Forging His Own Trail in Teaching

James Sieckmann of Nebraska takes road rarely traveled in developing unique techniques for tour professionals, players of all skill levels

Teaching strategies are often based on timeless beliefs and basics shared by professionals of yesteryear, with slight modifications made to reflect contemporary times and technology. But 2018 PGA Teacher of the Year James Sieckmann took a road rarely traveled in developing his short game and instruction philosophy.

Sieckmann has researched and shaped his own “I didn’t really have mentors in teaching, but I pretty much developed my own thoughts and methods through experience,” notes Sieckmann, a 23-year PGA Member in the Nebraska PGA Section and the PGA Director of Instruction at The Golf Academy at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha.

Player Turns Instructor

Sieckmann began forging his instruction and swing philosophies during his college career at the University of Nebraska, followed by four-plus years on the Asian Tour and in South America. His aspirations were to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Tom Sieckmann, who enjoyed an 11-year career on the PGA Tour that included a victory. While the 2018 PGA Teacher of the Year didn’t directly emulate any renowned teachers, his brother Tom was a positive influence and life mentor.

“I didn’t really have mentors in teaching, but I did have a great mentor when it came to trying to improve as a player and person in my oldest brother, Tom,” assures the 54-year-old Sieckmann. “He (Tom) is very cerebral, well read and a provocative thinker. He turned me on to many great books, such as ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin. I developed a thirst for learning and growing, and a belief that with the right mindset, you can learn something useful from almost every experience.

“The keys to high performance are essentially the same in every arena. You can read a business book, for example, and learn something that will help your golf game or coaching.”

When the younger Sieckmann’s playing career yielded modest results, he turned to teaching for the Dave Pelz Golf Schools.

“After I quit playing, I worked for a year and a half for Dave Pelz in his schools. I was exposed to new ideas there and gained experience, but I realized that I didn’t really know what great technique was in the short game,” explains Sieckmann. “When presented the opportunity to start my own academy back in Omaha, I jumped at the chance.”

Sieckmann had a four-month break before becoming a full-time instructor at his own academy, so he decided to caddie for his brother at The Players Championship in 1994. It was that experience associating with the greatest players in the game that helped Sieckmann form his unique teaching philosophies, especially those fundamentals regarding the short game.

He may have been wearing the caddie bib with his and his brother’s name on the back, but Sieckmann also was on a fact-finding mission.

Ballesteros Serves as Model

“One of my brother’s good friends on tour was (the late) Seve Ballesteros, so I decided to take my video camera and record every short game shot Seve hit over two days of practice,” recalls Sieckmann, a nine- time Nebraska PGA Section Teacher of the Year.

“I wasn’t convinced that the short game fundamentals we had all been taught for so many years was the way the best short game players were actually doing it.”

In addition to Seve, Sieckmann videotaped Corey Pavin, Raymond Floyd, Jodie Mudd, Wayne Grady and others.

“My plan was to wipe the slate clean, study what the great players did and simply use my conclusions as the basis for what I would teach when I started my own academy,” he explains. “My philosophy as far as technique has changed very little over the years. But it has evolved to give great importance to the more human experience of how people learn, developing and maintaining positive emotion, and gaining maximum value from the time invested in training.”

Like many top-flight players and professionals, Sieckmann had been taught that the short game swing was a miniature version of the full swing, with hands ahead of the clubhead. But when he reviewed the videotapes closely of Ballesteros and the game’s other leading short game experts, he discovered several discrepancies.

Ballesteros, a master at controlling the clubface on all shots, was swinging the club past his body on short shots and seemingly breaking many of the traditional “rules” for short game success. Sieckmann saw creativity in how the touring professionals approached the short game and quickly developed sound techniques that virtually any golfer could emulate.

“What I teach today, and what I have taught for many years, was born from the videos I took at The Players Championship way back in 1994,” reveals Sieckmann, who was inducted into the Nebraska Golf Hall of Fame in 2016. “The techniques are those used by some of the greatest short game players in history, but they are what they actually did – not necessarily what they said they did.

“It’s nearly impossible for the average player to copy the full swing of a tour player. They don’t have the mobility or the power to do that. But they can copy the best way the tour professionals dial it in from inside 40 yards.”

Pernice Jr. was First Client

Another of his brother’s buddies on the PGA Tour, Tom Pernice Jr., ultimately became Sieckmann’s first full-time student. And soon the floodgates opened.

“Sieckmann maintained a low profile compared to other renowned instructors, but as word spread about his short game genius, his client list began to grow. Over the years, Sieckmann has taught more than 50 tour professionals worldwide, including Stewart Cink, Ben Crane, Charley Hoffman, Skip Kendall, Anirban Lahiri, Ben Martin, Patrick Reed, Cameron Tringale, Bob Tway, Duffy Waldorf, Nick Watney, Charlie Wi and 2017 Ricoh Women’s British Open Champion In-Kyung Kim.

“Tom Pernice Jr. was the first pro player who called me coach,” confirms Sieckmann. “He has an amazing short game. We played in Asia together and after I quit, he moved on to the Hogan Tour and called me to ask for help. I have been his coach for the past 23 years.

“Tom has been a huge supporter and been a big part of my success. He is the one, during our first year, who spread the word and helped me land Charlie Wi and Skip Kendall as clients. I still work with both.”

Sieckmann enjoys working with players of all skill levels, but admits working with tour players provides a special sense of accomplishment when they do well.

