Niskayuna High School graduate Justin Klemballa learned the game of golf from some of the best instructors in the country, but he’s not afraid to buck tradition when he teaches his own students how to play in golf-crazed Arizona.
The 33-year-old Director of Instruction at Forrest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Arizona, named one of the Best Young Teachers in America Under 40 years of age by Golf Digest, also gives lessons part of the year at Paradise Valley Country Club in Paradise City, Arizona. When he’s not helping his own students improve their games, he’s dropping video lessons YouTube and various forms of social media.
“I’m trying to send out three tips a week on YouTube,” Klemballa said in a telephone interview from Phoenix on a rare day off in a busy schedule. “Golf is a weird game. There is so much information out there. There is not one golf bible that we all study under, and there is not one instructor that everyone looks to.
“You can go to 10 different teachers and get 10 different philosophies on how to play the game. That’s the unfortunate thing about golf. There are so many philosophies that have had success at some level. If they didn’t have success, they wouldn’t teach it. But there are so many ways to teach the game. As teachers, we try to find our own best way to teach.”
So true. Not only are instructions available from local club pros and coaches, but there are tons of books and instructional videos easily attainable.
“There are thousands of videos you can watch on YouTube just on golf instruction alone,” Klemballa said. “I’m slowly adding to the hours available with my own tips. It’s a crazy world.”
Klemballa began his love affair with golf working at Stadium Golf Club as an eighth-grader. He worked behind the counter and out on the course right through his senior year at Niskayuna High School.
“I grew up at Stadium. That was my home,” he said. “I was almost like a member there. I knew I wanted to be in the golf business once I started working there.”
Meanwhile, Klemballa played five seasons on the Niskayuna High School golf team. His senior season, he was part of a juggernaut that included Chris Barach and Ben Kelly. That team not only won the Section II championship, but also sent three Silver Warriors to the NYS Tournament at Cornell.
“Those were great times,” Klemballa recalled. “We had a great team, and we always had a rivalry with Saratoga for the Suburban Council championship. A lot of our players were members at Mohawk Golf Club, where our team played. That was an advantage for us.”
Klemballa continued his golf education in the Professional Golf Management program at Methodist College, which continues to be one of the best of its kind in the country.
“One thing that drew me to the program was that it had more than 300 kids, and they had ties and opportunities to continue your career in the business,” he said. “Methodist has alumni all over the country, especially on the East Coast. If you look at the top instructors under 40 years of age, a lot of them were from Methodist. It’s a phenomenal program that allowed me to get my PGA credentials and create a network of job opportunities.”
While at Methodist, Klemballa was fortunate to receive internships with such outstanding instructors as PGA Hall of Famer Michael Hebron and Jim McLean, who runs one of the best golf schools in the world.
Although Klemballa only played one competitive season for the Methodist College golf team, the instruction he received there, and the job opportunities he took advantage of, were priceless.
“I didn’t have as good a playing career as I wanted to, but going to Methodist was invaluable for me,” Klemballa said. “Jim McLean brought me to three of his golf schools. One was in Doral, one was at the LaQuinta Resort in California and then another one was at Fountain Hills. I helped run those schools for 3 1/2 years.”
Klemballa used his experience at the McLean Golf Schools to get a teaching pro job at the Primland Resort in 2011 before moving to Paradise Valley CC in 2015 and adding Forrest Highlands Golf Club in 2017.
Unlike most of the club pros in the Northeast New York PGA, who not only play on a weekly tour but also teach, run tournaments and sell merchandise at their pro shops, Klemballa is strictly a teaching pro.
“If I wasn’t going to be an instructor in golf, I most likely wouldn’t be in the golf business at all. I was never interested in being a head pro,” Klemballa explained. “I like having someone on my lesson tee every hour of the day. I enjoy navigating this confusing game and trying to make it simpler. It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction that I can make people happier teaching them how to play this sport.
“I wasn’t into managing a course, selling merchandise, managing a crew of employees, cleaning carts and running tournaments. That side of the business never interested me. I love teaching the game of golf. That to me is the best job in golf. There are some tremendous professionals who are head pros at some tremendous courses, and they do a great job, but that wasn’t for me."
Klemballa’s work schedule limits his own playing time.
“I work five days a week now, but I used to work six. I usually start on the lesson tee at 8 a.m. and go right through 7 p.m. The sun doesn’t go down to 7:45 p.m. out here,” he said.
