Facility offers golfers range of high-tech help

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE WAY Joseph Weiner tells it, the year was 1998 and he figured he was playing his last round of golf - ever, and quite delightedly, thank you - having broken his driver and three-wood in anger during an earlier match.

"I hated the game - hated it," he said.

That might sound strange for a guy who has just opened a new business - in golf. But listen to his story.

So this itchy, impatient fellow began this final round with friends at Hobbit's Glen in Columbia having to tee off with a 7-wood (which for you non-golfers is something of a geezer club that, on a good day, will permit a weak, scattershot hitter to send the ball maybe 180 yards or so out there, somewhere).

But Weiner, a Clarksville resident who turned 40 Dec. 23 and, thus, in 1998 wasn't anywhere near geezing, was feeling no peer or self-imposed pressure that day, this being his final round and all.

Thus, he didn't swing quite as hard, and in golf's perverse way, that little white ball simply flew off that 7-wood, straight down the fairway. More straight shots followed. And ... all right, this isn't a fairy tale ... but by the round's end, Weiner, not far removed from a 26 handicap, had shot an 84.

Talk about your breakthrough rounds. Not at all bad for a guy accustomed to doing 18 holes in more than 100 shots.

"I guess I had an epiphany out there someplace," he said at his new business, an indoor driving range called The Swing Center, off Red Branch Road in East Columbia's Oakland Ridge Industrial Center.

That one round, he says, gave him hope. It sent him to personal sessions with several county pro golfers, a lot more rounds and pretty fascinating self-improvement.

Weiner, a mortgage company owner who seven years ago could only dream about hitting a golf ball consistently, has improved so much that he is able to teach others to play - and clearly is loving it, as well as living it.

Last year, about a decade ahead of a pre-retirement plan he and his wife had been toying with, he passed the 36-hole Professional Golfers Association Player's Ability Test, testament to skill relatively few golfers achieve. His handicap today, he says, is a mere fraction over "scratch," meaning he should be able to par most courses.

There's nothing comparable to Weiner's new indoor driving range, not in this part of Maryland, anyway. The closest thing to it are the tees you might have seen at a couple golf retailers locally.

He's set up eight indoor tees in nicely lighted, heated warehouse space from which golfers can smash away into speed-deadening nets 15 feet away. Each tee looks into a white screen (really, a king-size bed sheet, but don't tell anyone) with a fairway or hitting area superimposed on it from a projector that's linked to a computer.

Use any club in your bag - or try some of the teaching aids Weiner says he'll be adding shortly. If you hit off a sensor-laden pad, your shot - as hard as you want to make it - will instantly be measured for effectiveness.

Blocks on that screen flash data such as the flight of your ball, how far left or right of target it was, how far it went in yards, how fast, at what angle your club head hit the ball, whether your club face was open or closed, and by how much.

Golf, understand, is a game of almost countless little variables. That club face data, for example, will let you experiment on your very next shot - with instant feedback - with your hand positions and swing plane.

Weiner, who attributes his sharp improvement in skills to computer-assisted coaching that gave him feedback on his mistakes and how to correct them, is betting other golfers will pay to benefit from that capability in his new facility.

But, he admits, it's a gamble, explaining: "We have a relatively short off-season in Maryland, so I'm hoping golfers will find us when it's too cold to hit outdoors - or drop by to hit in air conditioning when it's so hot outside."

For basic hitting, his prices are comparable to what outdoor ranges charge. Some of his more sophisticated, computer-based analysis and instruction isn't available elsewhere locally. The top-of-the-line teaching will be done with Dr. Ralph Mann's ModelGolf system, a three-dimensional system tapping into biomechanics that a number of pros use.

A separate 1,000-square-foot synthetic turf putting and chipping green lets players work on those strokes. Yes, subtle changes in terrain have been built under that putting surface.

Weiner has worked out a teaching arrangement with Turf Valley Resort, and he's also selling and custom-fitting clubs for customers.

If you want to learn more, check Weiner's Web site, www.theswingcenter.net, or call 410-730-8222.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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