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SWING SHIFT Confessions From a Golf Addict In Search of Grace on the Greens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is a beautiful morning in Florida, too beautiful to attempt fixing what is seriously broken. But I have no choice. I must play golf, or at least my version of it.

I am one of 18 students participating in the Nicklaus/Flick Golf School, a three-day session at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. Despite my polyester presence, this is no joke.

First of all, the "Nicklaus" on the duffel bag we receive upon registering does indeed belong to Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, the greatest golfer in the history of this blasted game, winner of more than 70 tournaments during his career.

The "Flick" is Jim Flick, perhaps the most revered golf teacher in the United States. For 14 years, Flick was director of instruction for Golf Digest, a popular monthly magazine. Flick, a bundle of energy at 64, has authored four books, 15 videotapes and numerous articles on golf, spread the gospel to 23 nations and personally tutored dozens of touring pros. Flick's next assignment is to visit none other than Nicklaus, who lives down the road with his family.

"But only after I'm done with you," Flick says during our introductory breakfast in the PGA National clubhouse. When I hear that, I imagine that Flick is staring directly at me. I bite hard into a bagel, then look up at him. We are making eye contact. I am petrified, and I haven't even touched a club. My fear is allayed by his friendly manner, but then horror returns with Flick's next sentence.

"You know, the short game is 65 percent of golf," he says. "If you don't have a short game, get a tennis racket."

By now, the bagel is on the floor, as is my jaw.

"Do any of you have particular problems with the short game?" Flick inquires.

I raise my hand, lower my head and look through the window at those peaceful tennis courts.

"Good," Flick says. "That's one of our opening drills."

Ah, the short game. As the cliche goes, you drive the ball for show and putt for dough, which means it's a good thing I have a real job. Shortly after signing up for this Master Golf I course, I receive a questionnaire from the school. It requires that I list my handicap, which is 18. Also, I must grade the various aspects of my game, using a point system. I don't drive the ball very well for show, but I'm acceptable. My putting is erratic, yet passable. But, ah, the short game.

The telephone rings a week or so later. It is a very nice woman from the Nicklaus/Flick School headquarters.

"Mr. Verdi," she says, "I see where you write down a comment that the closer you get to the green, the worse you get. But you put no grades down on your pitching and chipping."

"You see those dots next to pitching and chipping?" I say.

"Yes," she says.

"Those are decimal points," I say.

"Oh," she says.

Martin Hall has seen this report card. I know that, even though I do not know Martin Hall. He is a former professional on the European Tour and the short-game guru among Flick's staff. Each instructor has his own specialty and Martin's field of expertise happens to be my minefield. The 18 students are divided into three groups of six, and by sheer coincidence, my five schoolmates and I begin our three-day trek to golf respectability with a drill on the short game.

"We're going out on the course to try some shots of maybe 20 yards," Martin says. "Bring whatever you feel most comfortable with, a lofted club of some sort."

"Where's the bathroom?" I ask Gray, my cart partner, a brawny college football player whose mother has given him the Nicklaus-Flick School as an early Christmas present.

"Something wrong?" he says. "You sick?"

"No," I say, "but you will be soon when you watch me."

Moments later, I see three balls near my feet. Martin wants me to loft them, one by one, from the medium rough beside a putting green toward the flagstick, slightly elevated. It is about 20 yards yonder, as he promised. My questionnaire did not lie, either. I clutch a pitching iron in my hands, take a practice swing, try to stay steady, keep my head down, pray.

Regrettably, the blade of the club embeds itself in the grass, several inches before intended impact with the ball, which dribbles about five or six feet. It is very quiet.

"Try again," says Martin, a very polite Englishman, writing something on his clipboard.

By now, my knees feel like boiled spaghetti. It is no later than 8:30 a.m., the sun is still hiding and I wish I could, too. I'm sweating grenades. I take one practice swing, then two. I think relaxing thoughts. I could be back home shoveling this past winter's snow. Then I think again. I wish I was home shoveling snow. The second ball travels as if shot from a cannon, about a foot off the ground, until it screeches to a halt in a sand trap beyond the green. I turn to find my five classmates, standing safely behind me. They are all looking at the sky.

"OK," says Martin. "One more."

OK, one more. One more ball to go, 20 yards to glory. Easy, now. Hold still, bring it back gently, keep your left arm straight, don't look up too soon, follow through . . . oops, I twitch madly, almost bite my tongue, and the rotten ball takes four or five hops. The ball lands on the green, but you wouldn't wish this putt on your worst enemy. Somebody in my gallery mutters something like, "Oooh, that's better . . . ," but Martin isn't impressed. He jots down another note on his clipboard and then glances at me. He is smiling.

"Tell me, chap," Martin says. "Those eyeglasses you're wearing. Are they bifocals?"

