Old-School Golf Instruction Gives Way to New Techniques that Can Teach You Even if You're Not Ben Hogan
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.
Jim McLean is another swing guru who teaches numerous tour players, including Brad Faxon, senior tour dynamo Dana Quigley and former U.S. Open champion Liselotte Neumann. He is best known for one of the eight golf books he has authored, The X Factor Swing: And Other Secrets to Power and Distance, a tome about the generation of power. While McLean has a reputation for creating distance in his students' swings, his schools are as comprehensive and based on fundamentals as anyone's. McLean's main operation is at the posh Doral Resort in Miami. New schools have just opened at the Doral's sister properties, Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan, and PGA West and the La Quinta Golf Scool in Palm Springs, California. (The schools work with Doral and the other resorts to provide complete golf packages.) McLean also operates several smaller satellite academies.
McLean's schools offer a wide range of programs, from an intensive one-day experience through a six-day immersion. With the exception of the single-day program, all of McLean's schedules emphasize on-course play. "It's total game teaching, all aspects of the game, including long, short, mental and management skills," says McLean. "We give you exercises to do at home and feature a lot of on-course instruction, like recovery shots."
McLean has an uncanny ability to analyze a student's swing quickly and correctly, a trait he passes on to his top-notch staff. Referring to his book The Eight-Step Swing, he says, "The eight steps is our way of analyzing the swing: what is the club doing and what is the body doing. We try to teach a sequence, from the very first move, so that we're not just fixing an effect of your swing."
McLean's facility has ample room for all aspects of the game, covered ranges for bad weather, and the signature Superstation, a structure resembling a four-bay garage, where video and computer equipment are used to analyze students' swings. While the video-editing software is not quite as advanced as that of Nicklaus Flick's, it has some unique features, like the ability to print stills, as well as video, for quick portable reference when practicing. A sophisticated computer measures club-head speed, point of impact on the club face, and launch angle. The school maintains an impressive library of swings (taped each year of the competitors in the Doral Ryder Open) to compare with students'.
The schools feature the extremely low ratio of three students per instructor, and in signature schools hosted by McLean himself, it drops to 2:1. The three-day option is the most popular and comprehensive of the regularly scheduled itineraries, and is offered every weekend of the year at Doral (the four-day school consists of half-days so guests can enjoy the resort or play golf on their own, and has fewer hours of instruction than the three-day). There is also a two-day short game school and a six-day Player's School, which includes four rounds with instruction, but is available only to men with a handicap of 10 or less and women rated at 15 or less. There are women-only schools, junior schools, and schools hosted by golf legends Jackie Burke and Calvin Peete. Finally, for those wanting to unlock McLean's "X-Factor Swing," he offers two-day Power Schools, not recommended for players with handicaps north of 20.
No name is more synonymous with golf instruction than David Leadbetter's. The first to rise to prominence as a swing guru to the pros, Leadbetter is best known for his long working relationship with multiple-major winner Nick Faldo, although the two have now parted ways. He also instructs Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Nick Price. True to form, when I visited Leadbetter at his home academy at Lake Nona, near Orlando, Florida, he was working with tour player Mike Hulbert.
Years ago, Leadbetter established a reputation as someone low handicappers went to see to perfect their games. But with the opening of more and more schools, many resort-based, Leadbetter's methods have become accessible, and he is just as happy teaching hackers and families. "There's no one swing that does it," he says. "I give the teachers the freedom to teach everyone differently, and we use a lot of drills so people can get 'it' before they leave. I've been labeled a mechanical teacher because of my work with Faldo, but the opposite is true. If the person is mechanically oriented like Faldo, that's the approach we take. But I've had great success with all types of players. Part of my philosophy is to teach people enough about their own swings so that they continue to improve after they leave. It's a matter of giving people an understanding of their tendencies and a blueprint for improvement. It's got to become instinctive, second nature, when you leave the practice tee for the course. We give you a feel for what you should be doing, because you just can't be thinking about 10 swing mechanics out on the golf course."
Indeed, Leadbetter's instructors were the most easygoing I encountered. They focused on simple solutions rather than rebuilding, and used drills selected to be of value when things go bad, which after golf lessons, they inevitably do. In the same vein, the courses are largely unstructured, allowing you to decide how your time should be spent. No bell signals the end of full swing and start of short game instruction. "I'm not a big fan of housing two hundred people and a bunch of teachers. I just don't see how you can learn much in that kind of atmosphere. It's individualized here."
Leadbetter is moving his operation from Lake Nona to a state-of-the-art facility at Champion's Gate, a nearby residential and resort community that will feature a new Greg Norman-designed golf course and two hotels. The new school will include a short-game area larger than the entire Lake Nona practice area and new video equipment (the one department in which his current setup is lacking). The facility will have a separate area for professional players, but is aimed squarely at the weekend golfer.
With more than a dozen locations as far-flung as Bangkok, Leadbetter may be the biggest player in the high-end golf school game, but attendees, receiving personalized instruction, would never know it. Like McLean, Leadbetter uses only full-time instructors, trained in-house, and maintains a 3:1 or lower ratio.
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.
The school teaches all major aspects of the game, with a heavy emphasis on video review, and, like other top facilities, has dedicated short-game areas, its own building and classrooms, and a covered range for inclement weather. The school is also flexible in its methods, helping students develop a workable swing, rather then the perfect swing. But it is the setting that gives the school its advantage, at a premier resort with unmatched golf (eight 18-hole courses) and other nongolf amenities. Teacher-student ratios climb as high as 5:1; for pure instruction, the other schools enjoy an edge.
"There are a lot of advantages to attending a golf school versus private instruction," says Jim McLean. "You are away from home, totally devoted to your golf game. There's more energy and there are more instructors, so you might find better chemistry than with just one. You do a lot of drills throughout the school, so you can find the best ones for you, which you can't do in an hour lesson. We'll spend at least half an hour per day just working on body posture and position, which you won't get in any lesson." Leadbetter agrees: "In an hour or a half hour lesson, all you can work on is tips. As far as I'm concerned, tips are for horse racing. We work on fundamentals."
Larry Olmsted, who writes frequently about golf, travel and outdoor recreation, lives in Vermont
GOLF'S HIGHER EDUCATION
NICKLAUS FLICK GAME IMPROVEMENT Three-day resort course is held at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, Fla., Cabo del Sol, Mexico, Lake Las Vegas, Nev., and The Renegade at Desert Mountain, Ariz. ($2,795$3,445, double occupancy with lodging, $300$400 more for signature schools with Jim Flick). Three-day women's school available at Lake Las Vegas and Boca Raton ($2,595). One-day Faults & Cures program held in 13 cities nationwide ($350 per person, $695 for signature sessions, no lodging). Two-day Playing & Scoring schools in six cities ($1,995 per person, $2,495 for signature sessions, no lodging). 800-642-5528, www.nicklaus.com.