Even pro golfers have turned to remote learning

The coronavirus pandemic has been the reason for golfer Lucas Herbert and coach Dominic Azzopardi's separation, but it has not stopped the work they do.

By Paul Sullivan

It has been well over a year since Lucas Herbert, the Australian golfer who won the Irish Open last week and is playing in this week’s Scottish Open, regularly hit balls in front of his swing coach, Dominic Azzopardi. The coronavirus pandemic has been the reason for their separation, but it has not stopped the work they do.

With Herbert living in Orlando, Florida, and Azzopardi in Queensland, traveling has not been possible, particularly with a strict quarantine for people entering Australia.

Instead, the men went virtual last summer, using the golf teaching app Skillest during the lockdown to film Herbert’s swings, send annotated feedback from coach to player and even have live sessions — albeit early morning for Herbert and late night for Azzopardi. The men, who missed working side-by-side, said the system had worked surprisingly well.

“It’s 10:30 p.m. in the evening here, and Lucas is about to go and practice at 8:30 a.m., so the time zones make it so different,” Azzopardi said. “Instead, I wake up and see his swings, view them, draw lines on them and do a voice-over. It’s just been a really easy way to communicate.”

Herbert said not having his coach on the range or caddying for him was different at first. But the connection through the app has worked well.

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“I’m quite visual,” Herbert said. “I like to see what I want to change, what’s going well, in front of me. The app is good for that. I can put a picture to my mind to see and a voice to guide me.”

Teaching apps to connect pros with their coaches — but also average golfers with experienced teachers — had been growing in popularity for a few years before the pandemic. But in lockdown, players searched for ways to get better. Because players were stuck indoors, away from other golfers and nowhere near a coach, this teaching technology slowly boomed.

“We’ve tripled in size in the past 12 months,” said Baden Schaff, co-founder and director of instruction of Skillest. “I’ve always known that it was right for the elite players in the game. They’ve always interacted to a degree like this with their coaches. What’s more exciting is the average person has more interaction with their coach and is getting what elite players have always had.”

Schaff, who has been a teaching professional in England, Singapore and Australia, said elite players sought regular coaching weekly, if not daily, so the stay-at-home orders in the pandemic forced them to seek other ways to keep that feedback going in a remote way.

“The elite players get better because they have constant feedback from the best coaches in the world,” he said. “When an average player comes back every three or four weeks, you don’t progress because you don’t hold on to what you’re working on. The elite players have the ability to come back the next day and the day after that. That’s why they get better.”

Herbert, who tied for fourth at last year’s Scottish Open and is ranked in the top 100 in the world, said he had worked in person with Azzopardi for about a decade. Not working with him in person was strange at first.

But the alternative of flying home to Australia while the country was under strict quarantine restrictions was worse. “I struggled last year when I did the two-week quarantine,” he said. “I have nothing to do on a computer. I felt I had nothing to do for the whole day.”

So they started meeting through the app and analyzing video of his swing. “It might be every day one week,” Herbert said. “When I played at [the Wells Fargo Championship at] Quail Hollow I didn’t send anything. I knew where things were.”

Azzopardi sees the value as twofold. The time zone difference gives him more time to analyze the videos of what Herbert is doing right and wrong. It is different from having to react in person. Like other teachers on the platform, Azzopardi sets his fee and, in exchange for using the Skillest technology, the company takes a cut.

The Skillest system also allows Azzopardi to store videos of Herbert’s swings, so they can go back to the times when he was playing well and look at what has changed if he is playing poorly.

“I’ll put up videos of past swings and say this was what it looked like when you were swinging better,” Azzopardi said. “You’re keeping a library of everything: putting, chipping, everything else.”

Skillest, which charges $80 to $400 a month for instruction depending on the frequency and the coach’s reputation, has company among apps seeking to entice amateurs into a level of scrutiny typically reserved for professionals. Each app has a slightly different approach — and a few rely almost entirely on machine learning to analyze a swing — but they are seeing professional and amateur customers increase. It is the nature of a fickle game that pushes players to try to understand what they are doing wrong.

“Everyone goes through that period when you’re really flushing it for two weeks or a month,” said Jeehae Lee, CEO of Sportsbox AI, who played professionally for five years, with three of those on the LPGA tour. “If you have that data you can go back and review it. Imagine you’re Bryson DeChambeau, and it’s 10 p.m., and you’re on the range. You can look at this and say that is a good swing.”

 

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