The golf careers of most weekend warriors consist of interminably long off-seasons, punctuated by summers that seem to pass by in a week. In the north, winter rain and snow render courses unplayable for months on end. Even in the Sun Belt, if one thing doesn't keep the clubs in the closet, something else does: work, family, an injury.
All the more reason to think of April as an opportunity to turn golf's off-season into a season of keeping the promises that you made last summer. If you're a scratch golfer, now is the time to start fine-tuning your stroke. If you're a double-digit handicapper, now is the time to work the weak spots out of your game. And if you're a beginner, now is the time to jump-start your learning process.
Avid golfers often make their biggest improvements during the off-season, when they're free from the pressure to compete. "The off-season is a blessing in disguise," says Dave Pelz, author of The Scoring Game Bible (Broadway Books, forthcoming) and founder of the Dave Pelz Scoring Game Schools. "The feel you can get for grooving a stroke is often far superior to the feel you get when you're distracted by the hole."
To help you start the 1999 season in midseason form, we've put together a spring-training regimen for golfers -- a program of drills, tips, and exercises that come straight from some of golf's most masterly teachers. So grab your clubs: Tee-off is just a few weeks away!
Tips for Swingers
A smart training program starts with a clear plan. "Goal setting is essential, but make sure that your goals are process-oriented, not out-come-oriented," says Jeff Troesch, a sports- psychology consultant at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. "Don't say, 'I want to be a scratch golfer.' Say, for example, 'I want to be a better bunker player -- so I'm going to commit to hitting a specific number of bunker shots at regular intervals.' "
The key, says Scott Monroe, director of golf instruction at Nicklaus Flick Game Improvement, in Boca Raton, Florida, is to get a club in your hands. "Many of my students play about 50 rounds a year -- and some of them play just 10 to 20 rounds," he says. "So I try to get them in the habit of swinging a club at least 300 days out of the year."
According to Mike Hebron, a PGA master professional, a floor-to-ceiling mirror can be an invaluable training device. Here are two of Hebron's favorite drills for developing and maintaining a flawless swing:
When you set up to swing, Hebron advises, your arms, wrists, hands, and club should all be aligned to form an angle that matches the slope of a roof. To align your stance in this way, apply a piece of masking tape to a mirror so that the tape duplicates that slope. Now take a step back, face the mirror sideways, and stand as if you were preparing to strike a shot. Swing the club in slow motion, checking to see whether its shaft is at the same angle as the tape.
Next, stand as you did for the previous "shot," but this time, face the mirror directly. Place two pieces of masking tape on the mirror, with each piece tracing a vertical line that extends from the insteps of your feet, through a point that is just outside of your shoulders, and up to the top of the mirror.
Again, swing the club in slow motion, checking the mirror to make sure that your upper body (except for your hands and arms) does not move outside of the lines indicated by the tape. As long as you remain inside those lines -- starting with your backswing and ending with your follow-through -- you are positioning your upper body correctly.
Another easy-to-rig drill, devised especially for people who slice the ball, comes from Captain Bruce Warren Ollstein, a frequent guest expert on ESPN, CNN, and the Golf Channel. Ollstein suggests that when practicing your swing indoors, you place a two-by-four on the floor so that it is parallel to, but just outside of, the ball's intended line of flight. (The board should lie just beyond the point where you would normally place the ball.) Slicing is caused by following an outside-to-inside swing plane, so an errant swing will graze the two-by-four on the downswing. Repeating this exercise will help you escape that plane -- and thereby straighten your swing.
Home on the Range
The good old driving range is becoming a thing of the past. In its place, we have the "learning center." The Golf Club at Chelsea Piers, in New York City, is one such New Age driving range. Chelsea Piers offers more of everything -- more instruction, more putting greens, more practice bunkers -- along with an upscale lounge and dining room. But as with a traditional driving range, the focus here is on helping you improve your swing.
Darryl Jack, director of instruction at the Golf Academy at Chelsea Piers, suggests that the next time you hit the range, you resist the urge to bang out a couple dozen drives. Think about it: If you were to do that drill on a course, you would repeatedly drive the ball out of play -- and get slapped with a stroke-and-distance penalty. Now, why would you want to practice something like that?
Jack suggests that you emulate the practice routine of Payne Stewart and other PGA stars. Stewart never uses just one club on the practice range. Instead, he varies the clubs that he uses -- just as he does in competition. That way, he's able to maintain a steady rhythm, no matter which club he's playing with. So the next time you hit the range, don't hit every ball with the same club. Going from short game to long game, start with your sand wedge or your pitching wedge, and then move up to your woods.
And don't emphasize your tee-to-green game at the expense of your short game -- a common mistake among high handicappers. Dave Pelz advises that before ending your session at a driving range, you grab the highest-lofted wedge in your bag and use it to hit a minimum of 15 balls. Take a short backswing and aim for a target that's no more than 20 yards away. The goal is to practice your biggest weakness -- which for most people is their short game -- as well as your strengths.
The 19th Hole
As a new season approaches, remember that there's a reason why golf is known as "the game for a lifetime": You can spend a lifetime trying to master it. So part of any rational strategy for r sharpening yougame is being realistic about how far -- and how fast -- you can hope to progress. Golf is a tough game. If it were easy, it wouldn't be so engaging.
And that's the point: Enjoying the game should be your primary goal. Low scores are desirable only if they make playing fun. And in many cases, you'll make lower scores only when you let go -- when you stop taking it all so damn seriously, when you forget about all of the song and dance that we've built around the game and you simply . . . swing.
Action Item: Practice Hole
Back in the 1970s, Loyola University basketball teams under coach George Ireland made an exceptionally high percentage of their shots. How did they do it? During practice, Ireland had his players shoot at hoops that were smaller in diameter than a standard-size rim. By game time, his sharpshooters thought that regulation-size baskets looked as large as oil drums.
