The Dream Makeover
You've always wondered what would happen if you had the time and money to overhaul your game. As he faced a mid-life golf crisis, we gave our man the works. OK, Owen: Show us what you've got
One of the older guys at my club was struggling. He had lost yardage off the tee, and too many of his drives were finding the trees, and his iron shots had morphed into feeble leakers. He still played pretty well, in streaks -- if you hit lots of bad tee shots, you eventually learn to get up and down from 50 yards -- but his handicap was creeping upward. On a good day, he could sink enough 10-foot putts to compete with decent players, but his game had deteriorated, and he knew it.
Back at the club, though, I noticed that most of the guys who were beating me were my age or older, and that some of them were better golfers now than they had been when I met them. Maybe the thing that was gnawing at my swing wasn't age-related, after all. And even if it was age-related there might be something I could do about it. Suddenly, I realized that I would never forgive myself if I gave up on my game without first throwing a lot of this magazine's money at my problems.
And so, last May, I embarked on a long-term project to rejuvenate myself as a golfer. I went to Arizona to have my swing remodeled by one of the country's top teachers, and followed up with two post-visit checkups; I replaced all my golf clubs with brand-new, custom-fitted ones, after having my swing analyzed by guys who do custom-fittings for pros; I spent a full day being worked over, mentally, by the nation's leading sport psychologist; I started getting regular exercise; and I replaced all my Dockers with some other Dockers. It was an experiment in turning back my personal golf clock, and it worked better than I had dared to hope.
From tennis balls to golf Like many recreational players, I am susceptible to a superstitious fear that fussing with a swing flaw might just make it worse. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I arrived at the Legend Trail Golf Club, a desert course about 35 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix, to spend most of a week under the supervision of Shelby Futch, who is the chief executive officer of the Golf Digest Schools. Shelby is 63 years old. He grew up in West Texas, won the Illinois PGA Championship in 1975 and made a brief attempt to earn a living as a touring professional. ("After about a year, I decided that if I wanted to live indoors I'd better find something else.") He now runs his own company, called Scottsdale Golf Group, which also owns John Jacobs' Golf Schools, and owns or manages a number of Arizona golf courses, among them Legend Trail.
Shelby learned to play golf the way good players often used to: by reinventing the swing for himself. When he was 10, his father, who was an oil-refinery laborer, won a $25 set of Bobby Jones clubs in a poker game. He knew nothing about golf -- his family had been sharecroppers in Louisiana -- so he gave the clubs to Shelby, telling him only that they were for "hitting balls."
There was no golf course within 50 miles of the oil-company housing in which the Futch family lived, but there was a tennis court, on which Shelby and the other workers' children spent their summers playing softball. Between games, Shelby would take a few tennis balls into the wheat fields and whack them around, letting the clubs teach him what to do.
A couple of years later, his father was transferred to Oklahoma, and Shelby decided to try out for the golf team at his new middle school. "I went up to the tee and put down a tennis ball, and the coach thought I was being a smartass," he told me. "But I had never actually seen golf played, and I didn't know there was such a thing as a golf ball." The coach eventually determined that Shelby was merely ignorant. "I missed the first golf ball I swung at, because it was so small, but then I hit it, and I couldn't believe how far it went."
From that moment, Shelby was hooked. He went on to win the state junior championship and to receive a full golf scholarship to Oklahoma State University. The OSU coach didn't like his homemade swing, however, and worked to make it more orthodox -- with results that, initially, were disastrous. That experience set Shelby on what he would eventually see as his true career path, by helping to inspire a lifelong fascination with instruction. And, unlike most great teachers, he doesn't work with superstars, but only with ordinary players, like you and me.
"Tell me about your game," he said to me the morning we met, over coffee in the grillroom at Legend Trail. I told him that I had taken up golf late, at the age of 36, and that for half a dozen years I had had the exhilarating experience of improving steadily in every category -- largely as the result of attending golf school (twice), taking lots of lessons and filling the trunk of my car with so many old clubs, balls, gloves, shoes, swing aids and other paraphernalia that I stopped needing snow tires during the winter.
At some point in my early 40s, though, I reached what I perceived to be the limit of overachievement, and pretty much stopped working on my game. Any further investment of time, I figured, would be unlikely to yield a significant return, so why not just accept the inevitable? My handicap then began its gradual ascent, and was now 10 at my home club -- still a respectable number, but one that owed too much to my putter, my 9-wood, and the fact that the U.S. Golf Association counts only half of your posted scores.
I told Shelby that I felt as though I were sitting at the children's table, in comparison with other players whose handicaps were similar to mine, because I was at least 25 or 30 yards shorter off the tee and one or two clubs shorter with my irons. I also said that I invariably came over the top, even on putts, and that I had noticed recently that I did the same thing in tennis and bowling -- suggesting that the underlying fault might be genetic and therefore impervious to correction.
We chatted for a while longer, then went to Legend Trail's huge practice range, one corner of which had been roped off for our exclusive use. Shelby had me warm up, then hit some 5-irons and some drivers. I did so, nervously, and produced a dozen shots that, although they weren't any good, had the unexpected virtue of resembling my own lousy shots, rather than someone else's. Shelby said that my driver swing looked better than my 5-iron swing -- the opposite of what I would have predicted -- and we went to work.
"The first thing we are going to do is get you lower," he said. He made me bend more at the waist and hold my hands closer to the ground. Doing this was awkward and uncomfortable: After just a couple of minutes, my lower back throbbed. He also had me move the club into a more neutral position, in relation to my body, so that at address the butt of the handle was pointing toward my belt buckle, rather than toward the mountains off to the left. (Like many shaky players, I had gotten used to positioning my hands far ahead of the ball, as though the top of the shaft were being pulled toward the target by an invisible string.) He then had me begin my backswing by taking the club's grip back sharply to the inside, so that the upper part of my left arm had to scrape across my chest as I turned.
All of this felt extraordinarily strange. Shelby was making me exaggerate some of these positions (at address, the toe of my club was well off the ground, and my hands felt as though they were hanging at my knees) to emphasize what he wanted me to correct, but my main difficulty was that several years had passed since I had made anything close to a good swing. As is often the case with crummy players, and especially with older crummy players, my pivot had degenerated into a lift: Instead of tightly winding my body into a thrumming coil of explosive potential energy, I had gotten used to rocking back on my right foot and then raising the club with my arms -- a move that is more evocative of coal-shoveling or square-dancing than of robust athleticism.
I attributed part of my difficulty to a pair of back injuries, which I had sustained in close succession four or five years before, one in a fall on an icy step, the other in a minor car accident. Neither mishap had sent me to the hospital, but both had left my back feeling stiff and inflexible, and the arc of my backswing had contracted.