Monday, February 19, 2007

If the name "Titleist Performance Institute" gives you visions of golf pros running around in white lab coats, pecking data into their handhelds and barking out things like, "Get me those launch-angle specs," you're not too far off. This mega-modern game-improvement center in Oceanside, California, is Star Trek meets your local driving range, and visitors can have their games tested and tweaked by the very guys who tune up the Tour pros.

I was eager to be TPI's latest lab rat, so off I went, a onetime college golfer getting soft in the middle and short in the backswing. On first glance, TPI is unassuming. The stone-and-glass facade screams office park--the place sits between a huge

It quickly became clear that the TPI staff does more than critique your physique and fit you for new sticks. Co-founders Dave Phillips and Greg Rose break down your swing and test your short game--there's even a mental exam. It's one-stop shopping for the golf obsessed. Plus, they laser-scan your feet for new spikes and tell you which ball to play and what not to wolf down at the turn. Whatever ails your game, the medicine is here.

After I got loose, my first stop was the putting room, a takeoff on flatstick guru Scotty Cameron's private studio. In fact, if you pony up $10,000 for the "Ultimate Experience" TPI package, Cameron himself will drop by and fit you for one of his models. (For that price, you can also get Bob Vokey for a wedge fitting.) I was in good hands with Phillips and Rose, who studied my mechanics, rolled the video and in the end bent my putter one degree stronger to fit my stroke. It was the perfect solution for a crappy putter who can't stand practicing.

Following a break in the players' lounge--a cozy TV room with one-way privacy windows where Tour pros can hide, with PlayStation--Rose ushered me into the gym. For the next half hour, I blundered my way through strength and flexibility tests, and was thrilled to come out "about average." In one exercise, Sit-Up Throws, you toss a medicine ball while doing a sit-up. Rose said PGA Tour pros average a heave of 18 to 22 feet, and long-drive champ Jason Zuback launched one clear across the room. Me? I barely pushed the thing over my toes. Conclusion: I have killer abs--they're killing my swing.

After lunch, the boys passed me off to the clubfitting team, then to a short-game tester before reclaiming me for a sit-down about my game. Clubfitting proved difficult for me, mostly due to a case of the skulls. Every time I hit an iron off the lie board, I picked it clean, sending that awful tink up my arms. When I finally caught a few on the face, my clubfitter, Cliff, steered me up to a launch monitor. This milk-crate-size stroboscopic device measures variables including clubhead speed, launch angle, ball speed and spin rate. With readouts after every swing, it felt like being rigged to a lie detector--and I was no George Washington. Cliff kept trading me 5-irons and drivers until my arms went numb. Sometime after that he had enough numbers to fill out his charts.

With the testing finally over, Phillips and Rose led me to a conference room to tell me how I'd done on my tasks (picture the boardroom scene in The Apprentice). Using video and 3-D technology, we looked at my "swing signature," or how my body, arms and club move relative to one another--and how I did compared to Ernie and Davis and a few other studs. I learned that Ernie's

You can do it, too
TPI packages range from $3,750 to $10,000 per person and are by appointment only through PGA club professionals. To book a visit, see your local PGA pro; he or she can contact TPI directly to confirm pricing and arrange a date. For more details, go to titleistpi.com.

For my efforts, I walked away with two swing tips (I'm not telling) and a plan for beating my golf demons. By the time I got home, my profile was up on the institute's website, with my club specs, a personalized fitness program and my short-game scores versus the world's top players. OK, so I'll never be a Tour pro, but now I can say I played one at TPI.

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