On Going to Golf School

The teachers at the first golf school I attended, at Sea Island in 1991, were Scott Davenport, on the left, and Jack Lumpkin, on the right. I didn't own any golf shirts yet, and those pants are corduroys.

The teachers at the first golf school I attended, at Sea Island in 1991, were Scott Davenport, on the left, and Jack Lumpkin, on the right. I didn’t own any golf shirts yet, and those pants are corduroys. Also: huge glasses.

I started playing golf in 1991, when I was thirty-six. A couple of months later, as I sat in my office pretending to work, I found myself gazing dreamily at an advertisement in the back pages of a golf magazine. The advertisement was for a golf school. I realized immediately that what I needed more than anything was to place myself in the hands of highly skilled teachers, who would transform me from a bumbling chopper into a champion. I bought a paperback book called The Guide to Golf Schools & Camps, and spent several days thumbing through it. It listed schools for children, women, left-handers, families, old people, high handicappers, low handicappers, people with disabilities, people interested in working only on their short game, and others. The schools were in places like Florida, California, Hawaii, Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Spain, the Canary Islands, the Dominican Republic, and Kansas.

In the end, the listing I found the most appealing was for Golf Digest Schools, a sister company to the magazine. (At that time, I had no connection to Golf Digest; I later became a contributing editor.) After several days of happy deliberation, I settled on a mid-November session at the Sea Island Golf Club, in Georgia, which had a teaching facility with a high-tech video studio, an enormous driving range with target greens and fairways, covered hitting stalls, and a staff of experienced teachers. I sent in my deposit and made airplane reservations.

When I told my friends that I was going to golf school, some raised their eyebrows, some expressed envy, and some became apocalyptic. “I knew a guy who went to golf school,” a friend told me. “When he came back, his handicap was ten strokes higher, and it took him six months to get his game back to where it had been before.” I heard warnings often enough to make me worry slightly. But I figured that my game was already so lousy that the downside risk was fairly low.

During the weeks before my departure, the mail brought several packages from Golf Digest. One contained special scorecards that I was supposed to fill out and send in for computer analysis. (I eagerly did.) Another warned me not to wear bifocals during my lessons. (I might not be able to tell which ball I was supposed to hit.) Another contained a list of the names, occupations, addresses, and handicaps of my eleven fellow students. (My handicap at the time, twenty-four, placed me roughly in the middle of the class.) Another contained a questionnaire concerning my goals as a golfer. (I said I wanted to become “consistent.”) I packed my suitcase two days early. I scrubbed the heads of my golf clubs with steel wool and dishwashing detergent, and I cleaned the grooves with toothpicks. I filled the ball pocket of my golf bag with balls that cost twice as much as the kind I usually played with. The night before I left, I lay awake for hours, waiting for my alarm to go off. I felt as excited as if I were fifteen years old and on my way to screwing school.

I was thinking about all that this afternoon, because my home course opens tomorrow, and I’m as excited as if I were thirty-six years old and on my way to Sea Island. I’ve taken twenty strokes off my handicap during the twenty-two years since that first session, and, although I fully intend to start adding those strokes back, beginning tomorrow, I’m not expecting to sleep much tonight.

This photo is actually from my second trip to a Golf Digest golf school, this one on Cape Cod during the summer of 1992. The man on the left is Jack Lumpkin, who was the head teacher at both sessions. Check out my sunglasses and tautly pulled-up socks! Partial credit for non-pleated shorts, however.

This photo is from my second trip to a Golf Digest golf school, on Cape Cod during the summer of 1992. The man on the left is Jack Lumpkin, who was also the head teacher at Sea Island. Check out my super-sized sunglasses and tautly pulled-up socks! Partial credit for non-pleated shorts, however. And by then I owned a golf shirt, which I had bought on my first golf trip to Scotland, a couple of months before.

Great Golf Course: Riviera

2008 Joann Dost All Rights Reserved

In 1947 and 1948, Ben Hogan competed in two Los Angeles Opens and a U.S. Open at Riviera (where the Northern Trust Open is currently being played). He finished first, first, and first. He would have won again, at the 1950 L.A. Open, his first tournament following his car accident, if Sam Snead hadn’t closed with consecutive birdies to tie him in regulation, then prevailed eight days later in an anticlimactic rain-delayed playoff. No wonder they still speak of Hogan’s game in the present tense at Riviera. His portrait hangs in the clubhouse over a fireplace that is always lighted, like an eternal flame.

Hogan, Riviera, 1950.

Hogan, Riviera, 1950 L.A. Open.

Riviera opened in 1926, in a flood-carved canyon in what was then sparsely populated farmland west of Los Angeles. It cost almost a quarter of a million dollars to build, and for a time it was the second-most expensive golf course on earth (after Yale). W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks, Olivia De Havilland, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Howard Hughes all played there regularly. Will Rogers, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy competed every weekend on the polo grounds, which are the source of the kikuyu grass on the golf course. Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo, whose house overlooked the thirteenth fairway, were often seen trotting along a bridle path that encircled the course. Television didn’t exist, and martinis and cigarettes weren’t bad for you yet, and golf at Riviera was a party.