"You think my problem's in the glasses?" I ask, sheepishly. Robie and Fallon, a wonderful young couple from Dallas, chuckle.

"Just asking," Martin says.

"Now, can I ask you something?" I say. "Can I see your clipboard?"

He displays his jottings. I have poor posture, bad ball position, a grip that must go, too much lower body movement, I take the club too far back, and I decelerate on the downswing. Everything but bad breath.

"We have some work to do," Martin says.

I nod. That's why I'm here. I'm off to see the wizards. I'm willing. I'm ready. I'm able. Oh, and by the way, when's lunch?

Understand that the Nicklaus/Flick Golf School is not a vacation. It is golf, early and often, for three days. By year's end, Flick and company will barnstorm throughout the land, staging 50 or so classes at locations such as Pebble Beach in California, Desert Mountain in Arizona, Boyne Highlands in Michigan, Las Campanas in New Mexico and Kauai Lagoons in Hawaii. Plush venues all, but you're not going there for the sun. You're not even going there to play the courses, at least on the school's time. The sessions last virtually from dawn to dusk, almost exclusively at practice facilities. I must have hit 1,000 balls at PGA National. I survived. So did PGA National.

Mind you, I have taken golf lessons before. (I will not mention names to protect the innocent.) Most have been for an hour or so, from a local pro, and then you're on your way. At the Nicklaus/Flick School, though, you are never more than arm's length away from individualized instruction or the next bucket of pellets. In response to America's golf boom, there has been a corresponding explosion of golf schools. Competition is stiff. I don't know about the rest, but I never felt overwhelmed by Jim Flick and his staff. And if you really feel you're working on something constructive, hours on the range do fly by quickly.

"You'll get a lot of information here before it's all over," Flick says as we listen up upon returning to the practice range. "Maybe too much. That's why we've given you a manual, a notebook and a pen. Write down what you think is important so you go back over it. Refer to it often. But, above all, remember one thing: The golf club is your friend. Treat it as your friend, and it will treat you better."

I admit that I never have thought of a golf club as my friend. I have thought of it as a weapon, a crowbar, a bathroom plunger that refuses to cooperate, but never a friend. And yet, Flick makes all the sense in the world. The golf club is designed and built to hit the ball. What a golfer must do is allow the club to perform its designated function without interference.

"From your mind or your body," Flick says. "Most of us spend a lot of our lives thinking. Thinking through situations at work, thinking through situations at home. Thinking your way around the golf course is fine.

"Still, you can let your mind get in the way. That might be one reason why so many athletes from other sports have problems in golf. There's too much time out there to think. In other games, you react instantly to a situation. In golf, the ball is a stationary object. If you think too much about how you're going to get the ball from where it is to where you want it to go, you're probably going to be mechanical about it.

"Jack plays a power game and always has, but he's also very much a 'feel' player. Those two might sound contradictory, but they're not. Jack will study mechanics on the practice range, like most professionals. But when it's time to go play, he relies on feel and instinct. And to do that, our philosophy is that you must let the club do the work, and the rest comes later.

"Not all teachers or schools are that way. They might stress what to do with your arms and legs and the rest of your body. We come at it backwards, if you will. We believe that the club comes first. If you aren't conscious of the club and allow it to do what it's supposed to do, the rest won't matter. It will fall into place in time, as you become better. You'll learn to hit the ball farther by driving with your legs at impact and so forth, but you must have the proper relationship with the club. And that means the most important thing is where you make contact with the club."

Ah, the all-important grip. More than any facet of a golf swing, the grip determines how often the club face will strike the ball on the ever-elusive sweet spot. The grip controls the club, the club controls the ball. Simple, or so I thought.

The all-important grip also entails the all-important grip pressure. Sam Snead, who might have had the most fluid and picturesque swing ever, said you should "grip the club like a bird." In other words, firmly enough to secure it, but don't squeeze.

I always thought I was fairly kind and gentle to the club upon setting up to hit. And I might have been. But a constant theme at the Nicklaus/Flick School was to maintain the same grip pressure throughout the swing. I discovered I was a miserable failure in that department.

"Stop right there!!" howls instructor Gary Knapp, no fewer than 10 feet behind me on the range. "Hold the club right there!!"

I obey. I have brought the club back on the first half of my swing. It is roughly parallel to the ground, which is the desired position. -- My 155-pound frame is coiled, ready to fire. I am supple, I am anxious, I am poised. There is only one problem. I am choking the club.

"You've got no chance gripping it that tightly," Knapp says. "Let me show you something."

Knapp brings a folding chair over to my place on the range. He puts a ball on a tee and sits down in the chair. He grabs a driver from my bag and takes a practice swing. Then he takes another swing and hits the ball. Maybe 230 yards. Sitting down!!

