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Driver's Ed

Old-School Golf Instruction Gives Way to New Techniques that Can Teach You Even if You're Not Ben Hogan
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

A few years ago I attended a weeklong session at a Vermont golf school that was based on the old model of golf instruction and had received substantial acclaim. The curriculum was based on two ideals: the perfect swing and the complete game. Even if you were a single-digit handicapper, the school set about tearing your game apart and rebuilding it on the model of the perfect swing. Then you spent hours practicing every shot that could be encountered during a round of golf: sidehill lies above and below your feet; sidehill lies above and below your feet on a downslope; sidehill lies above and below your feet on an upslope; lies buried under the lip of the bunker; chips from patches of bare dirt--you get the picture.

The problem was that all these shots were taught to a group of golfers who had poor fundamental swings and could barely hit the ball when teed up. After the school I immediately reverted to my old, comfortable swing, which fit my body but did not produce good results. And trying to incorporate the shot-making skills on the course was like drawing a blank on a final exam: was it weight on the front foot and open the club face, or play the ball back in the stance and keep the weight on the back foot? The bottom line was a week's vacation and a goodly amount of money wasted without an iota of improvement.

But that was the old school. Golf instruction has evolved, and today's prevailing logic is that there is no one swing. The new philosophy recognizes that not everyone is Ben Hogan, and not everyone, possibly not anyone, can swing the club like he could, no matter how many lessons they take. A swing that works is a good swing, even Jim Furyk's unorthodox cut. This does not mean you'll be encouraged to develop creative, looping, outside-in swings. It means that at the best schools, the fundamentals will be adapted to your habits, your body type, and your strength, coordination and flexibility limits. It also means that time will be spent on what you want to work on and what you need to work on, not arcane shots that you know you will never practice. As with any other kind of learning, from foreign languages to skiing, the golf swing is best taught in a series of building blocks, adding a little more after you master each step. If your experience with golf lessons is a hundred different mechanical thoughts from the takeaway to the follow-through, it is time for a top golf school.

But even as today's top schools share that enlightened philosophy of teaching, each also has its own individual approach. I checked out a number of them to learn the new tricks in teaching an old game.

Most celebrity golf instructors feel they are qualified because of what they teach tour pros. Jim Flick thinks the opposite. He feels he can teach you because of what he has learned from tour players. By working with some of the best, including his business partner, Jack Nicklaus, widely considered the best golfer of all time, Flick has learned a thing or two about the swing, including why most people can't master it.

"Most of us have been taught to work on the shoulder turn," explains Flick. "If you swing by trying to make a shoulder turn, it's the worst thing you can do. You get the body in the right position, but the club comes in over the top and produces a duck hook or a pushed slice. The one-piece takeaway will ruin your game. Thinking about keeping your left arm straight will also hurt you. If these are the things you have been working on, you simply cannot make this work. I should know. I wasted a lifetime trying to make this swing work. I became a much better teacher as soon as I stopped teaching like a teacher and started teaching like a player.

"I want to sell you a pendulum swing," says Flick. "The hands are the most important things in golf, and as teachers we in the industry have done a pitiful job. As teachers we try to get your body to make all these movements. We're engineers and we've got it all backwards: the good players know it's all about swinging the instrument."

Flick's philosophy is simple: the traditional swing elements, the shoulder turn and driving the hips through on the downswing, should be the effect of the swing, not the cause. He dismisses the majority of teachers as ineffective because they try teaching the same things tour players do to average people who simply cannot execute. Flick's proof is in his students, who, in the large class I attended, hit better shots than they ever expected, felt they had gotten far more than their money's worth and unanimously agreed that his system worked.

The format of the Nicklaus Flick Game Improvement program is typical of destination golf schools. The standard program is a three-day resort-based course covering most fundamental aspects of the game (but not those odd, once-every-three-round shots). Classes are organized by ability, with an average of 4.5 students an instructor, and consists of a series of sessions each day covering putting, short game and bunker shots, and full swings with woods and irons. Lectures cover such topics as the mental game, course management and flexibility. Like most destination golf schools, the program also includes on-course play with instructors, complimentary access to the host course, and materials, including workbooks and videotape. Nicklaus Flick offers the largest variety of resort experiences, based at world-class venues like the Boca Raton Resort and Club, in Florida; Lake Las Vegas Resort; Cabo del Sol, in Los Cabos, Mexico; and The Renegade Course at Desert Mountain, Arizona. A one-day Faults & Cures program visits 13 cities nationwide, and a traveling two-day on-course scoring school focuses on the short game and course management.

One of the trademarks of Flick's program is that it is geared towards teaching you to practice. There is a full session on making practice time productive, on getting feedback and on developing a preshot routine. "If I told you I could fix you in three days, I'd be lying," he says. "What we can do is get you started on a program towards improvement." Instructors include specific drills chosen for each student on a comprehensive personalized videotape, which is illustrated, narrated and updated each day of the school, so it can serve as a surrogate teacher when you get home. Every golf teacher uses video, but none has anything on Flick, whose teachers worked with software developers to create a proprietary system.

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