To those pros who cast pearls of wisdom before this swine, please
accept my thanks--and my apologies. Thank you for the quality of
your instruction, which was superb. Sorry I made so few swings
worthy of it. I had a lot on my mind.
You would, too, if you had the best golf instructors on the
planet lining up to get their hands on you. That's what it was
like at Golf Magazine's first Top 100 Teacher Weekend last month.
Assembled at the World Golf Village outside St. Augustine, Fla.,
were 30 of those elite teaching pros, the game's finest minds all
vying to climb inside mine. By Sunday morning I could barely
brush my teeth without being paralyzed by a tsunami of swing
thoughts: Am I hinging my wrist enough? Should I soften my grip
on the brush? Is that a left-to-right break in the sink?
Individually, the instructors rocked. Seriously. It had been two
decades since I had sat in a classroom, and I'd forgotten what a
pleasure it is to be in the thrall of a great teacher. Take Jim
Flick, the salty 72-year-old who laces lectures with such
throwaway remarks as, "When I started teaching Jack ..." and who
said to me, "Mr. John Murphy"--my alias--"please address the ball
in a posture other than one resembling a dog at a fireplug."
From the tart axioms of Flick--"The swing creates the turn, the
turn does not create the swing"--to the earthy humor of Bob Toski,
who raised eyebrows with his explanation of why he has always
possessed excellent hand speed, the instruction was memorable.
Problem was, you could overdose on it. From early Friday morning
to Sunday noon, the 250 students of Teacher Weekend sat through
at least eight seminars. Between the teaching pros and their
trusted assistants, including the so-called range rovers who
prowled the practice area eager to deconstruct the swings of the
unwary, each student received some degree of coaching from
roughly two dozen experts. Even if each instructor had only two
or three tips to impart, that's a lot of advice to digest over a
weekend. That's a lot of smiling, leather-faced guys encroaching
in your personal space, putting their hands on your hands and
shoulders and hips while asking, "So John, where's home?"
May 12, 2002
It was a good thing that the hole-in-one contest was on Friday
evening, before the torrent of tips had engulfed my cerebral
cortex, reducing me from mere hack to quivering, doubt-ridden
hack racing through a 75-point checklist during my takeaway.
Dinner was at the Murray Bros. Caddyshack Restaurant (no, gopher
was not on the menu), and behind the place was a platform
overlooking a pond, at the center of which was a small green.
Knock the ball in the hole and win a car, we were told. While
waiting in line to win the car, I yawned several times. This made
little sense, considering that by the time it was my turn to hit,
I was tense enough to hurl into the pond. The yawns, I learned
two days later in sports psychologist Richard Coop's clinic,
Think Like a Pro, were symptomatic of overexcitement, which, Coop
explained, leads to shallow "thoracic breathing." Such breathing
limits the brain's supply of oxygen, thus inducing yawning.
On the hole-in-one platform I remembered the advice I had
received in my first clinic, Back to Basics: Short Game, taught
by Mike Perpich, an easygoing Kentuckian who turned out to be my
favorite teacher of the weekend. I took a nice, easy swing with
an eight-iron, hinging my wrists, turning my shoulders and
connecting on a not-terrible-looking shot that bounded off the
froghair before two-hopping into the water.
I was delirious with relief--I had neither whiffed nor skulled the
ball--and in fairly serious need of an adult beverage. There to
oblige me were Perpich and Craig Forney of River Pines Golf in
Alpharetta, Ga., where Perpich is the director of instruction and
Forney is the head pro. The day before, as the two men were
driving south on I-75, traffic slowed outside Macon, and they
noticed what appeared to be large snowflakes in the air. "At
first there were only a few," said Perpich, "then more and more.
We realized they were feathers."
"That's when we started to see them," said Forney. "Dead
chickens. First a few, then a lot--on the shoulder, on the
"On guardrails, up in the trees," added Perpich, "everywhere."
