It seems like an uneven exchange. A young woman at a steel desk gives me a plastic bag tag with my name on it, a blue folder full of schedules and a 19-cent spiral notebook. In return, I write her a check for $1,540, made out to "Ben Sutton Golf Schools."
"Happy hour is at 5:45, dinner is at 6:30," she says, sweeping the check out of view with the deftness of a three-card monte dealer. "You'll meet your pro at dinner. Do you know who you have?"
I do not, so she runs her finger down the roster. When she finds my name, she snorts. "You've got Toby Lyons. He's a crazy old fart."
It figures. The palm-lined streets outside are choked with C.O.F.'s driving golf carts. On the way from the Tampa airport I had passed this billboard: SUN CITY CENTER—AMERICA'S RETIREMENT TOWN. I even spotted the classic C.O.F. bumper sticker: A BALD HEAD IS A SOLAR PANEL FOR A SEX MACHINE.
July 1, 1990
I smile gamely and wander off to look for my room. The Sun City Center Inn is more early Travelodge than the El Dorado it appears to be in the promotional video. A brisk breeze has picked up and a citadel of thunderheads is about to overwhelm the afternoon sun.
An hour later, it begins to rain. The wind howls. Water rises in the rock garden between the units and laps at my doorsill.
I call my wife, Pat, in Kansas City. "I'm homesick."
She says, "I don't want to hear about it."
Thus comforted, I go to dinner.
The welcome dinner is in a warm and cozy private room at the inn. There are seven or eight tables, segregated by sex, each presided over by a teaching pro. The introductions are quick and cordial. My group of 14-to-24 handicappers consists of a Pennsylvania glass merchant-sculptor, a corporate executive from Taiwan, a college history professor, a West Coast businessman, a Sun City Center retiree and a retired Air Force One pilot.
All these are pale characters compared with Toby Lyons, our pro. I cheer up the minute I meet him: a gruff 75-year-old with a big-featured, leathery face and thin gray hair raked straight back over his skull.
"Ready to learn some golf, boys?" he asks, mauling a dinner roll. He answers his own question: "You bet you are."
In a matter of minutes, we coax the essentials out of him. He spends his summers teaching at the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Country Club, but his reputation is based on lessons given long ago to Yogi Berra, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. He played in 15 U.S. Opens in the '40s and early '50s. The names of contemporaries fall freely from his lips: Sarazen, Snead, Nelson. "At one time I was probably the best putter in the world," he says, "but I could never hit the ball very far." He reaches for another roll. "It's a grand game, boys. It'll carry you through life."
Someone asks if Ben Sutton, the school founder, was ever a touring pro.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Lyons looks shocked. Sutton is no golfer, he says. Sutton is a former engineer for the Hoover vacuum cleaner company.
Just then, someone taps a glass at the head table, and the ceremonies begin. Sutton, a cheerful, cherubic 82-year-old, rises to say a few words. Welcome, he says, to the 485th Ben Sutton Golf School. He knows we will have a great time, and if we apply ourselves diligently, we will receive our diplomas on Saturday. He is sure of this, he says, because so far 40,000 students have enrolled in the school and only one has failed to graduate.
Sutton looks around the room, beaming. "His check bounced."
Oh, swell, I think. Another C.O.F.
A month later, I am on the practice tee at the Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where a swing doctor and his assistant, Igor, are fitting me for a straitjacket. Igor pulls a black strap across my chest and secures it with Velcro so tightly that I can barely breathe. The doctor gleefully binds my upper arms to my rib cage with more straps and rings. When Igor and the doctor finish, I can flap my forearms and walk like an emperor penguin, but if a bee lands on my nose it can camp there.
The doctor, in his Georgia drawl, says, "O.K., John, try hitting one." Igor hands me a five-iron and tees up a ball for me.
I want to scream out, "No, you fools! I'm a graduate of the Ben Sutton Golf School!" But I don't want to anger the swing doctor. Besides, this is a three-day Golf Digest Instruction School, and my Ben Sutton diploma doesn't carry much weight here.
So I grip the club, take my stance and try swatting the ball...and I blade it about 50 yards.
Igor tees up another ball, and I try again: a toe hook, maybe 70 yards. I swear under my breath. I try a third time—don't ask me what kind of swing I put on it—and the ball jumps off the club face, rises majestically, draws back toward the target, and lands in the green valley below, 200 yards away. Igor whoops and spins like a dervish.
I turn to the swing doctor and say, "Can this thing be worn under a sweater, does it come with a warranty, and how long can I leave it on before gangrene sets in?"
A normal person, you say, doesn't go to two different golf schools in a month's time.
A normal person, I respond, doesn't go to a golf school at all.
