It was a breezy, crisp morning as my taxi pulled up to the new Country Club at Mirasol, across from the PGA Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The setting at this gated community can only be described as exquisite, with stately, Spanish-style homes punctuated by elaborate mosaic fountains and brilliant flower beds. An Arthur Hills course, Sunset, is in the final stages of completion, and a Tom Fazio course, Sunrise, will open in the fall. Golf Digest Schools' new headquarters had been open only three weeks when I visited in mid-February.
My goal for the weekend? To learn as much as I could about golf. My skill level? Nonexistent.
I had not grown up around golf, had only a few friends who played, and had no interest in the sport until recently. When the school sent me a detailed questionnaire to gauge my golf ability and asked for my handicap, I replied, “What is a handicap?” Now, that would get their attention.
The new Golf Digest School is in a stucco building painted the color of sunshine, with a sumptuous lobby with overstuffed, coffee-colored leather chairs resting on a Persian rug. The facilities and equipment are state of the art: two practice bays with in-floor video cameras, a very slick software program to analyze your swing, and steel Callaway clubs that probably cost more than the average car. The school was just completing construction of its private outdoor training bays, which will be away from the other players.
My instructor, Mark, was an immediately likeable guy — friendly, easygoing, and infinitely patient. He had been instructing with Golf Digest Schools on and off for several years, and had also taught at PGA National and The Breakers.
“Why don't we go over to the clubhouse and get some coffee?” he asked after we had introduced ourselves. Not exactly what I had expected as the first step in a packed two days of instruction.
But as he soon explained, much of the initial learning of golf is conceptual. For one, he needed a better understanding of how I learned: Do I follow instructions, or am I more visual ? He then surprised me by asking me to describe my impression of golf in a single word.
“Exacting,” I said, after a long pause. Golf, to me, is extremely technical — the game of geometry. I felt as if I needed masses of technical knowledge to be able to play with my business colleagues and not embarrass myself.
“Not necessarily,” chimed in Louise, another of the instructors and almost the complete opposite of Mark, with razor-blue eyes and a fast-talking, no-nonsense approach. “This is all about making the game work for you. If you go out there and tee off from the forward tee and aren't ready, you're going to end up having a miserable day. My first lesson of the day: Play for yourself first. Everything else will follow.
I was fortunate to be Mark's only student both days, and he completely customized the schedule to my needs. That included an introduction to basically everything, from the meaning of par to the three different kinds of grasses around the green.
Even with groups, there's a lot of flexibility at the school. Instructors will break a group down according to ability and tailor their teaching to the players.
Within three to four hours of hitting the ball, I understood the fundamentals of grip, alignment, and posture. I learned the difference between the four swings: full swing, pitching, chipping, and putting — and actually felt comfortable with the latter three. Mark had many different drills for checking to see that my posture was right. By videotaping my moves and playing them back, I could see when I raised my left shoulder or left heel (my two weak spots) — and when it all came together.
What was most interesting was that, the entire first day, there was never a mention of actually hitting that little white ball into the hole. For good reason, said Louise, a believer in instructing without a ball. “If you start in right away thinking about where the ball's supposed to go, it takes your mind and puts it in the tank.” Well put!
As wonderful as Mark and Louise were, I learned just as much my first day from a 27-year old assistant named Ryan, who drove me back to the hotel. Ryan had left a good job in broadcast journalism in Miami for the opportunity to work in the pro shop at Doral. He described, almost with reverence, the history of the Blue Monster and the 30-plus years it has hosted the Doral Ryder Championship (now the Genuity Championship). He spoke the same way about Golf Digest Schools, founded more than 30 years ago in Bermuda by Bob Toski and Dick Aultman. Through Ryan, I finally began to understand the depth of history and tradition behind this sport.
That first night, I kicked back in the lounge of my host hotel, the Hilton Resort on Singer Island, deciding to put my day's experiences on paper. But I could hardly grasp my pen! My wrists and arms, all the way up to my neck, felt as if someone had tied them in knots.
Yet another basic lesson: Balance the tension in your grip, and don't let it extend past your elbows. A strong grip is better than a weak one, but mine had been off the charts. But it was nothing that a warm soak and some ibuprofen couldn't fix.
The second day, we shifted some of our focus to aim, the basics of drawing a line between yourself and the hole, facing the club toward the shot, and then building your posture around that. Mark took me out on the course to shoot a couple of balls (or attempt to!), then stood with me in the shadows next to our golf cart, observing others play.
But most of the remaining time was focused on the subtleties of posture. As Louise joked, “Your golf game is something that is continuously evolving. My first-ever instructor is 92 years old and still working on his swing.”
It was then that I made my most important discovery of the weekend. Everyone on the course that day, no matter how many years they had played, was doing exactly what I was: perfecting their swing!
I left that Sunday with a videotape of my swing analysis; a binder packed with information on etiquette, club selection, and more; and a stack of articles about the drills we had practiced, which Mark had found in a magazine the night before.
What about my question, “Can a weekend at golf school turn someone who's never picked up a club into a decent player?” The answer is no — but I knew that before I went. Will I be out on the course by the summer? Absolutely. Is golf school an unbeatable way to learn? Without question. Would your employees or customers give their right hands to experience a weekend like I had? What do you think?
Golf Digest Schools
With an instructor ratio of 5:1, Golf Digest Schools' philosophy is personalized, no-nonsense training. The schools are at some of the most beautiful courses in the country, including the Westin Mission Hills in Palm Springs, Fla., and Cranwell Resort in Lenox, Mass. In 2002, in addition to the new Palm Beach Gardens headquarters, they have added schools in Las Vegas (Silverstone Golf Club) and San Antonio (The Westin La Cantera).
My weekend included accommodations at the Hilton Singer Island Resort (about 15 minutes from Mirasol), as well as breakfast and lunch both days. Weekends at Mirasol start at $1,095 (single occupancy, including taxes and gratuities). Three-day weekday packages (I was told by my instructors that this is the ideal golf-school length) start at $2,045.
The pricing for corporate groups varies, and programs can be customized to companies' needs, with or without accommodations and various add-ons. Most locations can accommodate groups of 20 (considered the ideal group size), some up to 40.
For more information on Golf Digest Schools, call (800) 243-6121 or visit www.golfdigestschool.com.