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.
As Marks Jr. says of the Royal Golf Academy's game plan, "We do everything very gradually to instill confidence. During the first two days I'm just intent on the shape of the swing, some iron play, a golfer's meeting basic challenges. I know most golf factories stress the splashy: students muscling balls at the range with their drivers. But this doesn't straighten out old, bad habits. It's as the great Tommy Bolt once said, 'Drivers are for professional use only."'
Rules, though, are meant to be broken. At least according to Marks's own version of "dessert."
Following long hours of instruction, Marks accompanies students to one of Port Royal's three championship courses, located on the remnants of a Civil War stronghold. Meandering along weeping willow-lined fairways--the first special treat--he expounds upon the game's secrets and occasionally, he'll even bend that Bolt axiom and allow students to rip a driver for distance.
But most importantly, he discusses course management skills--shot selection, when to take and avoid risks, etiquette--and this too distinguishes Royal Golf from the pack. Most schools don't take students onto a course, only sending them home with a bag tag and a pat on the back.
"We're old-fashioned here. We don't promote ourselves as miracle workers, but we do make every effort to give students all the essentials," says Marks, who conducts numerous outings for MCI execs and clients annually. "My big thing is the swing, helping people get the ball into the air. This generates confidence and the discovery that golf isn't torture, that it can be a lot of fun."
A three-day visit to the Academy costs $850. For reservations call (803) 689-1300 or (800) 277-5588. Walking distance from the school, there is a five Diamond Westin Resort, a sprawling beach-front retreat featuring tennis, health club and conference facilities with some of Hilton Head's tastiest seafood.
Of course, there are other golf academies around the country. Many are just as effective in creating a positive golf experience. CIGAR AFICIONADO conducted a survey of the various possibilities, and has come up with five other suggestions for instructional camps that offer a variety of techniques and emphasis for the struggling golfer.
GRAND CYPRESS ACADEMY OF GOLF
GRAND CYPRESS RESORT
In the spirit of nearby Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, this is the home of "Stickman," golf's technological marvel. The brainchild of Dr. Ralph Mann, the Stickman is billed as the perfect swing model. It's actually a recorded composite image of over 50 top Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour players, and for instructional purposes, your own videotaped swing is superimposed against this ideal--with perhaps disheartening results.
Kevin McKinney, the sales manager for the school, admits all this high-tech, biomechanical wizardry may be intimidating to Joe Average Golfer. Yet he still insists that "the immediate feedback from the swing model, coupled with the personalized touch of our five full-time instructors [only eight students per group] ensures a valuable golf experience. The Stickman is a student's friend, an instant replay of your faults and a great learning tool."
The instruction here is constant: three full days at various chipping greens and practice holes. Senior Tour pro Phil Rodgers frequently appears to lend a personal touch to the activities. Yet there's invariably more work in front of a video screen as this program reduces everything to a science, even the time-honored "feel" of the putting stroke.
Escaping the microseconds and digitized dazzle is possible. Along with 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf, this widely acclaimed 1500-acre resort offers numerous creature comforts, including ,a racquet club, horseback riding and inviting Mediterranean-style villas.
But the most distinctive feature here is still the Stickman. You either graduate with a new appreciation for science, or shake your head despairingly, thinking it's all Mickey Mouse.
Three days at Grand Cypress including accommodations, lunch and four hours of instruction per day is $1520 for one person, $2530 for two.
The same package with eight hours of daily instruction is $2170 for an individual, $3830 for two.
Call (407) 239-1975 for more information.
THE DORAL RESORT AND GOLF LEARNING CENTER
Here Beauty and the Beast reign.
Always bedeviling, there is the internationally celebrated Blue Monster course. An adventure at 6,939 yards, it's known for treacherous water holes, and is one of five courses at this 2400-acre pleasure oasis.
Then there's Jim McLean, one of those rare instructors who's more concerned with teaching than in marketing himself. He's worked with such PGA Tour stars as Steve Elkington, Tom Kite and Peter Jacobsen. But touting an "individually oriented approach without any absolutes," he also helps the average golfers tame their monsters.
"Along with my eight instructors, I work real hard on an athletic move, a sequence of motion that's a shift, rotation, hit idea," says McLean, who in his five-day ($2250) program offers a highly desirable three to one, student to teacher ratio. "But I don't just focus on the full swing. The short game, mental attitude and course management skills are equally vital. It's a self-realization approach, one that gives students strategy and confidence to reduce ten to 20 handicaps to a single digit.
That's McLean's special province--the competent golfers who are willing to work hard. And they do at his school, refining skills at the practice range, then playing the two courses with a team of instructors.
Another attraction of McLean's school is Doral's own version of a 19th hole, the sumptuous Saturnia International Spa. It's a deluxe destination devoted to stress management, nutrition and a panoply of therapies. After a week here, what with "de-stress" facials, imagery training and fitness programs, out-dueling the Blue Monster will only be one satisfaction. More critically, a graduate will again be ready to take on the world.
