Nicole Weller — Head Teaching Professional at The Landings Club in Savannah, Georgia — had the honor in 2013 of being the first teaching pro to have been named both PGA Junior Golf leader and LPGA Junior Golf Leader in the same year. Her interest in teaching golf to kids led her to write “Stick to Sports: Let’s Play Golf.” Almost any four-to-six-year-old child will enjoy this fun and interactive book. (And when I say “child,” I don’t mean the whining crybabies in your foursome.) Get that junior golfer in your life Nicole’s book. In fifteen years or so, they’ll thank you!
Golf Conversations: How did you get introduced to the game?
Nicole Weller: When I was two, my parents moved from NJ to Massachusetts. They built a house near the 10th hole at Heritage Hill Country Club. My dad started playing golf when I was four and I used to caddie for him. Pull his bag. Chase bullfrogs and butterflies. And he’d tell me, “Come on, let’s go to the next hole.”
GC: You were probably too young to be fixing your ball marks, eh?
NW: My dad would have me do that. I grew up looking over my shoulder … pace of play … do things the proper way.
GC: Your dad taught you the proper way to play the game.
NW: I still look over my shoulder when I play. It was a wonderful childhood. We used to play in the winter in Massachusetts. My dad would drill holes into the frozen tee boxes and we’d tee it up. Or he would cut Styrofoam chips and we’d tee off of Styrofoam. If we were hitting over a frozen pond, the rule was to bounce the ball twice on the ice, otherwise you were assessed a one-stroke penalty.
GC: Yes, that’s Rule 489-b which addresses the completion of a stroke over a frozen water hazard. How did you progress in golf? Did you take lessons?
NW: I started taking lessons when I was nine from a wonderful PGA professional, Bob Day, who was at Brockton Country Club. I followed him to Foxborough Country Club. A great mentor; I still speak with him now and then.
I started playing in some Junior League tournaments. Winning trophies was nice. When I was thirteen, fourteen, I was playing in statewide and regional tournaments. AJGA, USGA, Women’s Golf Association events.
I was playing one summer at the Ohio Girls’ Junior Invitational and my future college coach saw me there. I attracted her attention and I ended up going to play at Wake Forest.
NW: My dad and I did a college tour of all the schools that were recruiting me. We drove into Wake – we hadn’t gone even 100 yards … not even a sand wedge, maybe a pitching wedge…
GC: A 9-iron for some of us but go ahead.
NW: He said, “I have a feeling about this place.” It worked out well. I enjoyed it there.
GC: How did you progress with your swing? How did the PGA pro, Mr. Day, teach you? Was there a particular swing theory?
NW: I don’t remember him being a method teacher. When I look back on the teaching, I just remember bits and pieces. I never will forget how he taught me how to hook and slice a ball and I still use it to this day. The image is so vivid. He was never overly technical. We went out on the course a lot. I’ll never forget that he said, “You have to know when to make bogey.” And I’m thinking, “I don’t want to make a bogey. I want to make pars and birdies.” He wasn’t technical at all. Nothing like today’s teaching.
GC: When you were playing in your junior tournaments, did you have your sports psychologist travel with you?
NW: I did not.
GC: How odd!
NW: Which is interesting because I ended up getting my Master’s in Sports Psychology.
GC: Tell me about your time at Wake.
NW: I didn’t play a lot my freshman year.
GC: Who was the coach?
NW: Dianne Dailey; she’s still there. She was AD and coach and now she’s strictly the women’s coach. A wonderful lady. After sophomore year, I kind of blossomed. We made it to the NCAAs my junior year and finished seventh. That was probably my highlight. The last year was wonderful. We won the ACC championship and Coach had us re-qualify for the NCAAs. I missed by two shots to someone named Laura Philo, now Laura Diaz.
GC: What kind of scores were you shooting your senior year?
NW: I was happy to be in the mid-70s back then.
GC: Ah, yes — the mid-70s. A score with which I’m personally not familiar.
You said earlier that your pro taught you how to hook and slice the ball when you were a kid.
NW: Yes, I still teach it exactly the same way.
GC: Ok, you’re gonna have to show me.
NW: I will show you. And I have a club right here. Would you like to see it?
