You can swing a golf club any way you want. As Bob Torrance, teacher to Padraig Harrington, among others, likes to say, it's about the "strike." But one thing you'd better have is a good excuse. As long as you can fault an ill-chosen breakfast, lifeless range balls or your playing partner's obnoxious headcovers, your ineptitude can at least share the blame.
But for the next six months I have no excuse. I have a trainer at the gym, an entire array of new equipment from driver to irons to putter to travel bag, a Golf Magazine Top 100 teacher at the ready, and if all goes to plan, I'll have time. I'll probably get a mental coach, too, the poor guy.
The idea is simple: Give an occasionally brilliant, mostly erratic 38-year-old, 6-handicap every advantage of a pampered Tour pro; wait six months; see if he improves or not. If so, by how many strokes? What exactly were the breakthroughs? If there's little or no improvement, why not? What are the limits of great technology and brilliant teaching?
As journalism subjects go, it's not combat duty. It's more like being asked to set up a catered, poolside bureau at the Playboy mansion, and don't reach for your wallet; put it on the corporate AmEx. I'm suddenly like a hybrid of Tiger Woods and Dennis Kozlowski. It's my job.
For a long time I've protested when others, mostly men, have said I have their dream gig. "If only you knew," I've said, sometimes only to myself. If only they knew about the nightmarish air travel, sterile hotel rooms and cookie-cutter Tour pros. But now I think I'll just shut up.
This is too good.
This is more absurd than my most absurd assignments, from the snowmobile hill-climb competition to the profile of a mass murderer who made and sold paintings on giant saw blades, which, in hindsight, perhaps should have been a red flag.
Last week was so action-packed that I hardly know where to start, so I'll begin with the roof of my local gym catching fire. I was with my new trainer, working out some of the "adhesions" in my calf muscles, when we were ordered to evacuate the building. Faulty electrical wiring had started the blaze, and three or four fire trucks converged in the parking lot.
As an excuse to not exercise this was pretty good, but I doubt this kind of thing happens to the top pros, which is why I'll just have to build a state-of-the-art gym at my house, like Vijay Singh. I'll be expensing it.
Carlsbad, a suburb of Legoland, is about a half hour north of San Diego, and it's pretty much the center of the golf universe if you're into equipment. There's also an abundance of great courses and instructors. Puterbaugh informed me that it would be easier for him to take a 30 handicap to a 6 than a 6 to a scratch, but I was encouraged when he diagnosed two major ills before I even took the club back: grip and posture.
My left hand was way too weak, and my posture was too close to the ball and too hunched over to allow my hips to fire. It all added up to an overly handsy pass at the ball that depended on timing and too often led to the dreaded both-ways, slices and hooks that on my worst days left me afraid to swing. Playing with two other golf writers on a 100-degree day in Tulsa on the Sunday of the PGA Championship, my long game had gotten so wild that I'd morphed into one of those poor saps who hit only irons off the tee.
"I've never seen someone with your fundamentals get to scratch," Puterbaugh said. He looks a little like Andy North.
"Now you could be the first," he continued, "but …"
But probably not. It had been over six years since anyone had looked at my swing, and then the instructor was so over his job he was hovering. He was about to leave golf altogether, and if he looked at my grip he didn't say anything.
With a stronger left hand I'll be better positioned to get onto my left side, with an attacking angle on the ball that virtually all of the best players have at impact. Puterbaugh mentioned tennis, not to suggest I take up the sport but to get me to grip the club properly, as if I were hitting a backhand shot with my left hand, part Jim Furyk, part Jimmy Connors.
Woods has always surrounded himself with the best instruction. I have not, until now. This could be the start of something big.
The next morning I met Callaway Golf publicist Scott Walsh at the Callaway Performance Center, which has a pimped-out, open-air driving range as well as indoor hitting bays with lasers, cameras and other gewgaws. The whole thing is situated at the end of the Palomar airport's main runway, so your HX Tours fly just slightly under departing G4s.
Walsh introduced me to Nick Arther, a club performance specialist at Callaway, who had me hit enough balls to develop a blister on the middle finger of my left hand, the one trying to get used to the new grip. (I know it's heartbreaking, but I'm already feeling better.)
The absurdity of this assignment cannot be overstated, and this was like Christmas day. I tried to tell myself I deserved it. I'd been using the same irons since I was 15. My driver was a door prize at a long-drive event in New Jersey six years ago. I pilfered my putter during the going-out-of-business grab-athon at Maximum Golf magazine. It's a Bruce Sizemore mallet, and no one I've ever played with has ever heard of Bruce Sizemore, hence my inferiority complex on the greens.
After I'd been fitted for X Forged irons, a 9.5-degree FT-5 driver, a 3-wood, 5-wood and utility-woods, we went to the indoor putting carpet. There lasers demonstrated my flaws in alignment (aiming too far right) and stroke (scooping the ball as opposed to keeping a firm left wrist). The solution: the Odyssey White Hot XG Marxman, which looks like a potato masher on a stick.
Today the UPS man came. He brought me everything I'd been fitted for plus gloves, hats and more. The gear sits just inside the doorway, taunting me, not only begging me to take it to the course but also asking the most fundamental question of this endeavor: What can I do with it?