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Sports: Golf Camps

Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

A sliced tee-shot, coupled with a deep-throated moan of frustration, was all too familiar to Dan Ackerson, the president of MCI Telecommunications Inc. Like so many of America's 28 million golfers, he believed he could study a few magazines or videos, take some lessons, then launch golf balls into the next postal code. Just like his control over corporate business, Ackerson didn't count on failure. But even though hitting a stationary ball looked so easy, Ackerson invariably wound up like Indiana Jones, wading through water, woods and poison ivy to search for yet another lost ball.

"My grip, my stance, my backswing--everything was such a mess I was elated when I didn't lose every ball in my bag," recalls Ackerson, who on "good" days scored in the 120s. "Playing golf just wasn't enjoyable. I constantly felt embarrassed."

Ackerson's lament is all too common. Though the game is analyzed as exhaustively as the stock market, self-anointed gurus sell everything from theories to bizarre gizmos--For instance, a fishhook dangling from a headband and attached to a golfer's crotch is one way to keep the head focused on the ball. Despite all the outlandish golfer's aids, the perfect swing remains elusive. Instead of clarity, there is only the Stengelese babble of conflicting tips and mechanics, leaving average golfers disgusted with instruction and doomed to the rough, emotionally if not in reality.

Golf schools, however, with their intensive shot making and confidence building regimens, can work stroke-saving wonders, particularly for golfers shooting in the 90s or higher. Optimally operating at a one to six, teacher to student ratio, the better academies also benefit more competent players, refining every aspect of their game from full swing fundamentals to the finesse needed on and around the green. And while this two- three- or five-day experience evokes images of hitting balls until semiconsciousness, self-improvement usually comes within a chip shot of an ultra-luxurious resort.

Nothing is easy in golf. Over 100 schools have sprung up in the wake of golf's surging popularity, a tribute to some late-onset baby boomer epiphany that jogging and health clubs are bad for the knees while soft, green fairways and padded cushions on the golf cart are partners for life. That means choosing the right school, one suited to your talent and temperament, is a challenge. Some effort is required as a prospective enrollee should weigh the student to teacher ratios, inquire about an instructor's credentials and, above all, be wary of schools with marquee-name logos. While these big name venues hold out promise of instruction with a famous teacher or pro, a student might at most receive a pep talk from that celebrity, then be shunted off for classes with an unheralded, freckle-faced assistant. Of course, the bottom line must be considered in the decision too; nothing in golf is inexpensive, especially the better things in golf...but if you've read this far, you already knew that.

Instead of suffering such disappointment, MCI's Dan Ackerson has shaved 30 strokes off his game in five visits to the Royal Golf Academy at the Port Royal Golf and Racquet Club on Hilton Head island, South Carolina. Now breaking 90, and confident of even more improvement, he encountered two teachers that "don't overburden you with video tapes, intimidating lingo and a crash course in body mechanics." In fact, he never actually thought he was being taught. "Their approach is that simple and relaxed," says Ackerson of Keith Marks Sr. and Jr., the camp's top teaching professionals.

These earthy, plain-talking men, "Swing Doctors" to the likes of Michael Jordan and former White House chief of staff Sam Skinner, are classicists, emphasizing a return to golf's basics. The elder Marks learned golf's fundamentals from such legends as Henry Picard and Jack Grout (Jack Nicklaus's tutor), and now he follows their lead by initially stressing "a key secret" to the proper swing--good foot-work and body balance.

Believing this sequenced weight shift from the left to the right side promotes long, soaring shots, the Marks typically work on ankle, leg and hip movements for hours. This repetitive drill, without clubs in hand, and usually done in groups of six students or less amid a steady stream of one-liners from Academy staffers, could easily bore more accomplished players. But Keith Marks Jr., a teacher for 12 years, insists, "By refining certain essentials, a mid-range player can become a good player. Once I'm sure the foundation is there, I guarantee a 100 percent improvement in the flight of everyone's golf ball, and that's something I can do real quickly."

In stark contrast to most schools, Marks pursues that goal without having students sweltering in the sun, pounding ball after ball. This is a not a boot camp where enrollees must rush between driving range, putting green and sand bunkers. All aspects of the game are scrutinized, but only after proper swing motion and wrist action are firmly etched in the students' heads. Plus the instruction occurs at a languid pace, in a chummy, hospitable Southern atmosphere conducive to beneficial and substantive talks with the Markses.

Both men are well-suited for this role of confidant/psychoanalyst. They understand there are huge individual differences in golf swings, and that transformations come over time, not in a three-day course. Their approach, consequently, is keyed to reducing emotional pressures, as they set "small objectives." This can mean swinging into a tee and making consistent contact, or actually using golf balls and easily advancing them with short irons. The most troublesome club in a golf bag, the driver, isn't even discussed until the last day of classes.

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