Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Legitimate Golf Profiles: Evan Silkworth

I met Evan a few years ago at Dyker Beach GC in Brooklyn. At the time he was teaching middle school in the NYC public school system. A former collegiate golfer, he still had some game even though he wasn't working on it very much. We played some fun twilight rounds, and had some really good matches and nassau bets despite the huge disparity between our respective games.

Now, Evan has moved on from the thankless world of public school education, while still remaining true to his calling. He's now the head pro at Marine Park. He founded the Silkworth Golf Academy here a few years ago, is a TaylorMade staff pro and clubfitter, and is also a certified Trackman analyst. As of this year he's also running the pro shop, which is the best pro shop I've seen at an NYC golf course.

Usually when I'm at Marine Park I'll see Evan out on the range, or on the practice green, helping people with their games. What's remarkable to me is that these people represent a broad scope of humanity--men, women and kids. And a broad scope of abilities, from the most pitiful of newbies to kids who go on to compete at the collegiate and national levels.

It really is remarkable. I write often about the "ghetto golf" aspect of New York City, and there is a lot of truth to it, but when I see Evan doing his thing it gives me a whole different slant on the situation. That maybe there is more to golf in Brooklyn than the society of shlubby overweight middle-aged a-holes that I'm used to. It reminds me that golf really is for everyone, even in NYC.

So I ventured out to Marine Park and sat down with him to catch up and perhaps to get some inside perspective on the NY golf experience, and on why golfers tend to suck.

Legitimate Golf: How did you start playing?

It was almost a cliche. I was about 13, I was cleaning out the basement of one of my parents' rental properties and found a bag of clubs in there, and I started swinging this 3-wood, this old wooden 3-wood. I just started swinging it around, you know, having a good time, and it felt pretty good. I was hitting rocks and crap around the backyard.

And then I went out one day with my uncle, and the first shot I ever hit was in a schoolyard. We teed a ball up and I just nailed that 3-wood, like 200 yards on a rope, just blitzed it off the side of the building. So my uncle was like "OK, I guess we're going to a driving range." Right after that I stopped playing baseball, and my swim coach, who was also the golf coach was like, "Hey, come on out for the golf team!" and then it was off to the races from there. In the summer between eighth and ninth grade I started going to the driving range a lot, and I just fell in love with it.

LG: So it was almost by chance, that you got into it. And you got obsessed with it fairly quickly?

Yeah. I started working as a bag boy at a private club, you know, cleaning clubs, pulling carts around, picking the range, that kind of crap. But then you got to hit free range balls, and play the course for free sometimes. And that was kind of my introduction to the golf business.

LG: How'd you get into teaching golf?

I've always liked the teaching side of pretty much anything, so naturally I went to college to be a schoolteacher. But I still worked at golf courses throughout high school and in college, and even right after college while I was pursuing an education career.

But after a couple of years of teaching I started to miss golf, and I wanted to get back into it. Came out here to Marine Park and started working behind the counter in the pro shop. And I just started giving out free tips to the people here, and they're like, "Man, you're really good at this, you helped my game!" and then my client base just kind of snowballed from there. Then I also started teaching with Hunter [another pro at MPGC]; the two of us taught a bunch of clinics here and stuff.

LG: Who are some of your influences, golfwise?

I think if anyone says that Tiger didn't have any influence on them, they're lying. I mean, he shaped the modern game so drastically. Favorite swing? There's something about Payne Stewart. I remember watching him win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst #2, and the whole week... the raw emotion that he played with, and of course that final putt. He has one of the most beautiful swings I've ever seen. I definitely like Phil too. He's inspiring, kind of the modern Arnold Palmer. There's something about that, the man of the people thing, that I'm very drawn to.

LG: What is the best thing about being a golf instructor?


LG: If you need some time to think that over, I understand.

Well, it's hard because there's no one thing that's the best. But as a teacher, watching your student succeed is very rewarding. That's gotta be up there.

LG: Specifically, adults or kids?

Anybody. Sometimes adults are even more fun than kids. Because kids kind of expect to do well, as well as mess up, so they don't really set expectations for themselves. Adults are like Oh my god, this is so hard, I can't do this. I tried this once on my own. It's gonna be a disaster! But then you help them a little bit, and they do better than they ever thought possible, and you really see them light up.

Another thing that's really rewarding for me is the opportunity to be creative. You can look at the student in front of you, you do a little diagnosis, an analysis of what he or she's doing, and then you get to create an ideal lesson, on the spot. It keeps you sharp because you're pulling from all the things you've ever read, and practiced, and worked with, and seen and heard from other pro's, and you're taking all the bits and pieces that are perfect for that one person and adapting all of it to make the lesson work. And that inventive side of it, which the student is completely blind to, is for me a lot of fun.

LG: So it sounds like you don't follow a rigid methodology or swing theory.

No. One of my favorite things to say to my students, is that golf instruction and swing theory are like religion. Any one religion can be perfect for one person, especially if it's matched to your own schemata and beliefs. Whereas if you start trying to mix and match, things turn into a hot mess real quick.

