There is a funny ad with a guy sitting at a table holding a knife to his belly. Someone on the phone is telling him how he can operate on himself. Sort of like asking an insurance salesman for advice on a toothache.
Why is it golfers feel the need to instruct total strangers, and better yet, why do we pay attention? How often do we look for quick fixes, reading countless tips in golf magazines, taking in the advice of every teaching guru on the tube, listening to the guy who cuts our lawn telling us how to get out of bunkers - "Just visualize holding a wine glass ..."
Hey, I've tried them all. Give me a tip, and I'll rip into it. Sometimes it takes desperate measures. Old bad habits - dropping shoulders, not focusing, swinging like a slug - die hard.
For me it all came to a head when I switched places on the tee box with a big hitter: he played from the forward tees, I moved back. We played the formidable Atunyote course at Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y. Atunyote has a lot of carries and dramatic elevations but I was confident I could hit over the snarly wetlands, so confident in fact that I took his bet after he agreed to give me strokes.
I lost. Badly. But it wasn't so much my drives. It was more the second shots to the greens and the pitching and chipping. Even though the greens on Atunyote are large, I couldn't find them. The dreaded short game. My pal promised to give me a rematch ... after I shaped up my short game. Finally I bought into the idea that 60-65 percent of golf is played inside 100 yards.
So a few months later, at 7:30 a.m., the huge ornate iron gates of Atunyote swung open allowing me access to the site for the upcoming $6 million PGA Turning Stone Resort Championship (Oct. 2-5). This time I was not there to play and I certainly hadn't come for the breakfast of cold bagels, little containers of cream cheese, coffee, apples and way-too-sweet energy bars.
I had enrolled in the three-day Dave Pelz Scoring Game Golf School.
By 8 a.m. our group of eight students was gathered in the clubhouse.
"Two kinds of people come to a Pelz school," said Ty Waldron, one of our two instructors. "The person who gets near the green in two and makes a six and the person who hits the green but can't make the one putt." Sounded familiar.
"It's a process. There is no quick fix," Ty said. "You need to know how to practice properly. If you don't, it gives us more job security," he laughed. "You owe it to yourself to practice until the light comes on."
We went around the room stating our goals. Terrance, 16, a self-assured young man from Hong Kong, was here to improve his putting so he could beat his father, who had challenged him to a match at the end of the summer.
Preston, from Houston and also 16, was taking the school with his father, who said: "I want to be able to beat my son. Learning to chip would really help."
Bruce from Manhattan, Tom from Saratoga Springs, Bill from Albany and Fred, a local accountant, already saw the short game as the key to playing and scoring better.
For the next three days, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. we would go back and forth between classroom instruction, video analysis and hitting pitches, chips, bunker shots and putts on one of the most impressive practice areas in the state.
We learned drills for all the short shots, often incorporating Pelz-developed helpers like putting tracks, a metronome to establish tempo, bunker boards and putting clips which showed whether or not we hit the sweet spot.
For the most part, what they were teaching was pretty basic stuff: swinging in plane, controlling distance by length of swing, proper ball placement, establishing tempo and developing routines or rituals before hitting. The trick was learning the drills that would help us undo bad habits and establish better ones.
"You could bury a squirrel in that divot ... hold that finish," called out Rick Maglio, our second instructor who patrolled up and down the line as we practiced.
The first and third days, we were video-taped. Back in the classroom, we viewed these videos and received comments. Nothing like looking at a rather unflattering picture of yourself attempting to make what you thought was a perfectly presentable pitch or bunker shot. Seeing is believing.
On the putting green, we practiced a lot of simple drills. Pelz teaches the pendulum straight back straight through motion, the swing coming from the forearms, not shoulders. We learned how to read greens and measure distance.
Finally it was time to go home. We were tired. I had bandages on my fingers, but I was pumped. I understood the school was just a jump-start to get things rolling, and that my work had just begun. "The key is we want to help you keep from reverting to old habits when you leave," Waldron said.
I also knew my putter was 3 inches too long. "Almost everyone putts with a putter that is too long," said Maglio.
I came away with two additional thoughts: My next purchases would be a 64-degree wedge - it was just too sweet for those short carries over bunkers - and I had to get a medicine ball to practice and groove my weight shift and rotation.
And about that light coming on? One month later I'm not quite there but at least the night light is glowing at about 60 watts - it's wasn't even turned on before. And I had my putter cut down and finally finished 18 holes without a three putt. Never did that before.
My chipping? This was one of the more awkward shots I struggled with at school. Now it's becoming my money shot.
Another thing: I still miss hit a few every round, but I'm doing it less and at least now I know why it happens and can focus on correcting the next shot.
Learning a golf swing is kind of like driving a stick shift. You will peel out, stall and drive with a lot of effort until one day you won't remember even changing a gear ... it will be instinctive.
I don't know about you, but I always did have trouble driving a stick shift. Foot on pedal, shift, lurch, stall, jerk. But now I'm ready to give it a good try. I'm thinking a Maserati Gran Turismo. Convertible. Red.
The 150-watt bulb will come on. I'm betting on it.
September 8, 2008