Klemballa has a slightly different view of instruction than many golf professionals. An example is the set of three recent fundamentals on his YouTube station.
“Obviously, I learned a lot from all of my mentors, but the more controversial stuff I’ve experimented with on my own,” Klemballa said. “I’ve found success teaching the opposite of what I taught before in some cases.”
His lesson on how to prevent hitting fat shots suggests that his students allow the clubhead to pass the grip and flip the right hand through the ball at impact. Many instructors insist that flipping the hands at impact is wrong.
“I’ve found that it has a lot of benefits in that it helps keep the hands and arms coordinated,” Klemballa said. “I know some instructors say it’s too inconsistent to use your hands too much, but I believe it’s actually more consistent to use your hands. It’s just like picking something off the ground. When you typically pick up something off the ground, you use your hands in all other sports.”
Another fundamental Klemballa stresses to his students is to make sure the club hits the ground during the swing, but not to the point where a huge divot is created. He suggests taking practice swings that hit the ground harder and harder without taking a rug off the turf.
Finally, a third fundamental for Klemballa — which is diametrically opposed by many instructors — is to take the club on an inside path immediately on your backswing and to also hinge the wrist early. He believes that move will help avoid slices if the student can trace that swing on the follow through.
“My dreams of playing professionally and making it the big time got crushed early when I didn’t perform as well as I wanted to at Methodist College,” Klemballa said. “But then I began my quest to become the best instructor I could be. I’ve developed a reputation here in Arizona. We have 800 members here, and my lesson book is pretty full.”
Klemballa’s career-best round is still the 4-under-par 68 he shot at Schenectady Municipal while winning a major NYS Junior event back in 2004. He has recently collected his first hole-in-one.
“I teach some golfers who have handicaps of 25 to 30, and one those members has 19 aces,” Klemballa said. “That’s pretty funny to me. I just got my first one here at Forrest Highlands.”
It was sad to hear that Ballston Spa Country Club standout Suzie Mansfield passed away this week after a long illness. Mansfield was not only a cheerful player who I looked forward to talking to while covering Northeastern Women’s Golf Association events, but she was also a solid player who teamed with partner Sue Kahler to win numerous major best-ball tournaments over her long career. She will be missed.
Normanside Country Club assistant pro Justin Hearly posted two birdies and an eagle on the back nine for a 3-under-par 68 to win the Northeastern New York PGA’s Classic Series No. 2 this week at Pinehaven Country Club this week. Battenkilll CC head pro Dal Daily was the runner-up with a 69. John Mahon won the Legends Division with a 79. The first major tournament of the season for the pros, the Donald Ross Classic, will be played Sunday at The Sagamore Resort and finish up Monday at Glens Falls Country Club.
The New York Golf Association announced the postponement of both the NYS Women’s Amateur and NYS Women’s Mid-Amateur, scheduled for this weekend at Teugega CC, and the NYS Girls Junior, scheduled for Tuscarora Golf Club July 6-7, indefinitely because of recommendations by the Empire State Development office not to allow tournaments that involve traveling from different regions of the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University at Albany’s Great Dane Athletic Club’s Golf Classic is set for Oct. 1 at Wolferts Roost Country Club at noon. For more information, contact Justin Brown at [email protected].
Stadium Golf Club has announced that as of Monday, a single-rider surcharge of $3 for nine holes and $6 for 18 holes on cart rentals. The course will no longer require single-use driver carts.
Don’t forget that the Catskill Classic, one of the few men’s amateur tournaments remaining on the schedule, is set for July 17-18 at Catskill Golf Club. For more information, contact the Catskill GC pro shop at 518-943-0302.
Joanne Lonczak recorded a hole-in-one on the 17th hole with an 8-iron at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.
At Eagle Crest Golf Club, David Wasniski II aced the 152-yard sixth hole with a 6-iron.
Mark VanWormer recorded a hole-in-one on the fourth hole at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course
John Blatchford and Pete Bennice each eagled the par-5 third hole at Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course.
There were also two eagles at Mechanicville Golf Club. Clyde Driggers eagled the par-4 16th hole by driving the hole and sinking the putt, while Bob Federico got his eagle at the par-4 third hole.
Bob St. John eagled the par-5 14th hole while competing in the Bent Iron league at Mohawk River Country Club.