He's Back! California's Duffer Goes To School

Duffer teeing offKENT DIAL, THE WEST COAST’S FAVOURITE
LOSER ON THE LINKS HEADS FOR THE CLASSROOM.

We were walking towards the vast Spanish colonial clubhouse that houses one of the game’s leading teaching institutions, The Aviara Golf Academy.

‘Nervous?’

‘No, not really,” Kent replied confidently.

‘Not at all? Not even like it was your first day of school?’

‘No. And I probably wasn’t nervous about that either.’ Kent laughed. ‘I wasn’t smart enough to be.’

Kent Dial goes to schoolDressed somewhat eclectically – treasured Kapalua golf hat, logoed shirt, sporting the name of a local school and a weathered left-handed glove – Kent blended with his fellow students. And though they chatted casually, they informally accessed one another’s playing potential.

The group included self-professed novice Skip – Skippy, like the peanut butter, he said in introduction. Tom, a veteran player. Warren, a golfer of less than a year. The duo of Pat and Becky – two long-time female friends and longer-time golfers, but until this day, uncommitted ones. And, of course, Kent.

And why was the duffer there?

‘I played a lot of golf in college but I’ve never taken a lesson. Just continued to develop bad habits. And I’m here to break ‘em.’ Kent goal.

Kent stood straight, hands on hips, like a cowboy speaking of a horse he was determined to tame.

As you will recall from an earlier article, my husband’s athletic background is deceptively impressive. Football quarterback, pitcher on his high school baseball team and noted college basketball player. But having observed, at firsthand, his golf game, I knew that his earlier athleticism had never been translated to this sport. However, his hopes for a transformation were innocent enough, not unlike those of a youngster waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

For their part, the instructors seemed an accomplished bunch: Wayne, Ken, Ted, Grant, Bob and Bruce. All low-keyed and humble. And all under the tutelage of instructional director Kip Puterbaugh. A man with an athletic resume that reads like a golf almanac. Puterbaugh has taught them all.

Except the duffer.

At age ten, Puterbaugh’s first instructor was two-time PGA champ, Paul Runyan, nicknamed ‘The Machine’ because of his smooth golf swing. Later on, he was befriended by pro Gene Littler and was allowed to play and practice with the U.S. Open winner over the years. Littler even gave Puterbaugh one of his first pair of golf shoes – hand-me-downs from the 9 _ shoe-sized champ. And later, as a member of the University of Houston golf team, he played with Jim McLean, who went on to establish the celebrated Jim McLean Golf School.

The respective backgrounds of the academy’s team of instructors were similarly impressive. Ted played in the 1990 U.S. Open, Grant competed on the European PGA Tour and all have at least five years of experience with Puterbaugh. And the list goes on. Aviara is listed in Golf Magazine’s ‘Top 25 Schools.’ Puterbaugh is included in its ‘Top 100 Teachers.’ He works with, amongst others, Scott Simpson and Corey Pavin. The man is an acknowledged master of the golf swing.

Such then was the quality of the cavalry brought to the rescue of the duffer. But would even they cope?

The day began.

Ken, Wayne and their students piling into carts and wound their way uphill, alongside the course, to the private teaching facility and its driving range.

‘Take a few swings, unwind, warm-up.’

One-by-one, each was led to a covered teaching stall where the student’s swing was videotaped and a printout of the stroke was generated.

‘Let’s go Kent – it’s showtime.’

Ken grinned broadly as he led Kent away. It looked like nothing quite so much as Joan of Arc being escorted to the pyre. Ken and Kent. Similar names. But very different games, I’m afraid.

After observing and taping a few swings questions and suggestions began.

‘Do you wear bifocals?’

‘Trifocals.’

‘Your head is kind of buried into the ground.’

‘Which bit?’

‘And you’re slicing because you’re not making a good enough turn.’

After a couple of additional pointers, Kent was energized and eager to implement the tips. ‘Hope springs eternal.’

He randomly began swinging the club about the stall, prompting another suggestion: ‘Careful. That camera cost a lot of money.’

Back to the practice range and safely away from high-tech paraphernalia, Kent addressed the ball differently.

‘I feel better not having to work so hard keeping my head down.’

He hit his first post-instruction shot straight down the middle. But he whiffed his next – reinforcing his nickname.

And then eventually. . .

‘Okay, leave the clubs and grab your video pictures. We’re going to hop in the carts and go to the classroom.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s where we get knowledge. And knowledge is good.’

It was a none-too-subtle reworking of the academy’s motto. ‘Where higher education means lower scores.’

As we turned towards this particular fountain of knowledge, I asked Ken what was the typical standard of play for most students. He shrugged his shoulders.

‘All levels. Most score between 90 and 110. All ages, too. We’ve even taught 80-year-olds.’

At this, Skip – he of the peanut butter fame – seemed to perk up.

‘I’m glad you said that. I don’t even have a handicap.’

Kent grinned. ‘I do. But not the kind you’re talking about.’

Oh, no. Kent had decided to become court jester.

Puterbaugh first met his students at the classroom. The tall, slender, fifty-something instructor looked the part. A real golfer. The room was cozy, like a family’s living room. White bookshelves show-cased plaques, plants, news articles in broad, shiny, glass frames. One I noticed flaunted a fairly grisly headline – ‘Kip, Kip Hooray.’ The wall’s centerpiece was an oversized television screen. A semi-circle of upholstered chairs faced the monitor.

