Anyone who has played the game of golf for some time knows it is a constant learning process. Sometimes that means going back to basics, maybe even a return to school.
While there are a number of great teaching institutions and individuals within Canada – including the Golf Canada Centre in Calgary – I recently had the pleasure of visiting one of the premier teaching facilities in the United States, the Faldo Golf Institute at Marriott’s Shadow Ridge Resort, nestled in the Coachella Valley in Palm Desert, California. In 1997, Marriott introduced the first Faldo Golf Institute at the picturesque Grande Vista Golf Club in Orlando, Florida. Twelve years later, not only did Faldo set up his second teaching facility, Shadow Ridge became the first American designed golf course for the six-time major winner.
This is not a place where you pound ball after ball for hours on end out onto a driving range as you go through a check list of drills until your hands begin to blister. Instead, what you get is groups of three to four students per instructor and a program aimed to match each type of player, from low to high handicapper, beginner to expert, women to kids. The curriculum is flexible, ensuring that learning is paced for each student and reasonable goals are established for improvement with each drill.
The task of trying to sort out the mess otherwise known as my golf game would be left to Mike Ellis, the senior golf instructor at the institute. Now, as anyone who has taken a golf lesson can attest, it’s not easy to lay yourself bare in front of a total stranger, waiting for the inevitable criticism that is to come. No one likes to be told they’re doing this wrong or that wrong. As a 30 year teaching professional – the last 12 of which have been spent at the Faldo Golf Institute, Ellis has no doubt seen more bad golf swings than good ones. Yet, with each new drill or demonstration, his easy-going approach to the game and the fundamentals he is teaching certainly put the group at ease and made the learning experience much easier to understand and absorb.
“I don't like to just tear it all down,” explains Ellis. “There's got to be some positives. Everybody has some positives. That's how I like to teach it. Now, we're going talk about the negatives of course but we'll try to keep it as simple as possible.”
“When we start talking about it, two, three days of we got to get your posture in order, lower the handle, get your shoulders lined up, get your head behind the ball so that you've got a nice little tilt. That's almost like rebuilding for a lot of people. Set up changes first, then the golf swing should fall into place.”
Faldo insists on an extensive certification process for all his instructors and they all spend time with him personally as part of their training. Ellis, who was an instructor at Lake Nona in Florida around the time Ernie Els, Nick Price and Annika Sorenstam were all moving into the area, admits he was worried about having a rigid set of guidelines to follow when he made the move West.
“My concern was, was I going to have to change my philosophy in teaching and really I haven't because our firm belief is if we can get your fundamentals in order - the posture, the grip, the alignment and the ball position - then the swing is much easier with those things working for you,” he explained. “I think the shame would be if you went to Shadow Ridge as a couple and went to a golf school one year and then you went to Grande Vista in Orlando the next year and they're talking about something totally different. We're all on the same page but we try to not overcomplicate it either.”
Flexibility is also a key component when you visit the resort. There are two and three day, four hour lessons available for guests with the option of three hour and private sessions as well. In the two day school, players start off with putting, chipping and full swing lessons before lunch. Then it’s off for an afternoon round of golf. On the second day, pitching and sand drills along with more personal full swing instruction before lunch and another round of golf. For the three day course, there is a semi-review on short game play, work on situational stuff around the greens and a segment on fairway bunkers.
Ellis says the range of players who come through the school varies but one trend he has noticed of late is there are more women coming out to take lessons.
“We get a lot of female golfers that are now business women that are invited to go play, so they need to learn to play golf for their business,” Ellis explained. “We love that because they're really into it. They're not looking for LPGA, they're looking for respectable golf.”
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