I thought I was going to golf school, so the equipment on the practice tee confused me. There were soccer balls, strange contraptions of PVC, full-length mirrors, blocks of wood and strips of surgical tubing. Three days later, I was relieved that I'd been tied up only once.
Despite the huge popularity of golf here-60 courses, eight practice facilities, 30 golf shops and even a dozen places to buy a golf cart-bad golf is still an epidemic. I didn't want to continue to be part of the problem, so I signed on for the intensive golf school at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy at Legacy Golf Club. For three patience-trying days, I put myself and my funky swing in the calm hands of Leadbetter's trained teachers, letting them prod and pull and, yes, even tie my arms together with surgical tubing. They eagerly took on the job of making my swing look like Nick Faldo's.
Lord help them.
"We take a little different approach from most academies, a more holistic approach," head instructor Larry Marshall told me as we rode out to the practice area on Day One. "The analogy we make is if you're 30 pounds overweight and you smoke, you have a lot of things to change to improve your health. With the golf swing, we try to find out where the bad seed is and how things grow from there."
I knew I was in for it. I didn't have a bad seed but a weed patch. I had never seen myself swing a golf club, but I knew this, anyway. Used to be I'd play the game as a diversion, something to do outside with the guys-but no more. I'd become too frustrated at my failure to improve. They say that only 10 percent of the golfers in the world break 100, so I joined the elite ranks years ago. But it seems going from 85 to 79 is the toughest task. I shot that magic number once, but I can't count the times my knees knocked over a 6-foot putt on number 18, just as I was in range of my holy grail. All along, I knew it shouldn't be that hard: I'm reasonably athletic, determined, and knowledgeable. But, try as I might, I didn't understand why I could never get past the typical round- many good shots and a few disasters. Then again, I had never seen myself swing.
The first step at golf school is to videotape your swing. My first telephone call after I saw the video was to my former playing partners. I blamed them immediately for the years of embarrassment they allowed me to cause myself. "Why didn't you tell me my swing was so awful?"
I've seen those hackers on the late-night infomercials that hawk all sorts of devices that drain wallets but do nothing to help you drain putts. My swing didn't look like theirs. It looked worse! Something of a cross between a wooden cigar store Indian and a codger punching it 50 yards down the fairway.
As Marshall and his instructors recorded my swing, I tore huge patches out of grass. The divots flew farther than the balls. To their credit, they didn't laugh, or even snigger. They just took notes and nodded as I hacked away. Then Marshall snuck up behind me and contorted me into a position that he called perfect posture. I called it yoga-so awkward I couldn't figure out how to start the swing, forget hit the ball. It took just that first 10 minutes of golf school for the thought to hit me: "These guys are nuts." Then Marshall lifted my hands high into the air and told me to let them fall. Voila! It felt like a golf swing! I wanted to tee up a ball and hit that 7-iron 170 yards, but Marshall videotaped a couple more phantom half swings and insisted we go inside and talk about it. I spent the next three days trying to recapture that feeling, with mixed success.
The Leadbetter Academy is part of the sprawling IMG Academies, which includes Nick Bollettieri's famous tennis school and youth programs in an ever-growing number of sports. The academy hosts kids from across the globe, who come to learn to excel at sports from soccer to hockey. But tennis and golf are the glamour sports-individual games that confer fame and fortune on those who rise to the top-and those are the IMG programs that parents send their kids to as training for a professional career. Those programs also attract large numbers of adults just seeking to raise the level of their weekend games. The adult school at Leadbetter uses Legacy Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch as a teaching center, and a new building to house the adult program is rising on the far end of the practice range, so Marshall and his teachers will soon have a permanent home.
Over lunch in the Legacy clubhouse, Marshall explained to me and my fellow student Margarita Ramos that he wasn't there to fix our swings. He intended to break them down and build them anew. Margarita, who lives in Bradenton with her children while her husband spends most of his time in their native Mexico, was eager to try this approach. After all, her children attend the youth school, and her 11-year-old daughter tutored her before the school started. "Don't get mad, Mommy," she told her. "Do what your coach says and keep trying. It will be hard, but if you practice, you'll learn it."
Margarita repeated that advice to herself over and over. While she stood on one leg, balancing like a flamingo in a golf visor, bumping chip shots onto the green. While she dug fissures through the sand bunker, watching the ball plop back into its original hole. And even while she was saying, "I can't," and drawing admonitions from the teaching staff, she went right back to trying. But her confidence in her daughter wavered.
Margarita and I learned at different paces. She fiddled with her grip long after I had moved on to mastering (okay, trying to master) the backswing. This makes it tougher on the instructors.
"That's the challenge of teaching. People are at different levels in age, skill and athletic ability," Marshall told me. "Trying to teach them what we know and cater to an individual's needs is the goal. In three days you just scratch the tip of the iceberg. It's like anything once you get into it-you find there is a lot more to it than you thought."
In any sport, a coach's toughest task is getting the student to accept criticism and change. When someone has been doing it the wrong way for 20 years, "20" far outweighs the "wrong" in his or her mind. I decided before school started that I would not be that way. I knew my way was wrong and I'd be a veritable Gumby in Marshall's seasoned hands, bending any which way he asked. And it worked, for a while. Leadbetter's method breaks the swing down into six parts, and I caught on to one, two and three quickly. By the second day, a snapshot of me at the top of the swing could easily have been confused with a picture of a pro. Four, however, was my downfall. My mind was willing but my body wasn't. Marshall about exhausted every way he knew how to say the same thing, trying to find one I could understand. He put a club shaft between my legs; he held one out in front of me, telling me to make sure my hands didn't hit it as I contacted the ball; he rested a club on my head as I swung. If he had put all these swing aids out there at once, I would have looked like a swinging sea urchin. "We're trying to find something that works for you," Marshall explained, with just a hint of exasperation in his voice. Eventual success? Well, here's his quote from the video I was left with, showing my swing progress from horrible to just bad to almost acceptable: "Right now, to get the right grip, the right posture, the right backswing and the right downswing is asking probably a hair too much at this point in time, today."
By the looks of things, I figured a mere year or two should do the trick.
Day Three dawned with excitement in the air. They were actually taking us onto the golf course, leaving behind the safety of the driving range. Margarita wanted a match-she and Larry against me and another instructor. I just wanted to minimize the embarrassment. I know as well as anyone that what feels so right on the practice tee can desert you on the ride to the first tee. It must jump off at the clubhouse bar-a good strategy, come to think of it. Marshall knew better than to make this first trek competitive, so we snuck out in front of a foursome on the 12th tee, giving ourselves enough time to consider our shots and try to remember at least a couple things we had learned. I nervously teed the ball on the 172-yard par 3 hole and stepped back. A deep breath, then another. I lined up the shot just like I was taught, then checked my grip and posture and ball position. I always have trouble with my ball position. Then I remembered the thing Marshall said most: "Just swing about 70 percent." I tried. I swung only about 110 percent. The ball flew at the green-not high and majestically, but, hey, it flew. It landed 30 feet from the hole, and I two-putted for a par. Easy game.
I have played three times since then. I've gotten a little better each time out. I was promised no miracles, and I got none. "This is a long-term process," Marshall told me more than once. I believed him, so I'll work at it, with the mirrors and soccer balls and rubber tubing and club shafts sticking out all over the place to hone my swing. Stop out at the practice tee and say hi to me. I'll be the sea urchin in a golf cap.
GET INTO THE GAME
David Leadbetter Golf Academy
1414 69th Ave. W.
Bradenton, FL 34207
Three-day school: three half-day sessions: $925
Three-day retreat: three full days; $1,850
Five-day school: five half-day sessions; $1,550