A truck loaded with live chickens had jackknifed. "They radioed
for a dump truck," said Forney. "Guys were shoveling 'em into the
back. It was a mess--beaks and claws going every which way. There
was this one, its head was hanging over the side of the truck,
looking right at me." He leaned sideways, lolling his head and
sticking out his tongue. "It was as if she was pleading with me
to save her."
The surviving chickens were transferred to a smaller truck.
"Their eyes were about the size of quarters," said Perpich.
"There was some guy talking to 'em, trying to calm 'em down."
"You know who that was, don't you?" said Forney. We all looked at
him. "Dr. Richard Coop."
We were still laughing when the waitress asked if we wanted
The school attracted people who cared passionately about golf.
People like Carol, a mother of two from Trumbull, Conn., with
whom I took Dana Rader's immensely helpful Putting 101 and who
confided in me, "I think I watch the Golf Channel too much."
People like John, a pharmacist from Missouri, who sat in the
first row at Flick's seminar. That was just like John. He had
been the third person to sign up for the school. He was one of
the 60 or so nutcases on the range at 5:15 p.m. each day,
whacking more balls after eight hours of instruction.
Because these golf people knew instinctively that I was not one
who shared their passion, I needed a cover story. I decided to
tell them that golf school was a gift from my father, who wished,
in the twilight of his life, to play a round with me that took
fewer than six hours; a round in which I lost fewer than a dozen
balls; a round during which none of my tee shots struck a home
bordering the course. (All of which is true, save the part about
his forking over the $2,695 for tuition.) Of course, I wouldn't
need a story if no one spoke to me for three days, but Forney, as
gregarious as he is gullible, elicited my tale that first
morning, then swallowed it whole. (I came clean with him and
Perpich that night, then swore them to secrecy.)
It had taken all of two swings for Perpich to diagnose my golfing
pathology. As a boy I was told to keep my left arm straight and
my head down. Doggedly, moronically, I still obey those commands,
grim though the results have been. A few summers ago I drove a
ball through the second-story window of a house just off the
fairway of a course in Rhode Island, narrowly missing the head of
a woman who was sitting on her sofa hemming trousers. (She shared
this detail while my brother and I vacuumed the glass from her
den.) "Everything's locked down," Perpich said. "You're not
getting any shoulder turn. You're all arms. We have to loosen you
Perpich and Forney accomplished that. We got in around midnight.
The next morning Mike Bender's seminar, Get on the Right Plane,
was interrupted by the tardy arrival of a man who seemed to be
suffering from a hangover and who, upon closer inspection,
appeared not to have showered. I apologized, and class resumed.
After Bender's eye-opening course, I was off to the desert for a
bit of detox: Sand Secrets, taught by Fred Griffin. With a
pitiless sun beating down on us, my classmates and I stood in a
bunker learning about club-face position and flanges. Griffin
would step on his ball, deliberately plugging it, and then blast
it to within a foot of the cup. The novelty of this never wore
off: the ability of the instructors to talk a blue streak right
up until they began their backswing, and then hit a shot stiff to
the pin. It was like being at a magic show. It made me feel as if
I were getting my tuition's worth, as did Griffin's parting tip:
"When you blast to within inches of the pin, tip your cap, should
anyone be watching, but don't smile. They might think you were
I felt lucky to have been accepted into my Saturday afternoon
clinic, Short Game Secrets, taught by the ursine guru himself,
Dave Pelz. Actually, most of the teaching was done by Pelz's
staff, younger guys who'd drunk the Kool-Aid and memorized the
Word according to Dave. "What we teach is not the only way," said
one of Pelz's true believers on the putting green--we were hearing
this for the fifth time in 90 minutes--"but it is based on
"You guys are worse than Scientologists," said a Texan in our
group. You go, Hoss, I thought. Undeterred, the disciple went on:
"Dave's having been a scientist for NASA for 14 years, guess what
he's done to green reading? He's torn it up." With that, he set
up Pelz's True Roller, a ramp down which you slide a ball to see
how the green breaks. This was but one of a half dozen gadgets
with which Pelz's people had us experiment. "Dave's all about
scientific research," said the acolyte, "but he's also about
As were all the instructors. Golf school was to teaching aids
what the Pink Pussycat is to marital aids: a cornucopia of
intriguing devices designed to broaden our horizons and increase
our fulfillment. One of Flick's minions strapped a
prosthetic-looking piece of plastic on my five-iron that forced
me to cock my left wrist. Dana Rader had me putt over a long
mirror that told me if my shoulder alignment was off, and if my
nostril hair needed trimming. (Yes, and yes.)
