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Summer Schooled: In the Swing


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So you work for a large company. If you inform the powers that you’re taking a summer Friday afternoon off to bike a singletrack, hike a mountainside or, gasp, root around in your rose garden, you might be told not to return on Monday. But tell them you’re going to play golf with some clients, and nobody blinks as you head out the door. So the way I see it on this bluebird day as I wait for the start of a golf clinic outside of Beaver Creek, Colo., is that I’m not learning a new sport as much as qualifying for Friday afternoons away from my desk for the remainder of my corporate career.

Let’s get this straight right at the top. I’ve never played a round of golf in my life. (Mini golf doesn’t count, right?) The extent of my golf experience is probably fewer than five trips to a driving range to placate buddies. Additional full disclosure: It’s clear from the moment that instructor Jeff Saager looks at my Nike sneakers and lends me a pair of his golf shoes that I’m in over my head.

The good news: Saager, a patient man who’s been teaching for more than 20 years, smoothly tailors his instruction to match the experience level of each student. There are four of us in the intensive two-day “mini school” at the posh David Leadbetter Golf Academy, which is part of the breathtakingly beautiful Red Sky Golf Club. I’m the only beginner, and I’m as nervous as a newborn.

Saager and his assistant instructor place us in a line, a pyramid of golf balls neatly stacked next to each tee-box. The instruction area sits on a slight manicured rise, clubhouse to the rear, with gorgeous Colorado peaks stretching to the horizon. I instantly notice that everyone but me has brought clubs.

The order is given to stretch out and start taking easy swings to loosen up. After about, oh, three of my swings, Saager walks over and places his hands on my hips—and I’m OK with it. “Let’s start with the set-up. This is where most of the problems start,” he says.

He then calmly takes me through a laundry list of unnatural body angles, arcane alignments, forced foot positions and awkward torso twists. I’m starting to feel like a contortionist—and he hasn’t even let me hit the ball yet.

With golf instruction, it seems as if you’re constantly faced with the advice, “if it feels wrong, it’s probably right.” This is counter-intuitive. In fact, everything about golf is counterintuitive, starting with the ridiculously small ball you’re asked to hit repeatedly.

By the first hour of the first day, two seemingly contradictory conclusions become crystal clear. Conclusion One: I could get a lot more out of a high-end golf clinic like this if I actually played golf. Conclusion Two: I can’t think of a better way to pick up the sport.

I jumped out of a plane once. It involved three hours of “flight school” with the single objective of teaching you how to pull your emergency rip cord in the rare event that the main chute didn’t open. I have the same feeling at the Academy. Throughout the two days and the wide range of instruction and terrain, the main single objective for me—as a rank beginner at least—is to get my “set-up” working properly. “Everything flows from that,” Saager says.

As with ski instruction, different methods of instruction work for different people. But everyone in the clinic agrees that there’s no substitute for watching yourself swing a golf club on video.

At the end of the first day, we sit down in front of a sophisticated video system, with Saager manning the controls. The film session is right out of an NFL coaching room. Saager analyzes our swings, frame by frame, stopping and reversing the video, making points of encouragement and suggestions for change. He can zoom in on a grip or draw a line that reveals the angle of your club in relation to your arms. He shows a split screen of your swing next to that of various golf pros. (“This guy is prretty good, he notes, as Tiger Woods sends a ball into orbit on the left while I flail on the right). Students are wowed as each of us gets the video treatment. (A few weeks after the clinic, a DVD of Saager breaking down your game arrives in your mailbox.)


The video is where I begin to understand my “set-up” problems. Out on the instruction tees, Saager keeps telling me I counter-tilt with my left hip instead of leaning slightly to the right. Try as I might to adjust in the field, I’m struggling. But clear as day I see on the screen that my body is twisted like a pretzel, with the solution as obvious as tilting the other way.

At the end of day two, we sit down for a second screening, with before and after video of our technique. “See the change? Nice. You’re starting to get the fundamentals,” Saager notes, as my hips and shoulders now show vastly improved alignments. I high-five the guy next to me.

As a beginner at a new sport, you’re always waiting for something to click—for that magic moment when instruction plus repetition alchemizes into muscle memory. As I keep self-consciously swinging, Saager walks up and hands me a white instruction glove with black insets denoting where to place the club within your grip. It clicks. The unnatural body positions start to make sense as soon as the grip begins to fall in place. As I swing now, I begin to feel the power generated when the physics of the motion line up. “This is stuff you can work on for the rest of your life,” Saager says encouragingly, which I don’t find particularly encouraging.

Shortly after I return home, I receive an email from a Boston ski buddy who’s planning the annual guys golf trip. This time to California. “We’d like you to come, but you don’t golf,” he writes, just to annoy me. He has no idea what’s in the works. The way I see it, a bunch of Fridays out of the office and on the links this summer will land me a weekend away in the fall. I’m starting to like this game.

>Wolcott, Colo.
There are 22 David Leadbetter Golf Academies around the world. Red Sky Golf Club hosts Colorado’s only Leadbetter Academy, with programs ranging from two-day golf retreats ($1,650) to one-hour private sessions ($175). Its video and computer analysis will shock and awe you.
Red Sky Golf Club: 866-873-3759,; David Leadbetter Golf Academy:

>Stratton, Vt.
One of the best golf programs in ski country, the Stratton Golf University provides everything from early season Boot Camp ($349) to custom VIP design-your-own-class sessions (starting at $799).

>Boyne Highlands, Mich.
The Boyne Golf Academy is overseen by golf guru Jim Flick. Go for total immersion with a Super Five package, which includes unlimited golf and instruction for five days, starting at $835.