Generations pass along the keys to humanity. A new extraction takes what it learned from the preceding one, then expands the knowledge base in a positive direction. In Erie, Pennsylvania, situated halfway between Buffalo and Cleveland, two gentlemen are working diligently to enhance golf instruction, at a place called Golf Evolution. One of them, Erik Barzeski, was named Teacher of the Year in 2019, by the western New York chapter of PGA professionals. An incredible honor, and deserved as well. We caught up with Erik and fired a salvo of questions at him. His thoughtful responses are below. He just might convince you to journey to Erie for some instruction; if not, he’ll have you texting your local pro for a lesson or two.
1. Tell us who you are, where you grew up, and how you came to be a golfer.
My name is Erik J. Barzeski, and I’m a PGA professional in Erie, PA. I grew in Erie (PA) county in a town called North East, which always prompted a discussion as we’re in the north-WESTERN corner of PA, but in the north-EASTERN corner of the state’s “chimney.”
I grew up playing soccer from age three, and played varsity soccer as a high school freshman. Earlier that summer, staying with my grandmother in Bedford, PA, my cousin Colin and I went to the Elks Course for a golf clinic. It’s a nine-hole deal, and we putted and chipped for maybe 30-45 minutes, then switched for the other half of the time to swat balls down the first fairway. I was 14, and though looking back I’m sure even the well-struck balls were only going 150 yards or so. Still, to a kid who’d played baseball, soccer, tennis… football, it looked like they were going SO far. 150 yards would have been hit out of EVERY major league baseball stadium.
I’m a bit of an obsessive person when I find something new: I want to soak up as much knowledge about it as I can, whether it’s Weimaraners or a new sport. So a few weeks later I bought a used 7-iron from Green Meadows in North East and read every book on golf that my my local library had. I spent all of my combined Christmas and birthday (March) money on a set of clubs and a junior membership ($150) to Green Meadows. I practiced when I could that fall in the fields near my house, and all winter in my basement. After playing all of the next summer at Green Meadows, I made the high school team the next fall as a sophomore, giving up soccer. That year our team won the Erie County League championship for the first of five consecutive years. My scoring average went from the low 90s that first year, to the low 80s the next year, and then to the low 70s my senior year.
I think what drew me most to golf was that I didn’t have to rely on teammates. Sure, teammates can help you achieve your goals, but they can also let you down. When I was pitching in a baseball game, I’d throw decent pitches and get the hitters to hit ground balls, but often be let down by my teammates making fielding or throwing errors. That can get frustrating. I relished that in golf I would get ALL of the credit or blame. That it was all me, good or bad. Golf is a game that, on the whole, gives you back what you put into it. It’s ALL on your shoulders. You alone determine how you perform and what you shoot. I liked that.
And of course I loved the idea that with even a mid-iron I could hit a ball farther than you could ever kick or hit a soccer ball or a baseball. 🙂
2. You are based in Erie. We are in Buffalo. Talk about pros and cons of being a northern golfer.
As you know our golf season is longer than people think… And I’m not talking about the fact that within the past few years I’ve played golf in short sleeved shirts on Christmas Eve. In 2018, in fact, I played 18 holes in PA every month of the year. But generally, if you don’t mind wearing two or three light layers, you can play golf in parts of March through parts of November. So it’s not too short.
The cons are of course that the golf season isn’t 365 days long, and that the spring can be wet and the fall can be very “leafy” if you know what I mean.
The pros are largely that we have a lot of great and affordable golf, and the off-season we do have really lets people re-charge and encourages them to get a lot of golf in while it’s nice out. From an instructional standpoint, the winter is a great time to make a bigger change to your game that you might not want to make in the middle of the playing season.
The off-season lets people really maintain their passion for the sport, and for those whose passion is without doubt, the off-season lets them spend some time with their families for once. 😀
3. In 2019, you were named the WNY PGA teacher of the year. Congratulations to you. Now, tell us why!
I’ve previously been on Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers in America list (2016-17) and the Best in State list (alongside Dave Wedzik) from 2017-2020.
This past year, Dave and I – and Dave has been the Teacher of the Year twice now, in 2013 and 2015 – adapted our Lowest Score Wins concepts to create a ten-week program for golfers who are reaching the upper edges of what the First Tee program in Western New York was able to offer. Traditionally once you’re a decent golfer you tend to leave the First Tee and seek out traditional instruction. I feel our program helps keep people in the First Tee program which does so much for them outside of and beyond just golf, while still nurturing and advancing their golf game.
Beyond that, I teach at Chautauqua Golf Club and indoors and outdoors around Erie. I coach the college golf team at Penn-State Behrend, and in 2018 we went to NCAA Nationals for the seventh consecutive year. I work with many of the better juniors in Erie and run a winter program on Saturdays for about 20 of the area’s better juniors so that they can keep building their skills over the winter.
I help people out on The Sand Trap, which I’ve run for over 15 years now. With Dave, I’ve taught at PGA Education seminars in New York, PA, Ohio, and elsewhere. I wrote Lowest Score Wins and I’ve taught over 200 teachers with Dave in both 5 Simple Keys® and Lowest Score Wins®.
