Three for the Road

When the weather begins to change, a lot of golf pros head for warmer climates. Devoted pupils Gerald Imber, Michael Kramer, and John Stacks decide to follow.

If you live in the northern part of the country, these are the dying days of the golf season. As the leaves turn color and fall, us amateurs are forced to invoke the “leaf rule” to prevent an autumnal round from becoming interminable. In just weeks the course will close—except to the hardy souls who are happy to walk the uncut fairways and shoot at winter greens.

It may have been a great season or a weak one; handicaps may have risen or fallen or, most likely, gone both ways. But soon it will be over. November to April is a lifetime in the golfer’s world.

Watching made-for-TV matches is no substitute for the occasional nice drive, amazing sand shot, or remarkable 40-foot putt executed by the brilliant golfer that is your own true self.

Thus it is time to begin planning for the southern season. Maybe a few days in the Carolinas in late fall. Or Florida in the dead of winter. Or the Caribbean, or Mexico—anywhere the sun shines and the fairways are always green.

But what about all the good work you and your pro put in over the past season? Are the lessons ingrained enough to endure through winter? Do you have a prayer of remembering that one little tip, that one little swing thought that seemed to make a difference? Of course not. By the time the daffodils are blooming next spring, you are likely to be right back where you started months ago.

So maybe you should try a golf school instead of just hacking around, say, Grand Cypress Golf Club, in Orlando. Serious money could be involved, but that’s no object when excellence beckons. McLean or Leadbetter? Faldo or Pelz? These guys and their staffs teach wonderfully, but where will they be next year when you fall apart? And you know you will fall apart. There will be enough thoughts in our heads to fill a golf encyclopedia—and to send shots into hazards you didn’t even know existed.

With all this in mind, and with ever- faltering games, the three of us—Jerry Imber, a New York plastic surgeon; Michael Kramer, a political journalist and playwright; and John Stacks, a former top Time magazine editor—decided to try something new. Instead of just following the sun, we followed our pros to the sun. These are the folks who know our games, our (limited) strengths, and our many golf foibles. They would help us build on what they’ve already taught us, not attempt to rebuild us completely.

You’re really here,” said Phil Cardwell with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

“Yes,” we replied enthusiastically.

“All the way from New York.”

“All the way.”

“Too bad.”

“What?”

“Not good,” Phil said. Then he explained. “The compliment a golf pro most wants is your absence. It means what we’ve taught you before has stuck, that you can work on your game without us, enjoy it without us, improve without us.”

“Well…”

“All right, then.”

The three of us had come to SunRidge Canyon Golf Club, near Scottsdale, Arizona, an oasis of hundreds of courses that, along with Florida, has long been a mecca for those who can’t bear a winter without the sport that obsesses us. For our trio the attraction at SunRidge Canyon was a husband-and-wife team of professionals, Phil and Sally Cardwell, whose main venues are two of the New York area’s most exclusive clubs, Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale and the Golf Club of Purchase.

When we began talking about this trip last October, the one thing we did know was where we wanted to go and whom we wanted teaching us. The three of us had played together many times before, and Kramer, a Purchase member who had been helped mightily by Sally, had arranged for Stacks and Imber to benefit from her magic, too. We knew of her husband, a pro at Quaker Ridge, and figured—correctly, as it happened—that if Sally was a phenomenal teacher, Phil had to be as well.

Since the Cardwells are in great demand, both at their home courses and in Arizona, the first order of business was to secure a spot on their busy schedules. A week in mid-February turned out to be the best time for them, so it became the best time for us. On our first day we met Sally on the range for a couple of hours of drill and analysis. By lunchtime, Stacks’s pasty winter hands had to be taped to stop the bleeding. After lunch Phil joined us for a round at the challenging and beautiful course. During the week we also traveled to nearby venues for playing lessons. Eagle Mountain Golf Club, a long iron from SunRidge Canyon, proved easier, while We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, 36 holes developed on Fort McDowell’s Yavapai reservation, was both incredibly difficult and unbelievably gorgeous.

We weren’t alone in Scottsdale. Several members from back East had had the same epiphany and beat us to SunRidge Canyon. One was still there when we arrived. David Mazer, a retired paper company executive and a member at Quaker Ridge, echoed our own thoughts: “It’s no different from trying to cure an ailment,” he said. “You have to visit the doctor who knows you, and Phil does.” The trouble, Mazer added, is that “Phil always holds back on dispensing the good stuff, which is why I have to keep coming back.” Which is why we all have to keep coming back.

“I don’t exactly ‘dumb it down,’ ” says Phil. “I give my students what they want and sneak them what they need.”

What most of us want is help with our short game—the shots under 100 yards that usually determine whether a round ends miserably or well. With the Cardwells, one size never fits all. Imber and Stacks have trouble “clearing,” the term for turning completely through a swing. So we practice pivot drills and slow-motion swings. Kramer “picks up” too regularly, so in order to keep his swing heading down, Sally has him hitting chips and low punch shots to keep the club moving through the shot.

Despite being almost blind in one eye, Phil insists he learns a lot from simply watching his students. “I notice how you walk and how your arms hang,” he says, “and I can almost always tell what kind of grip, positioning, and stance you should use.” (Asking for more in the way of explanation is a fool’s errand. Whatever it is that Phil intuits may not be a trade secret, exactly, but nonpros can’t possibly understand the logic.) “Then I watch how you swing,” Phil continues, “I have you practice a repeating swing, put a ball in the way of it, and study the ball’s flight.” Phil believes cameras and videos are overused by many instructors. “The truth is,” he tells us, “a good pro can learn almost everything he needs to know from the way a student’s ball flies.”

