Jim Suttie was only 4 when he first encountered what has defined the rest of his life and his still-growing list of internationally celebrated accomplishments.
“My dad was a physician – a pediatrician – in DeKalb. He played golf, and he got me out there,” says Suttie, one of the country’s top golf coaches over the last half-century. “I practiced a lot, and I got pretty good at the game. I never played the tour, but I’ve always been a good player.”
Indeed, he has fully embraced golf and its challenges “for all areas of the brain – mental and physical” as well as its independence: “It’s a sport you can do on your own. You make the mistakes. You get the ball in the hole. You’re not pinning it on anyone else.”
Suttie served as “the No. 1 man” on the golf team at DeKalb High School, where he graduated in 1964.
Coming to hometown NIU to major in Physical Education, he golfed for the Huskies, starting at second or third on Coach Nye LaBaw’s depth chart until he “got better than the rest of the guys eventually.”
Yet despite those successes, Suttie knew that his future on the golf course lie not in playing but as “a club pro or a teaching pro.”
And in that realization, he scored a hole-in-one.
Look at his biography in the NIU Huskie Hall of Fame, written for his induction in 2001: “Consummate teaching pro. Ranked No. 1 in state and No. 18 in nation on elite list of ‘America’s 50 Greatest Teachers for 2007-08’ by Golf Digest. Included on Golf Digest ‘Top 50 Greatest Instructors in America’ ratings since 2000. Gained ‘emeritus’ status and permanent membership on national Top 100 Teachers list by Golf Magazine. Selected PGA Teacher of Year (2000) and three-time Illinois PGA Teacher of Year. Graced cover of PGA Magazine. Listed as one of country’s Top 20 instructors in Golf Digest.”
There’s more: “Tutored PGA and Champions Tour stars such as 2008 Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, Loren Roberts, Chip Beck, Mark Wilson, Tom Purtzer, David Ogrin, plus LPGA pros Silvia Cavalleri, Vicki Goetze-Ackerman and Carin Koch.”
Now Suttie, who holds bachelor’s (1970) and master’s (’71) degrees from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE), is making a “remote” return to his alma mater to serve as to serve as the College of Education’s Fall 2020 Educator in Residence.
During his two days of virtual interactions, he will deliver a “Whiteboard Wednesday” presentation on “Golf Talk with Dr. Jim Suttie: How Your Body Determines Your Swing Type” from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14. All are invited and welcome to attend, and registration is free and available online.
He also will meet with KNPE faculty, spend an hour with the current NIU Men’s Golf Team (and Coach John Carlson) and Women’s Golf Team, and speak to students in KNPE 310: Psychological Aspects of Sport and Exercise, taught by Jenn Jacobs.
Dean Laurie Elish-Piper, who launched the Educator in Residence program to honor and celebrate remarkable alumni and to foster their interactions with current students, is excited to welcome back Suttie.
“Dr. Suttie is a perfect and excellent example of what the NIU College of Education promises in our Value Proposition, and that is we prepare students to succeed and lead in their careers and communities,” Elish-Piper says.
“Through his study of kinesiology and physical education, Dr. Suttie developed not only a knowledge of the athletic function and capability of the human body but also the ability to effectively share, teach and nurture his techniques in golfers at every stage,” she adds.
“I look forward to hearing – and I’m especially eager for our students to hear – how he was able to make such positive differences for so many golfers, and what motivates him to keep working and teaching after 50 years.”
Returning temporarily to a university setting makes perfect sense for Suttie, known as “the teacher that teaches the teacher.”
First, he holds the academic credentials – a doctorate in biomechanics from Middle Tennessee State University, where his dissertation examined “A Biomechanical Comparison between a Conventional Golf Swing Learning Technique and a Unique Kinesthetic Feedback Technique.”
Second, he coached collegiate golf teams at Eastern Kentucky University, Brevard Community College (where he mentored Azinger, who went on to 12 PGA victories), Northwestern University and Florida Gulf Coast University.
Third, he’s delivered numerous presentations to golf teachers who transfer his methods to their own clubs and students.
But it’s in teaching golfers at all levels, from beginners to pros, that Suttie has sculpted his legacy by helping people to find “their most natural way” to swing.
“If I’m known for anything in the teaching world, it’s that there is no one way to swing a golf club. Your swing depends on your body type, how you’re built, your flexibility pattern, your physical characteristics, your height,” says Suttie, now based in Bonita Springs, Fla.
“There are many, many ways to swing, and lots of fundamentals, and I’m a fundamentalist,” he adds. “I’ve gotten to that point now where I can just look at a guy’s body and I can almost tell right away how he should swing.”
What continues to challenge him, though, is the responsiveness of his students.
Beginners “will listen to you,” he says. “To teach a tour guy, though, you’ve really got to convince them because they’ve been doing this for a long time, and a lot depends on how much you give them. You give them too much, and they get nothing out of it. You’ve got to be sparse in your information and teach them over time.”
Nonetheless, he adds, pros are “always willing to learn and they’re always willing to screw themselves up. They’ll take lessons from teachers who put them into a method, but there’s no method that really can work with everybody. I’ve seen just as many players get screwed up as who get better.”
During his own years as a student, when he studied physical education and kinesiology, Suttie remembers tough classes that taught him motivation, discipline and punctuality.
He especially remembers a course taught by then-NIU Football Coach Howard Fletcher, who made sure that all students “learn something besides the academic area: how to exist in life. He taught me that. I took a class from him, and he says, ‘You either do this, or you don’t. It’s just like life.’ ”
What’s his own life advice for college students? “Do what you like, and then you’ll be good at it. If you don’t like what you do, you won’t be good at it, and you’ll wish you did something else.”
In speaking to NIU audiences next week, he expects people will want to hear his stories about his visits with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He also plans to share wisdom gained over five decades of teaching and coaching golf – which, he says, are different things.
“Coaching is more motivating, telling kids that they can do it – the mental side – whereas teaching golf is more of the mechanical stuff,” Suttie says.
Fortunately, he adds, either or both types of guidance pay dividends.
“There are no limits with golf,” he says. “If you don’t have the hand-eye coordination, you can only go so far, but I haven’t ever seen anyone who can’t get better.”