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Starting From Scratch

At 35, the author took up golf with the glee of an absolute beginner—that is, until he really tried to master the game and turned down a dark road.

As girlfriends' fathers go, The Doctor was a tough nut. He was the kind of dad who—after you carefully refer to him by his title and surname at the first handshake—never bids you address him by his given name.

Not ever.

I sat ramrod-straight on the couch in his den during our first solo encounter, opting for soda over beer. A heavy silence between us was interrupted only by the broadcast patter of an apparently very important PGA event on the television. I waited for a commercial before mentioning that I had always wanted to learn the game of golf.

"It's a sport," he corrected.

"Of course! Sport, I meant I wanted to learn the sport," I said, taking a sip of Dr. Pepper to hide my chagrin.

"How old are you now?" The Doctor asked after regarding me skeptically for a long moment.

"I just celebrated my thirtieth birthday," I replied.

"Thirty?" he scoffed. "You are way too old to learn golf."

Five years after The Doctor's curt diagnosis, I joined a friend for my first full round at—of all places—the wonderfully scenic course at the Ocean Club on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Even before the morning's game ended with a series of rum drinks at the bar above the beach, I was hooked.

If it is true that it is never too late to learn to play golf, it is also true that there is a right way to learn and a wrong way. Over the next two years I proceeded to learn the wrong way. Rather than pay for even one lesson, I accepted the advice of any cheerful partner who bothered to offer it. I blithely assumed that with each round I completed I would just get better, and that all that lay ahead was less time in the rough or the sand, and not quite so many quintuple bogies.

Maybe this attitude had something to do with the courses I was playing. As the result of a series of happy accidents, I teed off at some of the most highly regarded resorts in the Western world. In addition to the Ocean Club, I experienced the rarefied trickery offered by the courses at Gleneagles in Auchterarder and got my first taste of traditional Scottish pot bunkers and treacherous, blind doglegs. There was also a series of wild and wooly links in the Scottish Highlands that were so waterlogged that Wellington boots were required gear. I played both courses at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, and took for granted the wind-whipped splendor on the bluffs over the Pacific at the resort's Ocean Course. I also played the lush desert fairways at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona. Throughout it all, I was a delighted newcomer, and each time I drove a ball to the limits of my vision or chipped a shot onto the green, I thought of The Doctor, a self-satisfied smirk appearing on my lips. I was, it seemed, a Natural.

When I wasn't playing at some fabulous golf resort, I was hacking away at my home course, Dyker Beach, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The joke on this threadbare venue used to be that if your ball got jammed up behind a dead body (dumped unceremoniously in the rough after a gangland hit), you simply treated the poor mook as a hazard and took a free drop. But in recent years the course has seen a renaissance. Its 18 holes are now quite tidy, and it's always a thrill to turn the corner on the seventh hole and see the eastern parapet of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge rising up above the treeline behind the pin.

One day, however, my naïve gallop through beginner golf delivered me to a crossroads. Because I had achieved a modicum of success without instruction, I knew just enough to be dangerous. And like many before me, I took a turn down a very dark road. It happened when I resolved to prepare for an upcoming round with my cousin P.J. He had been a patient teacher during a game two years earlier, and now it was important to me that I show up having made some progress since then.

I began habituating a nearby driving range. I figured that if I hit enough golf balls my game could only improve. So as my match with my cousin drew closer, I intensified my practice regimen. Two weeks before we were to tee off, I swung at 1,800 balls in the course of three two-hour sessions. One week after this feverish marathon (which left both of my hands badly blistered), I set out to play my regular early-morning round at Dyker Beach. As I approached the first tee, I assumed I was about to take my game to what I'd often heard referred to as "the next level."

After a heart-stirringly straight and long drive off the first tee, things fell first into disarray and then into a chaotic shambles. My second shot, a nine-iron, sailed over the green into the woods and was lost forever. Calling the drive off the second tee a hook is too generous. It was more a horizontal bullet that rifled onto the rough of the fairway on the neighboring tenth hole. I walked off the course before swinging on the seventh tee, leaving my partner wondering what had happened.

I never did have much of a game, but until now I'd always had fun on the course, no matter how I performed. All the joy, the exhilaration was gone—vanished in a fog of disappointment and self-recrimination.

Looking for solace a few days later, I worried out loud to a friend: Could those 1,800 or so range balls have ruined my golf game? Forever? Toby, a black belt in kung fu and a practicing Buddhist, studied me gravely. "In kung fu, if a student moves improperly just once while practicing the forms, the student must repeat that move correctly, no matter how small, three times if he ever hopes to get it right again."

By my math, that equaled 5,400 (give or take) perfect swings. Could I possibly fit the range time into my schedule before my big game?

Then Toby continued. "But the three-time rule applies only to avoiding bad habits—it is not about correcting them. I think that if you made the same mistake three times in a row you'd have to repeat that motion correctly at least a hundred times if you wanted to get it right."

That added up to a penance of 180,000 perfect swings.