"Now, what did all the work there?" Knapp asks. "My body was in a chair, so it had to be the club. And the club couldn't have done it if I was holding onto it like I was trying to strangle it. Try it."

I sit in the chair. I swing. Ball goes long and straight.

"Maybe," I say, "I should play golf from a chair."

"Maybe," Knapp says, "you should let the club play golf."

"The club is my friend," I say.

"The club is your friend," he says, "if you treat it like a friend. Would you strangle a friend."

The club is not my friend in sand traps. I'd rather be strapped to railroad tracks than faced with a sand shot. Naturally, because I can't handle traps, I visit them often. For my usual round of golf, I need a camel, not a caddie.

Which reminds me of a grim experience a couple years earlier. Playing a function in New Jersey, I wound up in a group with none other than Nicklaus himself. As if that weren't frightening enough, my second shot on the first hole wound up in a trap. Where else? The green was perhaps 30 yards beyond, and behind it were spectators who had come to observe the Golden Bear. Naturally, I had a spasm over the ball and launched a screaming liner directly toward an elderly couple, oh, 70 yards away.

I yelled "Fore!!" but the ball was traveling faster than the speed of sound. My sand shots always have the trajectory that tee shots should have and vice versa. See, I can play the game backward, too, Flick. Anyway, the husband, who had been holding hands with his wife, immediately hugged her, either as a shield or a farewell gesture. Fortunately, the missile avoided them. But as they hustled off to the parking lot, only moments after arriving, I turned to Nicklaus. His face was ashen after this near-disaster. Said he: "You're dangerous."

Well, I am. And instructor Volker Krajewski immediately spots why. I move all over the place when I swing, presumably because I think I can "help" the ball escape. My feet wander, the legs go from a flex to shake mode, the chest collapses and the head bobs uncontrollably. Invariably, I take about three grains of sand before assaulting the ball as if I were chopping down a tree. If I'm in a steep trap, the ball probably will bore a hole into more sand on the incline. If I'm fairly level and there's nothing to impede the ball's path, another screaming liner.

"Here's how much sand you should take on your average shot," Mr. Krajewski says, holding a small bucket filled to the brim.

"I wouldn't fill a thimble," I say.

"Trust the club," he says. "That's why the blade is at a 60 degree angle. It will extricate the ball from trouble if you don't bury the club face. You don't require all that extraneous motion. What you need is a straitjacket."

"And a chair," I say. "I wonder if I can just drive up to the tee and hit while I'm seated in the cart."

Mr. Krajewski doesn't answer.

Trust the club. That is perhaps the ultimate lesson one takes away from the Nicklaus/Flick School. To trust the club, however, demands having some confidence, and that is a commodity most of us hackers lack. I know I have an inferiority complex about golf, and it is well-earned. But personalized instruction does put at least a slight dent in one's phobia because, sooner or later, you apply proper methods and see that some good is possible.

For reinforcement, besides live action, there is the magic of videotape. I am examined from all angles by cameras, and I would strongly advise this procedure for all golfers, strong stomach or no. I think, upon enrolling in the Nicklaus/Flick School, that my swing is better than average. I am appalled at the pictures. All students are given a cassette of their before and after swings. The difference is at once excruciating and encouraging, especially when Flick stops the horror film and diagrams your dilemmas.

"Just because you feel comfortable over the ball doesn't mean you're correct," Flick says. "In fact, if you're comfortable, it's probably wrong. Look at your back. You were all scrunched up when you came here. How are you supposed to hit a golf ball?"

I am pleasantly surprised to discover that numerous celebrities have attended the Nicklaus/Flick Schools. Clint Eastwood, Jamie Farr, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gene Hackman, Brent Musburger. They all paid the going rate (up to $2,695, depending on your choice of housing), and they all slugged it out with us common folk. Hackman, I'm told, was a terrific student and a workaholic on the range.

So was I for three days, but who is to say whether I can apply all this new knowledge. I arrived at the Nicklaus-Flick school knowing that with my handicap, and my hands, it is an act of God whenever I break 90. So I seek no miracles, only the wherewithal to shave a few of those 8 to 10 strokes I give away every round, every season, every year.

Shortly before the wine-and-cheese party that coincides with the issuing of diplomas, I am blessed to have an audience with Nicklaus. He is playing in a charity event at nearby Loxahatchee, a course he designed. I ask Jack to pose for a picture.

"In this shot," I say, "there are 20 major titles. The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Amateur."

Nicklaus politely nods. Then he remembers New Jersey.

"Well," he says, "are you any better after three days of school?"

"They taught well," I say. "We'll see if I learned well."

And now it's that time. It's golf season. I'm going to let that golf club be my friend. And if not, anyone for tennis?

BOB VERDI is a sportswriter in Chicago.

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