‘Beginners say, ‘I just want to hit the ball,’ ‘I don’t want to make a fool of myself’ or ‘I want to be more consistent.’

Puterbaugh had begun.

‘That’s what I want – to be consistent,’ Kent whispered. ‘That’s really all I want.’

Like his book, Puterbaugh’s class instruction could be entitled ‘What You Know Can Hurt You.’ He began by addressing what he calls ‘Golf’s Number-1 Myth’ – keep your head still and your eyes on the ball.

‘This is where all major problems start.’

The seeds of doubt planted, the revolution now continued as Puterbaugh went on to add that, until his students were ready to abandon this age-old maxim, their swings would remain functionally incorrect.

‘If you overemphasize keeping your head down, it acts as an anchor and stops anything below it from moving.’

Kent sat straighter in his chair and nodded his head in agreement while silently promising to forever banish this practice from his game’s repertoire. The sage instructor showed videos of several professionals’ swings – Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods – every so often stopping the tape to illustrate his point.

‘Note what pro players do similarly – that’s a fundamental.’

Kent repeatedly referred to his strip of pictures featuring his own swing. It had become his Bible of sorts.

‘Is Tiger’s arm close to his side or away?’ asked Puterbaugh.

‘Away,’ answered Kent.

‘Should your weight be on your heels, balls of your feet or toes?’

‘Balls of your feet,” he answered again

I might add that Kent has never met Lee Crumbleholme. Nor, it seems, has Puterbaugh. ‘Which eye should look at the ball? What do most amateurs have trouble with at this time of the swing?’

Right or wrong, Kent was now shouting answers as if on a game show. No longer class clown, he became the class know-it-all. Eager to relinquish his duffer status. The higher he sat in his chair, the lower I sunk into mine.

Back at the range some time later, Wayne made a suggestion.

‘The first thing I’d recommend is surrender!’ he yelled. ‘Let’s have fun. You’re going to hit awful shots. It’s not life or death. It’s just golf.’

Now where have I heard that before?

And now it started in earnest, as Wayne’s cheery exhortations were followed by a bit of one-to-one. Needless, to say Puterbaugh found himself partnered with guess who? ‘We’re working on your posture. Raise your head up out of your chest. Flex your knees a little bit.’

They tried everything. Mirrors, fans – they swing them instead of a club – the works. They even double-teamed the duffer.

The immediate result?

Kent teed the ball and set up slowly. He stared at his target – for over fifteen seconds. I counted. I waited. The instructors waited. Finally, he swung and topped it. Kent consoled himself that it was only one swing. Granted, it was one of the awful ones Wayne had described, but it was only one. But then the sun came out as the duffer, whose handicap is at the top of the charts, now began to redeem himself with his next shot. And the next. And the next.

Maybe education was good, after all. The moment of truth, however, was at hand. It was time to take Kent’s game where it counts. To the links.

The Arnold Palmer-designed Four Seasons Aviara Golf Course was the amateur’s immediate challenge. At seven thousand and seven yards, the 18-holer follows the natural topography of three valleys and a nearby lagoon. He was partnered with another neophyte and the club’s head golf professional, Renny Brown. The California term, ‘laid back,’ must have been coined for this easy-going young pro whose sense of humor provided some welcome relief for Kent’s initially bleak post-academy debut.

I’d like to say that the day now began to blossom for the duffer. That the schoolroom, ranges and revolution had sunk in and now found their proper expression in a series of holes that Woods himself would have been proud of.

I’d like to say that. But it didn’t happen.

Much of the round was punctuated with wild shots off the tee, slices into the rough, drives landing mid-pond and chips blasting from one bunker into another. Even the course’s resident bunnies were on high alert. And it’s not surprising, after rimming the cup to three-putt the 1st hole, that the duffer almost begged for the basketball court. It seemed that Kent’s newly discovered technique had deserted him. He sighed and shook his head from side to side. But not being one to quit, the duffer charged on.

‘That must be a trick shot. I’ll bet you couldn’t do that again,” Renny remarked after a particularly interesting crack with the club. And for the really rotten attempts he’d joke, ‘I’ve seen better swings in a backyard’ or ‘I’ve seen better shots in a bar.’ Kent’s smile suggested that either he enjoyed the joke. Or was about to take the man’s head off. Eventually, however, his game began to show moments of promise, as did his outlook.

‘Maybe it’s not quite as bad as I thought.’

‘Good job,’ said Renny. ‘We call that PGA. Positive Golf Attitude.’

And just to prove the strength of having a PGA, the remainder of Kent’s round was sprinkled, albeit sparsely, with glimpses of a performance that ensures a return visit for most golfers. Sinking a 10-foot putt. Nailing a two hundred and fifty-yard drive. You’ve done it.

And the final diagnosis was encouraging.

‘Kent has the ability to shoot in the 80s,’ concluded Puterbaugh. And his prescription? ‘Visit the driving range twice a week. Take one lesson every two weeks and, eventually, one each month. Continue looking in the mirror and swinging.’

A thumb’s up and a smile as wide as a fairway from the purported duffer.

‘And hit ‘em long, hit ‘em straight and putt ‘em true!”

I wish.