Perennially on the fringes of the American golf resort, Stephen Drucker heads to Pinehurst, North Carolina, for lessons in the game. PLUS Nine more top golf schools.
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!"
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.
That afternoon, divided into foursomes, we headed out in a convoy of golf carts to play Pinehurst No. 3. Everybody else could hardly wait; I was looking for an excuse not to go. It's one thing to give a ball your best shot on a flat driving range; it's quite another to aim for a flag you can barely see that's hundreds of feet away, with hills, dales, water, trees, sand, and easily shattered condo windows between you and your goal. At this point in my fragile game, hitting the ball while 19 considerably better players watched seemed cruel. But the school has its reasons : it is extremely helpful to watch experienced players plan their game, seeing what's possible, what's not, and what is simply up to the gods.
By the end of the day I had mastered the golf cart, played honorably, earned a drink, and was adopting the language ("Hey, buddy..."). I even found an hour to look beyond the golf courses.
Pinehurst is a town (population 10,498) as well as a resort. Its early-20th-century cottages stand amid tall pines on gently curved streets. Its prosperous shops sell golf art, golf antiques, golf clothes, and golf real estate. Its liquor shop sells a lot of Jack Daniels. Pinehurst, the resort, includes the town's three biggest hotels: the Carolina, a grand old white clapboard building with a copper mansard roof; the Holly Inn, which has a Craftsman feeling; and the more casual Manor. All golf students are accommodated at the Carolina, the biggest and most luxurious of the three. In 2002 the resort added a vast and attractive spa with a gleaming copper mansard of its own. Golf students take quite a beating physically—a morning on the driving range is more arduous than a day at the Ashram—and a Golfer's Massage (50 minutes; $105) really does help.
Only eating gives golf any serious competition at Pinehurst. All meals are included in the school cost; there's a buffet breakfast (the good kind, with eggs made to order) and a buffet lunch at the clubhouse (less inspired, and usually eaten on the run). You can have dinner in your room or at any of the resort restaurants, from sports bar to heavy-duty candlelight. For a casual dinner, you won't do better than the Tavern at the Holly Inn, built around a 19th-century Scottish bar, with a light, modern sandwich menu and golf on the television at all times. When you want to wear that blue blazer, try the Carolina Dining Room, dressy and traditional in a way Southerners especially appreciate. There are a lot of men who look like Ashley Wilkes escorting women in long skirts, and a rather good combo that plays the standards consistently brings couples to the dance floor. Once a decade or so, I get tempted by baked oysters; they arrived—braised spinach, ham, caviar, and hollandaise, all packed into that itty-bitty shell—as everybody was getting up to take a spin to "Satin Doll." Next came a beefsteak tomato salad ("Speak low...") with a Gorgonzola vinaigrette ("...when you speak love..."). The entrées included the classics but also managed to keep up with the times: ancho-honey-glazed chicken breast (strike up the theme from Ice Castles) came with green tomato chowchow and cheddar-chive spoon bread, and it worked. As did a lemon-lime tart with orange sorbet, by which time everybody was dancing close, to the samba from Black Orpheus.
That night I dreamed about golf, and I didn't play well. I awoke early, filled with anxiety, fearing that day two would bring setbacks. But it did not. Day three went even better. I was leaving fewer divots in the grass and driving the ball, shall we say, less inconsistently. Chipping was tricky, but it started to come; pitching, I never did get the hang of; and I was always a little too eager to get to the putting clinic. Drill, drill, drill—the idea of the school is to pound good form into you, on the theory that muscle memory eventually partners with your natural style to produce your best game.
Now here's my favorite part: I have it all on tape. The first morning everybody is filmed driving a ball, then forced to watch it NFL-style, in slow motion, while an instructor analyzes your form and sets some goals. On the final morning you are filmed once again, to measure your progress. By that time everybody has had enough and has begun wandering away from their assigned clinics. I drew quite an audience, and by then I was well aware of all the hideous possibilities that sometimes result from the most well-intentioned swing. I drew back my club, said a little prayer, and drove the ball clean, long, and very straight. I had graduated.
And then I was informed that my film clip had been accidentally erased by the computer. So I got up, buddy, and did it again.
STEPHEN DRUCKER is a contributing writer for Architectural Digest.
Golf Advantage School at Pinehurst Resort
Pinehurst, N.C.; 800/487-4653; www.pinehurst.com; four-day packages for two from $2,850.
MORE TOP U.S. RESORT SCHOOLS
Academy of Golf at Grand Cypress Resort
Focuses on biomechanics, using the computer-based ModelGolf program. Orlando, Fla.; 877/330-7377; www.grandcypress.com; three-day packages for two from $2,480.
Chuck Cook Golf Academy at Barton Creek Resort
Tutorials based on Cook's Balanced Golf method. Austin, Tex.; 800/336-6158; www.bartoncreek.com; three-day packages for two from $3,700.
ESPN Golf School at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
Lessons led by Hank Haney at the gorgeously sited Tournament Players Club help players swing on the correct plane. Scottsdale, Ariz.; 800/642-5528; www.espngolfschools.com; three-day packages for two from $2,495.
Golf Advantage School at the Homestead
Comprehensive program with a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio. Hot Springs, Va.; 800/838-1766; www.thehomestead.com; two-day packages for two from $5,000.
Jim McLean School at Doral Golf Resort
Students learn McLean's eight-step swing principles. Miami, Fla.; 800/713-6725; www.doralgolf.com; three-day packages for two from $2,365.
Kapalua Golf Academy
Individual lessons from top PGA instructors. Maui, Hawaii; 808/669-6500; www.kapaluamaui.com; four-day packages for two from $3,045 (accommodation at Kapalua Villas).
Kip Puterbaugh Golf Academy at Four Seasons Resort Aviara
Instruction tailored to players at all levels in a private corner of the resort. Carlsbad, Calif.; 800/433-7468; www.aviaragolfacademy.com; three-day packages for two from $1,650.
Pebble Beach Golf Academy
Laird Small, 2003 PGA National Teacher of the Year, oversees classes on the resort's famed courses. Pebble Beach, Calif.; 831/622-8650; www.pebblebeach.com; two-day packages for two from $6,000 (accommodation at the Inn at Spanish Bay).
Reynolds Plantation Golf Academy at Ritz-Carlton Lodge
Instruction from golf legend Dave Pelz emphasizes short game and putting. Lake Oconee, Ga.; 800/800-5250; www.ritzcarltonlodge.com; three-day packages for two from $4,750.