At the end of his session Pelz sent us off on this
less-than-optimistic note: "I can't imagine going to 10 different
sessions with 10 different people, getting 10 different
viewpoints," he said. "I don't know what that's going to do for
"Actually, the instruction's been pretty consistent," said a man
in front of me.
"Bull," whispered the guy to my immediate left. This was John
from Orlando, and he was still chapped about how he had been
treated in Flick's class the day before. Here's what happened:
After watching John hit a few balls, Flick asked him what his
handicap was. "I'm a five," said John.
"Wow," said Flick. "If you can have a swing that complex and be a
five, you must be great around the greens. You must be a super
When Flick was gone, John fumed, "He was questioning my
Gee, John, ya think?
Next to John on the range was a short, intense man, 60-ish, with
a brace on his left knee. When Flick remarked on his swing, Knee
Brace replied--with some petulance, I thought--"This isn't my
swing." In other words, this is the swing one of your lieutenants
is forcing me to use.
Flick, God bless him, didn't miss a beat. "Why the hell'd you
come down here if you didn't want to learn?" he asked. "Do you
want us to have a pity party for you?"
Well, yes, Mr. Flick, I do. Because the more classes I took and
the more coaching I absorbed, the more time I spent standing over
the ball, fighting the paralysis that overtook me as I sifted
through a myriad of swing thoughts. Soften the left hand
(Forney). Stand tall (Flick). Dip the right shoulder (Bender).
Hinge the right wrist at takeaway (Perpich, Flick). Hit the
little white ball before the big green ball (Pelz). Turn to your
left after you toe a ball off a nearby golf bag, in hopes that
people will think the shanker is your neighbor (Murphy).
So it was a blessed relief to look at my schedule on Sunday
morning and see that my final clinic was Range Rovers, the
golf-school equivalent of study hall. As I wandered over to the
range, whom did I see but Tweedledee and Tweedledum--Perpich and
Forney--advancing on me.
"Don't come up on me," I warned them, reprising Latrell
Sprewell's prethrottle command to P.J. Carlesimo. I was as
confused and disoriented as one of their jackknife-traumatized
hens, I told them. I was a blistered, helpless golf zombie. I
just wanted to stand there and talk. So we did, recalling the
highlights of the previous evening. Along with Forney's wife,
Elaina, and a fair number of the women in town for the Tupperware
convention, we'd shut down the hotel bar. It was Elaina who
described, with delicious cattiness, some of the gowned
Tupperware ladies as "women who've been lied to in fitting rooms
across the South."
I, too, had been deceived. After a while Perpich handed me a
five-iron and suggested an easy drill. He would tee up a ball--way
up, as high as possible--and I would take a flat, easy swing. "Get
used to the idea of turning your shoulders and following
through," he said.
I did as I was told and finished golf school on a high note,
grooving a series of shots, straight and true, toward the back of
the range. That chimera of success was enough to fuel my hopes
that the lessons of the weekend were, perhaps, coalescing; that I
might someday enjoy a sub-six-hour round with the old man after
Perpich sent me away with a handshake, a smile and one last tip:
"Keep pecking away at it."
"Their eyes were about the size of quarters," Perpich said of the
chickens. "Some guy was talking to 'em, trying to calm 'em down."
Pelz's staff, guys who'd drunk the Kool-Aid, did the teaching.
"You guys are worse than Scientologists," said a Texan in our
"Why the hell'd you come down here if you didn't want to learn?"
Flick shot back. "Do you want us to have a pity party for you?"