Rates for Saturnia and Doral Resort packages differ. Call either (305) 593-6030 or (305) 592-2000 for information. The Jim McLean/Doral Golf Learning Center also has two differently priced two- three- and five-day programs. For details and availability, call (305) 591-6409.
LA COSTA RESORT & GOLF SCHOOL
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
Customized to personal needs.
That's the chief allure of working with Carl Welty, the grandmaster of videotaping and adviser to the likes of Curtis Strange and Fred Couples.
A professional since 1965, Welty, 51, maintains that true learning only comes in intimate groups--private settings where teacher and student can effectively communicate.
"Here a golfer doesn't mix with other people on a range. A student and perhaps a buddy or two are the entire three-day school," boasts Welty, who's aided by one assistant/cameraman. "We don't try to work with loads of people, we want to personalize everything." That one-on-one instruction begins with the soft-spoken Welty playing six or seven holes with a student, videotaping the student's every move then analyzing that tape back at the practice center. As at Grand Cypress, this process could be traumatic to beginners, or lead them to pursue unrealistic goals. But Welty is an expert at massaging egos: a serene figure who can lower even the highest of handicaps.
He helps golfers do that by paying special attention to the short game, those always difficult sand and wedge shots. "I'll show a student Tom Kite hitting five or six sand shots, then I'll contrast that with the student's attempts, and again Kite's," explains Welty. "I have the largest videotape collection in the world, and this methodology gives the student positive examples. Plus, when he goes home, he gets a tape of all these contrasts so he has a chance for I00 percent retention."
Welty's approach has won high praise from students. Dr. William Northrup of the Minneapolis Heart Institute was so enamored with the school, he wrote Welty, "It was a privilege to have you as a teacher. I number you amongst the best teachers I have ever been exposed to. You possess all the great qualities of great teachers. It was amazing to watch you analyze my swing...you obviously enjoy stimulating and motivating students."
Welty is an apostle of visualization, the sports psychology theory of success that encourages adherents to imagine positive results. And the recently refurbished La Costa Resort is certainly conducive to pleasant visions, offering an inviting spa, private residences, seven restaurants and nightly entertainment.
Instruction is also a bargain. While most schools cater to flocks of students, and charge well over $2,000, this program is $1,800 for three days or $900 per person if two buddies decide to split the bill.
Reservations for the school can be secured by calling (619) 438-9111 or (800) 653-7888.
JOHN JACOBS PRACTICAL GOLF SCHOOLS
First, the negatives.
This school teaches more than 10,000 students a year, and dozens of people are usually poised on a driving range, hitting balls until their hands and bodies ache.
Affable instructors try to personalize the back to basics teaching, but the school's general approach is assembly line. Groups of golfers practice the full swing, chipping or putting for an allotted time, then each group moves to a different activity. Soon, it's time to switch again, to make yet another transition.
But operating at attractive resorts nationwide, John Jacobs does give students a wide range of getaway choices, and a golf school can be a time to enjoy more than lessons. Whether it's at a seaside retreat or within driving distance of the Colorado Rockies, the school does have value, focusing on the inarguable ABC's of posture, club head path and angle of contact.
Craig Bunker, one of the school's roving instructors, is another big plus. He tirelessly stalks the driving range, offering suggestions. A teacher for two decades, he'll cure your slice.
"Craig is a real solid guy, a no-nonsense pro," says student Frank Brennan, a broker with New York's Cantor and Fitzgerald. "But the school is primarily for beginners." For information and reservations, call (800) 472-5007.
DAVID LEADBETTER GOLF ACADEMY
David Leadbetter isn't hot, he's sizzling.
Today's most sought after teacher, he's arrived at this pinnacle mainly because of his two star pupils: Nick Faldo won the British Open this past summer while Nick Price was PGA champion.
Leadbetter's instructional approach also has been hyped in numerous magazine articles. Dubbing him the "King of Swing," Golf World gushes about his teaching magic, while Golf Digest repeatedly splashes him across its cover.
PGA Tour pros flock to the Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando to have him reconstruct their swings. For example, David Frost had never won a tourney until working with Leadbetter, and after Bob Tway paid a visit, presto, he ended a long drought by winning the 1989 Memorial.
Average golfers can also share in the magic at two-day schools, but it is costly: $3,000 for 8-hour sessions, which comprise six students in a class, Leadbetter and two other instructors. He doesn't conduct these schools on weekends, only Thursdays and Fridays, and all teaching is done at the practice facility, not on Lake Nona's championship course.
Leadbetter may indeed be the ruling swing impresario, the answer to all your golfing problems. But there's also one other catch in playing his special game: There's often a long waiting list, so plan early and good luck. Call (407) 857-8276 for reservations.
Edward Kiersh is a freelance writer based in New York.