Justin St. Clair: Golf coach gets in the swing

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Justin St. Clair is building a business from the game he loves

CRESWELL — On road trips when he played for the University of Oregon golf team, Justin St. Clair would try to get the seat on the airplane next to assistant coach Al Mundle.

The longer the flight, the more time St. Clair would have to discuss the golf swing with one of the most renowned teachers of the game in the Pacific Northwest.

“Justin was one who asked a lot of questions,” Mundle recalled. “We had some really very good discussions about the golf swing. It was fun because he was really interested in that part of it, sincerely interested. We got into a lot of things about teaching, and what to look for.

“He really liked it and wanted to know as much as he could find out about teaching.”

Now, the student has become a teacher himself, operating his Justin St. Clair School of Golf at Emerald Valley Golf Course in his second year as a full-time PGA teaching professional.

“I wanted to stay close to the game, and I knew I had a real passion for teaching, and I wanted to take my knowledge and try to pass it on,” St. Clair said. “I know how great this game is and I know how much better it is when you’re improving and playing better. I love being out on the range and working with people and when they come back and say how much better they’ve been hitting it and playing, that’s awesome.”

His pupils include Caroline Inglis, the three-time state champion for Churchill High School who will play for the Oregon women’s team and who cites St. Clair’s consistent enthusiasm, and sense of humor, along with his knowledge of the golf swing.

“He has helped my game a tremendous amount,” Inglis said. “When I first went to him, I was OK, but I didn’t really know much. He’s helped my swing, helped me have good fundamentals, and helped with my short game and a lot with my mental game and course management.

“Overall, he has helped me a lot. I wouldn’t be the player I am without him.”

In a highly competitive field, in a difficult golf industry, St. Clair, 29, is seeking to build a lifetime career teaching.

“It’s definitely riskier,” he said. “I could certainly go and get a head pro job somewhere at a course and make more money guaranteed, but I wouldn’t get to do what I’m passionate about.”

St. Clair’s first steps on this road in life were taken because a road happened to pass by a golf course.

The road taken

When St. Clair was a child, his family lived in Marcola as his father, Wes, worked as a timber faller. Almost every day, Wes St. Clair would drive past the golf course at Springfield Country Club, and one day he decided to try a game nobody in his family had ever played. As he began hitting golf balls at the practice range, Wes St. Clair — now a long-hitting scratch golfer, by the way — took along his son, Justin, then about 8 years old.

“I was right there on his heels and fell in love with the game myself,” Justin St. Clair said.

He played other sports growing up, including a couple of years of basketball at Thurston High School, but golf became his primary focus. He wasn’t a fixture on the juniors circuit, but he played in the U.S. Junior Amateur tournament at Pumpkin Ridge in 2000, and made the Junior America’s Cup team, and was recruited by then-coach Steve Nosler to play at Oregon.

Redshirting as a freshman, St. Clair became Oregon’s scoring leader in 2004, and he was team captain and all-Pac-10 honorable mention as a junior in 2005, when he tied for fifth in the conference tournament. Over his five years at Oregon, St. Clair worked with Mundle to revamp his swing, from the “homemade” swing he brought to Oregon to the fundamentally sound swing that is still on display in regional tournaments.

While at Oregon, St. Clair got married; he and Samantha have three children — son Jackson, 6, and daughters Addison, 4, and Emerson, almost 2. Although St. Clair’s dream had been to work toward playing on the PGA Tour, family responsibilities and the lack of sufficient financial backing created a new goal — to teach the game he had learned so much about from working with Mundle.

“I learned from Al the mechanics of it, and I learned that you don’t have to really pile on, you can make it simple,” St. Clair said. “He was able to take something that we generally make pretty complicated and make it easy to understand. When I think of Al, I think of that. And patience. Al Mundle is probably the most patient guy you’ll ever meet.”

St. Clair got a job in the pro shop at Emerald Valley, and eventually began giving some lessons. Meanwhile, he went through the accreditation process to become a PGA member, earning class A status in February 2011. A few months later, he opened his golf school at Emerald Valley as a full-time instructor.

Teaching the game

So how does he teach a game of vexing complexity to golfers ranging from beginners to elite?

“I don’t have a method, necessarily,” St. Clair said. “I’m not a stack-and-tilt guy or a one-plane swing guy. I take each individual and I try to optimize ball flight, whatever it means for that player, whether they’re a first-time golfer and they’re trying to get the ball up in the air or they’re a pretty elite golfer trying to make Tour and they’re trying to eliminate a push-block, or whatever that is.

“I really look at the player from what are their limitations, what level are they at, and go from there. My lessons with a super-elite player and a beginner are different, but they’re the same. … I try to help the player understand their golf swing and what they need to do to get better.”

That approach resonated with Kristian Soerensen, a 21-year-old Oregon student from Denmark who has worked with St. Clair for more than a year as he seeks a berth on the UO men’s team.

“I think one of his biggest strengths is that he treats everyone as an individual player,” Soerensen said. “I’ve had experience with other golf instructors, and they have a model and whoever comes, they put them into that model. He treats everyone differently because everyone has a different golf swing. He’s super knowledgeable, and he’s passionate. It’s easy to tell that he really cares about his work and tries to help every single player as much as he can.”

As a modern golf teacher, St. Clair has some modern equipment, a Flightscope system that enables him to take high-speed video and record ball flight trajectory and distance and other data.

“The better tools you have, the better you are as an instructor,” he said. “You can only see so much with the naked eye. It would be like your doctor not having a CT scan. You’re a better doctor with better tools. …

“The more a player knows about their swing, the better they’re going to be. I like to break it down for them and show them the positions that they’re looking for, and why they’re looking for those positions. A good teacher can tell you what you’re doing badly, but a great teacher tells you why and can explain it.”

Building a business

As with any new business, St. Clair is still trying to establish his brand, as it were, and to expand that beyond the membership at Emerald Valley.

“The biggest worry is the financial,” he said. “I know a lot of golfers who would take lessons every week if they could afford it. Golf is a luxury. Taking lessons is an ultimate luxury. That’s why making it in the lesson business is very difficult.”

St. Clair’s basic rate is $60 for a 45-minute lesson, and he figures he’s getting close to 400 to 500 lessons a year now, a number that he’d like to expand to 750 or so.

He also gives regular group clinics, at $15 for an hour-long session for the first 20 golfers who sign up.

(The August schedule: Full swing, Aug. 2, 6 p.m.; chipping, Aug. 4, 1 p.m.; bunkers, Aug. 9, 6 p.m.; full swing, Aug. 11, 1 p.m.; chipping, Aug. 16, 6 p.m.; driver, Aug. 18, 1 p.m.; putting, Aug. 25, 1 p.m.; wedges, Aug. 30, 6 p.m.)

Ultimately, St. Clair would like to build a covered teaching bay — the June rain played havoc with his schedule — and be at Emerald Valley a decade from now with a full teaching schedule.

“When you start out, you’re trying to tread water until you can get some traction, but that’s really no different than a lot of businesses out there,” he said. “I think I’m really good at what I do, and I think it’s just a matter of time for me.”

Mundle, now mostly retired in Walla Walla, Wash., sees a bright future for his former student.

“He’s become a very fine teacher,” Mundle said. “I see him as being extremely successful.”

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