GC: [Nicole produces a small iron, approximately two feet long.] This is a little baby club. That’s probably what I should be playing!
NW: We can use this. It has a club face. [Nicole stands up] I’m gonna point my club where I want the ball to end up. This is to hook the ball. I’m gonna point my feet where I want the ball to start. And I just swing along my stance line. It’s that simple.
GC: I know it is. I’ve seen what you’ve demonstrated a million times. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I just can’t seem to do it.
NW: You have to start with very, very small swings.
GC: Small swings?
NW: Exaggerate. And whatever your right hand does, the club face will do. You have to feel that shot before you hit it.
You have to go back to feel. How many times have you’ve seen someone who has a gorgeous rehearsal swing … and then hit at the ball. I want them to swing with the ball in the way.
GC: No hitting.
NW: I think it’s a swing. Some people think it’s a hit. Whatever works for you. You’ve got to find the magic word that works for you.
GC: I think that was/is my problem. When I started reading all the golf instruction books and articles 20 years ago, I would think very carefully about the words the author used.
NW: Words mean something to you…
GC: When I would read, “You want to feel your left shoulder going under your chin..”
NW: Maybe for that person.
GC: Maybe for that person. Sam Snead and his “hold the live bird in your hands” theory.
NW: Great image for him.
GC: For me, to simulate that feeling, I am barely holding on to the club and it’s flopping around like wet linguine.
NW: That’s what those words meant to you. You have to own what the words mean to you. My coach used to use the image of a tube of toothpaste…
GC: Oh, not that one!
NW: You have to find what works for you. I love S.N.A.G.: “Starting New At Golf.” They have the big, plastic head clubs. I’ve been using it for over 10 years and I love it.
Consistency is very important in instruction. Will we ever get there in golf? I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ve gone too far. Every teacher has a style, whether they realize it or not. But there isn’t much consistency. It’s a big sport.
I don’t know of any other sport that has so many books and teaching aids and training aids. But what a wonderful game! You and I have met because of it.
GC: Yes, indeed. And I’m very interested to hear how you teach the game to the kids. But first tell me what happened after you graduated from Wake Forest.
NW: I wasn’t a cream-of-the-crop player so I knew the Tour wasn’t for me. I applied to grad schools for sports psychology and ended up at the University of Tennessee/Knoxville.
GC: Sports psychology, eh? While you were applying, did you concentrate on the process and not the results?
NW: While in Tennessee, I got a job in the bag room at Cherokee Country Club, a Donald Ross design from 1907. After graduation, I stayed at Cherokee and moved into the Assistant’s position. I was working the bag room, the range, and teaching. Then I entered into the LPGA and the PGA.
GC: How did you know how to teach golf?
NW: I would look for clues that gave me a bit of insight into the student’s personality. For example, is a student’s golf bag organized or disheveled? You look for cues.
GC: I have a cue for you. It’s a dead giveaway: iron head covers. A teaching pro once told me that when he sees a student with head covers on his irons, he’s good for at least five lessons!
NW: Or a double-sided chipper.
GC: They still make that?
NW: Oh, yes.
GC: Hmm, I’ve got to look for one of those on eBay. So you went through the LPGA and the PGA. Those are some impressive credentials. You know, you don’t see male PGA members go through the LPGA program.
NW: Some do. It’s a very good program. It’s good for the guys.
GC: I’m not talking about the guys who wear culottes.
NW: I understand. Whatever they want to wear.
GC: What year were you in graduate school?
NW: I graduated in ’95.
GC: Then what?
NW: A position was offered to me at Fairways and Greens Golf Center in Knoxville. It was a wonderful learning facility.
I also took over the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program. We have a lot of chapters; over 200 across the country. I took it over from George Newbeck and we grew it to over 80 girls. I was honored to be president of that organization.
GC: As Alex Trebek would say on Jeopardy, “I understand you met your husband in an unusual way. Tell us about it.”
NW: I met Ty while we were going through our PGA Level 2 testing. It was very fortuitous. I was lucky to meet him.
GC: NO! He was lucky to meet you!
NW: We dated for a year on the phone.
GC: Where was he living?
NW: Topeka, Kansas. We met in Columbus, Ohio at the PGA Level 2 testing.
