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Get Hooked - or Lose Your Slice

Golf schools offer intense, personalized instruction to novices and seasoned duffers alike

I HIT practice shots on the driving range for more than two hours, sweat dripping from most every pore in my body. I devoured my teacher's advice: He said to slow my backswing, I said "Yes sir." He recommended I lighten my grip, I responded immediately. All this from a low-handicap golfer who, until now, had eschewed in-depth instruction and practice on the driving range. And I could see that on putting greens, in practice bunkers, in chipping areas, most of my 100 or so fellow students were in golfing b liss as well.

That scene was from the first morning I spent at the Golf School at the Mt. Snow Resort in Vermont last summer. What was most remarkable was the fact that so many different kinds of people - beginners and experts, old and young, male and female - were enraptured with golf. One group of women beginners walked a few hundred yards, from the driving range to a chipping area, clenching their five-irons before them, club heads pointed toward the sky. "We were so happy to have gotten the proper grip," one of th e women told me later, "none of us wanted to let it go." I came home from golf school more inspired about golf than I had ever been after any other golf experience, and I had improved my game dramatically.

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There is debate as to the origin of golf schools, but most people give the nod to Ben Sutton. In 1968, Mr. Sutton retired from 30 years at the Hoover vacuum-cleaner company. He wanted to make up for all the years he had been kept from his favorite pastime.

Sutton and about 50 of his friends in Ohio hired a few golf instructors to accompany them for a week at the Callaway Gardens resort in Florida. "I never dreamed that would turn into anything more than a week of good golf instruction and playing," says Sutton, 25 years and 35,000 golf students later. He founded the Ben Sutton Golf Schools held at courses in the United States and Canada.

The idea has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar industry. Today, more than 100 groups operate a myriad of schools, from one-day clinics at country clubs and on public courses to week-long schools at specially designed instruction facilities.

One of the beauties of a golf school is that it can be equally rewarding to players of all abilities, including novices. A friend attending Mt. Snow's school last summer had never played golf in her life, save for a couple of trips to Putt-Putt. She was interested enough to go, but still doubted she could endure "a whole weekend of golf," as she put it.

That first morning was intense. We split into groups of one teacher and four students and went through video analyses and supervised hitting of hundreds of balls on the driving range, with stops for work in sand bunkers and on putting greens. My friend gleefully said at lunch, "Do you think we'll get to go to the real course after the afternoon lessons?" She was hooked.

At dinner that evening, conversation among the students (who ranged in age from 25 to 65) sounded as if it were coming from a locker room at the US Open. Detailed talk of swing tempo, reverse pivots, and the differences between interlocking and overlapping grips consumed the newly zealous students. Later, dozens of students watched instructional videotapes and attended swing-theory seminars. "I used to make fun of people who talk so much about golf," said Carrie Cohen, a young beginner whose trip to Mt. Snow was her first serious foray into golf. "But now I'm talking like that myself. It's fun."

If golf school sounds like hard and serious work, that's because, in most cases, it is. The best schools provide a minimum of five hours of daily, personalized instruction and then supervised time on a course. Learning to play golf takes time.

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Individual attention is one of the greatest advantages of golf school. With a good instructor, time passes quickly. Golf school allows ample time for teachers to explain the minutiae of golf, such as how a club is designed or why an undimpled golf ball will barely move. "Golfers are like information sponges," said Mike Mallon, my instructor at Mt. Snow. "When you give people the inside scoops on golf, they can't get enough. It especially helps the beginners because it tends to demystify the game for them ."

The distractionless learning environment is another plus. Sporadic lessons may take months or years to bring a beginner to a satisfying level of competency, and he or she may lose interest long before then. But a two-day golf school can infuse a beginner with enough instruction - and confidence - to consistently get the ball airborne and learn the game's rules and etiquette. More advanced players receive an equal dose of instruction and inspiration, though their work is usually more of a fine-tuning natu re.

"I come back to golf school every year to get my season off in the right direction," says Dave McCrohan. "In addition to the instruction, the schools' inspirational atmosphere gets me excited about the game for the rest of the year."

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