Guru to the Stars: Ron del Barrio: Hollywood’s Swing Coach Extraordinaire
Ron del Barrio — the charismatic, guru-esque golf teacher to the stars — has been giving lessons from the last mat at Weddington Golf & Tennis for the past 30 years, with a roster of students that includes Larry David, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Pesci, Jesper Parnevik, yours truly and so many more. His Instagram feed is riddled with foul language, middle fingers and the kinds of photos the paparazzi would kill for. I caught up with him recently to try to do some justice to his incredible and storied career.
COLE YOUNG: Origin story … do you have one? What did your beginnings in golf look like?
RON DEL BARRIO: In high school, if you told people you golfed, you got your butt kicked. So I didn’t touch a golf club until after high school. I joined the fire department at 18 and wanted to be “one of the guys.” What did they do? Golfed. So, I golfed. I sucked, but we only worked 11 days each month, so I had time to get better.
Okay so, what happens next? You just become the smooth-swinging, sailor-mouthed coach you are today? You must have had aspirations of teaching, right?
Nope. I had aspirations of making money! I came here (to Weddington) in the evenings and hustled. I would teach this Japanese couple’s son. They were teaching me how to teach in Japanese. This was twice a week, and I was charging $15 for a 30-minute lesson. I was just interested in making some money; it had nothing to do with golf.
What year was this?
When was the Spanish Armada? No, it was the 80s. But seriously, I just developed a better swing through teaching.
You have a star-studded roster of clients. Were you chasing these kinds of clients? Do you think Weddington’s geographic location had anything to do with it being this sort of safe haven for the West Coast media elite?
Weddington’s always been the place. It’s really pretty unassuming. The people here are good to them, too. They’d never let paparazzi in. When I first started coming here, every Sunday at 10 p.m., Bob Hope would be here. Like clockwork. Every Friday at 8 p.m., Clint Eastwood would be here. So, you’ve got the biggest stars in the world hitting balls next to a plumber or a social studies teacher. It’s a pretty cool dynamic. I ended up starting with a guy named David Leisure. From there, word got out, “There’s a golf pro that won’t sell you out.” It was off to the races. You heard the Smokey Robinson story, right?
So, Smokey’s hitting balls here one day. I snagged the stall behind him, and I used to have these little caps for a cap gun. I wanted him to think I was a big hitter, so I’d lick the back of the cap, stick it on the ball and BAM! He’d have to turn around and look at my swing. The next day, he calls the front desk at Weddington and asks if I could be at his office in one hour. I think, “It’s over.” I just ruined Smokey’s ears. Come to find out he wants to sponsor me to play professionally. For three years. I was a 7-handicap at the time.
So, you go pro. Can’t imagine that went well for a 7-handicap.
No. Didn’t make a cut the first year. I was living in Palm Desert trying to get the game right. Second year, I started making some noise. My third year, I won three tournaments. I figured out how to play in those three years. But I also figured out that there was no way in hell I could compete at that level.
So, if you can’t beat ‘em…
Teach ‘em. I came up with my own method and everything. I know my method raises some eyebrows, but I was dedicated to turning the golf world upside down and becoming the best coach I could be. I made an infomercial and now, here I am, looking at your sorry swing.
Well, I’m a believer! It flat out works! Aside from you tending to your clients’ golf games and maintaining their coveted anonymity, what else can you tell me about them finding you? Or does spending all your time at the range help you find them?
Seems to me that the relationship between driving ranges and swing coaches is a symbiotic one in that sense.
Actually, the teaching circuit can be pretty cutthroat. Egos tend to get involved. You have to find a pro that you click with. You should be interviewing new coaches. If the student doesn’t ask questions, they’re going to be lost. They all think that their coach is Oz: “Hey, do this!” No. At the end of the day, we work for you. Not the other way around. I expect my clients to challenge me and to ask me questions because, ultimately, the pro’s goal is to teach the client how to swing according to their own body.
What’s the coolest gift you’ve ever received from one of your clients?
Gosh. Most cherished? Probably two guitar picks that Eddie Van Halen gave me. I’ll always hold on to those. Ben Baller’s been pretty good to me lately, as well. I’ve also just been offered Harleys out of nowhere.
All right, last question. What’s your favorite memory at Weddington?
I’ll tell you, but you need to stop the recording.