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Crashing the Competence Barrier

How Local Instructors Help Newcomers Over the Toughest Hurdle in Golf

By Brian Reid
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; Page T13

In a recent issue of Golf Digest, Jack Nicklaus offers several pages of "simple advice" to "speed your progress" as a player. These included tweaking the angle of the clubface and concentrating on the left heel during the backswing.

It's hard to argue with the Golden Bear. But most golfers have more important things to worry about. As a brief visit to any driving range will show you, most golfers just need to learn how to make the ball go straight more often. Everything else is details.

(Illustration by Richard Turtletaub - For The Washington Post)

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Oddly enough, it's often golf instructors themselves who fail to realize this.

"My profession makes the game seem more difficult than it needs to be," said Paige Veliz-Gilbert, an LPGA teaching professional and director of Capital City Golf School, which operates at Washington's three public courses.

So what does a beginning golfer -- or even the average golfer, who according to the National Golf Foundation shoots around 100 for 18 holes -- need to break the competence barrier? We asked local teaching pros what they recommend.

Quit Thinking So Much. "New players have too many ideas," said Julieta Stack, owner of InnerDrive Golf and an instructor at Hilltop Golf Club in Alexandria, whose goal it is to simplify the game for developing players. "They're thinking about what they've learned, and what friends are telling them and what they read last month in Golf Digest."

With all those thoughts abuzz in their brains, players can have a hard time even moving, much less making a smooth swing. Veliz-Gilbert says she always sees golfers standing over the ball, frozen, pondering little adjustments. "I see it all the time," she said. "It gets nerve-racking."

Stack suggests concentrating on a single, broad element of the swing, such as the rhythm of the backswing or balance on the follow-through. Trying to control the movement of a single body part throughout the swing, especially in the absence of a good teacher, can send everything else out of whack.

Think Short. The oldest golf cliche is "drive for show, putt for dough." Well, most golfers should forget about the money. But focusing on the short game is the smart play. Short game guru David Pelz reports more than 60 percent of shots are made from within 100 yards of the hole. So why spend all that time on the range waving the big stick?

"The best place to start is with putting and chipping," said Steve Clary, head pro at Herndon Centennial Golf Course. It's the cheapest place, too. In a market where even a bucket of range balls can run $10, an afternoon on the putting green is a bargain.

The short game is a great equalizer. "You don't have to be Tiger Woods to be a great player or even an adequate player from 50 yards in," added Veliz-Gilbert. "It's the same with putting."

By focusing on pitching and putting, new players can speed their transition to the golf course too. The metro area has many par-3 and executive courses that require tee shots of less than 100 yards and then provide all the challenges of pitching, chipping and putting.

Don't Run the Numbers. The scorecard can be an instrument of tyranny, a reminder of how lofty a goal par can be. (According to the National Golf Foundation, fewer than one-half of 1 percent of amateur golfers play to a 0 handicap, which is to say they regularly shoot par.)

The best way to relieve the pressure? Chuck the card. "It's much more important for new players to get invited back [to play again] than to worry about your score," said Stack.

Another option: Use the card to record statistics like fairways hit and number of putts, but not total score. This will let you track your improvement in key areas without setting yourself up for failure.

Noel Jablonski, co-owner of Every Body Golf School, which operates at four Fairfax County courses, suggests beginners use par differently. On par-4s, she gives her students four swings to get near the hole, then pick up the ball if necessary and put it near the green. Then the player gets four more strokes to put the ball in the cup. On par-3s, the magic number is three swings for each. This keep the pace of play brisk, she said, and eliminates the pressure that comes from holding up a group.

Get Off the Range. The practice range can be a safe place to work on the swing. But players need experience with live golf holes to really learn the game.

Pros suggest an on-course lesson. "A large number of golfers would be well served by a lesson where you learn about where you want to aim, where to stand on the tee box, what the golf course architect has done to mess with your head," said Veliz-Gilbert.

That's a philosophy that's growing increasingly popular. The Nike Golf Learning Centers, including one at Reston National, emphasize their on-course "Play With the Pro" sessions for beginning golfers as a way to teach the game with minimal frustration.

Practice, Practice, Practice. You knew that was coming. It's hard to improve at anything you do just a couple of times per month. After a layoff, muscle memory dims, all those swing thoughts come back and the greens feel like the surface of Mars.

Golf, more than many sports, benefits from regular reinforcement of its delicate motions.

And how do you tailor that practice? A good teacher will be able to identify the next skill you need to develop and provide drills that will help you do it. This may be a golf teacher's most important contribution to your development.

Brian Reid is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post's Health section, and a regular at several area public courses.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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