PARIS, France -- Dickens would have called it A Tale of Two Cities, but I call it A Tale of Two Ranges. (The Dickens I refer to, of course, is Little Jimmy Dickens, the country music star.) I'll begin with the range I visited this afternoon in Chantilly, a charming town built around a magnificent chateau north of Paris. The drill was familiar. Go to the golf shop at the Dolce Resort Hotel. Pay three-and-a-half Euros for a couple of tokens. Walk past the big square putting green to the ball dispenser. Pop in the tokens. Listen to the rumble of yellow range balls spilling into the wire basket.
\nIt was all routine until I noticed the orange life preservers hanging on hooks. "Est-ce que je suis pres d'une piscine?" I wondered aloud. And then I saw the following notice on the tee line, where the "Mats Only" sign is usually planted: "Risque de Noyade."
\nThere are always risks at a driving range -- risks of shanking, risks of skulling, risks of ricochets off roof supports, risks of tendinitis, risks (as happened to me last year at a range in Miami Springs, Fla.) of cracking your skull on a low doorway and dropping to the pavement with a bleeding scalp. But I rarely worry about drowning.
After all, I can swim.
I wouldn't have been so startled if I had read the printing on the range balls: FLOATER. In fact, I probably would have driven away in search of a better, more firmly-rooted practice facility. But it was a glorious, sweet-smelling afternoon and the target pond, lined with a colonnade of tall poplars, looked like one of Monet's lily-pad paintings. Ignoring the "plunk ... plunk" of balls splashing downrange -- an unfortunate soundtrack for the golfer trying to program his brain for success -- I began hitting balls from terra firma to Aqua Vita.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I hit them splendidly.
\nFor that I have to credit Nick Taylor, head professional at Le Meridien Moscow Country Club. Taylor gave my swing a quick once-over yesterday morning while I was hitting balls from a petrified mat at Russia's only 18-hole golf course. "Your position at the top of the backswing couldn't be better," he said, having me freeze my swing at that spot, "but your first move is like this" -- he demonstrated the habitual over-the-top move that I share with most recreational golfers -- "instead of dropping your hands down into the slot like so ..."
This was not news to me. My swing tends to get steep when I go for a week without swinging a club, or when I hit balls for five minutes off a strip of sickly-green petro-sludge that has calcified into a slab harder than the bulletproof glass in Vladamir Putin's limo. (The range at Moscow Country Club is splendid, I hasten to add, surrounded by tall pines and silver birches. But after a week of service to European Tour and Challenge Tour players participating in the BMW Russian Open, the grass tee was closed.) As Taylor watched -- he is a former tour pro who spends the winter months on some beach in Portugal between lessons with vacationing Brits and Euro tycoons -- I chunked a couple of shots with this flatter swing plane. But then I hit one crisply with a tight draw and a launch slightly to the right of my target line, which was a sure sign that I hadn't come over the top.
"That's much better," Taylor said. He then walked back to the clubhouse to check that the kitchen hadn't run out of borscht.
In the past, I confess, this particular swing tip had not worked for me. But that was before I read Tour Tempo, the best-selling instructional by John Novosel and ... well, myself. Tour Tempo reduces the complexities of the golf swing to a few briskly executed rudiments, so that when you do make a swing adjustment it doesn't lead to other complications, such as spinal curvature or ringing in the ears. This time, by giving 50 percent of my attention to dropping my hands into the slot and 40 percent to maintaining the 3-to-1 Tour Tempo ratio of backswing to forward swing, I quickly mastered the move. When I boarded my Air France flight to Paris in the afternoon, I walked up the jetway with the confident swagger of a man who knows he is among the top 200 golfers on Russian soil at that given moment.
But would my swing hold up a day later in the French countryside? The answer ... a resounding yes! I hit maybe 50 balls on the Dolce Hotel's aqua range, and I found the pond every single time. Fifty swings. Fifty splashes. That's what I call playing with my 'A' game.