In this interview, I had the pleasure of chatting with Heidi Mitchell, an LPGA golf professional with over 26 years of experience in teaching golf. We spoke about her career path, her specialized training, and her top tips for golfers eager to improve their game. I met Heidi in Georgia, as a golf student myself. I sought out golf lessons not only to improve my swing, but also to enhance my understanding of the game to better help my physical therapy patients who are golfers. Heidi’s instruction is detailed, coming from expertise, creativity, and (maybe most importantly) fun. We are both Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) certified: Heidi as a golf teaching professional, and myself as a medical practitioner. This education gives us a common language and strategy to help golfers stay healthy, active, and at the top of their game.
How did you become a golf pro?
Heidi: I grew up in a small town and my Mom’s grandparents owned a golf course, so it has been in my family from the start. When they died they passed the golf course to the municipality and said anyone in the family from here on out is granted a lifetime membership, so I got free golf – a luxury! Over the summer I remember my parents would drop me off at the golf course in the morning and pick me up at the end of the day.
Back then you didn’t make a tee time, it was first come first serve. If you were there by yourself they’d pair you with other golfers. I would always go out by myself and end up playing with three older guys (like 73-year old men) and here I was 10 or 11-years old. And I could tell they were thinking, “Ugh, here we are stuck with some girl, some little girl.” I’d bust it off the first tee and they’d say wow! And by the end of the round we were buds. I loved it.
I played through high school and had a great high school career. I blew my knee out my senior year of high school which took me out of competitive golf. I turned down a full ride to Purdue because I wanted to play golf year-round in the south, so I tried out in college as a walk-on. A year and a day after I blew my knee out my senior year in high school, I blew it out again. But I still wanted to try to play. This was the pivotal point. I wanted to try to get on the team, but the coach was tough and I didn’t agree with her philosophy which was “if you’re not one of my top five players, I won’t even remember your name.” So you didn’t get any nurturing or coaching. I didn’t make the team, and that led me to go another path into teaching.
I started teaching in Boca Raton at a public facility and then my boss got me a job up in Chicago at a country club. I was teaching very wealthy and very famous people – and they were listening to me. And I thought, “Holy Cow!” They could go anywhere, and afford anyone, they belong to this country club, and they’re listening to me. That was really exciting. That was the beginning of my path as a golf pro and I loved it.
What courses or certifications have you taken that have helped shape your work as a golf pro?
Heidi: With the LPGA you are required to complete an apprenticeship before you take an evaluation to become certified as a golf pro. Once certified you start as Class B, then Class A and then a Master. In order to get these certifications it requires book work and then evaluations. The evaluation requires you to travel around the country to three of the top instructors in the LPGA. You teach a 30 minute evaluation in front of each of them where you need to identify, describe and prescribe a way to fix the student’s game. You didn’t have to actually fix the student because that’s not fair; that can take longer than 30 minutes. Typically you would go back through the same process to get your Class A certification, but I got to fast track because I scored high enough on Class B that I went directly to Class A. And that’s because I was passionate about it; I studied, I practiced and I continued studying.
You still need to get non-LPGA and LPGA credits in order to maintain your license. I work with the Ladybug for Girls Foundation which is an organization that offers wellness, exercise and nutrition programs for young women in the metro Atlanta area. I help out with their golf program. Working in Adaptive Golf also counts toward these credits (we’ll talk more about that later). And I take other classes and seminars. I also have my US Kids Certification which is more classroom work, hands on practice, and understanding the equipment. And that helps prepare you to work with kids. You could make this a full-time job out of working with kids on the golf course if you wanted.
I know the TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) certification is one that has been really helpful for me in understanding my work with golfers as a physical therapist. What is your experience with the TPI training and how has it influenced your work as a golf pro?
Heidi: I am a Level 2 certified TPI instructor. My TPI training has helped me figure out the ‘why’ behind something in a client’s swing. For example, a client may come in for a lesson and I see they are coming over the top in his/her swing and they say, “Ugh, I’m terrible, I know what I’m doing wrong but I can’t fix it.” So I can do one of the TPI tests – the 90/90 external rotation shoulder test – and I see they are limited in shoulder mobility. That allows me to say, “Well, you can’t NOT come over the top – you can’t fix that in your swing without fixing that in your body.” Mentally this can be tough because they still feel like a failure at the time. But then they have the opportunity to say, “How can I fix this? Should I go to a physical therapist? A chiropractor? A massage therapist? Do I need surgery? Maybe I should stretch!” So you can give them more options on how to address the issue in their body. Then as a golf pro you don’t feel like you’re trying to prescribe a diagnosis or exercises because it’s not my job to prescribe. I can help guide them to who may be able to help them work on the issue. I like to say that if you pour sugar in your gas tank, your engine isn’t going to run very well. You need your engine to be in good shape – in this case, the engine is your body. There is another great analogy with car racing. Like a race car with a pit team. As a golfer, you have a team – it’s not just you and your instructor. It’s your mental coach, strength coach, physical therapist; it’s a whole team.