Katharine Hepburn, golfer.

Katharine Hepburn, golfer.

The Los Angeles Open was a very big deal in those years—more of a major, in many ways, than some of the majors.  Humphrey Bogart, who in his prime was close to scratch, used to sit under a tree near the twelfth green and sip bourbon while Hogan, Mangrum, Snead, and Nelson played by.

Bogey, scratch.

Bogey, scratch.

I played quite a few rounds at Riviera in 1995, on assignment for Golf Digest. The P.G.A. Championship was going to be held at Riviera that year, and I was working on a preview article. I arrived in L.A. one afternoon, checked into my hotel, and, because it was too early to eat dinner, decided to make sure I could find the course. A guard waved me through the gate, A tournament official let me through the fence and told me I should meet the club’s greens chairman, who had just finished playing and was having a beer with friends. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he asked, “Where are your clubs?” I ran back to my car. We teed off maybe five minutes later, and got in twelve or thirteen holes before it was too dark to see. When we’d finished, my new best friend asked me where I was staying, and when I gave him the name of my hotel he said, “You ought to be staying here.” So I moved into a lovely bedroom in the clubhouse, overlooking the eighteenth green. I woke up the next morning to the sound of members rolling putts on the practice green, and after a quick shower I ran downstairs and joined them.

My home away from home for four days.

My home away from home for four days.

Over the next few days, I played with two lawyers, who met in court while representing opposite ends of a personal-injury lawsuit; a guy whose company publishes hotel room-service menus; a guy who had recently retired from the garment business; the actor who played Frank Fontana on “Murphy Brown”; the father of Robby Krieger, who played guitar for the Doors; and Larry David, the co-creator of “Seinfeld” (and later the star of his own show).

My close personal friend Larry David.

My close personal friend Larry David.

I also met Walter Keller, who was Amy Alcott’s teacher. He said that he first met Alcott on the practice tee at Riviera when she was a young girl. “I fell in love with the kid right there,” he told me. “She hit a beautiful shot, and I said, ‘Hit another.’ She did. ‘Hit another.’ She did. I turned to her mother and said, ‘You are a blessed woman.'” Keller arranged for Alcott to become a member of the club. She had a difficult relationship with her father, he said, but club members looked out for her. “She had twenty fathers here,” he said. “Dean Martin would see her on the driving range, swing by in his cart, and say, ‘Hey, Amy, let’s play nine holes.”

Amy Alcott, Walter Keller, and Tony Sills (who was also a student of Keller's) and a significant collection of junior-golf trophies.

Amy Alcott, Walter Keller, and Tony Sills (who was also a student of Keller’s) and a significant collection of junior-golf trophies.

Alcott won the first of her twenty-nine LPGA Tour events in 1975, when she was nineteen. Keller died in 2003, at the age of ninety-five.




Golfer to Watch: Isabelle Lendl

Ivan, Isabelle, Crash, and Marika Lendl, Bradenton, Florida, May, 2006. Photograph by Martin Shoeller.

Ivan, Isabelle, Crash, and Marika Lendl, Bradenton, Florida, May, 2006. Photograph by Martin Shoeller.

A week and a half ago, Isabelle Lendl, who is a senior at the University of Florida, won the women’s division of the Dixie Amateur, at Heron Bay Golf Club, in Coral Springs, Florida. She was five back after fifty-four holes, but shot 66 in the final round and won by four. Among those she beat was her younger sister Daniela, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, better known as Crash, who shot 67 and tied for sixteenth. It was Isabelle’s fourth win of the season.

Isabelle, Crash, and their sister Marika used to be junior members of my club—it’s where they took their first golf lessons, from our pro at the time, Fran Hoxie—and when Isabelle was eleven she and I played a nine-hole ladder match. (Since then, my club has abandoned ladder matches, but we still have the ladder and at some point I’ll explain how it worked.)

We played our match just before Isabelle’s game took off, at probably the last moment when a not-completely-terrible middle-aged guy could still beat her. She praised my decent shots and graciously conceded short putts, and we spent a very enjoyable hour and a half together. She said that her twin sister Caroline, whose main athletic interest was horses, was attending a birthday party that afternoon, and we agreed that that was a waste of a nice summer day. I said the thing about golf that grownups always say to kids, that it’s a game for a lifetime, and I also said that no matter what Isabelle and her sisters ended up doing with their lives I was certain that golf would always be part of it. I told her about my brother, who was the captain of his golf team in both high school and college and went on to work in advertising and sometimes got to play with clients. “No,” Isabelle said firmly, as we walked up the fifth fairway. “I’m going to play on tour.”

