WILLIAMSBURG, VA -- My thoughts of school aren't what they used to be. They're no longer strained recollections of an eight a.m. recitation of the pledge of allegiance, an eleven o'clock meeting with the career counselor and a three p.m. football practice. Or a 350 student strong college lecture in a century old auditorium; or even a grueling law school class session with an egocentric professor brandishing the Socratic method. These days, in the world of self-improvement seminars, time maximization, and the 'done yesterday' mentality, going back to school would seem like a vacation.
That's especially true if you combine schooling with golf-it's now possible to book yourself into intensive two, three or four day golf school vacations where you'll receive personalized golf instruction, access to incredible practice facilities and play rounds on world class golf courses--all at the same location.
In a way, developing a better golf game's never been easier, and it's all because of an idea struck by the folks at Golf Digest three decades ago--to combine the incredible instruction found in golf's number one print magazine with a stay at one of several world-class resort destinations. It adds up to an unbeatable way to improve your golf game. Hence, the Golf Digest Schools were founded in 1971, and have been providing golfers an opportunity to improve their swings and relax on holiday ever since.
I've often thought I'd benefit from such an intensive program. I've played golf for almost 25 years, but I'm not a whole lot better now than when I first picked up sticks and swatted my first ball. Sure, I've acquired much better equipment and reached semi-proficiency on the links to a point where I won't embarrass myself when playing-after all, a few good holes on any one day demonstrates to any potential playing partner that it's at least conceivable for me to score well, even if the card occasionally shows three digits at the end.
But for as long as I've played, I should be better than I am. At times, I've surmised it's a physical talent thing-some folks are predestined to play great golf, and others aren't. Golfers are born, not made. You look at the best players in the game and theorize they're out there because of their natural talents and special gifts.
Not so! Professionals are on tour because they're naturally gifted, of course; but they've also received excellent instruction throughout their careers-in some cases since they were old enough to spell their names. Tiger Woods won the Masters at age 21, but he's had the best golf teachers his Papa Earl could line up since he was in grade school. In other words, you don't get a perfect golf swing by picking up a club and launching it 300 yards naturally. You get it because someone who knows what a good swing should look like takes what physical ability you possess and shapes it into what's best for you.
With this in mind, I knew I could improve, given some instruction and practice. And this season, I ended years of procrastination by booking myself into a golf school. There's no time like the present to get better, and nothing like the notion of future success to forget about past futility.
Once I'd set my plan, finding a great school wasn't difficult. Being a long time subscriber to Golf Digest, I've read time and again about their golf instructional programs. Adding to this accumulated knowledge, last year (while reviewing the golf courses) I noticed there's a Golf Digest School at one of Virginia's premier golf destinations- The Golden Horseshoe at Colonial Williamsburg. Here, at last, was the perfect chance to finally make a stride forward on the links--and combine my schooling with an unforgettable vacation at arguably the birthplace of American political thought. It was here that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry advocated the ideas that continue to influence our American Republic into the 21st Century.
Williamsburg's the perfect setting for me to attend a golf school-nothing like the birthplace of a rebellion to institute revolutionary changes to a golf swing that's suffered under tyrannical inconsistency for a quarter century. How's that for an analogy?
And the beautiful thing is-the philosophy behind the school combines relaxation with learning-if only eighth grade was this much fun. Ted Brasile, Head Instructor for the Golf Digest School at the Golden Horseshoe, says there are a number of reasons why people choose a golf school to getaway: "Many of our students are looking for the ultimate golf vacation experience, where you separate yourself from the daily routine and take in some instruction at the same time."
"For others, it's the beginning of their season, and they want to lay a solid foundation for improvement throughout the year. Still others enjoy an intensive classroom setting where they'll work on full-swing mechanics and learn different short game shots all at once-instead of perhaps taking a series of lessons. When you add it up, most golfers come here to improve their games, but also have fun. We make sure they do both."