Panicked, I called Jay Morelli, founder of The Original Golf School at Mount Snow in Vermont. I explained my dilemma and asked if there was anything, short of hitting 180,000 balls, I could do to retrieve my humble but effective beginner's game. "I don't know how much kung fu and golf have in common, but I wouldn't worry too much," he said, laughing. "I see this kind of thing a lot." I took a deep breath.

Morelli explained that a limited number of small, very deliberate exercises were all I needed to get back on track. Stressing three fundamentals: grip, aim (or alignment), and ball position, he recommended that I use my pitching wedge and—with a gentle, measured, waist-high swing—hit balls until I managed to land them consistently at 20 to 30 yards. Then, with the same club, I should start taking longer swings and hit balls 50 to 70 yards. When I was able to do that, I could begin hitting balls up to 120 yards with an eight-iron. Then a five-iron. Whenever my shot got wobbly, he warned: Stop! Return to the pitching wedge and those nice, rewarding 20-yard plop shots.

Sounded great, I thought. Several hundred swings like that and maybe I'd be back in action. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "You shouldn't hit more than 50 or 60 balls at a time, and only a couple of times before you go out on the course. Any more than that and you're entering crazy territory."

Todd Anderson, of the Todd Anderson Golf Academy at The Breakers in Palm Beach (he helped Ivan Lendel perfect his game after he'd retired from tennis) had a similar perspective. "Sounds like you were trying to learn something from swing to swing," he said when I told him about the 1,800 balls. "Every good swing you'd say to yourself, 'I want to do that again.' Every bad swing you'd think, 'I hope I don't do that again.' The thing I teach is that if you want a consistently effective swing you have to work on a foundation."

Like Morelli, he stressed alignment and hand position, but also added that he thinks a lot of new golfers tend to stop moving their hands through the swing at the very instant the club head hits the ball, robbing the shot of all its power. He went on to say that it is very important that, with irons, the club should strike the ground in front of the ball, not behind it. When I mentioned to Anderson that my goal at the range had been to get my three-iron to consistently produce 220-yard shots, he jumped in. "I'd stop you right there. The three-iron is one of the hardest clubs in the golf bag. I'd get you on a five fairway wood. It is a much easier club."

I also explained what I had done to Michael Hunt, who teaches at the Jim McClean Golf School at the Doral in Miami, and he assured me that my problem was quite common (strange how being no different than everybody else is a relief under these circumstances). Hunt's first question was: "When you're playing well, what does your shot tend to do, hook or slice?" I replied that it used to be pretty straight, but now I either drive the ball into the ground or it hooks dramatically ten or 15 yards from the point of impact. Then he asked me to describe my grip, and I told him that I could typically see three—almost four knuckles—when I looked straight down at my left hand (I am right-handed). From this description Hunt surmised that I had grip issues that were closing the club face. He told me to stop holding my club in the palm of my right hand and start holding it in my fingers. (It's a tricky distinction, but I was able to see immediately what he meant after he suggested I try to hold a pencil firmly in my palm. It's impossible. To get a good grip, you really have to use your fingers.) "Then just keep trying to hit the ball with the club-face sweet spot," he said. "You'll know it when you feel it."

All the technical advice was extremely helpful, but I wondered: Would I ever be able to recover the happy-go-lucky attitude I had before the 1,800 balls? I was convinced that an easygoing approach was the key to my early success with the game. Enter the Shambhala Buddhist discipline to which my buddy Toby belongs. It turns out that one of its members, Dr. Joseph Parent, knows quite a bit about the game, specifically what goes on in golfers' minds. He is the author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game and also runs the Zen Golf School, which has two locations in California. Unlike the technical-swing instructors, Parent teaches golfers how to think about their game and, oftentimes, how not to think about it—a method that seemed perfectly suited to my situation.

"You've strayed from your Beginner's Mind," said Parent about my haywire swing. "You learned golf the best way possible. Like children learn, you watched it on TV, and your capacity to imitate what you saw got you off that first tee in the Bahamas." It was true. I'd only ever seen the game on the tube before playing my first round. At the time I didn't wonder how I knew how to swing (never mind how I understood the most rudimentary details, like the difference between woods and irons), I just played.

Parent described each step I took thereafter as a sullying of my golfing innocence. Every piece of advice I received from well-meaning partners, each observation about my own game, led me down a wrong road. "You were like Adam in the Garden," he said. "You started thinking too much and switched your joy of the process for a concern about results."

If the Adam-in-the-Garden speak is making you a bit nervous, you might be interested to know that even the technique-obsessed Anderson said that attitude was everything. "Caring versus not caring is a very big part of the game. It doesn't matter what your handicap is, start caring too much and things fall apart very quickly."

Parent's short-term prescription seemed simple enough. To illustrate how he wanted me to think about golf, he asked me to sign my name on a piece of paper, then trace the signature as carefully as possible. It was a surprisingly difficult exercise. Even though it was my handwriting, the traced version looked shaky and forced. Next, he told me to return to the driving range. "Rate each shot on a one-to-five scale. Give yourself a five when your shot feels as effortless as signing your name, a one when it feels like you felt just now when you traced your signature. You'll start to get a lot of threes and fours. Enjoy the fives and give yourself a break on the ones. After all, you're a beginner, and you should golf like one."