Same thing is true with golf instruction. If you stick to one swing philosophy, and you work on things within that one philosophy, things will come together in a nice neat little package. If you take bits and pieces from all of them, it doesn't blend together the same way.

So when someone comes to me and says I want to learn this certain swing theory, then we can work on just that swing theory, and we'll teach only stuff from that. Other than that, I put people where I think is best. You can't be too beholden to any one person, any one golf instructor. There is no one god of the golf swing, and there's no one right answer.

LG: What's the worst thing about being a golf instructor.

Uhhh.... [pauses]

LG: Please. You can be totally honest and candid here.

Ok, I guess the worst part is when you have people who come to you with a predisposition that they're going to suck. And they've beat that into their heads so much that no matter what you say to them, they're gonna make sure they're bad.

LG: So that's worse than somebody who comes in with the opposite, with too-high expectations?

Yeah, because it's easier to temper high expectations. Golf's the only sport where you can really be considered a beginner for a couple years. You can be playing for 3-5 years, and still get away with calling yourself a beginner. In baseball you got your rookie season. But after that, you're expected to know all the basics. In golf that's just not the case. But still people come in who are like, "I'll never be able to this, oh I can't hold it like this, I won't do it..." and their door is completely shut. How can you get them to do anything? They'll say "Well, I've always done it this way." So does that work? "Well no, I've always been bad..." Well, don't you think you ought to try something new?

But it sometimes leads you to a bad place because it can get to a point where I'll say "Listen, you're paying me. If you just want to sit there and talk, I'll sit here and shut my mouth and listen but... you're still paying me my full rate--don't you want to hear what I have to say?" When it gets to that point, it's like a last-ditch effort. And it sucks because I don't want to be that guy. So that's probably the worst thing about it, for sure.

LG: So you've been involved with golf for a while now, right. In your experience, how are New York City golfers different?

I'd say in general, amongst your regulars, the people that play golf once a week or more, New York City golfers are way more passionate about the game.

There's more of them, they're more concentrated, and they come together. They feed off each other, and the energy is just different. Now I'm talking especially amongst regulars--I'm not talking about your hacker that comes out once a month, beats it around and drinks thirty-six beers while on the course. The guys who play once or twice a week, whether it's seniors, or juniors, or your elite-level players that come here to practice and then travel off to play at other sites. 

Other than that I'd say there's much less polish, less pomp and circumstance. New York City golf is much cruder, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just a unique and distinct culture.

The New York golfer is a little more blunt, and their manners aren't quite as refined as you'd find in a country club, or in suburbia. It's not that there's much difference in attitude, that's just how it is. That's just the culture that's here. It's not because people are mean, or jackasses.

LG: It's not???

No, they just legitimately don't know any better, they've just modeled their behavior after what they've seen. For decades this has been what's going on. I mean it's great talking to some of the guys who've been playing this course for thirty years. And to hear them talk about the evolution of golf here, how it was just wild back in the day. It's crazy. Listen to them talk to each other, they're out there busting balls like they're playing stickball in the street. But that's how they grew up. They're the ones who shaped the culture. They're the ones who are playing multiple times a week, even in the winter.

LG: Would you agree that NYC golfers are sort of, disadvantaged, in terms of access to facilities, cost, etc.?

I mean there's actually quite a few golf courses in between the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. The only place that's really got it tough is Manhattan. I'd say the disadvantage is not so much the lack of courses, but the lack of transportation. You know, one thing we struggle with here, is getting better golfers from Manhattan to come out. Because it's actually easier and sometimes even faster, for them to get to New Jersey.

Another thing is, besides us, there's no golf course that has a full practice facility and golf course. We're the only one in the five boroughs. So, it's harder to practice your game and hone your skills. You know it's interesting, we don't have more players here. You can come an hour early, you can putt, you can practice chipping, on actual grass, then you can hit a bucket of balls, and then go play a round? You have to leave the five boroughs to do that.

LG: I've seen this course improve a lot over the last several years. I remember coming here when there was no pro shop, no bar, nothing. You couldn't buy so much as a bottle of water. A green fee was literally the only thing you could buy. So where do you see Brooklyn golf in say, ten years' time?

It's gotta be better. We're doing so many things here alone, that even if the other courses get worse, I'm hoping that what we do here has such a positive impact that it will more than make up for it. Pace of play initiatives and stuff... we're trying to get out on the cutting edge. We're developing our own app, so that people that come to the course can have all these online games, as well as reminders to keep up the pace of play.

Just this year I took over the pro shop, and I'm trying to do a lot more in the pro shop with branding. Letting people know that yeah, there is a golf course in Brooklyn. There is a driving range in Brooklyn. We're one of the few places in the state that has Trackman. That kind of technology gives us such an advantage, we're hoping to set ourselves apart from the muni's. A public country club, that's kind of our premise.

