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A Golf Lesson in Pinehurst, NC

Okay, everybody...into your golf carts and follow me! We'll meet at the driving range."

"Excuse me!" I was waving my hand. "How do you drive a golf cart?" There were beginners at Pinehurst's Golf Advantage School that warm spring morning, but none quite as primitive as me. Imagine, 50 years old and never been on a golf cart. Even I could no longer imagine it. How many more years could I stand to be an outsider in the world of the great American resort, where life increasingly revolves around golf?The game is only one part of it. The clothes, the pro shop, the clubhouse drinking, the tournaments on the bar television, the self-possessed air of the pastel golf couples who fill the lobbies—lately I'd been feeling very left out.

There was one sure way to get to the other side. The Pinehurst Resort, known for its eight courses and illustrious history with the sport, host this very month to the U.S. Open, maintains one of the better-known golf schools in the nation. Its four-day Golf Advantage School p rogram, an intensive class that runs from Thursday to Sunday, is designed to polish up anybody's game, from beginner to experienced player. With five instructors assigned to 20 students, mornings are spent on a practice range, and afternoons on the golf course. In between you're very tired.

Golf is the reason people come to Pinehurst, a little over an hour southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina, and they come to be consumed by it. It's a golfer's wildest dream. The endless loading and unloading of golf bags creates a special air of excitement under the porte cochère. Above the front desk there are two clocks, one set to local time and the other to St. Andrews time. Everybody in the Old Boy lobby is either dressed for sport and full of anticipation or gathered around talking about the shot that might have been. Everybody is obsessed, and proud of it. That first night I retired to my room— burgundy and hunter green, true to its class —and tried to get excited. I turned on the Golf Channel, slipped on my saddle shoes, and planned a couple of outfits. I looked over my schedule and read myself to sleep with the USGA Rules of Golf.

"A hole made by a non-burrowing animal, such as a dog, is not an abnormal ground condition unless marked or declared as ground under repair."

"A single player has no standing whatsoever and should give way to a match of any kind."

There was just so much to learn. Bring it on.

"Okay, everybody...grab your 6-iron !"

"What's a 6-iron?" My hand was up in the air again. Friday began with a lecture on correct form for the grip and swing, useful no matter your playing level, which we then put into practice on the driving range. I strutted there with my 6-iron, reached down knowingly to the basket of balls, inserted a tee as if I'd been doing it for decades, concentrated on my grip and my stance, lifted the club high over my shoulder, took a big, carefully engineered swing, and felt a shudder go through my bones as the club smashed into the ground and excavated a large hunk of grass. The ball fell off the tee.

"Okay. Do it again."

Not "Good first try." Not "You're getting it." Just "Do it again." The instruction at Pinehurst is cool and clipped, like an astronaut's speech. Geoff, a golf pro, was the lead astronaut. There was no eye contact, no chatter, no forced cheerleading. In this age of empowerment and canned motivation, give me a Geoff. I kept swinging, he kept correcting my form, and the ball gradually began traveling farther and straighter; there was no use in begging for praise.

A golf swing is not as simple as I had imagined. It's a huge upper-body motion, aimed at a very small target that reacts vengefully to any millimeter of error in your form. And ideally you also want some grace in your swing. During that first hour and a half spent driving golf balls, my world grew remarkably small, to the space between my shoulders and the tee. My self-consciousness quickly disappeared. The first thing you learn at golf school is that none of your fellow students are watching you. The second thing you learn, by watching them surreptitiously, is that they don't always hit the ball either.

"Everybody...grab your sandwich!"

"Huh?"

"Your sandwich!"

Now I was really lost.

"Your sand wedge," explained one of my classmates, extracting the club from my bag. He was a man in his thirties whose wife bought him a set of clubs so he could play golf with his boss, and then sent him to golf school so he'd use them. Also among us was a couple moving to Naples, Florida, who clearly had a lot of golf in their future; parents and their two teenage sons on a family vacation; and an investment banker from New York City who could have improved everything about the school if only they'd listen to him. All had played golf before, and some were quite good.

We finished our morning in clinics on chipping (a short-distance lob of the ball); pitching (a longer lob, usually out of a sand trap, which is not only a bad place for your ball but also miserably hot and full of biting flies); and putting. I liked putting. That short roll of the ball toward the cup is the most concentrated form of the game. In one exercise, I was instructed to putt just six feet or so using a block of wood to guide my club. And still, with no apparent room to make a mistake, you can miss, if your clubface isn't properly aligned and you don't make contact with the ball in exactly the right place.

At the end of the morning I stormed the pro shop and bought my first accessory: a white leather golf glove for my newly raw hand. The green nylon Pinehurst bag slung over my shoulder was beginning to sag under the weight of golf paraphernalia, a look I'd seen at resorts for years. I was definitely becoming one of them.

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