For the Golden Horseshoe, hosting a Golf Digest School supplements its already outstanding golf courses, practice facilities, and lesson program. Lloyd Williams, the Golden Horseshoe's General Manager, adds "Realistically, in order to be thought of as a true golf destination, you've got to have outstanding instruction. It's more than just offering great facilities and individual lessons--you must have a first-class, respected learning program. The Golf Digest School fits that description perfectly. When you combine the prestige of the school with our club's already excellent teaching professionals (Del Snyder and Jeff Winters are the GH's full-time teachers), we offer our visitors that little something extra that they'd expect from a world-class golf destination."
Glen Byrnes, the Golden Horseshoe's Director of Golf, agrees that the Golf Digest Schools add an exclamation point to any golf resort's instruction phrase. "It seems like these days, everybody's trying to improve themselves-be it in their careers, their fitness routines, or with their recreational activities. Our partnership with the Golf Digest Schools allows us to appeal to those striving to do better-on the golf course, or in their everyday lives."
Those are certainly some lofty goals set for the program, and fortunately, the school accomplishes them. The program itself is a combination of classroom instruction, video analysis, practice drills, and on-course observation. The degrees to which all are done vary with the length of the school. Thankfully, it's not all just hitting balls and knocking down flags-lunch is part of the program too!
Class sizes vary-I was fortunate to share the experience with two gentlemen with very different golf swings than I, Bob Dougherty and Sid Hawkes-and between the three of us, we presented quite a challenge to Mr. Brasile's teaching proficiencies. We discovered that's not a problem, however, because the Golf Digest teaching program is geared towards each individual's strengths, goals, and abilities.
Brasile explains: "We definitely want all our students to learn basic fundamentals, but certain things will vary with each individual. A lot depends on their goals for their game, their body type, how much they play and practice, their lifestyles, muscle flexibility and injury history. From gathering this type of information, we tailor a learning program that's best for each one of them."
The school begins with a brief get-to-know-you session, then an overview of the program's different areas of instruction. All types of golf shots are covered-full swing shots, chipping, pitching, putting, uneven lies, bunker play, you name it, it's there. Each student receives a book that pictorially demonstrates each concept (along with textual explanations), and you'll supplement the book with notes from the lectures.
Classroom instruction, shot demonstration and practice lasts about an hour for each segment--the school's pace is well thought out. You won't hit five hours worth of full swing shots the first day, then follow up the next with nothing but less taxing short game shots. They're mixed in just right. The different instructional segments provide an excellent change of pace-it not only keeps your mind fresh, it conserves your energy.
Brasile was also a good role model. A scratch golfer himself, he was most recently named Virginia's top teaching professional (by Golf Digest. Del Snyder, the Golden Horseshoe's Ambassador of Golf, was named #5 in the state). He 'd not only lecture on the concepts, he'd show us how it's done. This particular school is not a 'do as I say, not as I do' workshop. The visual learner will do as well as the 'feel' learner, because the teacher knows his stuff.
Once a shot concept was explained and demonstrated, drills were ordered to familiarize us with it. Sometimes, the methods even required teaching 'props' to illustrate the point. As video analysis revealed, my swing was too upright for my body type-which tended towards an outside-to-in swing plane, resulting in hooks and slices. To correct it, Brasile had me pull my right foot back-and he'd hold a headless club shaft near my back swing path-then made me swing inside it. It felt awkward at first, but it worked!
All along, I noted the school wouldn't be nearly as effective without the Golden Horseshoe's first-rate practice facilities. The Green Course offers a duel tee range, and the Golf Digest School was positioned at one end, quite isolated from other golfers and the 'reality' of golf. The school's end included a large putting green, a couple bunkers, mounds, rough and some tight fairway lies, all privately screened from the rest of the course, and the world. If you're the type that desires solitude to focus on a new activity, this is the place. I've yet to see finer facilities.
