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NORTON, Massachusetts – Shawn Hester has played with and observed some of the best golfers in the world. Through strong mentorship, deep connections within the Massachusetts golf community and an everlasting quest to learn more about golf and help others, he has become one of the most trusted and successful golf instructors in the Bay State.
Hester has worked with several professionals who have reached exempt status on the PGA TOUR, including Massachusetts natives Kevin Johnson and Rob Oppenheim. The list also includes Worcester’s Fran Quinn, his childhood friend. But for nearly a decade he’s worked with Matt Parziale, the six-time Mass Golf Player of the Year, who won the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2017 and went on to play in the 2018 Masters and the last two U.S. Opens. He’s also worked with men and women amateurs who have gone on to win several USGA, Mass Golf and NEGA events.
Hester, a West Boylston native and Ouimet Scholar, taught at Charles River Country Club from 1999-2018 and in 2019, became the Director of Instruction at TPC Boston in Norton. He has been named Golf Digest’s No. 1-ranked Teacher in Massachusetts four times, including back-to-back honors in 2019 and 2020, and he most recently earned the NEGPA’s Teacher of The Year Award.
Mass Golf caught up with Hester this week to look back at his journey, talk through some of his teaching principles, explain how he’s operating with golf course play shut down in the Bay State, and reveal some amusing and inspiring moments that have filled up his nearly three decades as an esteemed instructor.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Mass Golf: What were some of your earliest experiences in golf growing up here in the Bay State?
Shawn Hester: Originally at age 10 or 11, my dad used to take us up to Wachusett Country Club. I would caddy for John “Ace” Case. He was a legendary baseball coach at St. John’s (Shrewsbury) High School. That’s where we all went to school. I also grew up caddying at Worcester Country Club. As a caddy, you get to observe people, and if you look at what I do today, that’s the business that I’m in.
I played all the sports, including baseball my freshman and sophomore years. What ended up happening, I’d leave practice, get dropped off under the expressway at I-290, walk up Lincoln St. and play nine holes at Green Hill Golf Course (Worcester). With daylight savings time, my father would pick me up at dark. When I started doing that and loving that, baseball was probably over for me at that point.
MG: How were you able to make the switch from focusing on competitive golf into getting into instruction?
SH: I went to Bates College for a year, and if you can break 80 up in Lewiston, Maine, you’re considered the next Jack Nicklaus. Then I transferred to Boston College and played golf there. I wasn’t really good at that point. I just liked to play, and I really hadn’t gotten any instruction on my own through college. Playing a lot is probably the best way people can get better, and that’s what I did through college.
I started taking lessons in 1989 from Peter Kostis. That was the beginning of me learning about golf. In 1993, I started teaching golf with Peter, which was a big break in my career. Peter had been recognized for working with Davis Love, Bob Toski (Mass Golf Hall of Famer) and Jack Lumpkin. He may be known more today for being on TV, but he was one of the pioneers of golf instruction. I thought of those guys as athletes before they were golfers, which is kind of how I saw myself, and that’s why I went to go work with them. It was obvious I wasn’t good enough to play, so I got into teaching and then I found I really like teaching. Getting to work with him, I started teaching at Wachusett in 1991. That’s how I got my start.
In 1993, I started teaching with Peter at Breakers West in Florida. In 1994, we went out to Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, and taught with him and Gary McCord from 1994-99. By the time I left there in 1999, I went back to Charles River, and I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing at that point. That foundation was a great break for me.
MG: What were some of the key tenents you learned from working with McCord and Kostis that carry on with you today?
SH: Golf is such an individual game. It’s so hard to talk about fundamentals in golf because there’s a great player that doesn’t adhere to that fundamental. What I learned from Peter is the importance of the clubface. What’s connected to your clubface is your hands, and your hands control the face, and your hands help create speed as well. We were taught from the ball, back to the clubhead, back to the hands, back to the body. That was instilled in me as the way to approach it. I still teach that way today. I’ve had a lot of success working with good players because that order of organizing things seems to have worked.
When you’re working with good players, job No. 1 is not to make them worse, which is easy to do because they’re operating at a pretty high level. Obviously, when you’re working with a lower-level player, it’s a lot easier to add and harder to subtract. I still have a very keen appreciation for a good golf grip and holding the club the right way.
We’re in this COVID-19 pandemic now and everybody’s at home, and I think if everybody spent five minutes putting their hands on the club every day the correct way, I think they would experience an amazing benefit when this thing is lifted and we can all play golf.
MG: Speaking of COVID-19, how have you dealt with that as an instructor?
SH: Just today, I’ve spoken with four of my students, and I’ve looked at two different videos, and I’ve given a FaceTime lesson. I’ve been on some calls and seminars with James Leitz, a great teacher in Louisiana, and Michael Manavian, who talks about gears and club fitting.
To me, the medium in which I get my information is different but it’s still a busy day. I’m still learning about golf and I’m still helping my students, and it’s still fun. I’ve never been a big goal setter, I always look at what we’re doing today, what we’re doing to help ourselves. If anything has come clear in this pandemic, it’s that things are changing every day. So I try to look at every day and how we can be better.
MG: How do you balance out the technology in the game out there with the classic teaching methods you’ve adopted over time?