I’m honored to be recognized with the PGA Teacher of the Year award, but the best award and reward I get are texts or messages from students telling me that they broke a new personal scoring record, hit more greens than ever, won a tournament, etc. That they’re excited about the direction their golf game is headed. I enjoy the heck out of being their guide, and helping them realize their potential, and seeing the smiles and satisfaction they get from a job well done, and from the good earnest work they put into their golf games.
4. We know that a certain percentage of golfers “get” instruction, and another percentage will never “get” it. Talk to us about the ones who go for a lesson or two, but can’t connect the learning process with performance. How do we keep them involved in learning from a PGA professional?
I think the number is shockingly small: something like 14% of golfers have EVER gotten professional instruction, or something like that? Maybe even less. It’s pretty small. Even if it’s somehow double that or about 30%, that’s not a lot.
On one hand, it’s tough to name another recreational sport where players regularly get instruction? Tennis, sure. But guys in rec basketball leagues aren’t taking monthly lessons to work on their jump shots. Guys playing in a church softball league might attend a fantasy camp once in a lifetime, but they’re not working with a softball coach. Golf is somewhat unique there, and part of the reason is likely that it’s just so damn difficult.
To be a good coach or instructor, the foundation has to be some technical knowledge. You have to know what makes a good golf swing for that student. What can that student improve upon? That’s first. Then, what separates the good from the great is how well the coach can prioritize and how well he or she can communicate. Communication, too, isn’t just the talking part, the “how do I phrase things” stuff… A big part, perhaps the biggest part especially early on in a coach-student relationship, is listening.
We all have different types of students. Some will practice. Some will not. Some will struggle to take something to the course, others will handle this more easily. For example, you have a student that simply isn’t going to go to the range, whether it’s for lack of time or they just don’t like hitting balls. For them, it’s important to give them feelings or pieces that they can do at home, or while out on the course waiting to hit. Students with their own launch monitor at home (and with things like the FlightScope Mevo these are more and more common), it’s helpful to give them the knowledge to know what they’re looking at. And so on.
If a golfer simply isn’t even really interested in instruction, as a PGA professional, just sharing your love for the game can be important. I have a few friends who don’t want lessons; they just want to go out, drink a beer or two, have some fun with their pals, and occasionally travel to play some great golf courses. So that’s what we do, and it’s important to keep them in touch with the game. You never know… they may eventually want to get lessons in the future. But if they quit golf or lose their love for the game, that’s someone who is lost to not only lessons, but golf as a whole.
5. Online teaching has taken off in the past half-decade. Is that something that fits your teaching style? Are you in-person only, or do you use a hybrid model of online and in-person?
One of the earliest things Dave Wedzik and I did when we got together was create “Evolvr,” an online instructional platform (https://evolvr.com/). We were one of the first to do this, in fact. It helped that we also created Analyzr (https://analyzrgolf.com/) for the recording and sharing of video lessons, as this let our instructors easily record their analyses and share them with golfers around the world.
One of our trained instructors, Stephan Kostelecky, handles a lot of the instruction there. I’ve worked with a number of students. For some golfers, online lessons are great. They’re inexpensive, can be absorbed on your schedule, can be saved and replayed later on, etc. If a golfer can go to the range and be disciplined, I feel we do a good job of showing him what we’d like him to work on, why, and how to go about doing it on Evolvr, all for an affordable cost.
For those golfers who need hands-on work or prefer highly interactive sessions with some interpersonal give-and-take with the instructor, online lessons don’t always work out very well. Some people love the full swing instruction online, but don’t find it works for improving their short game or putting stroke.
Either way, you tend to know somewhat quickly whether the online method works for you.
6. Put yourself in the hands of an instructor. What does she/he need to bring to the practice tee, in terms of style, demeanor, environment, etc.?
Ha, well, that’s a tough question, because everyone’s different, and everyone likes a different approach. So, if the coach teaching me just doesn’t generally mesh with my style, then it may not matter what they try to do if they’re acting so differently than their normal way. For example, if a student didn’t like to be touched, he might really not mesh with a George Gankas type instructor, who will move you and touch you and push you all over the place.
I’m the type of student who really likes to understand the whole “thing.” I have to buy in to what you’re asking me to do, and then I’ll be all in and I’ll work my butt off to do it. But I’ve gotta believe you know what you’re doing and WHY first. So I want a coach who knows what they’re talking about, and can tell me why, and then once I get it, and I understand and buy in, then I want that instructor to be as hard on me as they can be, so I can improve the fastest and the best. If I’m doing something only 90% of what that coach wants, I don’t want him to say “that’s pretty good” – I want him to ask for 30% more so I understand what “too much” is and can work backward from there. I don’t need you to ask me about my daughter (though I might brag about her all the same) or the movie I saw last week (Ford vs. Ferrari was pretty good): I just want to get to work.