Master teacher Dave Pelz has adopted a similar approach to create the Truth Board. The contraption consists of a piece of carpeted aluminum with a hole in the center that contracts to various widths. By dropping putts into a hole that's been narrowed to less-than-regulation size, says Pelz, you'll improve your focus and concentration.
Coordinates: $139.95. The Truth Board, Dave Pelz Golf, www.pelzgolf.com
Sidebar: Golf Courses
An off-season immersion in a golf-training environment can be a powerful form of therapy. Here are four schools that represent a wide range of instructional approaches. From east to west:
Nicklaus Flick Game Improvement, Boca Raton, Florida; Desert Mountain, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada. Expect a thorough, on-the-course analysis of your technique and strategy.
Coordinates: $2,195 for a three-day program, excluding accommodations. 800-642-5528, www.nicklaus.com
Harvey Penick Golf Academy, Austin, Texas. The academy draws inspiration from the late Harvey Penick, mentor to several big-name pro players. Two dozen professionals are on staff to help you perfect your swing.
Coordinates: $690 for a three-day program, excluding accommodations. 800-396-0099, www.golfsmith.com
Kostis McCord Learning Center (at Grayhawk Golf Club), Scottsdale, Arizona. TV golf personalities Peter Kostis and Gary McCord cofounded this school. The center's goal, says one of its instructors, is to "put students at ease with their natural abilities."
Coordinates: $1,995 for a three-day program, excluding accommodations. 877-259-2505,www.kostismccordlearning.com
The School for Extraordinary Golf, Carmel, Napa, and Palm Springs, California. Founder Fred Shoemaker says that he "is committed to shifting the learning of golf away from tips, techniques, and answers, and toward exploration, discovery, and freedom."
Coordinates: $1,295 for a three-day program, excluding accommodations. 800-541-2444, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sidebar: Stretch Goals for Golfers
Physical conditioning is part of any cutting-edge strategy for improving one's golf game. So we asked Randy Myers, the fitness director at PGA National Resort and Spa, and the author of The Official PGA National Golf Stretching Guide, to put together a workout regimen for golfers. The entire drill takes less than 30 minutes to complete; Myers suggests doing it three to four times per week.
Front-shoulder stretch: improves golf posture and relieves upper-spine tightness. Stand up, and raise one arm to shoulder height. With your raised hand, grasp a sturdy object, such as a golf cart. Slowly turn your body away from your hand, going as far as your shoulder will allow. Hold that position for at least 10 seconds per stretch. Repeat with each arm three times.
Incline push-up: stretches shoulder and chest muscles; strengthens the arms and upper back. Position your body at a 45-degree angle to the floor by placing your hands on a stable object. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet far enough away from the object to allow your body to remain straight. Then do two sets of 10 to 12 push-ups.
Squat: strengthens the quadriceps, the hamstrings, and the calves. To help you maintain balance, grab a club at both ends and rest it across the back of your shoulders. Next, sit on a chair, bending your knees at a 90-degree angle. Then stand up. Hold that position for one second. Now squat back down until your butt is just touching -- but not resting on -- the chair. Hold that position for several seconds while you feel the burn. Do two sets of 10 squats.
Back and hamstring stretch: works the lower back and the back of the legs. Hold onto something stable with your right hand, and slowly lower your body backward. Place your left foot in front of your right foot. With your left hand, pull the top of your left foot toward the sky. Hold the stretch steady for at least 10 seconds. Repeat with your right leg.
Coordinates: $4.95. The Official PGA National Golf Stretching Guide, Cart One Corp., 561-625-3107
Sidebar: Hit These Links
Even if you're too busy to get out on a course, you can still satisfy your golf fix. Just boot up your browser and take a tour of the Web. Colin Berry, who writes the "Cybergolf" column for Golf Journal, keeps track of links-related links. Here are three of his favorites.
Global Golf Guide Cruise to the guide and take a multimedia tour of golf courses around the world. You'll find facts, photos, and video clips that will help you pick courses to play.
Bad Golf Monthly The place to go after you've played a lousy round: The site is packed with postings about golf-course disasters and embarrassingly high scores.
GolfWeb Click here for daily updates on the pro tour, plus information on golf courses worldwide.
-- Marni Futterman
Sidebar: Golf Clubs
When only a round of golf will do, you may want to consider the interclub privileges offered through membership in the Cobblestone Golf Group, based in Del Mar, California.
Cobblestone's network of 45 clubs includes courses designed by Reese Jones, Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus. A tiered system of nominal upgrade fees entitles members to such privileges as the ability to reserve tee times 30 days in advance, complimentary or discounted greens fees, and a toll-free concierge service. Interclub privileges require membership at one of the network's clubs (where initiation fees range from $3,000 to $30,000).
Coordinates: The Cobblestone Golf Group, 619-794-6600
Sidebar: Golf Shrinks
Golf is a head game. here are three prescriptions from master therapists.
The Malady: You can't sink that putt.
The Shrink: Bruce Warren Ollstein, author of Combat Golf (Viking, 1996).
The Therapy: "Take 100 putts from one foot away from the hole. You'll drill each one, and you'll drill your brain to believe that every putt will go in."
The Malady: You've lost your groove.
The Shrink: Mike Hebron, a PGA pro.
The Therapy: "Don't rush the shot. You can't achieve a uniform rhythm unless you slow down and think."
The Malady: Your shots are erratic -- varying from right on to way off.
The Shrink: Jeff Troesch, a top-flight sports-psychology consultant.
The Therapy: "Use a relaxation technique. That way, you'll learn to take the same approach to every shot."
Tom Harack (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in New York City. He has written on golf for Men's Journal, Playboy, and the New York Times.