And she clearly will. I’ve played with her a couple of times since then, and she is not only terrifically talented (and nice!) but also mentally well-equipped to play competitive golf. When she was in high school, her father—the former tennis star Ivan Lendl, who now coaches Andy Murray—thought that on a golf course she was sometimes too eager to take unnecessary risks, but she has managed to tame that without becoming any less imaginative or aggressive. At the Dixie Amateur, playing with the young woman who had begun the day with a five-stroke lead, she birdied the first three holes, and, on the second nine, made three birdies in four holes exactly when she needed to.

In November, 2005, I watched Isabelle, who was fourteen, compete in a big junior tournament on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club, in Georgia. (The year before, at thirteen, she had been the youngest player to qualify for match play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur.) The wind was blowing so hard on Seaside that the clubhouse flag, which was approximately the size of the one that Francis Scott Key saw flying over Fort McHenry in 1814, was sticking straight out. Isabelle wasn’t unhappy, though, and afterward she told me, “I like playing in wind and rain better than in normal conditions. It’s more fun, and nobody else likes it. I think I trust more shots than other people usually do. If I have a shot that I want to hit, it really doesn’t matter if I haven’t practiced it, because I can just picture it and then I can hit it.”

There are five Lendl daughters, and all of them are more competitive than you and I are. Marika—who graduated from Florida last year and is now working in sports management—was a junior-tennis star before she switched to golf. Her tennis teacher was Kenyon Clark, who was then the pro at my club. Clark told me that, during one early lesson, he and Marika were using tubes to pick up practice balls. Without saying anything, he began picking up the balls faster, and Marika immediately went faster, too—an unspoken race, which she won, then exulted about. Clark’s wife, Manny, was sitting by the court with Marika’s mother, Samantha, and as they watched the race Manny said that her husband was the most competitive person in the world. “No,” Samantha said. “Mine is.”

Samantha grew up playing Scrabble with her family, and at some point she taught Ivan. “I beat him once, and that was it,” she told me. Ivan realized, as they played, that his wife’s strategy—trying to make the longest words possible—was not optimal. He bought a Scrabble dictionary and memorized every every two- and three-letter word in it (he has a near photographic memory), and since then he hasn’t been beaten. “He couldn’t stand losing,” Samantha said, “even in English, which is maybe his fifth language. And he’s the same way with the kids. He just hates to lose.”

I wrote about the Lendls in The New Yorker in 2006. You can read that article here.

Marika, Isabelle, Crash, and their coach, 2009.

Marika, Isabelle, Crash, and their coach, 2009.


The Guys I Usually Play Golf With Golf School

Meet our faculty.

Like most casual players, I receive the bulk of my golf instruction not from PGA professionals but from the guys in my regular weekend group. When I loop a screamer out of bounds, for example, they don’t hesitate to tell me what I did wrong—and I return the favor. We all have a solid grounding in swing mechanics, which we acquired from magazines, books, Johnny Miller, and the Golf Channel.

We know so much, in fact, that we could probably help you, too. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do at our new golf school, The Guys I Usually Play Golf With Golf School. The instructors are my buddies and me, and we will devote the same thoughtful attention to your swing that we have always devoted to our own.

The main thing you should know about our school is that we’re not going to change your grip. That’s because there are only two things that can go wrong with a golf swing, in our opinion: getting a little quick and moving your head. When you get a little quick, one of us will say “Little quick there,” or “Nice ‘n’ easy now,” or “Low and slow, ol’ buddy.” That usually does the trick. If it doesn’t, Nick will say, “Keep your head down, stupid”—which is not an insult, because he says the same thing to himself before every swing.

If you’re having trouble off the tee, we’re probably going to suggest that you try Brendan’s new driver. Brendan has hardly ever hit a bad shot with it, and when he hurt his thumb last fall and couldn’t play for a month, we snuck it out of his bag and passed it around. Hacker (real name) later bought a driver just like it, but Brendan’s actual new driver is the only one that truly works almost all the time. When your turn with it is over, we’ll send you into the golf shop to buy a new driver of your own. The brand you choose won’t matter, as long as it’s one of the expensive ones, which always work for a week or two.

We own every training aid ever manufactured, and you can take your pick, if you don’t mind wading through the junk in our garages. Help yourself to my old snow tires, too. Our short-game clinic is taught by Bruce and George. Watching those guys chipping and putting for an hour will turn you into Phil Mickelson, by comparison. (An hour’s the limit, though; overexposure could turn you into them.) They also teach a class in deep-water ball-retrieval.

All our lessons are playing lessons, by the way. Net best ball, first-tee do-over, no junk, no gimmes, no strokes on par-3s. We’ll explain the rest when you get here. The first round of beers, needless to say, is on you.

Don’t worry—we’re not going to mess with your grip. Or your wardrobe.