Learning to Play Golf #1: A Fan takes his first golf lesson at Chelsea Piers

Learning to Play Golf #1: A Fan takes his first golf lesson at Chelsea Piers

John Hobbins at Chelsea Piers Golf Academy helping Christopher address the ball.
Paige Sellers

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 will chronicle their attempts to learn the game in a series of articles on GOLF.com.

I really believed I would be a natural. I’m a fan. I follow the tournaments. I’ve been working day and night for GOLF.com. Surely something had rubbed off.

Finally, here was my first day, a gorgeous Saturday in early March. The brutal winter weather had broken, and it was going to be the warmest day of the year, auspicious conditions for my first golf lesson at Chelsea Piers Golf Club. I had the right look. I was thin — not real fit but not entirely out of shape. I could do a number of pushups, and I sometimes did pull-ups. From Colorado, I considered myself an athletic middle-aged man. And I had focus. All this didn’t add up to why I missed the ball on my first swing.

I returned my attention to the ball, shifted my feet, cleared my throat with authority, and forced one or two positive thoughts into my head. After all, it could’ve been worse. At least the club hadn’t flown out of my hands. I made what I believed to be a perfect backswing and let it rip. Wow, again, I missed. No contact at all. Then I realized John Hobbins, our teaching pro, was watching, and I was mortified.

I thought he’d spend more time guiding my wife’s swing in the next hitting stall, on the other side of some netting. John said to me, “We call that a practice swing.” I mustered a smile and said, “Great, yes, let’s call it that. That’s just what it was.” He corrected my stance, led me through a swing, and on my next try — thwack! — the ball soared toward the Astroturf fairway. Well, it would be more accurate to say that it went straight right and plopped straight down. But at least I’d hit it.

Paige and I were hitting sand wedges in the last 15 minutes of our first hour-long lesson. At the beginning, John outfitted us with these clubs while he explained some of the purpose, history and modern construction of golf gear. He enjoyed teaching these basics to us wide-eyed beginners, and I found his enthusiasm a little surprising because he coaches very advanced students far more complicated topics. But he has an infectious fascination with technology. Here is what I learned: Irons are usually made of steel. Woods are no longer made of wood. Hybrids are a combination of irons and woods. “We start you with sand wedges,” he said, “to get the ball up in the air.” He explained loft and the basic physics of the ball — what happens at contact and how it spins in flight.

I’m such a geek. I was thrilled by the tech talk and wanted more. I can tell I’m going to dive very deep into the tech side of this game. I’m going to outfit myself with the best high-tech gear and gadgets. That’s the edge I need. When I get like this, Paige rolls her eyes. She says it’s more about the mental game. And, of course, she’s right. After all, I missed the ball on my first swing, and it had nothing to do with the sand wedge.

John was helping us come to this same conclusion. We were listening and learning. He showed us videos of tour players in slow motion to illustrate the underlying concepts of the golf swing. He used fascinating metaphors — a carousel, a Ferris wheel, a soccer kick, yoga. He was coaching us on how to approach the sport long before we grabbed those wedges.

When John talked about radius of swing, axis and circumference, I glanced over at Paige — she was grasping these concepts more quickly than I was. (She has a master’s in mathematics.) I tried to make a show of understanding. I wanted to be as good as Paige. I wanted to be better. I could see that the science of the swing would be one of our many points of competition.

The driving range at Chelsea Piers Golf Club is a unique place to learn the game. It has greens and hazards marked on the Astroturf expanse, which is laid out on a Hudson River pier and enclosed in high nets. There are 52 hitting stalls in a multi-tiered design, so balls shoot out from above and below as you practice. An automated ball-delivery system keeps things moving. After paying at the front desk, golfers are given a debit card, which is inserted in a card reader at the stall. A number appears on the screen — the number of balls purchased — and a ball pops up on a rubber tee. After every shot, the tee disappears and comes back loaded as the reader counts down your total.

This modern wonder is built on a spot rich in New York City history. Chelsea Piers was a major port for passenger ships where the Titanic was scheduled to dock on its maiden voyage and where soldiers departed for both World Wars. In 1995, it was transformed into a massive sports complex with everything from bowling and boxing to ice hockey and rock climbing.

It was in this unique place that Paige and I were learning the game. I let John coach me. He’s a natural teacher, and I learned a ton in a short amount of time. (I have trouble paying attention. If I’d left my BlackBerry in my backpocket, I would have been hopeless.) John has the rare ability to explain complex concepts in easy-to-grasp ways, and he’s been selected as a top instructor in the northeast by Golf Magazine.

Paige was twisting her upper body too much. We do yoga, and there’s a pose where we sort of crouch and twist to the side, placing the opposite elbow on the outside of the knee. She was equating the swing to this pose. John showed her what she was doing, and she corrected it. (John talked about the ways yoga can help your game, and in future installments I’ll write more about this relationship.)

John said to me, “Watch your posture.” He’d been saying this a lot.

I said, “I have bad posture.”

“We all do,” he said. “I never have to correct women’s posture. It’s a guy thing. We have a tendency to slump.”

Paige said, “You’re Neanderthals.”

John agreed: “My wife says the same thing.”

It was my bad posture that was messing up my backswing, which made me swing across the ball and sent my shots to the right. I’d fix my posture, but after a few more swings I’d start to slump again.

“I don’t understand why I can’t get this right,” I said.

He smiled. “Well, you’re in the first 15 minutes of your first golf lesson. You’re doing fantastic, actually.”

By the end of this first lesson, I was hitting every ball, sending most of the pitch shots up and out. It was an awesome sensation when that happened. John made it fun, even with such my lousy swing, because I knew I’d get better.

Check back for more articles by Christopher X. Shade on learning to play.

Related Links:

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

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