When I told friends that I planned to attend a couple of golf schools for a magazine story, half of them (golfers) said they envied me. The other half (nongolfers) gave me patronizing looks, as if I had announced my intention to matriculate at the Klip 'n' Kurl School of Hairdressing.
So don't talk to me about normal.
Take Toby Lyons. If he has a golf theory, it is "Mama don't 'low no pedagogy 'round here." His first objective, always, is to demystify a technique.
"It's the easiest shot in golf, boys," Lyons said on Day 2 of the Sutton school. He then dropped a ball in a sand bunker, dug in his feet and splashed the ball out with a swing no longer than a summer sausage. The ball stopped a foot from the pin.
He threw down another ball. "Don't open the blade. Just hit behind the ball." He chipped out another; it slid a foot past the pin. He threw down another ball, stepped on it, kicked some sand over it. "Fried egg lie. Gotta close the club face." He planted his feet, swung, and the ball stopped two feet from the pin. "That's all there is to it, boys. Go to work."
A minute later, sand was flying, grown men were grunting and Lyons's three shots sat in isolated splendor near the hole.
"No, no, no!" he roared. I looked up. He was staring at me with an anguished look, as if he had caught me spray-painting graffiti on his car. "Not like that. Like this!" He made an abbreviated flick with the club. I tried to imitate his swing and left the ball in the trap again.
"No, no, no," he said—softly this time. He grabbed the shaft of my sand wedge and yanked it back and through while I held the grip. "Do this." Instead, I did something else.
"No," he shouted. "Can't you do this?"
"Apparently not," I said.
"Your swing is too big," he muttered. He moved on.
A minute later, I heard him scalding Lyle the pilot, whose claim to self-esteem was that he had once been entrusted with 800 tons of Boeing 707 and the lives of the sad-eyed leader of the free world and his beagles. "You're doing this...I'm doing this!" Pause. Sound of sand splashing and ball landing softly on green. "Why can't you do what I do?"
That, of course, was the question we had paid $1,540 to have answered.
"Toby," Bob the professor asked on Day 3, "has any student ever killed one of the pros around here?"
"No, no," Lyons said placidly.
Golf school, you say, must be physically and mentally taxing.
It is. At the Ben Sutton school, some of the students skipped lunch to take naps. Others complained of blisters, insomnia, hemorrhoids and out-of-body experiences.
I was not immune. On Night 4, I dreamed the history of golf schools in America. It was a short dream. U.S. golf schools are a fairly recent phenomenon. "In America, private instruction used to be the thing." says Shelby Futch, president of the John Jacobs Practical Golf Schools in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Americans thought if you shared a lesson with somebody it was because you couldn't afford to pay for it yourself."
That began to change in 1968, when Sutton, after 31 years with the Hoover Company, put aside his upholstery attachments and approached other retirees with a novel idea: "Why don't 35 of us C.O.F.'s get together and pay five golf pros to go down South and vacation with us for a week?" Close on Sutton's heels came the Craft-Zavichas Golf School in Pueblo, Colo., which still bills itself as "the nation's second-oldest golf school."
The next significant player in the golf school game was Bob Toski, a runty touring pro who retired from tournament golf not long after winning George May's 1954 World Championship at Tarn O'Shanter in Niles, Ill. Toski, who was critical of the instruction the average golfer was getting at the country-club level, went to Golf Digest editor Dick Aultman in 1970 with his idea for a permanent floating golf school for highly motivated amateurs. Aultman bought the idea, and within a few years Toski had put together a stable of top teaching pros, including Jim Flick, Davis Love, Paul Runyan, Peter Kostis and John Jacobs. Jacobs bolted in 1976 to put together a school for a rival magazine, Golf. That school failed, but Jacobs then teamed up with Futch, and the Jacobs schools are now second only to Golf Digest schools in the number of sites and students.
The golf boom of the late '80s spawned a number of new schools with different approaches and philosophies. It also led to dramatic expansion among the established schools. Golf Digest's 1990 schedule lists about 250 sessions at 16 different clubs and resorts. Sutton's school is open every week of the year, employs 28 pros and treats about 2,300 patients a year. Says Golf Digest's Flick, "I don't think any of us thought the golf school business would grow like it has. Last year I did 46 schools, and 96 percent of the spots were taken."
Naturally, this growth has encouraged the development of rival theories about the golf swing. Jimmy Ballard teaches "connection." Toski teaches "the free arm swing." Dave Pelz teaches the "3 x 4 system."
Isn't it confusing, I am asked, to attend golf schools with different philosophies? Not at all, I reply. As in medicine, a second opinion is always valuable.
On our first day at the Ben Sutton school, Lyons led us out behind the bag room for videotaping and diagnosis. One by one, we stood in front of a wall marked out with grid lines and hit balls for the camera. Then Lyons took us into the viewing room and analyzed our swings. He found major fault with every swing but mine, finding much to admire in my high hands at the top and my driving leg action. "Boy, I bet you can bust it a mile," he said.
