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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

(continued from page 2)

Rick Smith, director of golf at the acclaimed Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan, is another celebrity teacher offering multiple school locations. Instructor to two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen and several other top PGA Tour players, Smith is also the only prominent instructor who is active in golf-course architecture. At Treetops, his main location, he designed 45 of the 81 holes, including a nine-hole par-3 course that is considered by many to be the best such layout in the nation. Smith, who hosts a televised instructional show, "Rick Smith's Signature Series," also offers academies at two other locations.

The hallmarks of Smith's program are the low instructor-to-student ratio and the small group size. Most programs have six students and three instructors, while some are limited to just four students and two teachers. This 2:1 ratio is as close as you can get to private instruction, and at a reasonable price. Schools range from one to three days, covering both the short game and full swing, using video and including many of the same features as the other top programs.

Jim Flick is known for simplifying the golf swing, Jim McLean for accelerating it and David Leadbetter for perfecting it, but no instructor has established as much of a reputation for being a specialist as Dave Pelz. He teaches only the aspects of the game that are played from 100 yards in, but to hear his side of the story, this is the only part of the game that matters. Pelz has statistics on his side, and the ex-NASA rocket scientist has taken a strictly analytical approach to golf, with only one result in mind: lower scores. It's widely known as the Dave Pelz short-game school, but the official title is the Dave Pelz Scoring Game School, and getting the ball in the hole in the least strokes is what it is all about.

With decades of research and endless pie-shaped graphs to back it up, Pelz preaches his mantra, "golf is 60 to 65 percent short game," to anyone who will listen, and Pelz loyalists are almost cult-like in their devotion to his teachings. The group includes more than 100 tour players who have attended the academy. If you recall Vijay Singh effortlessly and nonchalantly getting up and down after splashing his approach shot into a pond at Augusta this spring, you witnessed one of Pelz's star pupils. Pelz is famous for his putting expertise, but the wedge shots like the one Singh hit at the water's edge are Pelz's bread and butter, because his method takes "feel" out of the equation. By teaching him how to use the larger muscles that are less influenced by the biological by-products of stress, faster heartbeat and more adrenaline, Pelz allowed Singh to effortlessly follow up a very bad shot with a very good one and thereby secure a Masters victory this year.

Pelz teaches pitch shots, chip shots and putting, and nothing else. While the short game has traditionally been taught as a miniature version of the full swing, Pelz sees it as a completely different game, and teaches a unique swing for pitches, with a different swing plane. He has students compute distances for each of their wedge shots, both with differently lofted wedges and different length backswings; the idea is to give them at least a dozen different precise distances they can hit wedges without employing feel or creativity.

"You get to the point where you just can't score any better on the long game, no matter how many balls you hit or lessons you take," says Chip Oat, an investment manager from New York City who has attended Pelz's school twice. "You max out your talent. I'm 47, and after 35 years of taking lessons and banging balls, you realize that you're only going to hit so many greens in regulation per round. I finally decided to come here to find another way to score better. I'm embarrassed by the scores I shoot given how well I drive it, and this was the only answer."

There is no doubt that the mechanical Pelz methods work, and the row of high handicappers at his school dropping lofted shot after lofted shot into small target nets at various distances bears him out. But beginners should consider this caveat before signing up: no matter how many times you are told that a putt counts just as much as a drive, there is no substitute for a decent swing in golf, and the sport is no fun, no matter how good a putter you are, if you cannot hit fairways off the tee and reach some greens in regulation.

Pelz has developed numerous training tools for putting that give players feedback, allowing them to make proper corrections so as to reinforce only good habits. One of his favorite sayings is "practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent." To make students permanently good, Pelz lets them take home one of his putting trainers, and his instructors even use videotape to analyze putting strokes. Unlike other golf schools, the program consists of almost half classroom instruction, which can be rather dry, featuring overhead projection of slides that say things like "putter path errors are transferred at 20 percent efficiency to ball line errors."

Pelz's three-day resort-based school is his most popular, and he also has an on-course school open only to alumni of his three-day academy. One-day short-game clinics visit dozens of courses nationwide. He has permanent academies at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, the only property in the world with both the Pelz and Flick schools in residence, the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, PGA West, and the Club at Cordillera in Colorado, where Pelz designed a nine-hole short-game course that students use.

Besides these big names with multiple locations, numerous individual, resort-based golf schools offer instruction. Quality varies widely. One worth considering is the Pinehurst Golf Advantage School at the venerable Pinehurst Resort, the nation's largest and arguably best golf resort. The Advantage School has been around for many years and enjoys an unbeatable location. Packages include daily play with instructors on several of the resort's acclaimed layouts, but alas, not Number Two, a U.S. Open venue and one of the world's top courses. For a combination golf vacation and learning experience the Advantage School is unique, offering half-day four-day schools that allow students to alternate learning with playing full rounds on their own.

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