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Clubs: $200,000 Game: still stinks

Expensive tools are worthless if you don't work to improve your golf. Invest in golf school first.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- The most ardent of players relish a saying that more than sums up their infatuation with the game: A bad day of golf is better than a good day of work.

But any golfer worth his titanium-head driver knows work is required to become a better player.

Drives don't magically sail down the fairway. Pitch shots don't suddenly stop next to the cup. Putts don't drop from all over the green without a plan that helps you get better.

Welcome to golf school.

And don't bother showing up if you're not willing to endure some good, old fashioned hard work.

A recent visit to the Troon Golf Institute at the Westin Innisbrook Resort was a good reminder of what it takes to improve a middling game.

Warning: This is harder than purchasing the newest technology.

"I think more people are tending to want to buy their game rather than wanting to work on their game," said Lew Smither III, the institute's director of instruction. "It's ever-popular: distance, distance, distance is the way to success.

"Look at the ERC II (a Callaway high-tech driver). There is already demand. People are trying to buy their game. But there still is a person on the other end who must manipulate that club. People look at it like they're not at fault. But even if you spend $200,000 on clubs, you still have to swing them and make contact."

Why a golf school? According to the National Golf Foundation, only 10 percent of golfers in the United States can break 90.

Why not individual lessons? Those are ideal, especially when taken frequently. But a school exposes you to all aspects of the game in a short period while also allowing you to get onto a course immediately and apply what you've learned.

Schools come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as short as a day, as long as a week. Prices vary depending on whether you commute or stay at the resort offering the school. The most common school at Innisbrook is a four-day, three-night package that costs $1,275 per person, double occupancy.

The Innisbrook school took place over a three-day weekend, and by the time it was over, the participants were nursing aches and pains and reaching for Advil.

But no aspect of the game was left uncovered. Work included short irons, long irons, pitch shots, full shots, drivers, fairway woods, bunker shots, chipping and putting. Even segments on physical conditioning were offered with the resort's fitness guru, Lynn Colombo. In retrospect those sessions would have done more good before arrival. The golf alone was some workout.

The weekend included on-course instruction, with a round of golf as the conclusion.

"Before you even go to a school, there need to be goals and objectives that you want to accomplish," said Smither, who has worked at Innisbrook for 16 years and in August was named to Golf Digest's list of Florida's top teachers. "You need to decide what you want to do to maximize yourself, whether it's just learning the game, to making better contact with the ball, to lowering your score.

"What level are you at? Once you start to evaluate, you have a nice goal to accomplish. (The goal) could be as simple as wanting to make contact. The next guy might want to improve his short game. If you don't have (a goal), it's a state of confusion."

This particular class was broken up into two groups of four players each. Smither worked with one group on the range, videotaping each player's swing. (As bad as you think your swing is, looking at it on videotape will really make you cringe. The good news is, you get to take the tape home.)

The other group practiced pitch shots from various yardages with the help of instructor Dawn Mercer.

Mercer has been at Innisbrook for 13 years, and like Smither, she has seen just about everything among struggling golfers. "Sometimes I feel like I'm on Candid Camera," she said.

The biggest problem among golfers?

"Tension. People swing way too hard and too fast," she said. "They try to do everything with their arms and hands and shoulders. They don't take advantage of weight transfer. The ball sits there, and we make this thrashing motion to hit it. My goal is to get them to hold the club lighter, swing easier, which allows the club to swing faster."

One theme emerged throughout the three days of instruction: Try to develop repeatable habits whether you're hitting full shots, chip shots or putts.

For example, when hitting pitch shots from 80 yards in, how hard do you swing? How far do you take the club back? Which club should you use?

Smither and Mercer teach a simple approach: Use the same swing on your lob wedge, sand wedge and pitching wedge; vary where you grip the club; and learn the distance you hit the ball for each club and grip position. Then take the same swing each time.

"We're trying to simplify things as much as we can, knowing we can get into the technical things if we have to," Smither said. "Let's get something simple and make it as repetitive as we can. I think students can adapt to that so much easier than the other methods. And it works far better for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to practice these moves.

"In pitching the ball, if I know I have to take (the club) back hip high and go through -- and I vary the length on the club to change distances -- part of the equation is simplified. You can just make the same swing back and through."

Keep in mind other factors, too. It does no good to show up with preconceived notions about the game and an unwillingness to try something new. Through the course of the weekend, you'll hit hundreds, possibly thousands, of balls. All the techniques will not feel natural.

Going in with a good attitude helps, too. Mercer has seen plenty of players stifled by their inability to deal with a woman teaching them.

"It doesn't happen so much now, but once in a while," said Mercer, a teaching professional certified by the PGA of America and the LPGA. "I once had a guy who was 72 and used to be a low handicap golfer. He came to the school, and it was obvious that he wanted nothing to do with me.

"He said, "I don't have a problem with you being a professional; I have a problem with you being a girl.' The second day, we were working on bunker shots, and I jumped in and started demonstrating. He said, "I thought you were supposed to make them.' The very next shot, I did and said, "Is that what you mean?' He didn't say anything the rest of the school."

Mercer teaches women-only schools. Also, arrangements can be made to get the instructor you want.

Florida has more than 50 golf schools offering all aspects of the game and targeting all income and playing levels.

Instructors say the key is taking what you learn and try to apply it as soon as possible, whether it be in front of a mirror at home, in the garage, at the driving range or on a course.

"It's a challenge," Mercer said of teaching. "Nothing thrills me more than for me to tell someone two things and their face lights up and they're able to hit the ball.

"You can have a lot of money, but if you can't make contact and hit the ball, it will drive you nuts. ... So to see improvement is a big thrill. That's the biggest satisfaction in this, having people feel comfortable with themselves."

-- For information on the schools at the Troon Golf Institute, call (727) 942-5283.

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