Schools For Swingers And Chippers And Putters

I really didn't think there was a whole lot I was going to learn at golf school, nor did I think I was going to have much fun bashing balls for hours on end under the searing summer sun in Orlando. I also felt like the odd man out: No.13 alongside the six couples in my class--and the only low handicapper in the group.

Still, a job was a job, and I tried to focus on that first lecture, which covered the proper way to grip a club. Four hours and seemingly several thousand practice shots later, I connected with my cohorts and made a dramatic discovery about my game. Without golf school, I'd never have known that a tragically weak grip was the fatal flaw behind my quarter-century battle with the dreaded slice.

As I learned firsthand, golf school may be the perfect vacation for the diehard duffer: You're on holiday, so you're not overwhelmed with distractions--and it's fairly expensive, so you're damn well going to pay attention and learn something. Think of it as an immersion program in the foreign language of golf, a mecca of par 4s and fast greens augmented by all the technology that special-alloy club shafts and computer-diagnosed swings can provide. But just like buying a good set of clubs, you must shop around for the program that best fits your individual needs--and your pocketbook.

Typically, golf schools are offered in three- to five-day sessions. Each day usually includes three to four hours of morning instruction at the driving range or practice putting greens. Instructors lecture the class at the beginning and end of the session. In between, the group is broken up by abilities into smaller clusters that rotate between stations where different shots and swings are taught. Even at less expensive schools, a student's golf swing is often videotaped, and improvement is charted from day to day.

After lunch, some students rush for the first tee to see how their morning's lab work translates into course play. Others, even if they've paid for an afternoon round of golf, flee to the beach, the spa, or the riding stables. So remember: Depending on your level of enthusiasm for the game, you should pick a school based not only on the quality of its courses and instruction but also on its after-school activities.

MONSTERS AND SPAS. At the top schools, which tend to be at the country's finest resorts, you can study with the gurus who shaped the swings of famous touring pros. Instruction alone at prestige schools such as the David Leadbetter Academy outside Palm Springs, Calif., can run to $500 per day; room charges, meals, and green fees are often extra. At the other end of the price spectrum are all-inclusive programs that bundle instruction with room charges, some meals, unlimited golf, and perhaps a cocktail or two for less than $200 a day. Whatever you pay, the real draw shouldn't be amenities but instruction.

At Doral Golf Resort & Spa (800 713-6725) in Miami, home to the Jim McLean Golf Learning Center, you'll learn like a pro--literally. Mere mortals who believe they have skills that might benefit under the eye of the man who taught Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Gary Player, and other tour names should sign up for one of his personal schools. A six-person, five-hour lesson with McLean and two of his teachers is $625 per person. Same lesson without McLean: $350.

Even without the master, you'll still want to use the "Super Stations" at his learning center. Video cameras capture every angle of your swing and feed the info into a computer that allows the instructor to compare your efforts with hundreds of others kept in computer memory, including that of PGA hero Nick Faldo. And the whole video lesson can be captured on VHS tape or computer floppy for later review back home.

Trailing spouses who don't want to test themselves on Doral's Blue Monster golf course after the morning's instruction should head without delay to the resort's spa for a waterfall hydromassage, herbal wrap, and a nutritionally correct spa meal.

McLean also teaches at La Quinta Resort & Club and PGA West near Palm Springs, Calif., where his school is augmented by those of two other teaching megastars: Dave Pelz and David Leadbetter. KSL Recreation Corp. owns both the Doral in Miami and the La Quinta/PGA West properties near Palm Springs.

SHORT STUFF. Sophisticated video analysis is also offered at the David Leadbetter Academy (800 424-3542), but the real lure here is to learn the secrets of Leadbetter himself, the teaching superstar who has instructed such famed students as Faldo, Nick Price, David Frost, Ian Baker-Finch, and a host of other European and American pros.

Those who have been at the sport for years and hope to take their game to that next level--by winning a championship at the local country club, say--can study Pelz's system. His Short Game School at PGA West (800 833-7370) concentrates on wedge shots, pitching, chipping, and putting--or, in other words, 65% of all shots in golf, Pelz says.

While students at Leadbetter's school are unlikely to run into the man himself, those who book a Short Game School Signature Session (for a $500 premium) will actually be taught by Pelz, a former NASA scientist who holds several golf-equipment patents and has fine-tuned the swings of many pros.

MEMORIES. Those seeking a less ostentatious vacation might want to visit the gracious Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (800 795-4653) in the North Carolina Piedmont. It provides Southern touches and a quality golf school, and the room rates include three meals a day. Under the supervision of former PGA President Don Padgett, Pinehurst Golf Advantage School offers small classes (a 5 to 1 student-teacher ratio) and excellent facilities. Students have access to the seven courses that make Pinehurst the unofficial golf capital of the world. Some of them were designed by legendary golf-course architect Donald Ross. Students who play his masterpiece, No.2, with a caddy will log a golf memory their regular foursome will envy. It is typically ranked among the top five courses in America.

Purists who want to concentrate on their game without the competing seductions of a full-service resort might check out the Golf Digest School at Troon North in Scottsdale, Ariz. (800 243-6121). Teachers Mike LaBauve and Tim Mahoney help students understand the classic swing and adapt it to their game. Troon North is a highly ranked "target style" desert course smack in the middle of the golf-crazed Valley of the Sun. (Target-style courses are built with less than 90 acres of turf, requiring many shots over nonturf areas or hazards.) Students reside in the condo-style luxury of the nearby Resort Suites of Scottsdale.

ON THE BEACH. Value hunters might want to hook up with John Jacobs Golf Schools (800 472-5007), where highly trained teachers present an easily understood teaching method at 25 locations nationwide. A four-day school at Michigan's Grand Traverse Resort along Lake Michigan, for instance, includes room, school, most meals, cocktail parties, and green fees for less than $1,000 per person, double occupancy.

Another alternative, of course, is to simply book a regular vacation at a spectacular golf resort and hire the teaching staff there on an a la carte basis. Guests at the new Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on the sunny Kohala Coast on the island of Hawaii can book Joe Root, the director of golf, for private lessons at a rate of about $45 per half hour. Once Root works that hitch out of your swing, it's time to tee it up on the world-famous Mauna Kea course (808 882-7222) or its new sister links, the innovative Hapuna Beach course. In either case, you can get your lesson in, play 18 holes, and still spend the afternoon on the beach. Study hard.

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