Learning to Play Golf #2: Getting a Grip on a New Sport

Photo: Christopher X. Shade

John Hobbins at Chelsea Piers Golf Academy moves through the motion of a swing with Paige Sellers.

Christopher X. Shade has been's technology executive producer for nearly two years, but he'd never picked up a golf club in his life before this spring, when he and his wife, Paige Sellers, signed up for lessons at Chelsea Piers, a multi-tiered driving range in Manhattan. He is writing about their attempts to learn the game in a series of articles on

Our friends are thrilled that we're learning to play golf. They've heard through the grapevine that Paige and I are taking lessons at Chelsea Piers Golf Club with the teaching pro John Hobbins, and many read my first article in this series.

Our friend Mark in Denver sent me a Facebook message: "Dude, you've got to come visit so we can spank whitey around (play golf)." I nearly fell out of my chair — "spank whitey around"? At this week's lesson, I asked my teaching pro, John Hobbins, if he'd ever heard the expression. He hadn't. Paige said, "It sounds racist and sexual." We all agreed and went back to trying to make solid contact with the golf ball.

We had moved from sand wedges to pitching wedges. The automated ball-delivery system at Chelsea Piers pops up a new ball on a rubber tee immediately after each shot.

Convenient, but it led me to some bad habits. As soon as the new ball appeared, I'd rare back and swing again, without even so much as standing up straight between shots. Eager to learn, Paige and I were both hitting too fast. My form rapidly deteriorated with each swing. John interceded. His refrain: "New grip every time!" This forced us to pause and consider everything about our address before each shot.

A new grip every time was also helping us soften our grip. Because it was a chilly morning (and because we're so new to the game), we were white-knuckling the club. The range has heaters in the rafters above the hitting stalls, but it's subtle, a wafting warmth. I felt it mostly on my upper body and arms. Later Paige asked, "Were your feet cold?" They were, but I didn't realize it until later, after the lesson.

John often interceded to reset my grip. Who would've thought that simply putting hands on the club would be so intricate? I don't fully understand all the benefits of the little details — left hand first, right hand second so the left thumb is under the lifeline of the right hand, etc. — but I know that the grip is the first building block of a solid swing. I was shifting back and forth between the two that John taught us, overlapping and interlocking. Partially to try them both out, and partially because my hands were cold.

For the last few minutes of the lesson, we went inside to a room with a tee and a video camera. We watched videos of pros' swings. Now that I had been hitting balls, it was easier to see the subtle differences in their swings. John had Paige hit one for the camera. She made solid contact. John joined her on the tee and led her through the motions. We followed along on the video screen, which really helped us see the fundamentals of the swing.

John said that relaxing the body is key — loosening the arms, softening the grip. He told us the story of a client, a New Yorker with a tough job and a vise-like grip. During one of their evening lessons, she was hitting the ball much better. She'd suddenly softened her grip, and it greatly improved her swing. She called it her "chardonnay light" grip — she'd had two glasses of wine at a happy hour before the lesson.

When John recorded my swing, it was one of the few good ones I'd made that day. We talked about the sound of a good shot. This one did not make the thonk! I'd been hearing when the ball hit the wrong part of the clubface. Still, when John played the video, I was surprised to see my action. I thought my backswing was only waist or shoulder high, but it went much farther back. In slow motion, I could see that my follow-through was not on the same plane as my backswing. It looked like a tilted Ferris wheel.

Paige hit another shot, and it was a good one. She said she was trying to imagine that she'd had a glass of wine, but still the swing hadn't felt right at all, and she was sure it was awful.

John gave her some good advice. "Never tell anyone that you didn't hit it right. If the shot went well, others don't have to know you didn't mean to do exactly just that."

Paige smiled. "Sounds like a good lesson for life, too."

Check back for more articles by Christopher X. Shade on learning to play.

Related Links:
Read the other articles in this series by Christopher X. Shade
Chelsea Piers Golf Club | see Chelsea Piers on a Google Map
John Hobbins and the other golf pros at the Chelsea Piers Golf Academy
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Become a Fan of Chelsea Piers Golf Club on Facebook | Follow them on Twitter

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