Masters contenders Rickie Fowler and Kevin Kisner look to local-standout-turned-instructor, John Tillery, for the perfect swing
Story by Patrick Yost | Photography by Kris Hopkins
Before his college days as an NCAA All-American followed by the mini-tour circuit, PGA Tour professional instructor John Tillery started his career as a high school golfer at Morgan County High School. Tillery’s coach at the time, Steve Cisson, remembers Tillery arriving for the season ready to play. “It’s a short season,” Cisson says. “You really don’t have time to practice. John was always good about being a year-round player.”
He also brought a calming influence to the team as he does now to his marquis students. “The thing that made him good was his temperament,” his high school coach remembers. “He was always low-key and played to his game.”
Cisson credits Tillery with establishing a foundation for a program that continued to build on early success. “From John Tillery forward it’s been pretty successful. He was one of the ones that kicked things off.”
And there was one more thing Coach Cisson remembers. Tillery sharing knowledge of the game and swing mechanics to his teammates. “He was always good at helping the younger kids,” Cisson says.
Now, tour professionals have discovered Tillery’s calming encouragement and solid swing expertise at Cuscowilla on Lake Oconee where Tillery heads up the 2,200-squre-foot teaching facility. He most recently added Rickie Fowler to his current stable that includes Kevin Kisner, Scott Brown, and Brice Garnett, among others. Between instructional sessions, as Fowler and Kisner gear up for The Masters, Tillery takes a moment to reflect on the game with Lake Oconee Living.
You were a celebrated high school golfer at Morgan County High School. What did you learn, mentally, playing competitive golf both in high school, college, and on the mini-tours?
High school golf was a lot of fun. We had a great group of guys there at Morgan County. Coach Cisson and Coach Richardson would lug us around, and thankfully they don’t get worked up about much. I’m sure we tested their patience at times. I’m a very competitive person, so I clinched on to golf because you’re in control of the outcome, good or bad. In high school, I was just kind of a scrapper. Didn’t hit it great, but would scrape it around and find a way to win. Coach Moore used to joke that I could get up and down (save par) out of a ball washer.
I think at every level you learn more about yourself; what drives you, what holds you back. Obviously, as you progress from high school, to college, to turning pro, it gets harder and harder to be good. I had a lot to learn. In hindsight, I was always enamored with the mechanics of the game; obsessed with the golf swing and learning how to get better. The way I went about it definitely hurt me as a player, but over time, I ultimately become more passionate about that side of it – the search for the truth and really trying to get it right – than I did developing as a player.
When you work with amateurs, is there a consistent swing flaw you observe?
I guess the easy answer would be fundamentals. Bad setups and bad grips. Open faces and slices are probably up there too. From more of a 30,000 foot view though, I would say that most amateurs’ biggest flaw is not knowing their tendencies or what causes certain shots or what to do about it.
When did you decide to focus on teaching rather than playing?
I never really set out to teach, but like I said earlier, I was always fascinated with understanding the golf swing. I remember getting people to record me when all there was were the big Channel 2 news cameras, and taking the VHS tapes inside and drawing lines on the TV with dry erase markers. The less success I had the more motivated I got to figure out why, and I eventually started teaching a little and pretty quickly was doing it full time.
Who are you currently working with on the PGA Tour?
My stable this year is Kevin Kisner, Scott Brown, Brice Garnett, and Rickie Fowler
What’s the lowest round you’ve ever posted and where?
I shot 62 at Reynolds National once. Obviously not enough of those or I’d still be playing.
Do you primarily work with professionals at tournament sites or at your facility at Cuscowilla?
We do the majority of our work on the road, mostly just because of the tour schedule these days. My guys just don’t have a ton of time at home. They’ll come to Cuscowilla here and there on off weeks when we need to get away and get in some good work.
What is your favorite PGA Tour venue and why?
That’s a tough one. Obviously, Augusta is special. It’s a tough week logistically, but as a venue, it’s a spectacle. I really enjoy the British Open as well. Lots of history, and far and away my favorite style of golf.
You’ve got one thought to leave with an amateur to improve their game. What do you say?
My advice to amateurs is that if they truly want to improve, go find a really good coach and put together a plan. It’s so hard to improve with no understanding and no direction. Most of us would rather drive around lost than get a map or ask for directions though. I get it.
What’s the one thing most people don’t see or realize about professional golfers?
Just what goes into it. That it’s a business, not a hobby. It probably looks a little more glamorous on TV than it is. There’s so much work, planning, traveling, and not necessarily fun stuff that goes into competing at the highest level in the world. Their entire lives are geared around being good at their jobs, and their families and their teams all put in a lot to support them.
Tiger or Phil?
Phil is an incredible talent, but Tiger is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). He completely changed the game. It’s difficult to even wrap your head around his accomplishments and I’m not sure if future generations will ever be able to understand or appreciate how good he was.