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PGA Learning Center a golf practice field of dreams in south Florida

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Practicing golf can be every bit as tedious a slog as a trip to the DMV. You're hitting balls off a mat in a boring environment, by yourself. Lab rats get more feedback.

PGA Learning Center - Port St. Lucie, Florida - international golfers
Golfers like European Tour hopeful Lavinia Floris come from around the world to the PGA Learning Center.
PGA Learning Center - Port St. Lucie, Florida - international golfersPGA Learning Center - Port St. Lucie, Florida - great conditionsPGA Learning Center - Port St. Lucie, Florida - RangePGA Learning Center - Port St. Lucie, Florida - plaque

Is it any wonder you have to force yourself to go to the driving range?

There's a better way, in a different environment, where practice is ... fun.

Don't believe it? No one does, at first. When golfers get their first look at the PGA Learning Center in sleepy Port St. Lucie, they tend to wander around, wide-eyed.

How else does one greet the sight of nine huge practice bunkers, each with a different type of sand?

John Dowsett knows the baffled stare of the virgin visitors. A retiree who works here two days a week, Dowsett often picks up the newbies in his cart and offers an impromptu tour of golf nirvana.

Owned and operated by the PGA of America, the Learning Center stretches over 35 acres, half of them lighted by sports-stadium contraptions. It's open until 10 p.m. and it's not uncommon to see the place packed at an hour when most regular golfers are snoozing on their couches.

"It's a little change from what most folks are used to," Dowsett said.

That's like calling a five-star French restaurant a little change from McDonald's.

The PGA Learning Center doesn't just have more of everything - more ranges (with more spots), more putting greens, more bunkers, more short-game practice areas, more private practice areas. It's more of everything is in tip-top condition. The staff joke that the greens and bunkers are in better shape than at most golf courses.

Only it's no joke. On this visit, the Learning Center had much better conditioning than all three courses at the PGA Golf Club, with which it shares space at PGA Village.

No wonder the center draws duffers who seem to be on their own version of a quest for golf's holy-grail experience. Indiana visitor Tom Henderson spent a week in Florida taking hundreds of swings without actually playing any golf.

"I'm not going to go on any of the courses," Henderson said, with a why-would-anyone-do-that look. "I'm going to stay here and use all this."

He pointed down the packed range, toward the three-hole teaching course, back around the bunker area.

"I leave to get lunch, come back and hit some more balls. Leave to grab some dinner, come back and hit some more."

This man doesn't need a swing coach. He needs a cot. How long before Henderson just orders Dominos and forgets the leaving part altogether?

Golf's melting pot

The PGA Learning Center inspires that kind of zealotry with rates that seem pretty friendly in these days of $11 movie tickets. For $20 you can hit all the balls you want for as long as you want, coming and going as often as you want, for the whole day.

It's rare to see a guy just show up and hit for an hour or so. People find out about the reentry privileges and make a day out of it. A week of unlimited practice sets a golfer back $75.

Yes, the Learning Center's weekly fee is less than many golf courses' charge for a round - including the three neighboring tracks operated by the PGA of America.

The low cost has turned the Learning Center into a multicultural melting pot of international golf. Players from around the world, many entertaining visions of pro golf careers, show up in Port St. Lucie to work on their games when conditions are too cold back home.

Italian golfer Lavinia Floris came here on the advice of her coach. A European Tour hopeful, she shares a local apartment with two like-minded Swedish golfers and practices seven hours a day.

"I'm here for two months," she said, smiling. "It's great. We don't have a facility this complete anywhere in Europe."

It's hard to imagine a facility this complete anywhere else on earth. Before arriving at the PGA Learning Center, it's a good bet most golfers didn't even know that there was a type of sand called Melted Edge. But there it is: clay mixed with fine sand, used most widely in the Carolinas and Hawaii, according to a plaque outside one of the practice traps.

Dennis Jefferson spends a lot of time in these exotic sands. The 24-year-old aims to play on the Nationwide Tour and works obsessively on his short game. "I'm here pretty much every day I'm not on the road," he said.

Of course, not everyone at the PGA Learning Center is some golf robot shooting for a meal ticket. There are plenty of regular hackers here, just taken in by the wonder of it all.

"I think it's zero degrees in Indiana today," Tom Henderson said. "This is like heaven."

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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