Glen Byrnes pointed out another advantage of the school's isolation-anonymity. "It's nice to be out there when you're practicing, because we all know sometimes it isn't pretty when you're trying something out for the first time." How true. At the Golden Horseshoe, you definitely don't have to worry about hitting one off the toe when trying out a new drill-the worst you'll do is maim a tree, not your ego.
In addition to the instruction and practice, each program day includes an optional tee time after lunch if you're brave enough to try out your developing skills under playing conditions. Each afternoon, my classmates and I took our games to the Green Course, the beautiful Rees Jones design characterized by beautiful tree-lined fairways and stunning deep ravines. It's a tough test (for students or otherwise), but also generous enough to allow for a mistake here and there without severe punishment.
On the afternoon of our second day, Brasile accompanied the class for some on-course instruction. It was pretty obvious the students were a tad too mindful of our mechanics and swing drills, because our results weren't stellar. We all were trying to do too much, rather than just letting the game flow naturally. But the experience provided Brasile with some thoughts for our third day's session, as well as the opportunity to teach us more short game shots.
The final session of the three-day school was used for reinforcement of the first two days, as well as instruction on some more common short game situations and how to address uneven lies. I really felt my game was coming together at the end.
Upon 'commencement,' Brasile emphasized the school's intensive training program was only the beginning of a lengthy process to improve our overall golf games. He sent us on our way with a video tape he'd made for each of us over the three days, with detailed analysis of our full swings, chipping, pitching, bunker play, and putting strokes. The video is a permanent visual aid-a reminder of how it's done versus how we used to do it. The instruction book and notes should also prove to be excellent resources.
Overall, I'd say golf school is a great thing if you have the right mindset. You can't go in believing it's a cure-all for every swing flaw you bring to the practice tee-it takes years to make bad swings, and it'll take hours of practice to iron things out. More than anything, golf school lays the foundation for long-term improvement. You'll certainly experience some frustration with the new techniques, because in most cases they're quite different than all the bad habits you've accumulated over your 'career.' As classmate Bob Dougherty said, "You'll probably get worse before you get better."
I'm not sure I'm 'worse' in any category-but I will say I've seen definite improvement in my iron game (where I've basically gained a club's distance) and learned some great new short game shots. For the balance, I need practice, repetition, and patience, because I'm serious about improving-for a lifetime.
In that, it's no different than trying to do anything else that's revolutionary. Radical change takes time, sweat, and sometimes tears. Good things rarely come to the impatient, the lazy or the closed-minded. Just being in Williamsburg shows that plenty.
So, if you're looking for a great way to take a vacation, obtain some long lasting golf instruction as well as trying something new, I'd tell you to check out the Golf Digest School at the Golden Horseshoe (or at a resort near you!). If you do, you'll no doubt think of schooling in a whole new way.
Golf Digest Schools
5520 Park Avenue, Box 395
Trumbull, CT 06611-0395
Telephone: (800) 243-6121
General Manager of Golf Digest Schools: Jim Endicott
Head Instructor for the Virginia School: Ted Brasile
The Golf Digest School in Virginia is held at:
The Golden Horseshoe
401 South England Street
Williamsburg, VA 23185
Telephone: (800) 603-0924; (757) 220-7696
General Manager of the Golden Horseshoe: Lloyd Williams
Director of Golf: Glen Byrnes, PGA
Head Golf Professional: Jeff Winters, PGA
Ambassador of Golf: Del Snyder, PGA
Outstanding Assistant to the Golf School: Raleigh Scott
School Rates: (Note: Rates vary, depending on season)
$1145-$1295, staying at the Williamsburg Lodge
$1395-$1495, staying at the Williamsburg Inn
$1795-$1895, Weekdays, Williamsburg Lodge
$1694-$1825, Weekends, Williamsburg Lodge
$2395-$2495, Weekdays, Williamsburg Inn
$1995-$2195, Weekends, Williamsburg Inn
$2395-$2495, Williamsburg Lodge
$2795-$2995, Williamsburg Inn
All Resort Accommodations are owned and operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.