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

November 21, 2010
nov17-pistillo-old_372x308_0.jpg

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!'

OLD 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.'

NEW 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.”

Pistillo 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.”

OLD 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.”

Crack! 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.”

Day 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

For 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?”