Learning and retaining are two very different things, as any golfer knows. “So much of it is psychology,” says Phil. “But it’s hard to get the words right. It doesn’t matter what we say. What matters is what you hear. I learned a long time ago that you can’t take words back. If I put a thought in your head that’s wrong for you, unlearning what you’ve heard is hard, often harder than if I’d said nothing at all.” Stacks, for one, has been told for years to “make the turn.” He has tried dutifully, but it becomes apparent that he’s figured out how to turn without actually shifting his weight from the right side to the left, producing what his wife calls “the lazy fat boy’s swing.” But instead of talking about turning, Sally is talking about weight. When she shows him that after a proper full swing, he should end up with so little weight on his right side that he should be able to tap his right toes without losing balance, Stacks begins to get it.

And in another case, after being told for many years that he was “coming over the top,” Imber is set up on the tee box with the ball almost touching the right tee marker. It prevents him from making the looping outside-to-inside swing that produces a slice. He smacks some beautiful drives.

When Phil learns that Kramer was a college hockey player, he starts mimicking various hockey shots. “It’s something you learned long ago, so applying it to golf can make the game easier for you to comprehend,” Phil explains. Luckily, Sally admits, the motor skills required to hit a hockey puck with force—and in the proper direction—are not all that dissimilar from those used to strike a golf ball.

Many golfers believe they would be much better if only they could play every day. “You’d certainly be better,” says Sally. But could all that practice turn us into pros? Phil has us perform an exercise to demonstrate the differences among skill levels. First, we sign our names quickly, as everyone does, then try to copy our signatures slowly, deliberately. Third, we try to copy the signature again, this time with our weaker hand. In the fourth step we sign our names quickly with the weaker hand. The first example, Phil explains, can be called unconsciously competent, the second consciously competent. When we use the opposite hand, the signature copied slowly is consciously incompetent, the fourth effort unconsciously incompetent. As golfers, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are in the first category, unconsciously competent, says Phil. “We teaching pros are pretty much in the second category,” explains Sally. “The average player is third and the beginner fourth.” Though this doesn’t seem particularly hopeful, it’s good to know where we fit in, that no matter how much we might will it, the Champions Tour is beyond reach.

Like many professional athletes, both Phil and Sally took to sports easily. “When I started playing golf,” says Phil, 37, “I found it to be much harder than any other game I’d tried before. And I got serious about it precisely because it was, and still is, just an ongoing challenge.” Sally, 33, used to sled on Bethpage Black, the Farmingdale, New York, layout—widely considered the world’s most difficult public course—that will host the 2009 U.S. Open. “I never thought the ground underneath that snow would soon consume my life. I thought golf was for old people, but I was hooked the first time I played.”

Both Cardwells would love to play on tour, and Phil says, “I’ll never give up that dream.” But they’ve found their niche as teachers, and being married has helped enormously. “It’s not just that we know what the other is doing—really know it,” says Sally. “It’s also good for us as a couple.”

On the course the two are as relaxed with each other as they are with the game and their students. For the first playing lesson, Phil hit from the back tees while the three of us played from the members’ boxes. His drives were half as long as the rest of ours and almost unerringly accurate. On the second hole Phil laced a five iron some 200 yards to within two feet of the pin. Though Phil’s superb shotmaking could have been intimidating, it ended up being a great example: While carding a casual 69, he was also chatting and passing on tips to help us with our games. For instance, Phil showed Stacks that before chipping the ball he should note where his practice swing touches the ground in relation to his feet. “That’s the spot in the stance where the ball should be played,” he said. Stacks promptly chipped into the cup from a severe downhill lie in the rough.

Depending on which sunny, warm place your pro has migrated to, the trip need not be all golf. We three golfing hopefuls managed a cultural morning touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West. The evenings were the usual guys’ nights, with a few drinks and big steaks. And one night Phil and Sally even joined us for dinner. What could be better? An entire evening spent talking about golf without having to pick up a club and slice a ball into the desert.

Where the Pros Go: Florida, for Sure

So what’s a golfer to do? A look at the winter destinations of some of the country’s top-rated—and northern-dwelling—golf instructors.

Eden Foster

Home

Maidstone Club, East Hampton, New York

Winter

Calusa Pines Golf Club, Naples, Florida

David Glenz

Home

David Glenz Golf Academy, Crystal Springs Resort, Vernon, New Jersey

Winter

The Club at Pointe West, Vero Beach, Florida

Michael Hebron

Home

Smithtown Landing Country Club, Smithtown, New York

Winter

Binks Forest Golf Club, Wellington, Florida

Darrell Kestner

Home

Deepdale Golf Club, Manhasset, New York

Winter

Old Palm Golf Club, Palm Beach Gardens, and Emerald Dunes Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida

Rick Smith

Home

Treetops Resort, Gaylord, Michigan

Winter

Tiburón Golf Club, Naples, Florida

Mitchell Spearman

Home

Manhattan Woods Golf Club, West Nyack, New York

Winter

Isleworth Country Club, Windermere, Florida

Jim “Doc” Suttie

Home

Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, Lemont, Illinois

Winter

The Club at TwinEagles, Naples, Florida

T. J. Tomasi

Home

Nantucket Golf Club, Siaconset, Massachusetts

Winter

PGA Learning Center, Port St. Lucie, Florida