St. Charles resident and local golf pro Rick Bell gained teaching certification in February with the PGA of America, becoming one of a small minority of certified pros in the state. Bell is no stranger to the Tri-Cities golf scene, having spent parts of his extensive career working at Pottawatomie, Pheasant Run and, currently, Mill Creek. Bell has worked at several other courses throughout northern Illinois over the years, now splitting his instructional time between Mill Creek and Water’s Edge Golf Club in Worth. In this week’s Weekend Chit-chat with Chronicle sports editor Jay Schwab, Bell – who is next pursuing master professional status – discusses his recent certification, the key to being an effective golf pro and more. The following is an edited transcript:
How big of a moment in your golf career was attaining your certification?
I would say it was the third most important thing. … Probably No. 1 was when I got my membership in the PGA, just Class A status, got my apprenticeship out of the way. … No. 2 was the work that I started and continued working with children with disabilities. I’ve been a longtime supporter of Special Olympics. When I was working up in Elgin, we got started working with kids with disabilities, doing free clinics for the kids. … I wanted to do whatever I could to if nothing else just show them a good time.
Is it more typical for someone to come to you and say ‘Hey, I need to rebuild my swing from scratch’ or more common that someone has a more specific area that they want to troubleshoot?
The second. We get beginners, and we teach them not only privately but we teach them in group sessions as well, but if you were to come to me, there are several questions I need to ask you, not only just to break the ice, but I need to know where you’re coming from. One of the questions I would ask is ‘Why are you here? Why are you coming to see me?’ And they usually start out by saying ‘Well, I hit my drives to the right’ or ‘I slice the ball, and I’d like to get that under control.’ But then they’ll say ‘My short game’s a little bit weak, too,’ and then pretty soon they’ve got this whole litany of things that they’ve rattled off, so they’re not really focused in on one thing. But generally it’s not the case where someone comes up to me and says ‘I’ve never played before and I want to learn to play.’ There are other times when people who do play say ‘You know, I’ve been at this for 25 years and I’m no better than I was and I need some help, and I’ll do whatever you tell me to.’ Those are the people you love to have because you know you can take a little longer-term approach toward their learning rather than just putting a Band-Aid on them, a quick fix.
Aside from having the actual golf acumen, what characteristic would you say is most important for a golf instructor – patience, or something else?
Two things – learning theory and patience. In any exchange of information between a student and a teacher, there are two sides. There’s the teacher who has knowledge and information that he imparts to the student, but the student has to absorb that and understand it. Here’s where a lot of amateurs and lesser teachers, people who are maybe even golf professionals who happen to teach some as well as amateurs who might have a pretty good eye, what they don’t really understand and know enough about is it’s far more important what you understand than what I tell you. You have to really understand learning theory and how people learn if you’re going to be a really effective teacher.
Do you find that golfers are more concerned with how they’re hitting the ball and the actual quality of play or shaving five or 10 strokes off their round? I know those go hand-in-hand to an extent.
A lot of students come in and maybe they shoot 105, and they say ‘If I can just break 100, I’d be happy.’ Well, that’s going to make them happy for a short while, but then they’re going to want to break 90. So score is important to some people but now you have to really get involved in teaching them not to think about score, and that’s very difficult. I was working with a guy this morning and he says, ‘You know, I get out there on 15 or 16, and I know exactly what my score is and I know exactly what I need to do to shoot a certain number,’ and he’s totally divorced himself from what he needs to be doing to play in the moment. … Most people are quite frankly very poor players of the game if they want to score. They take way, way too many risks, and part of playing the game is being able to evaluate the situation you’re in, if necessary reframe that situation, and then start looking at a risk/reward situation and saying ‘How can I make 5 here rather than 6 or 7?’
Occasionally you hear about people, whether they’re younger golfers or whatever age, experiencing burnout, having to step away for a while, and maybe they end up getting back in it later. With golf being a profession and a scholarly activity for you, have you experienced burnout?
Yeah, I think everybody kind of has ups and downs. Sometimes, I’d say as often as not, they kind of come and go weekly. But I had a problem that I had to get over because the words “golf professional” follow my name. I was guilty for a long time of – everybody that I played with thought I was going to go out and shoot a 67 every time I walked on the golf course, so I couldn’t enjoy myself and just go out and play golf, and if I shot 79, so what? I passed my playing ability test. I know at some point or another I can play, I don’t have to prove it again, why can’t I just go out and enjoy myself? It was hard for me. I shot a lot of big scores when I went out … One of my favorite phrases is “Golf is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.” And it just wasn’t fun. And so I got out of the business for basically three years and sold pianos.