Utley finds new role as a short game coach
Step aside, Butch Harmon. Have a seat, David Leadbetter.
The hottest instructor in golf isn't one of those marquee names who charges four figures an hour and uses all sorts of technological gadgetry. For a long while, Stan Utley didn't charge a penny, and he has never even bought a camera to use with his lessons.
Utley, 42, was content to live his life as a journeyman pro who has bounced between the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour in recent years. Because he always had an excellent short game, he was willing to help out as many as 50 struggling pros through the years with little fanfare.
But then something happened. The guys to whom Utley offered advice either started winning recently (Craig Stadler, Peter Jacobsen and Jonathan Kaye) or playing the best golf of their careers (Jay Haas, 50).
The PGA of America brought in Utley for this weekend's Teaching and Coaching Summit at the PGA Learning Center, and he spoke for two hours Friday about the short game. But he also spent some of that time almost apologizing for his new-found celebrity status.
"The media turns us into so-called big-time instructors," Utley said. "That's just a fact. The tour player causes that to happen. That's what Jay has done for me. He's given me tons of credit."
Utley also knows of what he speaks. He holds the PGA Tour record for fewest putts in nine holes (six), which he set at the 2002 Air Canada Classic. He also led the PGA Tour in putting in 2003 (27.8 per round) and was second in sand saves (61 percent).
Some believe Utley, who won the now-defunct Chattanooga Classic in 1989 but had only five other top-10s in 196 career starts on the PGA Tour, helped others to the detriment of his own game. He would spend more time after rounds working with others' short games instead of his own long game.
"I don't think it's hurt my game," said Utley, who failed to make it through the second stage of Q-School last month. "My play is not worse; my play is probably better.
"From a heart issue, it fills me up on the inside to be helping guys. So I'm better off being filled up positively from helping people than I am beating myself up trying to get better."
While the Chattanooga victory gets him into about eight to 10 tournaments a year on the PGA Tour as a past champion, he has earned less than $700,000 as a professional. That's why he decided a few years ago officially to become an instructor, moving from Missouri to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he now charges $150 an hour.
"Maybe it was God's way of saying, 'Wow, I needed a job after playing bad all those years,' " Utley joked.
It was by luck that Utley and Haas hooked up two years ago. Utley was playing in a Nationwide Tour event in North Carolina and staying at the home of former PGA Tour pro Dillard Pruitt, now a rules official. Haas lived nearby, so he came over and they started talking about the putting stroke.
That led to Utley and Haas standing outside in the dark, working on a putting stroke in the driveway. Soon after, Haas was contending again on the PGA Tour.
"What he told me in just a few minutes meant more to me than what anyone had ever told me in regards to my stroke," Haas said. "Stan has a great knowledge of the game and a wonderful way of getting his message across."
Utley's approach is simple: He thinks golfers should use the same stroke for putts and chips as they do for regular shots. Utley's putting philosophy is based on the swinging-gate method, in which the clubhead traces an arc, opening slightly on the backswing and closing after impact. He also believes the follow-through should be short and low to the ground, similar to the style used by top putters Ben Crenshaw and Brad Faxon. His approach produces plenty of topspin.
"I believe the putter travels on an arc and the putter face should stay square to that arc," Utley said. "People ask, 'How am I going to hit the putt straight if the club face doesn't aim at the hole?' I say, 'The same way your club face aims at the sky at the top of your full swing, yet the shot goes straight down the middle because it's square to the arc you're swinging on.' "
Utley downplays his contributions to the game, saying he's merely passing on what he learned as a youngster. His belief is there's no new approach to play golf.
"The ball's been in the ground and people have been swinging a stick at it for a long time," Utley said. "If you swing the stick in a circle, it's going to be easier."
Utley admits many of his years as a struggling pro weren't easy. But as a deeply religious man, he believes he's living out a plan.
"If I had worked for anybody but myself, I'd have been fired four or five years in a row on Tour," he said. "But I wouldn't change a thing. I just happen to be on a roll right now."
The kind of roll where the little white ball of his students keeps disappearing into the hole.
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