Put simply, when it comes to golf, Matt Ferguson brings the goods, whether he is teaching the sport or just talking about it. It is this passion that has allowed him to build the Churchville Golf Center, which he owns and runs, into a world-class operation.
"At heart, I'm just a geek for all this stuff," Ferguson said during a recent interview. "I can go on for hours about golf, from swing types down to really specific tech talk. This is what I love to do."
Born and raised in Australia, Ferguson made his way to this area six years ago after meeting his wife, Chrissy, a Harford County native, while teaching golf in Florida. Since opening the Churchville Golf Center in the summer of 2008, Ferguson's results speak for themselves: He has been a swing instructor for five straight Harford County High School champions and has seen 26 of his secondary school pupils go on to play on Division 1 college squads.
"We've taught the last five county champs, and last year's Baltimore County champion too, who, when he first started coming here, didn't even play golf," Ferguson said. "When you get down to it, not much has changed with the golf swing in the last 80 years, so it's just a matter of getting everything synced up and making sure their body is in the right position. It's muscle memory and repetition. And, it is hard work, but I think I'm pretty good at getting the kids into the right frame of mind. Some of the high schoolers I teach strike the ball as well as PGA tour players."
Outback in the back yard
Ferguson, the Mid-Atlantic region's only "AAA" Master Golf Professional, first began swinging a golf club at age 4, when his father, a regional instructor, taught him the basics.
"Where I grew up, we had the Outback as our back yard, in Goondiwindi, [Australia]," Ferguson said. "It doesn't get much more 'Crocodile Dundee' than where I was from. My dad didn't teach golf for a living, but he was a designated instructor for that area. I started playing pretty young."
After wrapping up high school and moving to Brisbane, Ferguson apprenticed under swing coach Charlie Earp, who was two-time British Open champion Greg Norman's first professional instructor. As a professional player, Ferguson spent a decade making a living on the PGA Australia and Asian Tours. Ferguson admitted that one aspect of his game kept him from moving on to bigger and better things.
"It was the same old story you hear from lots of pros," Ferguson said. "I just couldn't putt. It took me 11 years to figure out that I wasn't putting well enough. Honestly, I think I'm as good a ball striker as anyone from my generation, but the guys that are winning on tour, they're really something else. I averaged 15 birdie putts per round, but I just didn't make many of them. Look at Tiger Woods. In the Cadillac Championship he had 100 putts the entire weekend. I think I might have had 100 putts once when a tournament was shortened to 54 holes. There's probably thousands of players like me. It comes down to putting, really."
Move to the states
Moving to teaching after giving up playing full time, Ferguson found himself in the United States for the first time in 2004.
"I came here in '04 for the first time to teach," Ferguson said. "I was up in Rochester, [N.Y.] at first, then I moved down to Florida. I met my wife down there in 2005, and came to Harford County with her shortly after that."
Ferguson was offered the job of course professional at Beechtree Golf Club in Aberdeen, but before he could take the position the course shut down in 2008. That is when Ferguson decided to open up shop on Churchville Road.
"We decided on the spot and started building it in 2008," Ferguson said. "We taught our lessons that first season under a tent in back of where the shop is now. Then I had a bad accident in October , and that set us back a little bit."
Lucky to be alive
Driving on Route 543 between Bel Air and Churchville one day, Ferguson was involved in a head-on collision that left him in the hospital for nearly a month.
"I was headed to town, and a truck came across the double line and hit me head on," Ferguson said. "I was in the [intensive care unit] for weeks after that. I still have partial paralysis in my left foot. It was probably a year and a half before I was in a position to even play a round again. Just to prove a point to myself, after I could play again I tried to qualify for the U.S. Open, and missed by a single stroke. Now I could probably qualify, but I don't play as much anymore. I think I'm just lucky to have lived through that accident. It was bad."
Closed down while Ferguson was recuperating from his injuries, the Churchville Golf Center opened back up in early 2009, and has been running full bore ever since.
"We took our first real poke at it in 2009," Ferguson said. "We had already won a club-fitting award from Mizuno, but it was that year that we got things going, opened the shop, and started bringing in more students."
Some company owners, once their business is up and running, will turn operations over to employees and make occasional visits to the office. Ferguson is not one of these men. He teaches golf, year round, notching a few thousand lessons annually.
"My main gig is teaching," Ferguson said. "I'm usually close to 2,000 lessons per year. During the peak season, I'm here at the center 14 hours a day. I roll in at 7 a.m., and pull at out 10 p.m, four days a week, then I'm here from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for two days, and I take three days off every three weeks. I try to get some rest during the winter, but just last week I did 35 lessons, and I logged 112 hours of teaching in February. Even when it's cold out, business plugs right along. The only days we can't work outside are when it's 15 degrees out and the wind is blowing right at us, and then we just move inside and work on the simulators. I didn't lose a single day of teaching in 2012."
Even with the full schedule, Ferguson said he would like to log more hours.
"I wish I could do more, especially in the summer," Ferguson said. "But, we've almost sold out every slot for this summer already."
Art of teaching
"What I like most is to just shut the door and teach," Ferguson said. "That's when I lose myself in it. Showing an older player, a guy who's been playing for 30-40 years, how to hit it longer with just a few changes, that's a lot of fun. You'll get a guy in his 60s, who all of a sudden is crushing it, hitting it farther than he did when he was 30."
Ferguson explained that in teaching the game to others, the instructor must tailor the approach for each student so the lesson sinks in.
"We're teaching the same thing to everybody, because the things that make for a good swing don't ever change," Ferguson said. "But, when you've got 14 different types of people, you have to come up with 14 different approaches. Some people like to be in charge, others like to be told how to do it. So, part of our job as instructors is to profile people. It always freaks people out when I can tell them what they do for a living without having asked. You can tell what they do by the way they take instructions. I'd say engineers and lawyers are the hardest to instruct, because they tend to over think things."
With athletes from other sports, who have been hard-wired to do things that might make for a terrible golf swing, some are hard to teach, while others are a breeze.
"With baseball players, hitters are very, very hard to teach," Ferguson said. "They have to un-learn a lot of what they've been taught. Baseball pitchers, they are really easy to teach, because the mechanics of a pitch is really close to a golf swing. Quarterbacks are also very easy for the same reason. It's not a coincidence that there's a load of pitchers and quarterbacks out there with single-digit handicaps. I've found that good tennis players are also easy to teach."
In addition to its year-round teaching schedule, the Churchville Golf Center has garnered national praise for its club-fitting operation. The center was named one of Golf Digest's Top 100 Club Fitters for 2012. The center has won awards from major club manufacturers each year it has been in operation, and Ferguson said that his operation holds more club fitting systems than any in the country. Still, he has things he wants add.
"I'm really proud of what we've done here," Ferguson said. "I'm proud that we've built this up, and that it's not in Myrtle Beach, or Florida, but Harford County. I still want to build a driving range in the back. I think with the growth in Harford County, we could support a world-class range here, and our fitting center could get bigger too."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun