Christopher X. Shade has been GOLF.com'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 GOLF.com.
On Saturday morning during our walk to Chelsea Piers Golf Club, in the West Village we were passing by such brilliant blue hyacinth that we had to pause for a moment in awe of Spring. Wisteria was in full royal bloom, revitalizing the somber faces of tired brownstones. The driving range at Chelsea Piers, too, seemed more vibrant its AstroTurf fairway, enclosed in high nets, extending out on one of the four piers of the Chelsea Piers complex. The far shore of the Hudson River was green now with leafing trees, and along the south side of the range, colorful boats bobbed along the dock.
The hitting stalls were bustling with golfers and teaching pros. The pros were wrapping up their nine o'clocks so the ten o'clocks could warm up. Paige and I were two in a crowd, swelling with its collective thrill. It was our spirit of competition, too, that compelled us. We were jazzed to be wrapping our hands around the usual Srixon pitching wedges and facing the Astroturf expanse. John Hobbins our teaching pro directed us to begin with waist-high backswings, to warm up. When he had his back turned, I took full swings.
With the club I pulled each ball off the rubber tee after it magically rose from the depths of the Chelsea Piers automated tee system. I was hitting each right off the AstroTurf mat. Aiming for the yellow flag, on a small green, a hundred yards out on the range. Winding up my swing all the way, I was ecstatic to hit it a few times onto the green. What a feeling! Solid contact. Shooting out into the direction I intended. I was advancing just a small step past the humble goal of making contact with the ball. I was beginning to think about the direction of my hit and study distance. Not to suggest that I was consistently making solid contact. There were many bad hits in the mix. A friend told me everyone whiffs occasionally a relief to hear.
There are four greens to aim at on the Chelsea Piers driving range. The closest one is a sharp right from the hitting stalls, almost in the front corner of the fairway really, right in front of us. It's a little too close for the purposes of warm-up, but John says it's great short game practice. For me, the only ball that lands there is one that I've hit, much to my dismay, with a clonk! I admire John's patience. He says we should practice our short hits, learning to hit closer with accuracy because (I think he was saying) that's a secret of the game. But how can I stay focused on that close little green with such an open expanse before me? It's not long before I steer my focus further afield, and wind up into full swings again.
I like to make my first few hits at the second green, a white flag at 50 yards out. The distance is a waist-high backswing for me, though one of my continued challenges this early in the sport is making consistent contact when I hit it too thin, which is what I was doing a lot during this lesson, the ball doesn't have consistent lift. It leads me to think I need to backswing higher, hit it harder, but that's learning in the wrong direction. Because when I do hit it "just right" the ball sails way out beyond the green. I'm trying to be careful about picking up a bad habit like this.
Sometimes I aim at the range cart. It ceaselessly wanders the fairway, its wide front picker popping balls back into its bed. (With four levels of hitting stalls and so many avid golfers, there's a lot of range picking to do!) But when I hit the range cart, more often than not it's when I'm aiming in a completely different direction. One day I noticed the cart's tailgate was down. The balls were spilling right back onto the fairway. Really, I was thinking, is there no rear-view mirror for the guy to see that he's futilely cruising the range? I thought someone would notice his error and radio down to tell the guy, but he just kept going. I'm guessing he was the object of a practical joke. That's probably just the kind of thing that would happen to me if I got the chance to drive the range cart.
John said I was showing a theme that day of hitting the ball too thin. He showed me how I had too much weight on my right leg. With the irons, I was actually hitting the ball on the upswing.
Paige was facing the same problem with her irons. Not enough weight on her left leg throughout the swing motion. John explained to both of us the challenge of hitting the ground after hitting the ball. It will be a lifelong challenge for us, I think.
But I had the opposite issue with the longer 3 club: the fat or duff shot. If only duffing were the right way to hit the ball, I'd have potential to make money on the tour. I'd heard the term duff before, but never understood what it meant until John explained the ills of my club pounding the Astroturf in front of the ball. I seem to have perfected the duff early on. With that 3 hybrid. I can't seem to do anything with that 3 club but knock the ball in some outrageous direction or, worse, whiffing! Because I've learned so much with an iron in my hands, the 3 club seems so long that it's awkward for me.
Soon, we're graduating from AstroTurf...will we survive a game on real grass? Will our swings punish the ground with cavernous divots on every tee? Will Paige and I one day be able to send a ball sailing out in some reasonable fashion, with intended direction, lift, distance? Will we forever pore over every detail as we address the ball, in worried frenzy?
Or will we one day be calm and confident, knowing we can yes we can hit the ball like the cool and suave golfers we know we can be. Well, there's only one way to find out.
Check back for more articles by Christopher X. Shade on learning to play.
• 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
• Become a Fan of Golf Magazine on Facebook | Follow GOLF.com on Twitter
• Become a Fan of Chelsea Piers Golf Club on Facebook | Follow them on Twitter