Even Pro Golfers Have Turned to Remote Learning

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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, 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, Fla., and Azzopardi in Western Australia, 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.

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“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.

“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.”

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Credit…Skillest

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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, chief executive of Sportsbox AI, who played professionally for five years, with three of those on the L.P.G.A. 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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It may sound strange to recreational players who imagine that elite players hit it well all the time. They do not, of course; half the field in any tournament misses the cut each week. And yet what many of them are looking for in these apps is something to remind them of what they were doing when everything felt so effortless.

Eddy Liu, founder and chief executive of 18Birdies, whose flagship product is AI Coach, said players in Asia, particularly in South Korea, had been attracted to the app because of its analytics. They use the data it generates — through machine learning, without a human coach — to compare what AI Coach reports to what they know about their own swing.

“These pros are saying, ‘Hey, I think it’s catching these things that I’m doing,’” Liu said. “What they’re finding is when they don’t have a coach near them, they’re using this not to say, do I have a problem but how am I doing on the particular things I’m working on. You look at a video and it’s complicated. But the machine learning can detect some movement that helps them.”

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Still, for professionals to use video let alone artificial intelligence headed into a tournament like the Scottish Open, which determines eligibility for the British Open the next week, might seem risky to more seasoned players. Herbert, after all, is only 25.

But Stephen Ames, who won the Players Championship in 2006 and now plays on the PGA Tour Champions, said during lockdown at home in Trinidad and Tobago that he began scrolling through Instagram like other bored golfers. He landed on an instructor in Canada, Shauheen Nakhjavani, and liked what he was posting. So Ames sent him a direct message like a fan, not someone with 13 professional victories.

Pretty soon they were mixing in-person and virtual coaching. But after finishing second at a Champions Tour event where fans and coaches were not allowed to attend, he was hesitant to reach out for virtual coaching. But when he did, it worked.

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“It’s not that coaches are hands on,” Ames said. “They’re looking with their eyes. And I realized it was the same with the camera.”

Nakhjavani, who has taught on Skillest since 2017, said he came to coaching through math and science. The analytical aspect of coaching elite players and amateurs online appealed to how he looked to solve problems.

“How I explain the golf swing is more or less the same to professionals and amateurs,” said Nakhjavani, who also teaches in person. “Professional golfers ask more detailed questions, and they’re really good at practicing and knowing how much time to spend on it.

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“You have to be way more structured with the recreational golfer and continuously communicate with them to keep them on the train tracks. It’s almost more important to the recreational player.”

Even the pros continue to benefit from the regular feedback that frees them up to play.

“I don’t really think about a lot of my technique,” Herbert said. “Dom analyzes it more. That’s why I play, and he coaches. He has more of an analytical brain.”

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