The environment can be anything. I teach indoors and feel like indoors has the best potential to help people focus on changing their SWINGS because they stop worrying about where the ball is going. Outdoors, on the range, it’s tougher to get people to ignore the ball flight for 10 or 20 swings while they’re doing something completely foreign or new to them. Not impossible, just a bit more difficult. But, I understand that, and I’m content to stand on a range for 20 minutes hitting a shank every other ball if I’m putting in good work and really exaggerating something or doing something new. So the environment doesn’t matter too much to me… my lesson could be in an office building over lunch. I’d generally like a camera, because “feel ain’t real,” and I like to know what the reality of what I’m doing is, but with iPhones having 240 FPS cameras, that’s not a high bar to clear.
But that’s just me, and as an instructor I try to cater everything I do to how that person wants to learn and how they learn best.
7. What one aspect of the game of golf, can every amateur improve immediately, with a bit of instruction?
If I had an hour with someone, I’d teach them how to get around a golf course. Still too many people think “I should lay up to a full wedge instead of leaving a 55-yard shot” and similar things. Out of greenside bunkers they take on shots that are too difficult… and are in too many greenside bunkers to begin with. They aim at the flagstick from much too far out when they should be aiming at the fat side of the green. They over-value hitting the fairway. Things like that. GamePlanning.
If I had two hours, despite the fact that most of a golfer’s strokes are lost with the full swing, improving at that takes time. I’d show them the simplest methods for chipping and pitching, then check their putting stroke, primarily to look at their acceleration profiles to help them with distance control. Golfers often complain about three-putting because they’re missing too many six footers, but if those six-footers come after a 25-footer, it’s often distance control that’s to blame.
And finally, if I had three hours, I’d do all of the first two things, with a little slower pace to the short game and putting stuff, and then I’d spend the last half hour helping them find and understand their full swing patterns. If they hit a big cut, I’d help them embrace it and learn to play it. Don’t keep trying to hit it straight – not without help – which mixes pulls in and sets them up to have a two-way miss. Bruce Lietzke and Billy Casper could play some pretty good golf with some big curves because their ball curved the same direction every time.
8. You and I first connected on a golf course architecture forum. What do you like and dislike in a golf course?
I’ll answer the question from an architectural standpoint, because there are a number of reasons to like a course and some of them aren’t architectural at all. For example, the course you grew up playing, or the course where your buddies have had some great matches will hold special places in your heart, and they might be as uninteresting architecturally as you can find, but they’re still gonna be special to you.
So, architecturally speaking, I think golf courses should have a blend of two things. The first is that the course should challenge you. I don’t mean that a course should be difficult, but a few times a round, you should have to face a shot that challenges you to pull off a good shot. Whether it’s a draw around the corner of a dogleg to set up a second shot to a par five, a short par three with a heavily protected green, something that – if you’re successful – you can feel good about playing the hole. And second: a golf course should make you think, it should present you with choices. Whether you’re a PGA Tour player or a guy looking to break 100, a course that gives you options and makes you choose will be interesting for a long time. If you still aren’t sure of the best way to play a hole after playing it ten times, you might have found a great hole.
The second reason is why I am sad that we don’t have more firm conditions in the states like you’ll find in Scotland. Firmness creates options. I played the Road Hole at St. Andrews by hitting a good drive, and then hitting my second shot from 180 about 95 yards in the air and 85 yards along the ground. The ball rolled up the right side of the green to about 18 feet. I could have chosen to play it as I had, to fly it there, or to have gone further to the right, or something else. Greenside, the options are boundless. Putt, chip, pitch, hybrid… any one could work depending on the circumstances.
As I write that, I realize that “challenge” and “options” could be put together into one word: “interest.” If you can keep a golfer’s interest up, you’ve got a good golf course.
Beyond that… because of what I knew and what more I learned in writing the GamePlanning section of Lowest Score Wins, I think that some of the old tropes about “width and angles” are overstated for better players. For example, Tobacco Road is a pretty easy course on which to shoot a good score, IF you can avoid being suckered into going for everything, for every risky shot out there. Yet as much as I’m ambivalent about Tobacco Road, I love Caledonia Golf and Fish Club. It’s a solid course that doesn’t have a bunch of “width and angles,” but it’s a good solid test of golf that really keeps your interest.
So, interest sums up what I like in a golf course. The rest matters, but it’s window dressing. Of course, I reserve the right to clarify and/or change my opinion on this answer more than any other I’ve given to you today! 😀
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please. Thank you for your time.
Oh man, how much trouble do I want to get into here? Ha.
Okay, let’s go with this: “Question: What do you see as the future of golf instruction? Where is coaching headed in golf?” And my answer would be:
I see golf instruction continuing to improve. We are learning more and more about psychology, physiology, biomechanics, long-term health, ball flight and club design, how people learn, and everything else. Golf instruction is becoming a legitimate full-time job for more and more people, and is less and less the purview of the head pro in his downtime. The golf instructors I know and talk with are obsessed with golf instruction and coaching, and are driving the industry forward with new thoughts, new angles, new studies, new training aids, new applications of technology.
Golfers have access to more information now than ever before, and that trend will only continue. Golf instructors that can position themselves to know and understand this, and help filter the information to best serve their students, can lead the industry forward. We can show all golfers that lessons make you better, faster, than working on your own. We can serve as guides on their golfing journey, by helping them get there faster and with fewer detours.