BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- One of professional golf's dirty little secrets is that it's really not a very good spectator sport. It's hard to see--especially when trying to follow the leaders and even more when it's Tiger. It involves a lot of waiting--which is easy to forget after getting used to highly edited "live" telecasts. Except for those who choose to park themselves in one spot, it's a lot of walking, a lot of it slow going. It's tiring and lines to concessions and restrooms can be long. Sorry, but compared to the viewing, comfort and amenities available at other professional sporting events, the golf ticket just isn't that good.
Speaking as one who has the privilege of covering golf, it's a lot better to watch from inside the ropes. But believe it or not, even then you rarely get an ideal view. And just like anybody else, watching golf in person makes me want to go out and play it that much more.
But at Oakland Hills this week, the experience has a chance to be much better. The PGA Learning Center presented by American Express is just what the golf spectator needs.
Everything under the 6000-square-foot tent is modeled on the PGA of America's highly regarded outdoor facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Located just a few yards from the main spectator entrance, it has four hitting bays where PGA professionals give personalized 10-minute lessons using motion sensors and videotape to anyone who signs up. There is an artificial grass chipping area, as well as a putting green, where teachers are stationed to help. A golf simulator set on one of Oakland Hills' par 3s is the site of a daily closest-to-the-pin contest (with a golf bag going to the winner). There are computer screens with lessons on every part of the game, and clinics by teaching pros and even players (Davis Love and his teacher, Todd Anderson, gave one on Tuesday.)
Meanwhile, American Express cardholders can borrow for an entire day complimentary, hand-held televisions that show four channels of live golf (first and 18th holes, the blimp camera and every shot of the day's featured pairing), complete with DVR functions that can pause and rewind. The units also carry aerial views of all the holes, provide information on every contestant, and even have video games including Sudoku.
Almost unbelievably in the land of the $4 soda, it's all free. In fact, anyone who comes to the tournament can hang out in the tent from opening to closing time, and take as many lessons as they can.
Wednesday at around noon, the place was teeming with at least 100 people, although the traffic will be heavier once the championship starts. The main vibe I felt was one of eagerness to try every station--especially the lesson bays. For some people, the place was a way station to relax in the air conditioning and recharge.
I took a lesson, which to be honest, felt a little too rushed. I was strapped with sensors that measured my body motion. I learned that with a standard length and lie 6-iron, I was too bent over at address compared to the average angle attained by a sampling of touring professionals, suggesting that besides straightening up I might benefit from slightly longer clubs. Most importantly, to be a better player, I needed to rotate my hips and shoulders more aggressively toward the target (it's the move that most separates the best from the rest). In about five days, I will be able to see a fuller critique of my swing, with corrections and recommendations, on the Internet.
For now, American Express is presenting the learning centers at the PGA and the Ryder Cup. Personally, I can't see a downside to having such an interactive facility at every professional event. There is something for everybody, especially for those who come to tournaments to learn and be inspired to try to emulate the best in the world while the image is fresh in the mind.