I mean just look at this bar, a few years ago it didn't exist. It was just a hole in the floor, and now we've got the cherrywood, table seating, tv's, outside catering, full practice facilities... plus, we keep improving the course itself. We're making it so a person can come here and spend the whole day. They can come in grab an egg sandwich in the morning, then hang out in the bar after the round. It's all golf-centric, not catering-centric. [Some of the other NYC courses are now focusing more on catering and banquet hall services than golf.] We want to make this a golf experience.

LG: Can I ask you a broad question, like, a really broad question?

Sure, go ahead.

LG: Why do golfers suck?


LG: I realize, it's a very broad question. But it's something I've attempted to think about before. Is there maybe one unifying factor...

I'm gonna go with ego. At this point, I've literally taught thousands of golf lessons. Some of them have been I've built from the ground up, others I've completely rebuilt their swings. And the unifying factor... technically there is no silver bullet, no answer, no "do this and you'll be a better golfer." Some people have a knack for hitting a driver. But then they can't putt. Others can putt and chip, but can't hit a mid-iron, and can kind of hit woods. So the one achilles heel in golf is the ego. 

Golfers expect so much of themselves. There's no other sport where you practice so little, yet expect so much out of it. People expect to do what the pro's do. Every other sport, you play first, then practice later. In golf, you practice first to then able to play. So people get so wrapped up in the perfection of what they're doing, that they lose sight of the game itself.

You might hit it to four feet and think, "Well I didn't hit that quite straight" Well what do you want then, to hit it to three-and-a-half feet? Or you pipe a drive down the middle, but then you say, "Yeah, but I caught it a little thin on the face." Again, it's all ego that keeps getting in the way.

LG: Nice, that's a good answer. Seems like you've thought about this on some level. Now one of my favorite credos in golf is, Ben Hogan stated that he believes that anyone with normal physique and coordination can break 80, if they apply themselves. As an instructor, what do you say to that?

I thought he said "break 90."

LG: Definitely 80.

Definitely 80, huh. [pauses] Well, I agree with his opinion--but with an asterisk. Anyone with normal coordination and physical ability and the desire, can do it. But as long as they're willing to come to the course and practice, several times a week. Then again Ben Hogan practiced seven days a week. He also said any day you're not hitting balls, you're losing progress.

Evan managed to sneak out and play a few holes with Legitimate Golf.
LG: I know you're busy with lessons and everything, but do you play much these days?

No. Over the last year I've played three rounds. Two of them here, and the other was upstate, for a bachelor party, and everyone was absolutely wasted. Certainly would like to play more. I get out there and do playing lessons, but obviously I'm working, and I can't get into the zone that I'd like to when I'm playing, and also I feel I wouldn't be doing right by the student.

LG: Understandable. Still, can being an instructor somehow help your game, at all?

No. Well, I take that back. The dedication to learning more about how the golf swing works, makes me a better player. But the physical act of teaching doesn't make you better. Because you'll find yourself imitating people's incorrect moves. Also it wears you out--the time you'd spend on your own game is now spent on other people's games.

LG: So the net effect though, is a negative one.

It depends on how much you're teaching. If you have a couple lessons, and then an hour or two of practice on your own, then yeah, being an instructor can be good for your game. But a day like today, I got here at seven AM. Had a lesson at eight, then another at nine. I had some grip work and club repair that I had to do, then I had a kids' camp for three hours, then I had another lesson right after that, and now I'm sitting here talking to you. So it's been a fantastic day, I'm at the golf course all day, I'm hanging out... but I haven't hit a single a ball, or even taken a swing all day. So you know, that's kind of how it goes.

LG: Yeah, I figured as much. So, I just have one last question for this interview. Do you remember when I beat you in an 18-hole match at Dyker, 2-up?

No. I try to block those out. But if you say it happened, I believe you.

LG: Well I save everything, and I have the photo of the scorecard. I'll show you. It was a really good match, obviously for me very memorable because I won and everything, but also because you played what I thought was a pretty decent round, a 74--pretty good considering you weren't playing a whole lot then. I shot a 77, but somehow came ahead in the match play.

[laughs] Good for you, I like it. I do remember at that time playing a bunch of matches, so that sounds about right. Were you playing with me when I shot 29 on the back nine at Dyker?

LG: Nooooo, definitely not--I would've remembered that. What'd you shoot for the round?

I think it was a 68. I eagled the par five, and birdied 10, 11, 12, 13... yeah that was a sweet round. The putter was hot, I made everything I looked at.

LG: Wow, that is really awesome--I feel even better now about beating you. Thanks!

You can find Evan Silkworth at Marine Park Golf Course in Brooklyn. Find out more about the Silkworth Golf Academy on his website.


  1. Evan looks like a cool dude. Keep up the great work!

  2. Very nice interview. Not your standard professional interview - MUCH more interesting. Nice touch bringing up your match from several years ago. Probably the last thing Evan expected you to mention!

  3. Hard hitting and insightful. Way to needle him to finish out the interview.

  4. good information i think could use it for myself
    really nice and looking forward for more.
    Golf club at NY