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Breaking 80: The Cadillac of golf testing facilities

(Warning: This column contains imagery that may be upsetting to young children, women of child-bearing age and good golfers. Read at your own discretion.)

If playing golf with my coach for the first time was like reliving my first date, getting fitted for clubs was more like standing naked at the corner of Bloor and Yonge.

I was at the TaylorMade Performance Lab at Oakville's Glen Abbey Golf Club and though I was fully dressed, the computer-generated image of me was indeed as naked as the day he was created.

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With my real body covered head to toe in sensors, the avatar me was on display from every conceivable angle as TaylorMade staff studied every one of the real me's flaws, blemishes, hitches, hiccups and flinches that comprise what has been referred to by some as "my swing." I imagine this is what it's like to be probed by aliens.

It was similar to undergoing astronaut testing at the NASA lab, without the zero-gravity stuff and nausea. (The nausea was reserved for those forced to watch: custom fitting manager Cameron Jacobs and custom technician Stewart Bannatyne.)

While Jacobs and Bannatyne swore that the computer record of my day at the lab would not make it to YouTube's comedy section, I know I gave them plenty of material.

But fixing my swing and other woes is a matter for another day. Before coach Bradlee Ryall can get down to that monumental task, Jacobs and Bannatyne had to ensure that I was using the right equipment.

According to Bannatyne, that's the first step any golfer should take if he or she is embarking on a quest to improve. You can't get better unless you have the right clubs, he says.

But if the goal is to change my swing, why not wait until I've done that first?

Jacobs says that although my basic swing may change, my height, strength and physical attributes (and shortcomings) won't. "The aim is to maximize the learning experience and give you the best tools to improve your game," he says.

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Bannatyne says that in his 18 months at the centre, he's only seen one golfer who needed a club adjustment after a lesson series.

The truth is that most of us - and by "us" I mean bad golfers - are using the wrong equipment. We spend hundreds of dollars on clubs with little thought as to whether or not they suit our game.

We walk into golf stores and buy either what the salesman recommends (think commission) or what's on sale (think cheapskate.) Then, over the years, we add drivers, woods and wedges that are so unrelated to the other clubs they might as well be garden implements.

Jacobs likens buying clubs to shopping for a high-quality suit. You wouldn't buy that off the rack and neither should you buy clubs that way, he says.

I have been guilty of that. Despite having arms resembling certain species of ape, I have been known to buy off the rack, especially when the words "on sale" are involved.

I bought my first set of clubs at a golf store the way most of us do, based on a few strokes taken in the store's practice range.

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Six years later, during my last set of lessons, the pro charged with trying to make a golfer out of me suggested I might not be playing with the right clubs. It's a poor workman who blames his tools, I was once told, but I had a case.

I paid $70 for an hour of poking, prodding and taping to find out that the clubs I was using were too short, the shafts were too flexible, the grips were too small and the lie was wrong. At least they were the right colour.

A thousand dollars later, I noticed an immediate improvement, making the quantum leap from terrible to bad. But I did improve.

Now, wanting to take the next step, I've gone to the lab at Glen Abbey. This session is a tad pricier than my last one - $250 for the full four-hour treatment that somehow doesn't include a massage - but then this is what Jacobs calls the Cadillac of golf testing facilities. It's basically the same as the TaylorMade unit in California that PGA pros visit regularly.

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The first thing Jacobs does is assess my clubs, which is another sublime-to-ridiculous experience. My Ping irons with medium steel shafts are fine, but they're joined by a hodgepodge of woods and wedges that include light graphite shafts and stiff steel shafts as well as a few models that appear to predate Confederation.

There are also two sand wedges: one I used out of bunkers and the other for 60-90 yard shots. This, I'm told, is not good. The fact I'm terrible out of bunkers and with 60-90-yard shots is also not good.

Soon I'm wearing one of those electrode-covered suits they to make sports video games, something I wouldn't have bought even if it were on sale. Soon, cameras and sensors are recording my every move.

Once the system has figured out my basic needs, Jacobs takes me and a truckload of clubs to the outdoor practice range for a test drive.

In the time it takes me to kill most of the grass at the range - and a few unfortunate earthworms - Jacobs has determined my needs. He hands me a list of specifications that looks like something used to determine G-forces on the space shuttle.

Here's what he and Bannatyne recommend:

- Irons, driver and a rescue club with lighter shafts to allow me to generate more clubhead speed, something I can do because the computer showed I have good rhythm. (My last dance partner, having completed physiotherapy, might disagree.)

- All clubs should be longer than normal as were my Pings, mainly because of legs that have caused me to be mistaken for a stilt walker.

- An R11 driver with an adjustable head that can give me more loft and more draw to compensate for my natural fade.

- RocketBallz woods to replace my ancient ones and the little-used 4 iron.

- Wedges with heavier shafts and regular flex to give me more feel. In a break from my tradition, only one sand wedge;

- Slightly less heft on grips to give me more hand action, though larger than regular to accommodate my bear-like paws.

- A mallet-type putter to compensate for my ability to hit the ball on an up path and an oversized grip to match my claw-grip.

There were a lot of other specs including lie angles and loft, though I have no idea what they all mean. They also apparently liked my ball retriever.

It all sounds great, but with one less excuse I'm feeling even more exposed.

PREVIOUSLY: First date jitters Miracle worker or victim No. 5 Getting to the root of my rot Why doesn't golf love me back?


Chris Zelkovich has accomplished many things in a journalism career that has spanned almost 40 years. He has worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for a variety of newspapers and his work has appeared in several magazines. His 12 years in golf have been somewhat less distinguished.

Bradlee Ryall is a Class 'A' member of the CPGA and Director of Instruction for the Braeben Academy. Nominated for the Ontario PGA Teacher of the Year award in 2009, Bradlee has studied and trained with some of the best golf instructors in the world at the David Leadbetter Golf Academies and served as teaching professional at some of the greatest golfing destinations in the world including the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta, Canada.

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