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Get a grip on the basics of golf

August 16, 2004|Jenny Hontz | Special to The Times

Learning to play golf is a bit like picking up a foreign language. If you're thrown in with a bunch of people who already know what they're doing, you will feel hopelessly lost. But if you can find someone to break it down into tiny steps, translating just a few words at a time, it won't seem so overwhelming.

Glenn Deck, director of instruction at the Pelican Hill Golf Club on the Newport Coast, was the man I chose for the job. Southern California's PGA teacher of the year, Deck exudes a Zen-like calm in the face of student trepidation. Pelican Hill is also a spectacular spot overlooking the Pacific, so even if the lesson doesn't go well, it's worth it just to be there.

My interest in golf was piqued a couple of years ago when Hootie Johnson, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters tournament, refused to admit women to his club. Then, after golfer Vijay Singh commented that top female golfer Annika Sorenstam had no business playing in a PGA event with men, I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

Deck believes women are easier to teach because they concentrate more on learning proper technique than on hitting the ball as far as they can. Men often have to set their egos aside before they can learn the ropes.

As golf has added 16 million people to the sport since 1970, the number of female players also has grown. About a quarter of the nation's 27.4 million golfers were women in 2003, up from 19% in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation. However, those who take lessons often leave the sport because they underestimate the time and commitment it takes to learn, Deck says. The reality is, you can't just go out and play a round after a few hours of instruction.

Even with weekly or biweekly lessons and practice, most people shouldn't get out on a course for four to six months, Deck says, which is quite a wait. When playing a round for the first time, it's best to take friends or a golf pro, and choose the last tee time of the day to avoid feeling pressured. Don't expect to play a competitive round right away either. "Give yourself two years to learn," Deck says. "It takes a while."

Deck usually starts with a putting lesson to build confidence. He then moves on to short shots, called chipping and pitching, before getting to a full golf swing. But first things first, like learning to hold the club.

Nestling the seven iron on the lower pad of my left hand, I placed my right hand slightly on top of my left thumb. My grip was tight, but not so tight that I tensed any muscles. Feet shoulder distance apart, legs slightly bent, I made sure the club head was straight and bent at the waist until it hit the ground. Golf grip, check. Golf stance, check. Next came the basics of the chip shot.

Most newcomers want to pull the club back with their dominant, in my case right, hand, which keeps the waist from turning correctly. So, Deck had me plant my feet and envision using my left hand to turn and shake hands with someone standing to my right. Then, for the backswing, I pictured using my right hand to shake hands with someone on my left side.

My first target was the tee, which was harder to hit than a ball. I swung and hit a chunk of grass instead. Deck pointed out that I needed to keep my eye on the target, not on the club. I tried again, and knocked the tee out of the ground. Next, I graduated to hitting the ball, which shot forward about 30 feet when I managed to connect.

Once I started getting the hang of this, Deck added a V-shaped wrist hinge to my swing, which gave me more power. He also had me lower my right shoulder and try shifting my weight from my right leg to my left. Each time I would prepare to take a shot, I would take a few deep breaths, fix my grip and my stance and visualize, "handshake, handshake."

The first time I sent the ball sailing high into the air, I let out an involuntary whoop, and Deck clapped. Just as often, though, I would miss, or propel the ball like a rocket on a sideways trajectory straight through the path of other golfers. Borrowing from another sport, Deck reminded me that no one bats a thousand.

After I practiced for a few minutes, Deck called me over to a computer screen. Unbeknownst to me, he'd been filming my swing, and he pulled my picture up with that of Sorenstam on a split screen. Comparing our stances, he said I looked "pretty good." My body position was a lot like hers, although my shoulders were hunched a bit forward. Breaking down our swings side by side wasn't nearly as embarrassing as I expected. It actually boosted my confidence.

And that is crucial. Golf is as much a head game as anything, so it's important to keep it simple to avoid getting flustered. "Work on one single thing, and get it down," Deck says. "If you try to learn too many things at once, you'll get frustrated. Some golfers want to learn it all at once from a book. It doesn't work that way."

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