GC: How long were you in Columbus?
NW: 4 or 5 days.
GC: How did you and Ty meet?
NW: It was right before our test and I was sitting there reading an Anne Rice book. And I saw him and we were checking each other out.
GC: So you had the long distance phone thing going on. When did you decide to actually meet?
NW: He came out to visit me in Knoxville, saw Fairways and Greens, played some golf. He introduced me to beef jerky – his mom makes it. It’s incredible.
GC: I’ll need mom’s address.
So who’s the better golfer?
NW: Whoever has the lower score, Robert.
GC: Are you two competitive people?
NW: He’s extremely competitive. I’m very laid back. We have very different styles. He can egg me on and I’ll just do my thing. We played in some pro-pros. His style is, “Let’s get some birdies, come on!” And I’m like, “I’ll just hit my ball down the middle.”
GC: I’m like you. Except I can’t hit it down the middle.
NW: We complement each other.
GC: It’s a great golf love story.
NW: We went back and forth visiting each other. I knew the first time he came to Knoxville … when he was leaving I thought, “I’m gonna marry that guy.” He proposed in ’99. We were getting ready to tee off at the course where he worked. I was digging around in my bag at the first tee, getting all my stuff out. All of sudden, I hear on the P.A., “Next on the Number One tee, Weller and the future Mrs. Weller.” And he’s down on his knee at the tee.
He ended up hitting a shot off the tee that went a little bit left.
GC: That’s the good player’s miss. You should have been happy a slicer didn’t propose to you.
NW: We had honeymooned at Kiawah and liked that area. We started looking around and ended up in Savannah, Georgia at The Landings Club. We’ve been there ten years now.
I became the Head Teaching professional and Ty became one of the Head Pros. We have four Head Pros.
GC: You know what they say: Four heads are better than one. Sorry.
NW: So we’re at the same course and the same golf shop. We don’t answer to each other. We answer to our Director of Golf. I’m hardly there; I’m outside most of the time. It’s really cool to work with Ty. I’m very proud of him as a golf professional. I listen to him interact with the membership. I could not do what he does: spread sheets and budgets and bottom lines. He’s excited about that. I’m excited about teaching. It’s so cool when you see your students “get it.”
GC: Tell me about your book and how you got involved with the kids.
NW: I do a lot of rewards systems with kids. I like having a little “treasure box”: if they do something well or answer the questions correctly, they get to pick out of my treasure box.
I was using smiley-face stickers that the kids would put on a card when they achieved one of their goals. And they got to keep the card at the end. So I thought, “You know, I should write a sticker book.” I took about a year to research it and didn’t see any books that used stickers as rewards.
After chatting with lots of people, I decided to self-publish the book. I put some of my money in it. I found an illustrator. I found a local printer. I wanted it to be made in the USA. Most of the sticker books are made overseas.
GC: What’s the name of the book? And when was it published?
NW: Stick to Sports: Let’s Play Golf. It came out in June, 2011. It was better than Christmas times ten getting that book in my hands! Marketing it has been a whole different story.
GC: That’s the hard part.
NW: It’s very, very hard to get it out there. I partnered up with “Little Linksters,” run by Brendon Elliott, a PGA member. And Kris Wilson at “The Littlest Golfer” and they’ve been very, very good to me.
GC: Can you buy the book online?
NW: Yes, you can purchase it at my website. I also have some games on there that kids can print out: Sudoku Golf, Find A Word … I want kids thinking about golf outside the golf atmosphere.
Another reason why I wrote the book is when I watch adults work with kids on the range, they have the adult mentality. They forget how to be a kid. A kid cannot rationalize like them … or focus.
GC: I see that all the time on the range … fathers berating kids to “keep their head down, keep the left arm straight.” All that nonsense.
NW: Mine is, “One-two, show your shoe.” “Tick-tock, swing the clock.” And we talk about the history of the game, the attire, the equipment, sunscreen. When you leave me after a lesson, you shake hands with me.
GC: Take your hat off?
NW: Hats come off and you have to tell me what color my eyes are.
GC: Baby blue, Nicole. And I take my hat off to you for the great work you do with the kids and growing the game of golf.
NW: Thank you.