Old School Vs. New School: One student compares instruction philosophies

Sunday November 21st, 2010
PIT STOP: Higgins (left) keeps a close eye on Pistillo. The cornerstone of his philosophy? Keep it simple.
James Cheadle

THE STUDENT
Tony Pistillo, 41 'I'm surrounded by golf,' says Pistillo, a 15-handicap and director of public relations for Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, near San Diego. 'My job lets me play golf year-round, hit balls, meet Tour pros. Yet nothing works. I'm near the Promised Land of lower scores, but I can't enter. I know I can be single digit!'

\nOLD SCHOOL TEACHER: Liam Higgins
The head pro at Waterville Golf Links in southwest Ireland, Higgins, 68, has won on the European Tour, European Seniors Tour and has played with Hogan, Palmer, Snead, and Nicklaus. 'You Americans, God bless you, make the swing too technical,' Higgins says. 'You must forget technique and find the swing inside of you.'

\nNEW SCHOOL TEACHER: TaylorMade Performance Labs
Used by hundreds of touring pros (including Kenny Perry and Sergio Garcia), the TaylorMade Performance Labs' Motional Analysis Technology (MATT) System marries high-tech clubfitting — nine infrared cameras render the subject's swing in 3-D animation — with nuts-and-bolts instruction. 'We use technology to help people play the right equipment and make their best swing,' says clubfitter and PGA pro Tom Fisher.

Not even a crackling fireplace and a sudsy glass of Guinness can soothe Tony Pistillo's golf pain. "I've tried everything to improve," says Pistillo, 41, a 15-handicap. He sits in the Fisherman's Bar in the seaside town of Waterville on the eve of his first lesson in Ireland. "You name it: golf schools, lessons, gadgets. I once stood in my garage swinging an orange whip with a weighted ball at the end to help with my swing plane. Nothing works."

\nPistillo should be better. He plays year-round, as director of public relations at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in San Diego's golf-friendly climes. Yet his handicap won't budge. "It's taken five years to go from an 18 to a 15," he says. "I feel stuck."

To help Pistillo find his game, we put him through two contrary teaching philosophies: First, learning at the spikes of a golf sage, local Irish legend Liam Higgins, for four decades the head pro at Waterville Golf Links. Then, onto a high-tech swing analysis and club fitting at TaylorMade Performance Labs in Carlsbad, Calif. Liam vs. lasers. Old School vs. New School.

"I'm optimistic," Pistillo says. "You know how some women look in the mirror and see only flaws, and men, instead of man boobs, see rock-hard pecs? Well, I remember my one 79, not all my 99s. I remember the greatness. But it's random greatness." He drains his glass. "Maybe I'll find the answer."



\nOLD SCHOOL
When the morning sun climbs above the Iveragh Peninsula's rippling hills to cast yellow rays on Ballinskelligs Bay, no earthly place is lovelier than the mangy hillocks of Waterville Golf Links. There, Pistillo and Higgins shake hands on the tee of "Mulcahy's Peak," the par-3 third hole. Old School is in session.

Higgins, 68, is a salt-of-the-turf Irish pro with rickrack teeth and more stories than the Sears Tower. The club's head pro since 1967 hands Tony a 5-wood and says in his Irish lilt: "Show me what you can do."

With a few robotic swings, Pistillo bats several Titleists well short of 200 yards. "I've been working on turning my left shoulder under my chin in the backswing. And in the takeaway — "

Higgins interrupts. "You think too much, lad." Too many technical thoughts are stifling the flow of Pistillo's natural swing, like garbage in a river. "The more you know about this game, the harder it gets. Forget your left shoulder. One thing matters: Impact. Think one thought: Knock. Down. The. Flag."

"Do I hinge my wrists?"

"Forget your wrists! Just knock down that flag, lad."

A few swings later, Pistillo makes crisp contact, and his ball trickles to the front of the green. "Better," Higgins says.

"That felt more assertive."

"Watson, Nicklaus, Seve — that's how great players think. They aren't worrying about technique. They gun for the flag."

Pistillo hits another dozen balls. Six pierce a freshening breeze and reach the green. Apart from subtle tweaks — "Sway a bit to the right in the backswing, stay down through impact" — Higgins's tips are more philosophical than technical. And they're working. Pistillo looks looser, more athletic.

"Now you're hitting, not hoping," Higgins says. "It's a new swing. Chalk and cheese. Let's hit some balls from the fairway."

On the 18th, student and teacher stand 155 yards from the green. A gust has the shot playing 170. "I like 7-iron," Higgins says.

Pistillo: "But I only hit my 7-iron 140. I can't hit it that far."

"You can," Higgins says. "Take a short backswing, stay down through the ball, and hit that flag. Not the green. The flag."

Pop up.

Higgins: "Would ya' try to hit one close to the bloody flag for me, please!"

"But do I hinge my wrists?"

"That's old Tony talking. Your body knows what to do."

\nCrack! If his previous swing was a pop gun, this is a 12-gauge blast. Pistillo's ball curls beneath the wind — a draw — to 8 feet.

"Wow!" Pistillo says. "I was almost mad when I hit that." He follows with several more pin-seeking swings. "I've never hit a 7-iron that far. All I was thinking was, 'Knock down the flag.'"

"Yes, you forgot technique and were aggressive. You look like a scratch man, not a 15-handicap. You could be a 5-handicap in six months." Higgins places his hand over his heart. "You have the swing. It's not in a book. You have it, inside."

"Not thinking, just swinging, is liberating," Pistillo says. He searches for the right word. "It's...magical."

\nDay Two brings crooked rain and horizontal hail. Higgins, Pistillo and Pistillo's wife, Stephania, wait out the weather in the clubhouse. Which gives Higgins ample time to hold court on putting ("forget everything but the hole") and physical fitness ("Jack Newton used to walk three miles in the ocean up to his neck in water. It's how he built strength").

Talk of conditioning stirs something within Pistillo. "I'm gonna run to the 10th green," he says and bolts outside into the 33-degree wind chill. "Look!" Stephania says. Below, her husband, wrapped head-to-toe in layers of black wool, is sprinting toward the 10th green 500 yards away.

Higgins laughs. "He's inspired! He'll do whatever it takes."

Pistillo staggers in following his thousand-yard dash. After countless rocky golf moments, he's had a Rocky moment. "I... was...inspired," he says sucking wind. "I...used to...run. Gonna... start again. I thought, why not today? It's a new beginning."

NEW SCHOOL
\nFor golf geeks, a visit to the cavernous TaylorMade Performance Labs in Carlsbad, Calif., is like Christmas morning. Fittingly, Pistillo, a week after Ireland, is lit up like a Christmas pine, with bulb-like sensors on 28 key points on his feet, hands, knees, waist, arms, torso, hat, and his 6-iron. Overhead, nine infrared cameras will capture the sensors' movements and reproduce Pistillo's swing as an animated 3-D version on a 55-inch Sony LCD monitor.

"The sensors give us specific data you can't get from video," says master clubfitter and PGA professional Tom Fisher, 30, a Brit who looks and sounds like Ian Poulter's kid brother. "With video you can say, 'Your clubface looks open,' but the MATT system tells you to within one-tenth of a degree how open the clubface is."

Pistillo takes several 6-iron swings into the net while the red-eyed cameras record ball and swing speed and approach angles, among a sea of data. Pistillo recalls Higgins's command: Knock down the flag. After some clunky contact, his last couple of cuts feel good. "Just like in Ireland," he says with a cocky puff of the chest. More Tony Manero than Tony Pistillo.

