May 15, 2020

The Social Distancing Grid – Coaching Responsibly on the Lesson Tee

By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA

While some areas of the country continue to battle the coronavirus, others are in the process of reopening their golf facilities. With customer service always at the forefront of golf operations, the challenge will be how to satisfy golfers’ needs, while also providing a healthy work environment for our golf staff.

Ann Marie Gildersleeve, the PGA Director of Instruction at Austin Country Club, in Austin, Texas, has implemented several innovative methods of teaching her students that truly have the wellness of everyone at heart. As many clubs have done, Austin Country Club, and PGA Head Professional Dale Morgan, have started taking member reservations to utilize the driving range for practice. Individuals with tee times to play the course automatically get time and range space to warm up – but those who simply want to hone their skills must do so by making a reservation and arriving at their scheduled time. The only members on the property are those with tee times to play the course, a reservation to practice on the range, or a lesson booked with one of the facility’s golf professional staff.

When lessons resumed on May 5, it was imperative that they were conducted in a responsible manner that adhered to CDC guidelines. Arrangements made to comply with this mandate must also be perceived by members as prudent safeguards so they feel secure and protected in engaging with their golf professional staff again, also enabling them to free their minds of these concerns to allow for a more productive learning process.

To satisfy these important endeavors, Gildersleeve sketched out a draft of her teaching area in a way no one had seen before. She drew lines that would form “the player’s box” and others than would dictate the space in which the teacher would remain throughout a lesson. The drawing would come to life on the Austin Country Club lesson tee with ropes of varying colors and ample signage that would leave no doubt who should be in each cordoned zone.

With a full tee sheet three days in advance and members itching to get back on the range, managing the flow of traffic is as important a daily task as the level of service provided. “I just started back this week teaching and I’ve gone slow to get comfortable and make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Gildersleeve stated. She says things across the club were put on hold in preparation for the World Golf Championship-Dell Technologies Match Play, which was supposed to take place at Austin Country Club from March 25-29. Until the recent May 5th reopening of her lesson tee, there was no golf instruction since mid-March.

Gildersleeve spent time on Zoom with members, students, and club committees, discussing how to bring lessons back in responsible manner. The social distancing lesson tee layout was Gildersleeve’s idea. She wanted to create an environment where she wouldn’t have to catch herself getting too close to students, or have students stray from their allotted space as well. “I’m used to people being around me a lot. But I had to retrain myself and retrain others,” Gildersleeve comments. “What is it that I could do so I don’t have to say wait, stand back, or we’re getting too close?”

She considered her 60 x 60 teaching space, room enough for two instructors to teach at a time. She also thought of the young students she has, the kids who often want to hug her, or throw her a high five – how can she dictate the terms of the lesson in a positive light? The result of her contemplation was the roped-off grid that shows students where they should remain and also helps teachers keep the required distance. She wanted something that, when her students approached it, they understood, “Oh, this is what social distancing really looks like.” Using different color ropes, she wanted something that her kids would have fun with – that’s “the player’s box”. She also used rope to form the “PGA Professional area”, one space face-on with the student, and another at the rear, both ten feet away from the beginning of the player’s box. “The ropes define and take away the negativity of constantly saying you’re too close, or you have to back off,” Gildersleeve added.

Understanding that many adult members may have some hesitation in returning to her lesson tee, Gildersleeve feels the pre-marked areas help put those individuals at ease. “When they come into my environment, I want them to feel safe,” she says. She also emphasized the fact that she and her teaching staff will all wear masks while providing instruction for the foreseeable future.

The “social distancing grid” that the Austin Country Club Director of Instruction created on a piece of paper and helped bring to life on her lesson tee, is something that many other facilities will adopt to ease the worries of members and students and to help keep everyone safe. She has to take the grid up in preparation for mowing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – but with everything precut, it takes her fifteen minutes to put down and only seven minutes to pull up.

Feedback has been all positive, as her GM thought it was “brilliant” and her membership stated how smart and cool the idea is. Needless to say, her youth golfers confirmed the “coolness” of their teacher’s creativity.

Gildersleeve stressed to me that this project was not done out of fear, but as a way to stay safe, have fun, and enjoy taking a golf lesson. “I did this because I wanted to help PGA Professionals across the country. I wanted to be a leader and thought ‘What can we do to help and give some good ideas?’ Just like my teaching, I wanted to keep it simple.”

She ended the conversation by referencing Harvey Penick, the legendary teacher who spent more than eighty years as a caddy, assistant professional, head professional, and instructor – all at Austin Country Club. Twenty-five after his death, the leadership he left is an example that still remains on the property in professionals like Gildersleeve and Morgan.

“I try to put everything in positive, constructive terms. I go into this subject more deeply in my remarks on teaching, but the point I am trying to get across to the reader here is that when you are hitting a golf shot, a negative thought is pure poison.” – Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book