By Larry Gavrich, Founder & Editor,
Home On The Course, LLC
I took my first golf lesson at the age of 13. It would be another 50 years before I took my next one. My first instructor, a 60-something driving range pro in New Jersey, had one thing to say during my 45-minute lesson: "Roll your wrists, roll your wrists, roll your wrists" over and over again. What a nice way to earn $25, which is what I recall my parents paid for me to listen to that mantra. It took me most of the next five decades to overcome a chronic snap hook off the tee.
Except for one golf instruction session a few years ago, a birthday present from my wife, I have steered clear of golf lessons. Occasionally in some waiting room or another, I'll pick up Golf Digest or Golf Magazine and scan a club professional's advice on how to hit a 50-yard shot into a howling wind, or the best way to blast from a buried lie in a bunker, but that has been the extent of my formal golf instruction over the years. Yet because I have golfing buddies who swear they have benefited from golf instruction, I decided to conquer my fears and spend 10 1/2 hours over three days at the Mel Sole Golf School in Pawleys Island, SC.
Mel, a former touring pro in South Africa, and his wife, Rosemary, a native of Canada, set up shop at the far end of the practice range at Pawleys Plantation in 1991 with Phil Ritson, a legendary golf coach from South Africa and Mel’s mentor. Mr. Ritson has since retired.
Many of the Mel Sole Golf School clients come to Pawleys Plantation to play the fine Jack Nicklaus layout and tune up their games, but many also make a special trip for a follow-up lesson or multi-day session with Mel. Indeed, on the middle day of our three day class, a former student who lives in St. James Plantation in Southport, NC, made the two-hour drive early in the morning to join our group of three for a little "refresher."
My fellow students for the entire three days were a couple from New Jersey, Larry and Mary. (Mel caps the size of all classes at four maximum.) Larry had taken lessons at the Sole academy twice before over three years, once at the Pawleys Plantation school and once at another facility the Soles own in Myrtle Beach, but Mary was a total beginner who approached the prospect of taking up the game with a heavy dose of trepidation. She turned out to be a quick learner, as a second-day videotaped comparison to her first day's swing showed marked performance improvement in her backswing. And the frustration of ground ball shots on day one gave way to hopeful self-criticism on day two.
It was impressive to watch Mel encourage Mary over the three days, providing her with the confidence that she could advance continuously with practice, encouraging her to find a group of ladies back in New Jersey who also were not experienced golfers, and gently reminding Larry, whenever he tried to offer his wife helpful advice, that "there is only one instructor out here.” Beginning golfers, male or female, will feel quite comfortable at the group sessions, even if the other golfers are more experienced and much better players. The small class size ensures that no student’s needs are ignored, and questions are encouraged and responded to with honesty and frankness.
Mel has celebrated his 50th anniversary as a golf professional, and his years of teaching have run concurrent with the explosion in digital technology. He has enthusiastically adapted digital tools to the teaching of the golf swing. Combining videotape with a sophisticated software package, he is able to critique his students' swings within five minutes of filming them and, most importantly, to show their progress day to day.
Once Mel identified the key flaws in each of our golf swings, he put the three of us through his "48-ball drill" which included clusters of 12 balls in three sets of four; the three sets included exercises he called "the drill," "the continuous" and "the clear key." The drill basically exaggerates the actions you need to correct the flaws in your swing.
Mel had shown me in the initial videotape of my swing that my chin rested on my chest at address, that I took the club back too far “inside,” and that I failed to start the downswing with a slide of my hips. In my drill, I lifted my chin up at address; then I took the club back on a level plane, rather than inside as I did initially, and stopped at the top; then I slid my hips forward as the first step toward bringing the club down toward the ball. This three-piece swing felt awkward, especially when I tried to get the club head through the ball from a stopped position at the top of the swing; but after a few minutes of exaggerating the hip slide, it began to feel more natural.
The "continuous" four-ball set with the same club was simply the three swing changes put together into one continuous swing. The "clear key" would make any swami proud; it is a word or phrase chosen by the student to repeat during the continuous swing, the idea being that the swing should be unencumbered by any conscious thoughts. That is, if you have done the drill properly, and you free your mind from distractions by reciting the “clear key” as you make your swing, the newly acquired motion will begin to feel more natural. (It did toward the end of the first morning session.)
Mel's own clear key mantra is "Geronimo," which he says to himself three times from takeaway to follow-through; I chose "Shakespeare." (I was an English major, after all.) I used one club from my bag for the first 12-ball set, and then three different clubs for the remaining three sets. The hip slide was easily the toughest change for me to make, but by the end of day two, the comparison video showed I had made substantial progress.
As investments go, the Mel Sole Golf School is among the most reasonably priced you will find. The three-day session I attended is priced at $595 for the 10½ hours of instruction and includes the videotaped sessions and analysis that Mel emailed to us even before we departed each day. (The Sole School recently introduced an abbreviated and lower-priced Senior School program targeted at baby boomers for whom 10 ½ hours over three days may be a bit much.) The three-day sessions also include access to Mel’s comments in the months following the classes, if you email him a videotape of your swing.
Mel uses many anecdotes to embellish his points about the golf swing and how to manage your way around a golf course. Some stories hit close to home. Just before our putting lesson, he shared with the three of us his experience on the South African PGA Tour where he ranked in the top three in driving accuracy and greens reached in regulation.
“But I was an awful putter,” he added, recalling that the late Harold Henning, a fellow professional and star player, suggested Mel quit the tour “before I put a gun to my head.” Years later, Mel discovered that something as seemingly simple as an inability to aim the ball properly contributed to his putting woes. It was too late for his competitive career but, thankfully, not too late for his students.
GOLF SCHOOLS IN THE CAROLINASNorth and South Carolina have attracted some of the finest teaching professionals in the golf business. Here is a small selection of schools where you can hone your game or, if you are a beginner, learn what all the fuss is about.
Dana Rader Golf School
Instructor: Dana Rader, others
Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge, Charlotte, NC
Lessons: $450 to $825 (2 to 3 days)