Getting Into the Swing in Arizona

NEWSDAY

The ground at my feet looked like the aftermath of trench warfare: uprooted clumps of grass and dirt, wedges of earth ripped open, brightly colored shards of broken wooden tees scattered at odd angles.

Beside this miniature battle zone lay a pile of white golf balls with orange stripes.

I moved to one of the few undamaged strips of grass, planted another tee and ball, grabbed the 5-iron and straddled the ball.

My set-up was right. The instructors had drilled GASP into my brain. The acronym stands for Grip, Aim, Stance and Posture. My shoulders were lined up to the target, a big palm tree, about 85 yards distant. The pinkie of my right hand was locked with the index finger of my left.

Knees flexed slightly. Waist bent. Tush pushed out. Arms away from the body. Chin up.

Club back in a smooth arc, shoulders turned, club head pointing back toward the palm tree.

A neat whoosh as the club head descended, traveling at about 100 m.p.h. Follow through, the club over the shoulder.

Perfect.

Except the ball was still on the tee.

Next time, I said out loud, try tennis school.

My conclusion some months ago that I ought to learn golf was seen by some friends as an admission of age: Except at the highest levels--on the PGA Tour, for example--golf, they insisted, was for retired people; it's less a sport than it is an excuse to schmooze. And what kind of exercise do you get by riding in a little electric cart? Golf, the skeptics railed, was an exercise only in frustration.

You want exercise? After two days at the John Jacobs Practical Golf School in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, dormant muscles had come alive. I could tell, because they hurt. Dinners were consumed with a ravenous appetite, and I didn't even mind awakening for the 9 a.m. tee-off because it was reason to eat a big breakfast early.

Each golfer finds his own satisfactions within the game, and I expect that one becomes a golfer during that round when the kicks outnumber the frustrations. My first kick was hitting a ball squarely, straight and far on the practice range (this happened early on, which, of course, hooked me), and the second was being invited to play a round of nine holes (which I played poorly, but with a semblance of confidence) with three schoolmates who were far better than I.

Golf, someone told me during my week at school, is a game of opposites:

"Try too hard and you miss. Swing easy and the ball goes a long way. Concentrate only on the ball and you don't hit it. Focus around the ball, and you do." Et cetera.

I had not hit a ball before Day 1 at golf school. But ignorance, in some cases, was bliss: The patient instructors who worked with me and the other 69 students spent much of their time correcting bad habits. But I didn't have any bad golf habits. I didn't have any golf habits.

Being a beginner was a factor in selecting the Jacobs School. Most schools said they would accept beginners, but I wanted one that would go out of its way to welcome novices. After doing some homework, I sensed that the Jacobs school would meet that criterion. I wasn't alone, apparently, because there were a half-dozen new golfers at my five-day session.

I'd also narrowed the choices to Arizona and Florida as the best places for a winter golf vacation, and then picked Arizona because it seemed more "pure," with fewer diversions than, say, Orlando or Fort Lauderdale. There are 108 courses alone in the Valley of the Sun, which encompasses Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe, and my hunch was that it would provide a serious landscape for learning.

Also, there was the weather. It doesn't rain in the desert, right? Jacobs School co-founder Shelby Futch advises students to bring a rain jacket even though the school "has lost only a few days to rain since 1971."

Well, it lost a few more last month. Our group ended a drought. Two of our five days were disrupted by a Pacific storm that didn't know Scottsdale was in the desert.

Would Fuzzy Zoeller hit the links on days like this? I think not, yet even a cold wind and a steady downpour didn't keep many of us from forming groups for almost three hours on Friday morning to practice putting, full swings and the dreaded bunker shots (i.e., shots from the sand traps and other obstacles on a course).

Devotion is standing in the soft mush of a flooded sand trap swinging a wedge at a buried ball--arguably the most difficult golf shot under ideal conditions--while rain squiggles down your forehead.

Don't expect that, even with gobs of sun, a golf holiday at the Jacobs School at the Camelback Golf Club will be a day at the beach. Forget the beach, in fact, or the pool or shopping or sightseeing, at least until after hours (I felt guilty about taking off an hour one morning to hang out at the San Francisco Giants' spring training camp in Scottsdale).

Classes ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with optional free golf on Camelback's two courses until it got too dark to see.

Figure in a shower, a half-hour of CNN, a cocktail and dinner, and it's bedtime.

Golf school is a working vacation, but you take home much more than a T-shirt and a tan. The package price of $1,250 (per person, double occupancy) included the lessons and a room at Marriott's Mountain Shadows resort, a five-minute drive from the golf facility. A welcome dinner on Sunday and an "awards banquet" Friday night were included, plus a couple of cocktail hours during the week, as well as breakfast and lunch daily.

Instruction was well-rounded. There were four hourlong classes daily, two of which always dealt with the full swing. In the chipping and putting clinics, I was having some constancy and developing a rhythm. Of course, putting is always easier when the pressure's off.

All of this quasi-exhilaration evaporated in the sand trap.

Long faces were the order of the day. My problem--my tendency to raise my shoulders, lest I, God forbid, hit the ball twice consecutively--was accentuated in the bunker, where you have to "splash" the wedge into the sand to lift the ball high and out of the trap. It requires discipline and a steep angle of approach.

Staffer Dennis Clark lofted each ball perfectly. He made it look so easy that I was ready to head for the tennis school. "Feel is important," he said. "We can't teach you feel, but we can teach technique. With technique comes repetition and consistency and feel."

The sand-shot review was scheduled for late Thursday morning, about the time it began to rain. Not once during the week did I hit a ball out of the sand trap.

But I progressed, or felt that I did, which was almost as valid.

The rains came at a bad time. By the fourth day, most of us were feeling comfortable on the rock pile, and ready to attack the bunkers and the putting green with more confidence. We were no longer satisfied with just hitting a drive a long way; we wanted it to be straight, too. We were no longer just trying to putt the ball into the cup; we were trying for the right distance, the finesse touch.

In San Francisco, the day after my golf holiday ended, I stopped at I. Magnin to buy a neon orange T-shirt. Outside, it was pouring rain.

The clerk was friendly. "So how's your Saturday been doing?" she asked.

"Well, it started fine this morning in Phoenix, where it was sunny," I said.

"Were you playing golf there?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Why do you ask?"

"You look like a golfer."

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