True Confessions

The game of golf has a unique ability to worm its way into even the most disinterested naysayers' hearts. For actor Joe Mantegna, it all started with Old Blue Eyes.

"When I was a boy I played with my dad and my older brother on a beaten-up public course called Columbus Park Golf Course off West Jackson in Chicago. It was a mess, but it was golf. Then I just stopped playing. My dad died when I was twenty-two, and I didn't play again for another twenty-five years. In 1994 I got invited to the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Golf Invitational Tournament in Palm Desert. I didn't care about the golf at all. I just wanted to see Sinatra. I borrowed some shoes and a bag of clubs, got the maximum handicap I could, and hoped I wouldn't embarrass myself. I figured I'd bide my time until the concert. Well, I still don't know how, but my team won the tournament. Not only did I get to see Sinatra, I was right up there on stage with him. I hadn't hit a ball in more than two decades and I won. I was hooked.

These days I don't play weekends—I'd never see my kids; but I play during the week and all the tournaments I can. I'm not very competitive. That's the good thing about tournaments: All that matters is the team's score. Sometimes I play like Arnold Palmer, sometimes I play like Betsy Palmer. I don't care. This year, Barbara Sinatra has asked me to co-host the tournament. And you know what? Tony Bennett is singing."


Absolute Beginners: Getting Started

Whether you prefer one-on-one tutorials, high-tech video and computer swing analysis, or a more cerebral approach, the schools listed below will get the newcomers among you started on the right foot.

The Golf Learning Center at Sea Island
Jack Lumpkin (1995 PGA Teacher of the Year), Gale Peterson (1996 LPGA Teacher of the Year), and a personable 14-member staff lead a variety of group and private lessons at the resort's three remote and breathtaking seaside courses. Among the program's highlights are high-tech video and computer swing analysis as well as a laser-optic-assisted seminar with putting guru Mike Shannon. Rates, $3,975 for a three-day course, including four nights at The Lodge, Sea Island, GA; 800-732-4752; www.seaisland.com.

Jim McLean Golf School at the Doral
McLean champions the tailored approach, so instructors at his schools pay plenty of attention to individual quirks and then build their lessons from there. It's a welcome change from more traditional tear-it-down-and-rebuild-from scratch programs. Rates, $1,250 for a two-day course, not including accommodations. Doral Golf Resort & Spa , Miami; 800-713-6725; www.doralgolf.com. The school has several other programs around the country. Information: 800-723-6725.

Pebble Beach Golf Academy
It's easy to see why Laird Small, the director of the golf school at this historic resort, just won the 2003 PGA Teacher of the Year Award. The school here offers comprehensive tutoring in pretty much every aspect of the game, from swing basics to green-reading techniques to golf-centered nutritional advice. Added bonus: The resort's four courses are among the best in the world. Rates, $3,000 for a two-day course, including three nights at the Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, CA; 800-654-9300, 831-622-8650; www.pebblebeach.com.

David Leadbetter Golf Academy at Montego Bay
Considered by many to be the most influential instructor in golf today, David Leadbetter favors a start-from-scratch approach. What his program lacks in small niceties it more than makes up for with intense, computer-assisted dissection of swings (Leadbetter's specialty), as well as a no-stone-unturned examination of each student's physical and mental game. Rates, $775 for a course consisting of three half-day lessons, not including accommodations; 876-953-3105. For room reservations at the Half Moon Golf, Tennis, & Beach Club , Montego Bay, Jamaica, call 800-626-0592. For room reservations at the Half Moon Golf, Tennis, & Beach Club , Montego Bay, Jamaica, call 800-626-0592.

Zen Golf School at Rancho San Marcos
If you're looking for 21st-century gadgets and hard-nosed technique drills, you're in the wrong place. Instead, Joseph Parent, Ph.D., author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game, specializes in getting inside players' mental games. His method may be unorthodox, but his students swear by the results. (Parent has worked with a number of PGA Tour professionals, including Vijay Singh.) Rates, $1,740 for a three-day course, including three nights at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa, Los Olivos, CA; 888-874-9928; www.zengolf.com.

Golf Advantage School at Pinehurst
With its 144 holes (many of them designed by the masters Donald Ross, Rees Jones, and Tom Fazio), Pinehurst provides seemingly limitless challenges. PGA pro Eric Alpenfels directs the resort's Golf Advantage curriculum, which stresses hands-on instruction of key basics as well as comprehensive swing development. Rates, $2,240 for a three-day weekend course and $2,820 for five-day weekday courses, including accommodations; 800-795-4653. For room reservations at Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst, NC, call 800-487-4653.

Rick Smith Golf Academy at Tiburón
Smith has worked with numerous PGA Tour players and has developed a reputation for offering some of the best individual instruction around. Lessons, at Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, Florida, are focused on intense swing and short-game instruction. Rates, $2,050 for the three-day Classic Program at Rick Smith (877-464-6531). Discounted hotel rates are available at either the Ritz-Carlton Resort or the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort , Naples, FL; 800-241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com.

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