Born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, Smith Jr. graduated from Temple University and has been running golf courses around Philadelphia since the age of 23 when he started at The Abington Club. After a 10-year run as the Director of Golf at Talamore Country Club, he left for the same job at Philadelphia Cricket Club — despite its peculiar name, the club is one of the most prestigious golf venues on the east coast and oozes history. Founded in 1854, the club twice hosted the U.S. Open and one of its courses is designed by the famed A.W. Tillinghast, architect of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Bethpage Black.
Smith Jr. has been at Philadelphia Cricket Club for 14 years and brings a wealth of experience to understanding and playing golf. In this conversation with Graff Golf’s Sean Fairholm, the two discuss his career and how he approaches game improvement with his members.
Sean Fairholm: How did you get involved in golf in the first place?
Jim Smith Jr.: I started a painting business my senior year of high school that I ran through college. In college, I sort of got the bug to play so I would start my days telling the guys what to paint, play golf all day and then come back to check on them. Will Reilly was a pro at one of the public courses I would hang out at, and we would play golf together. He kind of got me thinking about being a golf pro.
SF: A lot of people think a career in the golf industry is a lot of playing golf, but it can be quite the opposite of that. How did that part go for you trying to figure out your place?
JS: I got lucky. I was actually a member at a little 9-hole club where I went to the gym but never really played golf. I got to know the owner there and he knew I was an assistant golf pro at another course. Well sadly the head pro got cancer and the owner approached me and asked if I would take over his position. Because I was a head pro at 23, I had to learn the business piece of it pretty quickly. It was kind of just do what you have to do to survive.
SF: Fast forward to now where you are at Philadelphia Cricket Club, and you have one of the top gigs in the country. How has it been dealing with the membership throughout your time there?
JS: The membership is off-the-charts good. It’s constantly changing, so I am always energized. I would not do well at a really sleepy, small place. I probably have ADHD, so I like action. There’s just constant stuff you have to be thinking about and dealing with and planning for, which keeps me interested. I’m in the relationship business.
SF: When you are giving a lesson to a member, what are some of the things you see that are recurring that come up?
JS: A couple of things. A lack of confidence often leads to a lack of results. When you’re not hitting the ball well, it’s easy to get a little disheartened. It’s kind of a cycle you have to break. A part of my role is psychological where when I’m asking them questions, we’re trying to talk about when they have played well. That’s true for everyone, whether they are a 1 handicap or a 20 handicap.
And the other part that a lot of people misunderstand is about using leverage. Are you cocking your wrists properly? Most people don’t know what that is. You can’t hit a golf ball effortlessly without leverage and setting your wrists on your backswing. It’s a corny analogy, but back in physics class you learned the experiment where there’s a 500-pound weight and there’s one pulley and the rope goes through the pulley. The teacher asks you to pull the rope and lift the weight, but you can’t. But if you run the rope through a series of pulleys, that creates leverage and you lift the 500-pound weight. You are building power without extra effort. That’s what a golf swing is supposed to be.
SF: In terms of course management and actual game play, what is one of the things that gets the average player in trouble?
JS: I compare it a lot to chess. You have to know how the pieces move to play chess, right? But that has nothing to do with playing chess. Playing chess is understanding the strategy and why to move a piece to a certain position, so you can set up another move. Golf is the same way. Learning how to swing has nothing to do with playing golf. It just means you know how to swing a golf club.
Teaching people how to play better is about understanding the lie of the ball and what that lie may allow you to do based on your skillset. I’ll give a lesson to someone who wants to hit a flop shot and I’ll put the ball on a tight lie in the fairway and ask them to hit it over a bunker. They can’t hit the shot. The reason is that even for the best players in the world, that’s a hard shot. The problem wasn’t the execution, the problem was that they tried to hit the wrong shot. They need to accept that hitting something lower and giving themselves a 20-foot putt may be a successful outcome. So much of golf is being in a position and understanding what gives you the best chance for success based on what you can do.
How many times do you see someone who is 270 yards out in the rough and they are grabbing their 3-wood. Well where are you hitting it to and what are the chances you can hit that 3-wood well? Are you putting yourself in a better spot for your next shot or would a 6-iron make more sense? There’s risk-reward and there is reward-risk; players have to learn to pick the reward-risk.
SF: And a lot of that is the ego of just wanting to hit certain clubs because players think they should be able to, right?
JS: That’s a great point. And that’s the psychological part of the game where you have to get someone to accept that without feeling like they suck. You don’t want them to think they don’t have it in them, but being honest about what you are capable of is the easiest way to improve your score.
SF: Has your membership resisted moving up to shorter tees or have they generally embraced that?
JS: I stole an idea from the Cal Club in San Francisco where we got rid of tee colors. We don’t have red, white, blue and black — we have 1, 2, 3 and 4. Men are conditioned to go right to the blue tees and women are conditioned to go right to the red tees. By going to numbers for the tees, they look at the yardage and are realizing where they should actually play.
Another thing that I’ve done at previous courses but not at Philadelphia Cricket Club is to measure the golf course to the back of every green. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that adds about 250-300 yards to the scorecard. People are actually playing a 6,400-yard course but the scorecard says 6,700 yards, so that can influence them choosing different tees.
SF: Going back to the teaching component, what kind of aid do you think swing analytics have had for the average person? Do they know how to effectively use the information yet or is that still a process?
JS: It’s interesting you ask that question because out of our five instructors here, we have two of them who are geared more towards the heavy usage of that technology and three are more feel-oriented. In general, I would say it has been a huge help.
The example I give is if someone comes to take a lesson and I tell them to strengthen their grip and they start hitting the ball better, that sequence is only useful if I’m telling them why that happened — in that case, their swing became flatter and changed their angle of attack. Because now they can evaluate that for themselves and understand it. What swing analytics does is it makes it easier to teach people how to teach themselves.
Before technology, the student only knew they were getting better by ball flight and score. Now I can tell them their spin rate, launch angle and carry distance before we started working and here they are now after we’ve had four lessons and look at the change in the numbers. It validates that what we were doing is helping them, even if it may not feel like it to them.
SF: In terms of comparing students to ideal numbers, what do you use?
JS: It’s all about comparing it to yourself. You also have to be very careful with technology. One of the questions I always ask students is whether they are more of a technical learner or feel-oriented. Do you like to do it and learn it, or do you want someone to explain it to you before you do it? Some people want to rely on the data and some people don’t care about that. Swing analytics are a great tool, but we have to know how to harness it properly.