work on their hand-eye coordination. In the U.S., we have to be open to promoting every way of enjoying the game instead of pigeonholing golf into 18 holes on the course.

GRM: How crucial is the practice facility to helping private and public courses grow their business?

Malaska: Extremely crucial. The range is the entry level of golf, the place where people can get hooked. It’s the place where a skilled golfer can practice and hit every shot they need on the course in a half hour. With time constraints as severe as they are for most people, taking three hours for 9 holes of golf – or seven or eight hours for a full 18, once you factor in getting to and from the course – just isn’t feasible for a lot of people. On the range, you can get that great experience of hitting the ball without the time crunch. If that is promoted correctly, then ranges are at a premium when it comes to growing the game and the business.

GRM: How can golf facilities use the range and practice areas to engage their customers and boost business in different areas?

Malaska: The old thing was “Build it and they will come.” That doesn’t work anymore. Now it’s more like, “Build it and engage people.” Getting people on the range is the start, but then you have to have golf professionals walking the range and interacting with players. Ask questions, ask if someone needs help with a certain type of shot, ask if you can look at their clubs to make sure they’re playing with the right equipment – engagement helps instruction, it helps clubfitting, it helps rounds played. You can do this in a low-pressure, non-intrusive way, and you’ll find that golfers want to be engaged. The range and the putting green are great places to create a fun environment for families, groups of friends and individuals. Golf isn’t about the score, and it isn’t about the Rules. It’s about engaging people in a hand-eye coordination sport that’s extremely challenging and very rewarding. That’s where ranges are paramount in growing the game.

GRM: What range games and activities do you give students to encourage them to practice between lessons?

Malaska: When somebody leaves a lesson, I encourage them to practice at the range with some games. I think golf has gotten so overwhelmed with distance that we’ve lost perspective on other parts of the game, so I like to give them games that focus on tempo and touch. Instead of trying to hit their driver farther, how about seeing how many 7-irons in a row you can hit within five yards of each other? I also give my students things they can do at home or at work to practice without hitting balls. You can make movements in front of a mirror to work on movement patterns, or you can balance a ball on the face of a ping-pong paddle, then turn it over and catch the ball on the other side, to work on hand-eye coordination. People complain they don’t have time to practice. I tell them they have the time, they just don’t know some of the different ways to practice.

GRM: Do you see golf benefitting from the focus on people pursuing more healthy, active lifestyles?

Malaska: No question about it. I’m involved with a business called Great Life, which are facilities that combine golf courses with fitness centers. We get a lot of people who have never played golf – research shows there are 128 million gym members in the U.S. that don’t play golf. But it’s easy to get them from the gym to the range, because they love a challenge. They’ve never seen golf as a challenge, but it’s one of the great sports challenges. I’ll give someone a 7-iron and ask them to hit it up on the air. Fit people like physical challenges. When they see that golf is another challenge that requires practice and physical movement, they get into it. Plus, golf by itself is a great fitness plan. If you walk the course, you’re getting a good workout with all the swinging, walking and bending you do. Golf can be the only fitness routine a lot of people need.

GRM: At age 60 you’re still a competitive golfer. How important is it to you as a teacher to play, and how do you practice?

Malaska: I play three to five tournaments a year, and this past year I qualified to play in the Senior PGA Championship. I want my students to see me competing against tour players, and against 25-year-olds in Section tournaments, because that gives me a tremendous amount of credibility. As an instructor, it also gives you understanding and empathy for the demons that come after golfers on the course. If you just stand on the range and teach, you start to forget that competitive golf is a lot different than practicing. So when I do practice, I make sure I create pressure situations with targets and boundaries. I’ll play games, like needing to hit four consecutive shots to a certain distance – and if I miss one, I have to start over. On that fourth shot, you’re feeling the anxiety you feel on the course, so you’re practicing that mental process and finding out what shots work under pressure.

GRM: What advice do you have for using practice facilities as part of a player development effort to encourage golfers to play better?

Malaska: It comes back to engagement, and using your expertise to teach people not just how to play, but how to practice. When I used to teach in Japan, we did something that I’d love to see ranges do here in the U.S. On Friday nights, we’d make an announcement that our director of instruction was in the middle of the range giving a clinic. The range would shut down for 10 minutes and people would come listen to me. We started with 30 golfers, and it grew from there. Pretty soon we had 500 golfers coming out to listen to me talk about how to practice, then they’d stay to try it for themselves. They loved it. That’s the sort of thing we need to be doing. We can’t afford to let golfers not have a great experience when they come out to our ranges.