It doesn't look like a six-handicapper's idea of paradise. There are no sweeping ocean vistas, and the dominant architecture is best described as "early concrete block." Yet for those with dreams of winning a U.S. Open, or just correcting an infuriating slice, few sights are as pretty as the little-known Titleist (FO) Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., about 40 miles north of San Diego. For years, TPI was the private playground of design engineers testing the next generation of Titleist clubs and golf balls. Pro golfers with Titleist deals, including Ernie Els, also have been known to pop in to TPI for emergency club fittings or to tinker with their swings.
Now the door is also open to serious golfers who have everything but the perfect backswing. For a mere $5,000, Titleist offers lavish two-day packages, complete with swing gurus, high-tech analysis, and loads of personalized goodies.
And that's a caddie's tip compared with the $25,000 rival Callaway Golf (ELY) will be charging for its VIP Experience about seven miles away in Carlsbad, starting this summer. The companies' two-day getaways expose amateurs to every advantage that the world's best players draw on, except natural ability. At Callaway, guests will even take home a personalized bag and a full set of custom-fit clubs. (Previously, Callaway had offered VIP club-fittings for a handful of corporate partners and celebrities partial to the company's products.)
Even at these heady prices, the programs have found an audience. TPI is booked through next summer. Actors Michael Douglas and wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and former IBM (IBM) CEO Lou Gerstner have had club fittings at Callaway's test center.
At the Titleist facility last year, ex-CEO Arthur Blank of Home Depot (HD) showed up with two execs from the Atlanta Falcons, Blank's National Football League franchise: team President Rich McKay and head coach Jim Mora Jr. "It's not eight hours a day of laughing and telling jokes," says Mora. "I was trying to lock in mentally, trying to get better." Mora says he trimmed his handicap to 13 from 17.
Guests learn about more than their golf games. Titleist provides each player with nutrition counseling and a comprehensive fitness evaluation. Among the amenities is a full-service gym with a practice putting green. "We're kind of the Mayo Clinic of golf," says Dave Phillips, co-founder of TPI and a respected teaching pro.
Callaway's luxe experience focuses on curing swing flaws and giving each guest the Donald Trump treatment. Guests stay at a Four Seasons (FS) hotel, ride in stretch limos, and have every whim indulged. "If a guest tells us: 'I only eat Famous Amos (K) cookies,' we send somebody out for them," says Randy Peterson, Callaway director of fitting and instruction. He's not so concerned about whipping guests into tip-top shape. "There's no correlation between doing more sit-ups and being able to play golf," he says.
Both golf meccas have a behind-the-scenes aura. Callaway's recently expanded performance center, which reopened June 27, is a two-story stucco cottage that includes the ultimate club workshop stocked with shafts, clubheads, and grips.
At 33 acres, compared with the 10-acre Callaway performance center, TPI is huge, featuring 10 tees, seven greens, and three fairways. A neat feature is the short game area, which boasts a humpback putting green that makes every putt an adventure and a British Open style pot bunker that adds a devilish touch. Until 2004, when Titleist opened the center to the public, the only visitors were company design engineers and touring pros tweaking their swings and equipment. The utilitarian feel of the structure prevails, though it now blooms with Birds of Paradise colorfully lining walkways and flowering pear trees in the parking lot.
TWO DAYS ON THE TOUR
Luxe experiences hardly are a high-volume business for Titleist and Callaway. Titleist has only one TPI, near its club-production plant. Sessions generally are limited to groups of six golfers, often accompanied by their home club pro.
During a recent visit, I observed the facility in full, multi-use mode. At one end, TPI guests were gathered on a practice tee walloping drives as a Titleist club fitter looked on, taking notes on how to custom-fit the drivers he would be making for them later that day. At the other end, engineers were wandering a fairway. Every six or eight seconds, the clang-clang of "Iron Byron," the famous mechanical golfer, could be heard pounding the balls of a Titleist competitor into the morning sky.
Callaway officials say their sessions will be limited to four players, with a total of about 40 this year. "This is for the golfer who wants to be a tour player for two days," says Callaway's Peterson. Titleist makes it easy for guests to retain what they've learned. Information about their diet and fitness programs as well as their golf swings, including funky moving 3D images of the golfers in motion, are posted to the Web site (mytpi.com). You don't have to worry about images of your slice grip floating around cyberspace: Access to each golfer's profile is controlled by password. It can remain a secret forever, like your true handicap.
By Mark Hyman