What I Learned In Golf School

It wasn’t the fact that my mother and younger Sister play, or that I’ve always loved the drama of the televised game. It certainly wasn’t Tiger Woods. It wasn’t even because my husband ever-so-hopefully gave me a set of clubs one Christmas. I really don’t know what it was. But one spring day it just seemed right to walk onto a driving range and smack my very first ball 100 yards down the middle of the fairway. Needless to say, the rest of my efforts weren’t so successful; needless to say, I was hooked. I had discovered the glorious, maddening, oh-so-addictive charms of golf.

That’s right. Addictive. (There’s a reason all those Types A twenty-somethings are in the game-and blowing away the field.) Sure, some basic physical mechanics are involved, but golf is, above all, a subtle mind game with an anything-but-subtle adrenaline rush as the reward. What golfers really want isn’t to beat the other guy or even, as the professional is fond of saying, the course. The real competition is with yourself. Every time you step up to the ball, you remember your best shot…your worst shot…and imagine hitting an unbelievable, fist-pumping, best-of-all-time, you-should-be-die-Tour-Champion shot. This is true even if, like the average golfer, you haven’t a clue what you’re doing. So imagine how much more fun you’ll have if you make a commitment to yourself to really learn how this game should be played.

I’m not talking here about a few lessons with the dub pro or a daylong clinic at a public course. These are all fine things, but they’re not enough if you want to achieve the dreams that golf is made of For that, there are just no shortcuts. You’ll need to start with school.

“Practice makes permanent,” says Bob, holding a putter before him like a pointer and emphasizing his words by pointing at each of us in turn. “Permanent practice makes perfect.” Point taken. We may be in southern California, but for the fifteen students at the Aviara Golf Academy (in Carlsbad just half an hour north of San Diego), there’s nothing laid-back about the instruction. We’ve been out on the range for what seems like an eternity, hitting bottomless buckets of balls in our quest for perfection. Our four wonderful instructors-Bob, Wayne, Bruce, and Ted-have made us believers.

Most of Aviara’s students, I’m told, come by way of the grapevine-a friend or colleague takes the course, knows he’s on to a good thing, then passes the word along. The grapevine isn’t lying since the student/teacher ratio for each of its schools and clinics is never more than four to one-and limited to no more than sixteen students each-the academy IS able to include players of all skill levels without compromising the amount of instruction each will need. This means that “beginners like me, can take the same class as an “Intermediate” or “advanced” friend or spouse.

I’m attending with my “advanced” spouse, Lex. (Advanced as a golfer, not as a spouse. We’re newlyweds. There’s time.) We have opted for the three-day school, the most intensive offered. Like the two-day school, it includes plenty of videotaping sessions, classroom time and range instruction, and–since the academy rents space from the Four Seasons Resort Aviara-a delicious lunch at the resort’s clubhouse and late-day play on its eighteen-hole Arnold Palmer-designed course; unlike the two-day school, the three-day school offers a morning on the course with an instructor on the final day.

The first day, since Lex and I were staying at the resort’s new hotel-a gleaming, the bougainvillea-draped affair of soaring ceilings, imposing marble foyer and floor-to-ceiling windows–we took its convenient shuttle down to the course. (We were also able to have our clubs sent down there the night before when we checked in.) We met our instructors, were issued locker keys at the club, and hopped into carts for the short drive out to the range for a warmup and preliminary videotaping.

“Well,” said Bruce, as he recorded my preinstruction. stroke for posterity, “your backswing is terrible, but the downswing is terrific. You could be a 10 handicap based on that. Good movement through the hips and legs, club right on the plane…. From the waist down, you look like Ben Hogan.” (I decided to accept this as the compliment it was meant to be.) We went back up the hill and hit iron shots with an aim to having me “feel” the proper motion for puffing the club back. During the course of this instruction, Bruce realized that my grip was also terrible, and showed me in one easy lesson how to fix it. Eureka!

Bruce has moved on to another group, so Bob comes up to watch. “What are you working on?” he asks. (As if it isn’t obvious–but these guys are very polite.) He takes the club out of my hands (pretty brave of him, considering that I was planning to hold on to it all day so that I wouldn’t lose the grip I’d suddenly found) and shows me a clubless drill I can also use to improve the backswing-it consists of just twisting the upper body to get the feel. Feel is everything, I’m beginning to grasp.

Elsewhere on the range, other students are putting down their clubs and learning drills like mine or just practicing their setups in the full-length mirrors. Bob is helping Lex correct his reverse pivot problem by having him swing with one leg held rigid inside one of the tall iron bag holders. (We joke later that we hadn’t known that restraining devices were included.) Wayne and Ted are circulating, looking for problems and offering creative solutions. “Let us know when something we say makes it `click’ for you. It could be just the thing that will help other people, too.”

Back in the classroom, Kip Puterbaugh, the founder of the academy, gives us a lecture on the “myths of golf,” punctuated by videotapes of the pros in action. Essentially, it’s a cautionary tale, showing how the pros aren’t actually doing what they tell you they are in their books. “He knows what he thinks he’s doing, but that’s not the same thing as what he’s actually doing. Look: Seve’s head moved, didn’t it? Watch Hogan’s left arm–it bent, didn’t it? That’s why our method is based on actual observation–and that’s why it works.”

After lunch, Ted gives the group a lesson in the proper setup for the wood shots (we silently worship his way with a driver), then I have a video session with Kip: “Nice grip,” he remarks. I glow–and can’t wait to tell Bruce. Lessons end around 3:30; then, Lex and I head to the first tee to put our new skills to the test. As we should have expected, there are so many new things to remember and so many old things to forget that the round ends up becoming the golfing equivalent of dancing with a drunken sailor.

“Just remember,” we are instructed the next morning, “that it’s very tempting to go back to what you know works–sort of–even though you won’t get better that way. Just keep practicing, and keep studying your manual and your video. It may take a year–but if you stick with it, you will improve. Dramatically.” Today we improve our chipping and putting, and we have also broken down into small groups. Ours is led by Bruce and includes Mike, a Japanese businessman from Los Angeles, and George, a local computer consultant. It is a good group, so after school today, Lex and I play eight holes before dark with Mike and George-and I hit the best 7-wood shot of my life. As it sails 120 yards over the menacing greenside traps and rolls to within ten feet of the hole, George and Mike just whoop and Lex can’t believe it. Ted was right. It’s all in the setup.

“OK,” says Bruce the next morning, hands on hips, smile on face. “Let’s see this amazing wood shot.” I take out my 7-wood and just cream it, dropping it on the green. “Great!” says Bruce. “Do it again.” Unbelievably, I do it again. Unbelievably, it’s all starting to make sense. I’m hitting it straighter and longer. So is Lex. “Practice makes permanent. Permanent practice makes perfect “We’ve seen some amazing things in these three days, so…if Bob thinks there’s perfection in our future, we’re prepared to believe him. We can’t wait for spring.

The Aviara Golf Academy charges $1,195 per person for the three-day school, $795 for the two-day school, $150 for the holiday clinics, and $90 per hour for private, one-on-one instruction. The two-and three-day options include accommodations at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara. All, options include a videotape of your personal instruction.

The Four Seasons Resort Aviara offers its own golf/hotel packages (not including instruction at the Academy) for $525 per person per day. The hotel also provides all the amenities one expects from an executive-level hostelry (including spacious, well-appointed rooms, fine dining, tennis courts, a multi-tiered pool area, nature walks for the children and a spa for the nonplaying spouse). It also offers the convenience of proximity to the academy and the course.

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