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.

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.