I admitted that this was so. Then we went out to range station 4, where I took my seven-iron and pounded balls 175 yards with ease, all landing in a tight pattern about 70 yards wide.
"Attaboy," Lyons said.
At the Golf Digest school, the cameras caught a different Garrity. Teachers Jack Lumpkin and John Elliott looked at my X-rays and saw something terminal. Said Lumpkin, "Your hands are too far inside on the takeaway, and the club isn't parallel to the target line when your hands reach your waist. You don't have enough connection between your upper arms and body, so you tend to block the shot and leave the ball to the right instead of rotating through the ball. I'd like to see your back a little straighter. Your angle of attack is too steep, which is why you catch some shots fat or thin. That's also what makes your trajectory so high, instead of producing a lower shot that bores through the wind...."
I'm thinking: One thumbs-up, one thumbs-down. Should I go to the Craft-Zavichas school to break the tie?
The learning ambience varies with the school. Ben Sutton students, I found, came for the social activities as much as the lessons—the cocktail parties, the Thursday night Hawaiian luau, the shadowy liaisons by the pool. My Golf Digest classmates, on the other hand, while congenial, gave the impression that they were slightly more committed to improvement, that they would, in fact, sell their mates into slavery if it would cut two strokes off their handicaps.
Does the student see instant improvement at a golf school?
By Day 3, we had all begun to suspect that Lyons was on a different page from the other Ben Sutton pros. At dinner, we compared notes. "How does your pro teach the pitch shot?" I asked a young woman from California.
She demonstrated with a salad fork and an olive. "Ball in the middle of the stance, club face square, follow-through as long as the backswing.... Isn't that what you're learning?"
It was not. Lyons was teaching us his pitch shot: ball off the right foot, weight over left foot, club face open, hands low, a short, descending left-hand blow with lots of leg action and no follow-through. "Toby uses his legs on all his shots," muttered Abe, the glass man. "Including his putts."
Abe was clearly undergoing a crisis of faith. "He's got me shanking," he said gloomily. "I've never shanked."
By Day 7, our swing changes no longer felt so strange, and Lyons could stop watching his back.
The point is, most golf schools warn you that you'll probably leave them hitting the ball worse than you've ever hit it in your life. This is normal, maybe even desirable. The Golf Digest pros even told us how long it would take us to get comfortable with our swing changes: 21 days. That's 21 practice days, not 21 calendar days; and if you got mixed up and started practicing the wrong thing, that meant 21 more days.
Back home in Kansas City, it's Day 98, and I keep getting asked what I have to show for my time and dollars. I pull out my Ben Sutton "checklist and graph check analysis" with the eight-frame sequential photographs of my swing; the Golf Digest video of my swing; my Ben Sutton golf balls; my Golf Digest visor and tote bag; the golf ball decanter of whisky I won in the Ben Sutton scramble tournament....
No, I am interrupted, what did you learn?
Oh. From Toby Lyons I learned that nifty little finesse pitch—a great shot off tight lies and from wooded areas where there's no room for a follow-through.
From the Golf Digest school I learned a dependable greenside lob for hitting over a bunker, a consistent bunker shot and a preshot routine that eliminates mishit chips.
I also learned that I'm going to be working on my full swing for the rest of my life.
PLEASE FILL OUT QUESTIONNAIRE SO YOUR PRO WILL KNOW YOUR GOALS.
Name: John Garrity
Handicap: 14 (My best round was a 78 on a course that had only four trees but was otherwise a true test of golf.)
Would you describe yourself as a big hitter or a short hitter?
Big hitter but not too accurate. Maintain that long-driving contests should be staged from the center of concentric circles, like frog-jumping contests, with trophy given to contestant who reaches most distant ring, never mind direction.
What, in your opinion, is the weakest part of your game?
Explaining 14 handicap after driving ball 300 yards off the first tee.
What, in your opinion, is the strongest part of your game?
Explaining why I have to wait for players to leave the green 250 yards away just before topping a four-wood.
What made you decide to attend a golf school?
Haven't had a good night's sleep since I learned there's something Dan Quayle does better than I do.
Do you have any physical disabilities, characteristics, etc., that your pro should know about?
I'm 6'6" and have short arms, so I play with extra-long clubs. They're just long enough to affect the balance of my Sunday bag, and sometimes they spill out. I've been dealing with this problem by carrying more balls in the pockets as a counterweight. Sometimes I overcompensate, creating too much torque and a tendency for the bag to twist around my pelvis and for the towels to get tangled in my legs. These difficulties have added 15 to 20 minutes to my rounds.
What do you hope to gain from your stay at our golf school?
A single-digit handicap, mystical clarity and a sense of oneness with the universe.