“Coaching a tour player is a bit different than coaching most amateurs in that they can pretty much do anything you ask them in the first minute or two,” he says. “The results will quickly show if you know what you are talking about. You also have to be aware that they may be competing in a tour event the next day, so with all students, the simpler you can make it the better for the student.

“I keep track of all of the tour players I work with. When they have success, I feel successful. It’s nice to feel like you contributed in some way to their success.”

Sieckmann Success Stories

Sieckmann began working with In-Kyung Kim in 2011, and when she won the British Open in 2017, she sent a nice thank you note to him.

“She is amazingly gifted and a sweet, caring human being,” Sieckmann says. “You live vicariously through your players’ performances. Poor play can be frustrating and wins like her Ricoh British Open Championship are happy moments. But at the end of the day as a teacher, you realize you’ve never had to hit a shot and you can’t rest on what has happened in the past.

“Every day, someone is counting on you to make a real, lasting difference in their game. Just like I ask from my players, I just try to live in the present and not think too much about what any of it means.”

When Ben Crane was struggling with his short game in 2009, Titleist Performance Institute Co- Founder Dr. Greg Rose advised him to see Pernice.

“I just told Ben to see my coach, James Sieck- mann,” remembers Pernice. “I told him that he was the best short game instructor in the business, and they got together. Let’s just say Ben’s short game improved by 1,000 percent.”

Indeed, just a month after his session with Sieckmann, Crane won the 2010 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on his way to a career high in season winnings with $2.8 million.

Sieckmann and his brother Tom grew up in a golfing family. “My mother would go to the local par-3 course to play and bring me and my brother along with her. We would take turns standing on the back of her pull cart while she played,” recalls Sieckmann. “I honestly don’t remember learning how to play. It’s just something we always did.”

As a high school student, Sieckmann worked in the bag room at Highland Country Club in Omaha, where PGA Professional Steve Shanahan mentored him in the golf business.

“Steve had a great manner and forged great relationships with the members,” says Sieckmann, the 2000 Nebraska PGA Section Horton Smith Award winner. “He showed me the value of hard work, taught me to be detail oriented, and to always try to improve my craft.

“Though I had gap years doing other things, I have worked for him ever since. He is the owner of the facility, Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, where I have been the PGA Director of Instruction for nearly 25 years.”

Sharing Information on Teaching

Sieckmann, who has authored two books on the short game and is listed on Golf Digest’s “Top 50 Teachers in America,” is a big believer in sharing information, ideas and philosophies with other PGA Professionals and teachers for the benefit of students of all skill levels.

“I’ve made a conscious effort to share all I know with other PGA Professionals and golfers every- where,” explains Sieckmann. “I like to do that partly because that didn’t seem to be the prevalent attitude when I first became a PGA Member 23 years ago.”

Sieckmann says he has shared not only through my books and articles, but also quite often present- ing at PGA Section education events.

“When I first starting sharing my beliefs in the short game, it was met with many sideways glances, because it wasn’t always what PGA Professionals were used to seeing and hearing,” he says. “Two decades later, most of my concepts are widely accepted, which is more gratifying than any win by one of my tour clients.”

Sieckmann, who co-founded and developed The Speed Stik, a training aid that simultaneously improves balance, flexibility, technique and strength and has been used by many of the best players in the world — including endorsee Vijay Singh) — has seen technology alter the teaching landscape to some degree.

“As equipment has changed — such as driver materials and design, the ball, shafts and wedge groove rules — technique has changed right along with it. So we are all evolving,” notes Sieckmann. “The biggest difference in teaching now than when I started is the technology and the relative ease of measuring and communicating complicated topics to your students.

“Technology is not going away. The trick is to use it correctly, so students can learn easily and keep it simple in their mind.”

Still Enjoys Teaching

A passion for teaching still burns in Sieckmann, who normally works four days a week at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha and travels to various tour sites to work with professionals the rest of week for much of the year.

“I wake up every day excited to go to work,” assures Sieckmann. “Being a great coach to me is like putting a puzzle together. Every student’s personality, body, learning style, training habits and commitment level is so different; so every lesson is completely different, which is awesome. Every day is a new challenge.”

Looking back, Sieckmann savors his playing days and believes his brief career as a playing professional better prepared him to become an effective teacher. He is also devoted to continue learning himself, always looking for new ways and new techniques to play better golf, especially in the short game.

“Playing for a living helped for sure, as well as being around many elite professional players over the years,” says Sieckmann. “Though this is a long, difficult track to take, it has added commitment and resolve to what I do.

“Over the past eight years, I have had a great symbiotic relationship with the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI), serving on their Advisory Board. Today, I learn mostly by reading, listening to TED Talks, and having casual conversations with other PGA Members.”

Humility is one of Sieckmann’s primary traits. He doesn’t promote his teaching business outside the club in Omaha, relying largely on word of mouth if a tour professional or top-flight player wants to work with him. But since his selection as the 2018 PGA Teacher of the Year, he has been receiving numerous calls, texts and letters.

“Being selected as PGA Teacher of the Year is a great honor because there are thousands of other smart, gifted teachers doing what I do,” says Sieckmann. “It’s very humbling.

“On the other hand, I try not to let external rewards or opinions affect me much. Like when you play, you need to focus on what you can control. Hopefully, I’ll be remembered by my involvement with The Speed Stik, the books I have written, and the short game performance keys other PGA Members have adopted and are sharing with their students. Hopefully, someday they will say I was a ‘giver.’”

Sieckmann is a giver, indeed. And an exemplary teacher who blazed his own trail by conducting his own research to determine successful teaching techniques and short game philosophies.