Answers in the Dirt


Editor's note: Michael Fechter, orphan worker and humorist, has the best job in golf: he's paid to be the Ambassador of Fun for golf courses across America. His 'job' is to make the courses he represents across America more interesting, unique and fun. Enjoy his humorous series on getting back into the game as he struggles to get his game into the shape it was nearly 30 years ago when he won his only personal junior 'major,' the Al Esposito, on America's easiest muni with rounds of 71-71-75.
There are two kinds of golfers ' those who embrace the latest technology, convinced that it gives them an edge, and those who view technology as a plot to turn the relatively simple task of hitting a little white ball into frustration. I firmly identify with the latter. Or the former -- whichever one means that technology and I flat don't get along.
I like to think of myself as a golf purist, a throwback to the days of the feathery ball, mashie, niblick and spoon. My home could have been the Scottish links, toting wood-shafted beauties on pot-bunkered, un-manicured fairways.
The simple truth is that I'm a techno-phobe. It's a major accomplishment to answer my cell phone without electrocuting the neighbor's cat, but the summer before I won the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational, I worked my ass off and embraced technology in buying a set of Browning irons, which were the pinnacle of golf equipment design in the months before Reagan took office. Those clubs were low, thick, perimeter-weighted, the first hybrids and designed on something new to me called a computer.
But, none of that mattered. What mattered was that those Browning 440s felt great whenever I hit the ball. Which back then was every day.
My father and Ben Hogan agreed that the way to learn golf was by practice, because even if you read every book of golf instruction, when it really came down to it the answers are in the dirt. Get dirty in the field, on the range and on the course and you will learn to play.
Plenty of dirt time had quickly taken my game from the mid to high 80s to the mid to low 70's (at least on courses under 6100 yards).
But as they say, life was different then. Now, between what seems like an endless string of custody hearings for my 13-year-old son and my bi-coastal job as Ambassador of Fun for Greenway Golf, my time in the dirt has become precious little, indeed.
Determined to get back to the form I had when I won The Al almost 30 years ago, I thought a swing coach was the answer -- until I took a 45-minute lesson and saw my scores jump a dozen strokes in the wrong direction.
My time in the dirt to work out these changes amounted to half a bucket of range balls before I got frustrated and packed it in for the day. Clearly, that's no way to make progress.
So, when I stumbled into a high-tech golf swing analysis place, GolfTEC, in a suburban strip mall, miles away from a fairway or even a Putt-Putt course, I took it as fate. Here was technology staring me in the face, offering me a chance to see if some computer and video analysis might give me some answers, or at least direction.
Keep in mind that I am a person ill at ease with all machines. Literally, a person whose ink jet printer has laid motionless for months because I can't figure out how to delete documents trapped in the print queue. Me: a guy more comfortable walking around town because I find a bicycle too complicated. Now I was looking at technology to be my savior. Suddenly the whole atheists and foxholes thing makes sense.
Upon entering this electronic wonderland of GolfTEC, I introduced myself to Sean Petrone, Charleston, South Carolina's GolfTEC franchisee. I explained my goal of reliving my teenage days of winning the Al Esposito Junior Invitational, and how an intense case study documented right here on would, undoubtedly, be a tremendous boon for his business. I decided not to explain how my custody battle was sucking the life out of me and my bank account. And when Sean offered me a 30-minute session to fill the gap between paying customers, I happily accepted. Ah, the power of the press and poverty.
Sean explained how the specialized GolfTEC equipment engages a magnetic field that detects the motion sensors placed strategically around my body. From there, the data is compiled in a computer and a frame-by-frame analysis of my golf swing is compared to the ideal golf swing. With all his computer and technological knowledge, I wanted to ask Sean if he knew how to delete documents from a print queue. I resisted. Figuring Sean already had a pretty big job finding out why I can't make a golf ball fly as I desire.
Sean watched me warm up hitting a few balls into the net and said 'Pretty good swing.' To which I thought, 'Damn right! Winning the Al Esposito is no accident. Work that magic, computer boy, and I'll be shooting 75 in two weeks.'
I'm glad I didn't actually say this, because when Sean played my first swing in super slow motion, it was like watching the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. So horrific, so horrible, in each and every frame.
Finally, I could see what Brian Ferguson, a long-time friend and short-time swing coach tried to pound into my head: My swing had no extension at all. I completely collapsed at the top, with my left arm almost bending into a V. No lag at impact, resulting in no power.
The only thing missing as we replayed the tape time and time again was Kevin Costner telling a jury full of sweaty New Orleans jurors, 'No power...because his head goes down and to the left. You can see it! Down and to the left. Down and to the left.'
I thought of fleeing the building, Sean stayed patient. 'We're finding what to work on, he said. We analyze four different areas: address; top of the swing; impact and finish. We'll get you right.'
The thing that Sean quickly got to is that I need to 'widen my arc -- something that Brian has also said. However, seeing it on film was brutal. It felt like going to a doctor, complaining about a small pain in the side and having the doctor reply 'What you have is a conjoined twin. Haven't you noticed that extra person growing out of your spleen? It should have been obvious.'
For awhile, Sean had me work with some metal contraption that gave me the feel of a shorter backswing and forced my right bicep into a slot on the machine while causing my shoulders to turn. Like some device Madonna would have used on stage in her days of cone bras and coffee table sex books.
Sean gave me so much to work on. It was like the first day of college when you come home with 200 pounds of textbooks and wonder Where do I start?
I desperately need to keep golf simple so when Sean suggested that I practice as if I am hitting nothing but punch shots as a way to stop my Harry Vardon wooden shaft collapse at the top, I had the thought I needed to go practice.
My 30 minutes with Sean and GolfTEC was quite possibly the most informative short period of my golfing life. The only way I could have learned more would have been in 30 minutes alone in a closet with Madonna. And it's so hard to arrange with her in England, with so many assistants, publicists, agents, managers, photographers, adoption experts, gurus, stone healers, mystics and nannies to go through.
So, I left Sean and went to a range to practice.
I swear: I can feel it coming back.
Mr. Hogan and my dad were right. The answers are out in the dirt. But, apparently, there are some pretty big clues on Seans computer and camera. If you're not afraid to look.
NOTE: There are over 100 GolfTEC Improvement Centers Nationwide, many at Golfsmith GolfCenters 877-4-GOLFTEC
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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Related Links:
  • The Gratitude Project
  • Greenway Golf