You wouldn’t confuse the space in Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Bernie Najar’s basement or back yard with the positively majestic location he usually occupies in his teaching center at Caves Valley Golf Club outside Baltimore. But it’s a credit to Najar that the race is far closer than you might think.
When the start of Caves Valley’s season was delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 quarantine in March, Najar was presented with two things he has never had in more than 20 years of coaching—free time in the spring and no green-grass place to give lessons. But instead of waiting to see when he could get back to his state-of-the-art facility, Najar transplanted some of his core-analysis gear to his home 40 miles away, so that he could work with students remotely—and blow off steam by beating balls.
Najar appropriated two separate spaces: A cross-section of backyard patio where he set up a high-quality return net and premium hitting mat and a 14×10 basement space that holds his TrackMan, Swing Catalyst pressure plates, several tripods with high-speed cameras and assorted other practice aids. He spent two weeks getting the system tuned just right, then opened the (virtual) doors to coaching current and new students through a screen. “There’s definitely a period of adjustment because you can’t interact with a student exactly the same way virtually as you might if you’re in person, but after a short time you get in the rhythm,” says Najar. “And in a lot of ways, you can get things done that would take longer if you were somewhere where the student had constant visual feedback of the ball flying down the range. When you’re inside, you can really put your focus on the motion.”
Najar continued to work with more than a dozen students through quarantine, setting up Zoom and FaceTime meetings and pantomiming movements and drills in his own practice area, so that the student could follow along remotely. And the measurement tools produced feedback “proof” that helped Najar show with his own swing what the changes would do for his students.
“A student sends a video of the part of the game he or she needs help with, and we set up a meeting time to go over their technique,” says Najar. “I can use all the tools I have here to demonstrate and explain. For example, a player with a pivot problem can watch me use my force plates to see the difference between a good pivot and a not-so-good one, or I can use the TrackMan to show a chronic ball-flight miss and the changes that would help it. Then I give them a practice plan, and they can stream me into that session on a phone or iPad and I can watch and evaluate.”
Caves Valley started to reopen in late May, giving Najar limited access to his traditional space, but the “home game” style lessons he has been giving won’t completely go away. “The circumstances surrounding it all are obviously unfortunate, but it’s been good for me to learn some new skills,” says Najar. “The reality is that more people are going to participate in the game like this, virtually, in the future, and my job is to be ready for it.”
Given the travel and distancing restrictions—and Caves Valley’s membership demographic, which trends older—it will likely be awhile before in-person foot traffic at the club’s learning center rebounds to pre-COVID levels. But remote learning gives Najar at least a fighting chance to keep his lesson book full.
“Golf instructors aren’t any different than anybody else in that you have to adapt to survive,” says Najar. “That means understanding trends, keeping current with technology and figuring out how to give your customers what they want and need. It wasn’t too long ago that a teacher who was using a video camera was out of the ordinary. Now, we’ve all got super high-definition cameras on our phones, and apps that can send detailed swing information back and forth instantly. There’s so much potential, and we’re just at the beginning of sorting it all out. It’s really exciting. It’s showing me ways I can help my players do things between lessons that will make their learning so much more efficient—like a high school teacher getting better at assigning homework.”
Even after just two months, his students’ improvement have shown Najar he’s onto something with his new mix. “I’ve got a group of new students I’ve never seen in person who have shot their best rounds ever,” says Najar. “One guy shot 84 the other day, and he had never broken 90 before. Another guy in Florida in his mid-70s picked up 20 yards. He knows how to FaceTime his grandkids, so he can work on his game in a net in his back yard. He likes it better than having to drive crosstown to take a lesson.”