Paul Foston has a long and distinguished career as a professional golfer and is a PGA Advanced Fellow Professional. He was the first head professional at the London Golf Club when it opened in 1994. Paul’s final job as a club pro was at Weald of Kent GC near Maidstone before he set his own teaching academy in 2005.
The academy is located in Smarden, a village deep in rural Kent, about ten miles from Ashford. Asked why he set up his own academy Paul states, “I wanted to secure my income for twelve months of the year. One of the great frustrations with teaching as a club pro is that when the weather is bad in winter, students cancel lessons with very little notice. Few courses have adequate covered teaching facilities and August is also a lean month. Here I have a barn with my own indoor teaching facilities. In the grounds we’ve constructed a short game teaching area that tests every skill that’s required to get the ball up and down from inside 50 yards.”
It certainly is an impressive set-up which has been described by Kyle Phillpots, PGA director of training and education, as a world class teaching facility. The short game area covers 1,800 square feet with a large Huxley all-weather two tier green and two bunkers, one for beginners and a challenging St Andrews type revetted bunker. There is also rough, trees and a stream as additional playing hazards with high and low approach elevations. A separate 900 square feet putting green running at a stimp meter speed of between ten and eleven completes the set-up. Foston comments, “It’s designed to test every skill you need to get the ball up and down from around the green, because 53 percent of golf shots are played inside 29 yards.”
While he specialises as a short game coach, Foston teaches all aspects of golf. The barn studio is equipped with a C Swing video analyser with two cameras to view face on and behind simultaneously, providing instant feedback during lessons. Foston can show students their swing compared to tour pros with lesson highlights recorded for future reference. A Flightscope radar launch monitor provides graphics showing launch angle, spin, swing speed, ball flight, shot distance and dispersion, club face angle, quality of strike and swing path.
“The technology today is fantastic. You and the student can identify faults in ten minutes that may have taken several lessons for them to understand previously. I recommend a two hour lesson to students so that we can cover both the long game and the short game. They then get more out of the process so it’s more cost-effective for them”, says Foston.
Foston admits that it’s a challenge to get students to focus on short game skills. “When you talk to a student about the strengths and weaknesses of their game, often they will tell you that they’re solid off the tee, good with the mid irons, but struggle around the greens and with putting. Then you ask them what they want the lesson to focus on and they will say ‘my swing’! The biggest challenge is getting the message across to students that a good all-round game is the only way that they will lower their scores and reduce their handicap.”
To overcome resistance to learning short game skills, Foston teaches exercises to make the process fun. “A lot of students will go to a range and smash drives because it’s fun, but they will never practice chipping and putting because they find it boring. Teaching the mechanics of putting is pretty straightforward, then it’s a question of ‘touch and feel’ which the student must experience for themselves. So to get them to practice I teach them a ladder drill with six balls at increasing distance from the hole, or a ‘round the clock’ drill and a speed challenge to make it an interesting test.”
To ensure students practice short game drills, Foston provides them with a chart to record their success at the drills. “It helps me identify where they are making progress and where they still need help, so perhaps their long chipping is weak but they’ve got the hang of short chips. Skill tests build confidence by providing the student with positive feedback. It’s measurable practice, but it’s also fun and interesting for them.”
In terms of technique around the greens Foston explains, “There are three methods I like to teach to differentiate between the shots required. For example chipping requires passive hands; whilst pitching you need to allow the hands to hinge during the backswing and through contact ensure that the left wrist does not collapse – I describe this as ‘hinge and hold’. When playing from the bunker, you need to release the shaft. This will help the ball exit the sand quicker and is the perfect technique for a flop shot too. You always get the student to visualise the shot – where do you want the ball to land and where do you want the ball to finish. Then they will make an intelligent club selection and apply the right technique instead of ‘hit and hope’.”
Moving on to putting Foston states, “Some believe putting is a straight pendulum action and that’s true for short putts. But as you lengthen the stroke for longer putts across the green, there is necessarily an arc in the stroke. Students who try to take the putter straight back and straight through on longer putts inevitably close the face going through and miss putts to the left, if they are right handed. I use the mental image of a windscreen wiper to help students visualise the stroke on longer putts.”
As a business the Paul Foston Golf Academy has been a success with just a blip at the start of the recession. “I like to do 20 lessons a week but recently it’s been running at about 25, with a mix of one hour and two hour lessons. We have also set up as a B&B so we can offer people golf coaching short-breaks. We have hosted a party of eight which included coaching sessions here and a round of golf at Chart Hills which is ten minutes’ drive away. There is a group of other pros I can call on to assist with coaching for larger parties, if necessary”
Foston has coached five players to European Tour victories and one to Ryder Cup success. Recently two students have played amateur golf for England and another plus-four student is about to be selected. His series of coaching videos posted on YouTube are based on lessons and articles he has provided for Golf Monthly. The magazine has also rated him one of their top 25 coaches.
Describing his own motivation Foston says, “I love to see people improve. I have a passion for teaching and I get a buzz out of people doing well. I do believe people can be over-coached, but most golfers would improve their game no-end if they just took some lessons on a regular basis and paid some attention to their short game.”