The TPI information has enabled us as golf instructors to do the testing to say “this is why you can’t do this – you can’t physically do it in your body. It’s not because you can’t learn how or you can’t figure out the concept. Your body just can’t physically do this right now.” That perspective, mixed in with the adaptive golf program, has helped me talk to my clients about ways to work around these limitations. If we do the testing and find out your hips don’t turn this way, maybe we need to flare your foot out to compensate. The client may say that they don’t want to do that – that they don’t want to look like Daffy Duck. And I can say, “Well maybe not, but if your hip flexors are tight and we can’t get this hip rotation to get you to bring your arms back, here’s the outcome you’ll have. But if we make this modification, then we can have this better outcome.” They start to understand why we can’t all look like the same golfer. Your swing is going to be a combination of what you learned, how you were brought up, and what your body is capable of doing.
I know you do some unique work with the Adaptive Golf Program, which you hinted at before. How has your involvement in this program impacted your work as a golf pro?
Heidi: It has really helped me learn to be creative. Dave Windsor has done such a great job with this program through the GSGA. It is a complimentary program for those with physical, cognitive or sensory impairments, so I am constantly asking people in the community if they have heard of it and want to try it. But back to the creativity, one of my favorite things to say in a lesson is, “Wow, I’ve never tried this before!” And while no one wants to be a guinea pig, it’s about doing what makes sense in that moment with that person and their body. And sometimes that’s something you haven’t done before.
When I was in college I was in classes in a gym where on the other side there was the coursework for PTs and OTs in rehabilitative medicine. At that time I really struggled to see people with injuries or disabilities because it made me really sad. And I thought, “Wow, it takes a special person to be able to work with that population.” And now after working in the Adaptive Golf Program I am really interested in what prosthetic or assistive device someone has and learning more about it to better understand them. I like to ask questions about these things. And the people I talk to in our program are usually happy to talk about what they have overcome and are proud of what they can do. And that is amazing.
You have to understand some of these people just want to make the ball move. I have worked with a man where I pull his arms back and on the count of three I let go and he hits the ball. He was thrilled he did it and played golf. Some people may look and say, “That’s not golf.” But yes it is! It’s fantastic.
Do you have a particular type of client you are most excited to work with?
Heidi: It’s going to sound a little funny, but it’s not the person that hits the best shots or improves the most. It’s the person that’s most excited by what they’ve done. I love to see people get better, but when you have someone hit a shot and it goes 100 yards with their driver and they are to the moon, THAT is the person I really like working with. I like working with beginners, which a lot of instructors do not. But in my world the beginner is like a field of weeds. If you mow it one time, boy does it look better. Then the advanced player is like a really good looking yard…and you have to make it look even better. There’s not that much room for improvement. It’s still very rewarding when you have a really great player that comes back and says, “Wow, what we did in our last lesson really made a difference. The swing feels easier, my shots are crisper. I’m still scoring about the same but I’m doing it in a different way and it feels better.” But again, that’s the person who’s excited about the change. And that’s what I really enjoy.
What makes a good golfer a great golfer? When you take out the stupid shots, it’s not about hitting the incredible high draw over the trees onto the green and leaving yourself a two-foot putt. It’s taking away the, “Oh, I toed it off the tip of the club and rolled it into the water.” Because that will add three shots to your game. We take horrible shots to bad, bad to good, and good to great. We don’t try to take horrible to great. We want to slowly progress and take away the shots that are adding to your score.
I imagine you might have started working with some new clients during the pandemic since people are more drawn to golf as an outdoor, distanced sport. What are three pointers you have for a beginner starting out on the golf course?
1. Lessons: Getting the instruction is first and foremost because golf is so counterintuitive. For example, hitting down through the shot actually makes the ball go up. That isn’t intuitive to most people. It’s important to give a little bit of knowledge and insight on what we’re trying to create with a golf swing.
2. Equipment that fits: People don’t always understand how important this is. My best analogy is if you wear a size 9 shoe and you want to go and run a 5k but you only have an 8.5, you can still run it but you’re not going to run it at your best. If we have to compensate for poor equipment, that changes your body and your motion and your function. The more you practice with ill-fitted equipment, the more you practice being in the wrong position.
3. Make sure you have time to work on what you want to achieve AND make your goals attainable (that’s a two-parter!) If you don’t have the time to put into practicing, don’t expect as much – and that’s OK, but this is where making goals attainable comes in. Make your goals consistent with the amount of time you have to practice. Golf isn’t like riding a bike where once you’ve learned it it sticks with you for life. Your swing changes, your body changes, you have to keep playing. You are going to walk away from the game if you think the goal is to hit the flag every time. You want to get your drive on the fairway, get your approach shot on the green, then get the approach shot on the right half of the green, etc. You want the goal to be attainable but still a challenge.
But always know it should be fun, or you’re not going to want to do it. What makes it fun is success. Success is going to come from the right equipment and getting you to do what you need to do – which is your job and my job together.
If someone wants to get in touch with you for lessons, what is the best way to do that?
Heidi: You can reach me by texting (678) 637-2802. That is the easiest way for me to get back to you between lessons. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org but my cell phone is best!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.