I cant truly claim to be a self-taught golfer, but not counting tips during countless rounds with my father, Ive had three professional golf lessons.
When I was 16, and trying to be a Junior champion, Ronnie Smoak at Sedgewood Country Club told me that I would never be a 'quality' player with my very strong grip.
I worked to change that grip. Within a year I was regularly contending at Junior tournaments, culminating with my stunning (to those whove ever seen me hit off a tee) win in which I shot 71-71-75 at the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational held at the Municipal Golf Course in Charleston, S.C. By heeding Ronnies words, I have hardly ever hit a hook since 1979. I can also barely hit a driver over 215.
My college golf career was, at best, inconsistent. In an attempt to stretch that 215 to, say, 270 (the average drive of my teammates) I went to see renowned teacher, Terry Florence, the pro at Wild Dunes, the first world-class golf course in Charleston.
Terry had me warm up on the range, came out 20 minutes later and watched me hit three nearly perfect 5-irons, each about 169 yards with a slight fade. I was giving this man a strong foundation with which to build Supergolfer.
Between drags on his cigarette, Terry said 'I hear they are paying you to tell jokes. Keep doing that. Because nobody's ever gonna pay you to hit a golf ball.' That was it. Lesson over. World-class advice.
I suppose Terry had something more important to do, like check the water levels in golf cart batteries or tell weekend hacks to keep their heads down when hitting the ball.
I cant blame Terry for my losing interest in the game. But, within a year of receiving his sage advice, my focus switched from the course to the nightclub stage, a move that would soon have me performing with Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Maher and many more of the countrys top touring comedians.
Then, last year, I decided to get back in the game to recapture my youth to become a golfer again.
I figured that I should get a coach to speed along my golf retransformation. This was a big step. Not only was I admitting to myself that, perhaps my game had slipped from my days of winning the Al, but other than Dad, I'd never had a teacher who stuck with me for more than 10 minutes.
I have read that you should always pick a teacher whose golfing philosophy has meaning for you. You should, at least, shop for a coach the way you do a home, car or stereo. You should take your time and really see what is out there so that you don't make a mistake.
I did none of that. I went to the muni and had some guy who worked there watch me hit a bucket of balls.
OK, 'PGA Teaching Professional', Brian Ferguson is more than some guy. We have a long history going back to when we played in the same Junior golf tournaments. Although, in the days when I shot 71-71-75 to win the Al, Brian was shooting in the high 70s and low 80s.
However, in the interceding 28 years, Brian has spent nearly every day of his life teaching and studying the game.
Brian understands the golf swing the way I understand rejection from women. As Ben Hogan once said 'The answers are in the dirt.' And Brian had spent more time in the dirt than any friend I know, so I naturally went to him last year looking for swing theory and tips. That, and he promised to give me free advice between paying customers.
Brian loves what he calls my 'false finish,' continually derides my astonishing lack of strength, scoffs at my posture at address, but, at the same time, he really does TRY to be helpful.
Brian told me that if I was ever to hit the ball, truly smack it down the fairway, I 'have to widen my stance.' As Brian said, 'That narrow stance may be OK for shooting free throws or putting. But it doesn't give you a powerful enough base to pound a golf ball.'
So, for a week I worked on that ONE thought. I ingrained it for the longer clubs, lost 15 yards off the tee and promptly quit playing. I couldnt grasp that in order for my game to improve, it might temporarily suffer. Besides, to me, Brians words were those of a friend, and of a kid I used to beat by a dozen strokes. They werent the words of a teacher.
Rather than golf, I decided to concentrate on my struggling Orphan work, struggling bank account and struggling divorce. You may wonder how one can struggle with a 'divorce.' Trust me: divorces come in two varieties 'good' and bad.' Mine was going from good to 'horrific' and it has pretty much stayed there.
But, this is a new year and I again arranged for range time with Brian. I got to the course about an hour early to hit chips and putt. I went through my bag hitting two or three shots with every club -- hitting the ball pure dead into a stiff chilly breeze. I could not have been more proud of myself.
I fanned the club open, just as the ghost of Ben Hogan told me to do and smacked it pure. I wasnt even sure I needed a lesson at this point; obviously the power of my thoughts had transformed me into a skilled golfer...without hardly any practice.
I could not wait to impress Brian with my wider stance and solid striking. I hit half a dozen balls for him (and me) to admire. I beamed with self-confidence, positive that Brian would see all the improvements since my brief lesson a year earlier.
Without even so much as a hello, Brian said, 'You're reaching way too far out for the ball.' Seriously, was he even watching me hit? I have been working at night, at home, in my living room, on bringing the ball closer to me at address.
Brian went on, 'Your posture at address isn't good. Your knees are too bent and it shortens the arch of your swing. Stand up straighter to the ball. You're taking the club way too inside. It really shortens the arc of your swing.'
I was, in a word, devastated.
Then Brian added the final burning arrow 'And that false finish won't go away.'
Damn, I thought I was really accelerating through the ball.
We spent much of the next hour, working on my posture, which only got worse and worse. We worked on taking the club more 'outside.' This did not go well, either, as I hit weak cut after cut, often almost shanking the ball.
I felt stiff and miserable over the ball.
I wasn't learning a thing except that I hate golf, and I wasnt too fond of my teacher, either. I went from feeling great and enjoying golf to being miserable, all in the space of 30 minutes.
Brian had me hit half sand wedges with a 6-foot long stick under my grip in an attempt to teach me to rotate my core. It made no sense to me and my swing of nearly 40 years. It did, however, make me look like a fool to others on the course.
I am a man that needs VERY simple tips and thoughts. So, I was trying to simplify as Brian talked about 'core rotation' and unwinding of the hips' and a dozen other golf theory terms my father never spoke when teaching me the game. Dear Lord, if I really went to a course with my head full of those thoughts, I would never get a ball airborne.
Honestly, after about 15 minutes, I gave up on the lesson and just watched Brian hit my 7-degree Taylor Made Bubble driver with an X-stiff shaft. It is so completely the wrong club for me that I gave it to Brian as partial payment for a lesson that had depressed me like watching 'Saving Private Ryan.'
I told Brian 'I can't hit another ball. I just need to go home and think.'
After a few hours, I went back to the muni and played three holes on the course, hitting a dozen balls on each hole. It was simply awful.
At the end, I just worked on hitting 100-yard wedges to a green so that I could get some confidence back. I hit half a dozen properly and walked into the dark, dark night.
I know that even Tigers swing gets worse when hes first working with a new coach, and Ive seen Brian work wonders with some of the other golfers at the club, so I am clearly the problem, not him. But, 71-71-75 feels like an impossibility at the moment. Besides, I just want to get back to being happy on the course like I did before my lesson.
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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