SH: All I can say is all those people who try to learn golf from YouTube have created a great business for me. Teaching and coaching is very individual. Technology isn’t going away. They’re here today because people love golf. Most people in golf and technology, they started down that road because they wanted to make themselves better golfers. Having said that, I think the technology really benefits better players. I can give many lessons without technology, and I always have.
MG: Who was the first pro you worked with and how did it come about?
SH: I believe it was Fran Quinn. Fran and I played a lot of high school golf together. I was working with Peter (Kostis), and Fran saw that I was improving. Fran came with me to Florida and took a lesson with Peter and taught him through the early 1990s. I was there for a lot of those lessons. Fran and I lived in Massachusetts, and he eventually gravitated to me. I’ve learned the most amount from Fran because we spent so much time together. He was incredibly driven. In our younger days, he’d call me up all the time to go hit balls.
As a teacher, I’m not trying to teach Fran something. He knows how to hit a golf ball. As a teacher, anything that they say is more important than what I have to say. Most of the time with good players, they think they’re doing something that they’re not really doing, so you have to show them on video. Fran was big on video. He wanted to see what it looked like.
MG: You knew Fran, but what was it like observing and working with other top players you weren’t as familiar with?
SH: I’ve watched the teaching of good players. I watched Peter give a lesson to Bernhard Langer, and Peter wanted to change something, and Bernhard didn’t want to. It’s hard to explain that to somebody, but you just know what works and what doesn’t. Good players are all feel. It’s rare you get a guy like Tom Kite who can explain it all. Tom Kite gave a clinic during the Ryder Cup in 1999. I’ve never seen a player give a clinic and be that well-versed on the golf swing. I shadowed the guy for 5 days, and I was very impressed.
I got to play golf with Hal Sutton when he was No. 1 at total driving on the PGA TOUR. I played with him at Grayhawk. I’m playing with the No. 1 driver on the PGA TOUR, and he hits two pop-ups in nine holes, and his comment to me is, “Shawn, I bet you were a pretty good player at one point.” People think great players don’t hit bad shots.
I was never intimidated working with good players. I don’t look at it as I’m teaching them, I just have to be their sounding board. My job is I can fix that. The more pieces of the puzzle they give me, I can help them fix that.
MG: We’re just past the two-year anniversary of seeing Brockton’s Matt Parziale playing at The Masters. What do you remember most of that experience, especially working with him in the lead-up to his performances on some of golf’s largest stages?
SH: Matt came up to the range at Charles River a month or so before the (2017) U.S. Mid-Amateur. He put his golf balls down, and he says, “You’ve got to get me better. I’ve got to get better.” He started hitting balls, and I’m saying to myself, “This guy is swinging great. I’m not saying one word to this guy.” After 30-40 minutes, he goes, “What do you got?” I said, “Nope, I got nothing.”
I don’t know why this came into my head, but it was absolutely the perfect thing at the perfect time. There was a flag 140 yards away, and we’re going to hit five different irons to the flag. And that’s what he did. The thing with Matt’s swing, it can get a little quick and up-tempo. That (flag drill) was a thing of refinement to get him a little more control, to get him to access different yardages with his irons.
When I started working with around 2011-12, he was not a good driver. In 2017, when he won the Mid-Am, driving was his strength. When he went to the U.S. Open (2018) and played practice rounds with two of the best drivers in the game today, Lucas Glover and Keegan Bradley, he drove the ball with those guys all day. So he went from being a poor driver in 2011 to an outstanding driver in 2018. That lesson at Charles River that we worked on controlling irons, that was my attempt to get him dialed in. When he left the range that day, I honest to God thought that this kid’s going to do something. He’s playing too good. If you’re good enough, they can’t shut the doors on your forever.
MG: Since Matt Parziale was big news, and he credited you a lot for his success, has that had even more people seeking you out for lessons?
SH: I don’t really know. I have no idea why people take lessons or don’t take lessons. I’m just going out there every day trying to help people. I think having success with Matt has taken my instruction to a bigger audience. When your students have success, that rubs off on you as a coach.
MG: You mentioned Bernhard Langer not getting along with Peter Kostis’ instruction. It made me think, what kind of odd or awkward situations have you encountered during your many years of instruction?
SH: One of the drills that I do is I teach people literally to throw the club to a target because I want them to have the feeling of transferring energy out of the clubhead. So, I have them throw it 15 yards down the fairway. One day at Charles River, I had this guy, and where I teach, the tee was in the back and there were rocks on the left side of the range. So one guy threw the club, he released it so late it went 30 feet up into the tree behind us. Another guy released it so late that it hit the rocks to the left and it broke his $300 up-charge shaft. So that cost me a free lesson and a shaft.
MG: Did you have to retire that lesson after that?
SH: No, they stayed with me. Obviously, they needed to get better at releasing.
MG: You give tons of great tips on your website, hestergolf.com, but if a player, regardless of handicap, went to your site, what’s the first or most important thing you’d want them to see and apply to their own game?
SH: The biggest thing is the first one, “The vast majority of golfers know only one speed – full speed. That is a speed seldom used by better golfers.” Most people take it back fast and they come through slowly. I think if people could work on tempo and rhythm and do that at a 70% capacity or a 50% capacity, I think they would play a lot better golf. Take the club back smoothly and accelerate through impact and really accelerate through the ball. I think most golfers would do better if they figured that out.