Click, click, click. Fisher's mouse summons the data on the monitor. A number leaps out. Pistillo approaches the ball on an outside-in path, opening his clubface on average 3 degrees in relation to his target. He compounds the mistake by fanning open his clubface 4 more distance-sapping degrees at impact. "That's 7 total degrees open [on average], which is significant," Fisher says. Tour pros attack the ball with a slight inside-out path and leave the face open but a hair at impact.

Fisher sees another flaw. "Your hands release early through the ball, so you add loft, turning your 31-degree 6-iron into 36 degrees. You balloon the ball. Tour pros deloft their irons."

"But I hit those last few like Liam showed me," Pistillo says.

"They probably felt good because they were square hits, but trust me — you add loft and open the face every time."

Pistillo is dejected. "All those mistakes and I still hit it solid?"

"Yes," Fisher says. "Blind squirrel, and all that."

Pistillo's fundamentals need work. "The path and added loft are problems," Fisher says. Pecking his keyboard, he brings more bad news. "You have a classic reverse pivot. Also, watch this." Pistillo's left shoulder climbs several degrees in his downswing, whereas a Tour pro's slightly descends.

"My shoulder's coming up past my ears!" says a shocked Pistillo. "I hit it so well in Ireland. I thought Liam fixed this."

Fisher's theory: "You probably hit the ball well in Ireland because you were free of tension. Looseness helps compensate for technical mistakes, which is great. But we want the best of both worlds: Loose with good mechanics, to get that path coming from the inside, to square that [7-degrees-open] face — and we want you delofting the club, too."

First, Fisher strengthens Pistillo's grip, promoting a full release of the club through impact. Next, he shows his pupil the classic "swing in a barrel" tip, for a better turn. Finally, Fisher hovers a shaft parallel to the ground directly above the ball, forcing Pistillo to swing inside-out.

Pistillo swings. "This feels strange."

"Better! You only came outside-in 1.5 degrees, with a slightly open face. We halved it, 7 degrees open to 3.5."

Pistillo beats more balls and makes poor contact. He looks lost. "In Ireland, it was 'Knock down the flag.' "

"Would you tell a beginner 'Just hit that flag?' Look, I like Liam's simple tips. You don't want 12 swing thoughts. But 'Hit the flag' won't fix every flaw."

After more poor results, Pistillo simmers, "How many things can my brain handle in the backswing?"

Fisher's getting edgy. "You? Zero. Just keep that strong grip, make a nice turn and swing under the shaft." Whack!

"Best yet," Fisher says. "More inside-out. Like a Tour pro."

"It felt weird, like I was hitting to right field."

"It's supposed to seem weird at first. But that's the right feel."

More swings. "That felt better," Pistillo says. "Powerful."

"Look at these numbers!" Fisher says. Instead of 7 degrees open at impact, Pistillo's clubface is averaging 3.5. "We've closed your face, delofted the club, and you're longer and straighter, with a Tour pro's swing path. All in 45 minutes. All we did is strengthen your grip and get you turning around your body."

"Liam said I could be a 5-handicap. What do you think?"

"If you persist, yes, and work on these fundamentals every day," Fisher says. "It takes time for changes to feel comfortable. People don't improve because their swing changes feel uncomfortable, and they struggle. It's change. So they go back to their old habits. It's a vicious cycle."

This story doesn't end with Pistillo tapping in for a careerbest 78. It ends the day after his TaylorMade fitting, his card bearing more triples than pars. Pistillo's best swing is his last. From 225 yards away in the 18th fairway, he pulls 5-wood, whispers "knock down the flag," and hits a towering comet to 12 feet. In one swing, the two schools converged. Both philosophies have virtues, Pistillo says over post-round beers. "Liam's right — you can't think your way through a swing. But Tom's right, too — I'll never be singledigit unless I fix the fundamentals. So I'm blending Old School and New School. First, practice technique; then forget it [on the course] and knock down the flag. It might be a long road." He takes a slug of beer. "But golf's a game for life, right?"

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