I Was a Titleist Lab Rat

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

biotech firm and a cell-tower maker–but the backyard is 30 acres of the most gorgeous fairway you’ll ever see (picture Augusta with range flags). It was tough to keep a jaded journalistic edge when I started hitting warm-ups out back: I could tell by the groupings of bacon-strip divots that pros had been here. Turns out some 200 Tour players came to TPI in 2004–the likes of Ernie, Vijay and Davis. Very cool.

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.

Next came the swing-analysis station, where mounted cameras and flat-screen displays create an “on stage” feel. TPI uses a combination of 2-D (standard video) and 3-D (electromagnetic and infrared) technology to pick apart your move. They videotaped me from six angles, including the rear (I learned that my butt is a major golf muscle). Then they wired a dozen electromagnetic sensors to my arms, legs, chest and head, and told me to just relax and swing. Yeah right, I might as well have been in handcuffs for the first few, although I soon got the hang of it. Phillips, a GOLF MAGAZINE Top 100 Teacher, worked the computer, which gobbled up 165 data points per swing.

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.

The short-game test is like an obstacle course for golfers. It examines your pitching, chipping, sand game and putting on everything from three-footers to Mickelson lobs. It also showcases the coolest thing about TPI: You can match yourself to the pros. They tell you things like “Jacobsen pitched in from here” or “Faxon made this 40-footer–twice.” My only highlight was coaxing in a chip from the fringe. Told that Tom Kite had done the same, I smiled smugly, then boned my second try into the driving range.

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.
transition is a bit smoother than mine (not even my mother could argue that one). But what I like most is that the TPI guys stressed efficiency over style, results over textbook positions. It was nice to hear that despite all the space-age gadgets, they weren’t out to build the Six-Million-Dollar Golfer. Nice, too, that I still had hope.

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.