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One Day. Three Clubs. Game Fixed.
And Other Crackpot Notions From a Stint at ESPN Golf School

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

Some golf swings are works of art. Others are works in progress. Mine is just a real piece of work.

I hook the ball . . . except when I slice it. Or when I top it, shank it, chunk it, chop it, duff it, or pop it up. Sometimes I miss it altogether.

But optimism is the golfer's curse. The little come-hither voice inside your head telling you you're just a small fix away from being the club champion, or at least the guy with a few captain's choice shots in a scramble.

And so I finally decided last fall to take my first golf lesson (pause for collective groan from the golf-instructor community). When I heard about the one-day, 3-Club Tour session offered by ESPN Golf Schools, I thought I had found the solution. Why spend 12 weeks in lessons when I could solve everything in a day? The course focuses on driver, wedge and putter. I'll master those, I figured, and the rest of the clubs would sort of take care of themselves.

The class, held at Whiskey Creek Golf Club in Ijamsville, Md., began with a shot at duffer glory: a one-swing attempt for a hole-in-one on the par-3 11th, a beautiful hole we were playing from 160 yards away. The reward was a new Lexus.

I was late and ran up to the hole as the others were finishing. Instructor Jeff Crittenden welcomed me with a big smile and said to give it my best shot. Hey, no one else had made it, so I felt little pressure. I grabbed my 7-iron, took a couple of practice swings and stepped up to the ball.

There are moments in golf when you feel in perfect sync with the universe, where the violent act of swinging at an immobile ball feels like poetry. This was one of those moments. Lifting the club back slowly and bringing it down on the ball in one effortless motion, I felt I had made perhaps the most perfect swing of my life.

The ball moved three feet.

My classmates turned without a word and headed to the range. I picked up the ball and followed.

On the range, it was all business.

After standing back and watching me spray a dozen balls left and right, Crittenden's analysis was succinct: "Wow." Wow, indeed. The 35-year-old golf pro saw plenty wrong -- my grip was too strong, I was lunging at the ball, my follow-through was horrendous. But Crittenden went to work like an experienced mechanic on a balky Kia.

He altered my grip slightly (rotate the lines made by thumb and index finger slightly to the left) and adjusted the head position on my club in my backswing to face the target. He told me to slow down my swing and coached me on my follow-through. The new grip felt strange, but the results improved immediately. My drives became straighter, longer, prettier. Could it really be this easy?

No.

As the session went on, my grip drifted back to the right, my old stance reasserted itself, my swing sped up. The drives became more erratic. Crittenden remained encouraging and continued to emphasize his original instructions.

Later he told me that if the lesson helps me understand my swing and realize why the ball moves one way or another, I can make significant -- and swift -- progress. "If you go and take private lessons, it'll take five weeks to learn what you get here in a day," he says. But he's also realistic. "If you only play five or six times a year, you're never going to improve, no matter what lessons you take."

In the afternoon, we shift to the "scoring" clubs and Crittenden proffers pitching and putting advice. He first shows us a neat technique for hitting out of the sand that seems almost foolproof. We also work on lofting shots, pitching close to the pin, reading breaks, lining up putts and sinking pesky six-footers.

By the end of the day I'm exhausted. I've hit more golf balls in the past eight hours than in the previous eight years. My hands are blistered, my back aches. I need a beer.

And yet I also feel like a much better, or at least smarter, golfer. I can get out of the sand without using a shovel. I sink more putts than I push. When I hit a bad drive, I have a clue what caused it.

The class isn't a cure-all for a dozen years of bad habits. If I play only eight to 10 times a summer, I'll probably still shoot around 108 every time out. But now I'll know why.

Joe Heim is assistant editor of The Post's Sunday Source.

The Takeaway: Three Tips

For my $500 tuition, I found three tips really useful. Here, you can have them for free.

1 Follow-through To teach a high follow-through (I was swinging my club more like a baseball bat), ESPN instructor Jeff Crittenden placed a four-foot-high foam pylon two feet to my left as I addressed the ball. The first few swings, I hit the pylon on my follow-through, but I soon learned to finish higher -- and my drives became much more consistent.

2 Sand play Landing in a sand trap used to be a nightmare, but a very simple exercise (seems to have) cured me. Crittenden had me address my ball and then draw a straight line in the sand from the midpoint between my feet through the middle of the ball. The idea was to hit the sand wedge a half-inch behind the line and follow through. Practice this 50 times and you'll look forward to landing in the sand.

3 Putting stance I feel like I can read greens fairly well and have better than average touch with my putter. But after watching me hit a few 15-foot putts close but not in, Crittenden suggested I stand closer to the ball. I was putting with my head over the ball but leaning too much, he said. I don't know if there was something mystical in his words, but I followed his instructions, and all of a sudden I couldn't miss.

ESPN GOLF SCHOOLS For available dates and locations, visithttp://www.espngolfschools.com/three_club_tour.php. The next available openings at Whiskey Creek are July 7 and 8. Cost is $495 (includes Nike SasQuatch driver, SV wedge and Oz T100 putter.)

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