I’m constantly stumped by the venom and vigor of golfers who swear anything can be fixed with the right equipment, and those who say with enough lessons and practice, you can break par with 25-year-old gear.
I’ve straddled the line through the years, often falling more on the “answers are in the dirt” side, but I took it to another level. Being around pro shops I’d heard my share of tips and advice, but as a Harvey Penick disciple, I didn’t want to weigh my golf mind down with much other than “take dead aim.”
More recently I’ve overhauled my golf bag, kicked the only putter I’ve ever known to the curb, and spend way way too much time reading about equipment I’ll never own.
With all that in mind, I’d say I was prime for a learning academy revelation.
One of the real perks of golf writing are the press trips to see some of the best courses and resorts in the world. Last week I spent a few days at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
In addition to five stellar golf courses (including The Champion, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic), PGA National is also home to a wonderful multi-pronged learning center. I had the opportunity to spend some time at the Golf Academy and during a visit to the Club Fitting Lab, I got to be the group’s guinea pig on the TrackMan, the leading golf radar that measures spin rate, club speed, smash factor, carry, launch angle, club delivery and more.
The trick to club fitting, we were told, is to create a baseline with your current equipment. Then, after looking at the numbers spit out by the TrackMan, a club fitter will suggest what changes you should make, if any at all.
In my case, Juan Pina, the club-fitting services manager at PGA National, determined that a swing fault was a bigger problem than my equipment (surprise, surprise). Based on my TrackMan stats, my swing speed is strong at 109 and my smash factor (the quality of the strike) was nearly perfect at 1.49. However, I attack the ball with a driver at a negative angle, in turn hitting down on the ball, increasing backspin, and robbing myself of distance. Hitting down on the ball is great with irons, he said, but not with a driver. All season I’ve felt like I’ve lost length off the tee, so it was great to see the stats and verify what I thought all along. A little homework tells me that flattening out my angle of attack could add a nice chunk of yardage to my drives.
Since most people who go on a golf trip are looking to cram in as many minutes on the course as possible, I asked Pina why someone would benefit from taking some time to get on the TrackMan and do a session with him.
“The game of golf,” he said, “it’s hard enough by itself to try to play it with the wrong equipment. … I went on this side of the golf industry because it makes me feel better than an instructor. For example, I would say that 95% of the people that come to see me leave better than they came and that’s not because they bought some new clubs, even the ones that don’t get new ones leave with information that they did not have before.”
I was feeling exactly the same way, even before he finished his thought.
“Use yourself as an example,” he said. “You at least now know that there’s something that you can do to improve your game, even without changing your driver.”
The bottom line is that there are two pretty defined schools of thought in golf right now. One that says technology and equipment can cure all ills. Another that says practice and instruction are the key to all success. But during my session with Juan Pina, I realized just how interconnected technology, equipment and technique can be.
This notion became even clearer once combined with a session at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy on the grounds of PGA National.
As part of the media trip, I had the chance to take a lesson at PGA National’s David Leadbetter Golf Academy, with professional Bob Hite. I’ll admit it, I’ve taken very few formal golf lessons in my life. It helps that I learned to the play the game under the eye of my golf pro uncle, but it was often “try this, try that” and other informal sessions on the course or driving range. I have always believed in the teachings of Harvey Penick whose “Little Red Book” is one of the most simplistic teaching manuals of all time.
Penick taught through images and feelings, rather than science, swing planes and body angles. He would fix all those problems, but never clog the mind with overly technical thoughts. As an example, Penick was famous for lessons such as, “feel like you’re sweeping leaves off the sidewalk” and “just knock the tee out from under the ball.”
So when I found out I’d be getting my first true lesson, where a pro looks at your swing, makes some suggestions, and gets you working on some drills, I was admittedly apprehensive. The fact it was a couple hours before heading out to tackle PGA National’s The Champion – which hosts the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic – and I was afraid to pollute my mind with a million new thoughts.
But it was a pleasant surprise when I met Bob Hite. He wasn’t looking to overhaul my swing or contort my body into new positions, or redo my grip in a way I’d spend a month trying to get my game back. He was aware that I was in the middle of a golf trip and focused on something that could pay immediate dividends without much of an adjustment period.
In my case, Hite asked me to hit a few balls, then asked if there’s anything specific I was struggling with. Before I even spit out “pulls hooks, the occasional block and…” he completed my sentence, “and you probably hit it fat from time to time.” He was right on the money and had a solution. Through years of self-medicating to get a playable swing, I’d twisted myself all around. My feet were right of the target, my shoulders were left of it. In other words, I was backwards. He put me in the right position, told me it would feel odd at first (which it did) and gave me a drill to reinforce the right positions. By the time I’d banged about 50 balls, it was falling into place. It was simple, easy-to-implement and very beneficial advice. Just what a golfer in the middle of a trip needs.
The changes I made that day let me keep playing, and made quick improvements. The next morning, I posted my best nine-hole score of the week, an even-par 36. Nevermind that I finished up the round with a triple bogey on 17 (skulled one out of greenside bunker into the water) and a double on 18 (wanted to be a hero, punching a 4 iron through the trees on a short par five) for an 81. But three birdies and lots of greens in regulation certainly indicated the ball was flying where I was aimed far more often.
While my lesson focused on alignment, most of those in my group also got easy-to-digest tips. One example was a slight grip tweak to get the club in a stronger position. Another revolved around balance, and a third involved a drill for starting the club back on a better plane. Nothing that wouldn’t easily translate to the first tee.
To cap it all off, once I was home, I got the video Hite took of my swing, complete with commentary and reminders of what I’m going to be working on in the future. We weren’t trying to reinvent my swing in 30 minutes, but it’s a step in the right direction. Think of it as a tune up, rather than an engine rebuild, and a really nice added bonus during a multi-day golf trip.
So what did I learn? That there much more to the world of instruction than I’d thought. Rather than a battle between technology and technique that seems to rule the golf world (and golf message boards in particular), I’m certain there’s room for both. In fact, the two sides can and should embrace one another. The super technical fitting wound up focusing on a swing fault (identified by the TrackMan stats), and even the lesson got a helping hand by video, allowing me to see exactly where my mistakes were happening.
As a proud golfer who felt like “figuring it out” was part of the challenge, I understand that it’s worth swallowing my pride and asking for help. And my optimism for improvement is suddenly at an all-time high.