Most people would say Lee Pace is a pretty good golfer. But Lee knew his game was slipping, and it needed help in a hurry. So he signed up for the Pinehurst Golf Academy, which fixed Kris Wilson (above) - and now Lee’s got his game back.
When my six-iron scruffed the turf a solid inch behind the ball and the resulting worm-burner scalded 15 yards left of my target on the 17th hole of a round last September—and then I repeated the same action on 18—I knew I needed help. Detox. Surgery. Medication. An out-of-body experience. Anything.
It was time to bury the 2013 summer golf season. It had been quite the disappointment.
I shot a pair of 77s on a 6,850-yard Tom Fazio course in late-June and early-July, but from there my game deteriorated over the summer into a blur of drives that faded weakly to the right on one hole and caromed off the world into pull-hook purgatory the next. I hit hybrid clubs fat and I stood frozen over 15-yard greenside recoveries, pondering a lofted wedge or a low-running chip and in the end being lucky to get the ball within 25 feet of the hole.
No confidence, too much junk in the head—that’s no way to play golf.
“Here it is—your downswing is too shallow. That’s where those fat shots are coming from,” Eric Alpenfels tells me one Friday morning in mid-October, holding court in the Pinehurst Golf Academy amid a hitting bay and phalanx of video cameras, laptop computers and high-def television screens.
I have come to Pinehurst to revive and resuscitate my golf game. This is where Donald Ross tore up the original first, second and 18th holes of course No. 1 in 1913 and replaced them with a 15-acre practice field virtually unheard of in golf at the time. Practice? Hardly anyone practiced in the early days of golf, and if they took a lesson, they found an open hole on the golf course. But soon the Pinehurst practice ground would come to be known as “Maniac Hill” for the fervor that touring pros, elite amateurs and hotel guests beat balls in the first half of the 20th century, and Ross and other golf architects began drawing and building practice facilities for their golf projects around the nation.
Today more than half a million balls are estimated to be hit annually on Maniac Hill, and a fair number are struck at the far eastern side of the driving range where Alpenfels and a staff of two more full-time instructors conduct three- and four-day golf schools from March through late October within the auspices of the Pinehurst Golf Academy.
Eric, who recently became one of the first two graduates of the PGA of America’s prestigious Masters Professional program, is looking at a rear-view video shot of my address and swing and has drawn a red line through my club shaft, extending upward into my body. This is step one on the first morning of golf school: warm up and hit some shots for videotape. Then Eric, a 28-year veteran of the Pinehurst staff and one of Golf Digest’s America’s 50 Greatest Teachers, dissects your action and outlines a plan for improvement the rest of the visit.
He hits play on the computer and I move the club back from address. He stops the tape with the club at parallel position to the ground and notes the club is well below the red line, indicating my takeaway and backswing are too far inside and too shallow.
“We need to get you on-plane,” he says. “You’re bottoming-out behind the ball. It’s nothing major—not a big, fat divot. But you’re not making consistent contact with the ball.”
Eric then uses the software’s drawing tool to place a circle around my head, and as I complete my backswing, he shows me how my head pops slightly out of the circle, indicating a lifting action of the upper body at the top of the backswing.
“Those are the two priorities this weekend,” he says. “We need to get your club on a better plane and we need to remove that lifting action. If you lift and don’t get back down at impact, you hit it thin. If you lift and come too far down, you hit it heavy.”
Six of us have convened this weekend—a retired couple from New York, a lady from metropolitan D.C. who wants to learn golf in order to play with her avid golfing husband, and a father-son combination from Winston-Salem. We are different sizes, shapes, ages and abilities, but the goal of Eric and fellow instructor Paul McRae is to identify our weaknesses in full shots, short game, bunker play and putting, give us drills and techniques for improving and teach us how to recognize our personal faults and fixes when we return home.
“Good work. I think you’ll see quite a bit of improvement if you keep working on what you’ve learned.”
Moments after my video session with Eric, Paul is demonstrating a hinging motion with my hands at takeaway that he wants me to use to get my path on a better plane. It feels awkward and extreme—I’m pointing the club shaft almost straight down before my arms have gotten parallel to the ground. But I can see as I practice in front a full-length mirror attached to an outside wall of the teaching facility that my club path is now noticeably more upright.
I focus on that hinging action and I concentrate on maintaining good posture throughout the swing; I almost feel like my chest is moving down as I complete my backswing. What feels foreign and unwieldy on Day 1 settles into a semi-grooved state two days and hundreds of balls later.
Sunday morning, the video routine is repeated and now Eric has before-and-after images positioned on one monitor screen. We see the shallow swing plane and lifting motion on the left; we see a swing plane dead on the red line and a stable body on the right. Eric also has me hit a couple of shots with a three-quarter knock-down swing, designed to help me hit down and through the ball and compress it better through impact.
“Good work,” he says. “I think you’ll see quite a bit of improvement if you keep working on what you’ve learned.”
I followed my mid-October Golf Academy visit with a tour of Pinehurst No. 2 in early November, and I knew from the svelte contact of my 4-iron off the second fairway and the slightest right-to-left flight path that I retained much of what I learned from Eric and Paul. I clipped one 20-yard wedge shot cleanly off tight hardpan by keeping my hands leading the clubface through the ball, just as Paul had hammered home in short-game practice.
The winter has been dank and merciless, so I’ve taken a two-steps forward, one-step back path into the approach of March. But that hinging motion and steady posture have played out hundreds of times in the reflection of my glass door on my back deck. Spring can’t come soon enough.
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst. Follow Lee on Twitter @LeePaceTweet