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Mark Blackburn Takes the Lead as Golf Digest's Best Teacher in America

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For more than two decades, legendary golf instructor Butch Harmon inhabited the top spot in Golf Digest’s prestigious 50 Best Teachers in America biennial ranking. From 2002, when he was first selected, through 2023, he was designated as the nation’s best by his fellow teaching professionals every time the vote was held.

Ever since he first gained recognition as the swing coach for noted PGA stars of the 80s and 90s, players like Steve Elkington, Greg Norman, Davis Love III, and several others, Harmon became known as the teacher who could make great players even better. And, of course, his mentorship of Tiger Woods in the late 90s, when Tiger began his domination of the sport,
confirmed Harmon’s greatness and accelerated his route to the top of the coaching ranks. Being named as Golf Digest’s Best Teacher in America in 2002 confirmed what many in the game already knew.

Mark Blackburn Takes Over the Top Spot

As of December 2023, there is now a new name at the top of that list. When more than 3,000 teaching professionals submitted their votes last month, Greystone Golf and Country Club’s own Mark Blackburn was selected as the new No. 1 Best Teacher in America. This is a tremendous honor for Mark and a validation of all the many years in which he has dedicated himself to excelling and improving.

Being acknowledged in this way, by an endorsement from his peers, is perhaps the purest form of recognition and signified that others in the field truly respect and admire his ability and incredible work ethic.

In accepting the award, Mark graciously paid tribute to the man who had preceded him as Best Teacher. “It’s an honor to follow Butch Harmon as No.1,” he said. He’s the undisputed G.O.A.T., and he’s done it without a method. He teaches golf, not a set kind of golf swing, and all his players have done it differently. That’s something I’ve tried to pattern myself after.”

Blackburn’s Teaching Philosophy Similar to Harmon’s

In fact, that is a concept that has defined Mark’s teaching career. In discussing his coaching philosophy over the years, he has repeatedly stated that there isn’t one single method or swing style for all golfers. He believes that it is essential to develop a repeatable motion based on each student’s own unique movement patterns.

And as Mark correctly noted, Butch Harmon also follows a similar philosophy. In commenting on his own style, Harmon said “I’ve always believed that as teachers, we have a choice. We can either teach golf to people, or teach people to play golf. I’ve always done the latter because every student is different. We’re not robots, and there’s no swing or method that works across the board.

Notice the similarity? Two great coaches of a single mind on this vital concept. Perhaps this approach is at the heart of what it takes to be a great teacher.

Similar But Different

Although there are obvious parallels in the core philosophies of these two top teachers, there are also distinguishing characteristics in how they work with their students.

Harmon, having been raised in the game back in the 60s and 70s, prior to the advent of the launch monitors that are used today to analyze ball flight, etc., can be thought of as a bit more ”old school” in his approach to teaching. Although he will make use of technology to some extent, his primary emphasis is drawn from his decades of experience and what he sees with his own eyes. In talking about his early days as an instructor, prior to the introduction of high-tech equipment, he said “We had our eyes, and the ball is the ultimate teacher. If you watch what the ball does, it tells you the clubface angle and the swing path at impact, and those are the biggest things.” To a large extent, he still teaches this way.

Mark Blackburn, on the other hand, has adopted a more “new age” coaching methodology. He is apt to incorporate a more comprehensive and holistic approach to teaching that incorporates aspects of biomechanics, kinesiology, and psychology. Discussions with Mark about the golf swing, for example, often flow seamlessly into discussions about modern concepts like the Kinematic Sequence or ground reaction forces. He is constantly seeking new ways to learn and better ways to communicate that learning to his students.

And yet, his emphasis on individualizing each student interaction remains paramount. To Mark, the starting point of working with any new student must be movement screening: “I’m very passionate that screening is one thing that is really needed when you’re playing or coaching golf. You need to assess them, understand how they move, and what their predisposition is.” Knowing their movement tendencies, but just as importantly understanding their movement limitations, enables him to customize an improvement plan for each student. As he put it, “You’re always trying to build a golf swing around what people can do as opposed to what they can’t do.”

Just as no two golfers are the same, it’s also true that no two instructors are the same either. Both Harmon and Blackburn have reached the apex of the teaching profession, and although they have similar core philosophies, they each bring their own unique style to how they work with students.

A Career of Regional and National Awards

In a way, despite the monumental achievement of being named as the Best Teacher in America, Mark has for years been on a steady path that seemed to herald this level of acclaim. Over the past 15 years, he has been honored with numerous regional and national awards:

  1. Alabama/NW Florida Section PGA Teacher of the Year (2008, 2009, 2010, 2015)
  2. Finalist for the PGA National Teacher of the Year (2010-2014, 2016)
  3. PGA Teacher of the Year (2020)
  4. Golf Magazine Top-100 Teacher
  5. One of Golf Digest’s Top 50 Best Teachers in America (#27)
  6. Named by Golf Channel as “Hottest Coach on Tour” (2023)

Final Thoughts

When you have as much talent as Mark has and you have a demonstrated record of guiding several PGA players to greater success, it’s not surprising when word spreads and other pros call for help. Just as Butch Harmon became known as a teacher who could make great players better, Mark Blackburn is developing a similar reputation.

He has worked with many PGA pros over the past decade (players such as Justin Rose, Charley Hoffman, Chez Reavie, Trey Mullinax, Kevin Chappell, Harris English, Heath Slocum, Hudson Swafford, Robert Karlsson, and others), and his current stable now includes among them two prominent stars who are ranked in the top echelon on Tour: Max Homa (World #7) and Collin Morikawa (World #12).

Homa’s relationship with Mark has been well documented, as has his significantly improved ranking since they began working together. In 2022, he was ranked 17 th in the world, and with Mark’s guiding hand, he has climbed into the Top 10, where he has now remained for 49 consecutive weeks. The two seem to make a great pair, and Homa’s recent improved play is dramatic evidence that Mark is making a huge difference in his performance. Collin Morikawa just recently made the decision to switch to Mark as his coach right before the Ryder Cup last year, after working with his prior swing coach for 20 years! Has it made a difference in Morikawa’s play? After going through a bit of a slump over the past two years, he won October’s 2023 Zozo Championship after just one month of working with Mark. It’s clear that Mark Blackburn is one of the top swing coaches in the world and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he repeats as Best Teacher in America again in the future.

Featured photo credit: Golf Digest

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