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."
Our first set of lessons complete, it was time to put all that we had learned to practical use on the Shadow Ridge resort course. With the Santa Rosa Mountains as a backdrop, this is not your typical resort layout. Best described as an Australian-inspired golf course in the desert, it plays at more than 7,000 yards from the tips, making for a very long par 71.
Around the greens, you have a variety of short-game options available to you, allowing you to readily put into practice what you have been learning. Ellis took the time on one hole to demonstrate several approach options using the same lie, from a flop shot to a bump-and-run to even taking a 3-wood and chipping it onto the green. The undulating greens make it one of the most challenging and rewarding courses for golfers of all skill levels.
While the front nine can easily be called a good test of golf, there's a lot more risk-reward type holes on the back nine which feature a really entertaining homestretch. The final three holes have that stadium golf feel, with resort lodgings lining the fairways.
The Faldo Golf Institute's reach continues long after you have left the resort. Ellis and the rest of the instructors know that you're not likely to leave with the perfect swing after just three days of tutoring so the video analysis, complete with side-by-side comparisons to Faldo's championship winning form and the instructor's comments, is sent to each student via email for them to review over and over again when needed should you find yourself slipping back into old habits.
"We feel its a good mix of things," said Ellis of the curriculum. "We don't want to overload and it's so easy to do that. ...Don't get overwhelmed, you're always going to have that (the email lessons)."
One other plus at the Faldo Golf Institute is the availability of a club fitting service for each individual guest at the resort. This is an area of golf that is getting more and more attention among the casual player. If you thought that such a customized service is merely for low handicappers and pros, consider this; very few of us can go into a store and buy off the rack. We need to try things on and make sure they fit properly. Yet, when it comes to spending between $400 and $800 on a new club or set of irons, why wouldn't you take the time to fit the club to your golf game.
Adam Farry was the professional fitter based at the Faldo Golf Institute during my stay. After putting me through my paces on the TrackMan launch monitor and dissecting the numbers - spin rate, launch angle, clubhead speed, club path, etc. - we determined that the driver I had bought off the rack after more than a dozen swings in a big-box simulator was actually 1 inch too long for me. A couple of other slight adjustments to loft and a lie and I would soon have a club that would fit my swing and ultimately, help me get the most out of my game.
"Improperly fit clubs help to create bad habits," explained Farry. "What properly fit clubs do for you is create better habits and makes the game more fun."
Farry added that while drivers and irons get the bulk of attention when it comes to club fitting, don't overlook the putter. "It's the one club you use the most in a round of golf."
THINGS TO DO: If you're a golf enthusiast, then Palm Desert should certainly be on your itinerary. Aside from the Faldo Golf Institute and the award winning Shadow Ridge Resort, the region is home to the golf communities of Palm Springs, Indian Wells and La Quinta which has played host to such tournaments as the former Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, The Skins Game, and LPGA's Nabisco Championship.
The city of Palm Desert itself has plenty to offer, including a number of world-class restaurants, spas, shopping, and many natural attractions, such as The Living Desert, the San Andreas Fault and the Aerial Tram ride to the top of San Jacinto Mountain which has to be experienced. Adventure Hummer Tours was our guide on a remarkable journey through the canyons of the San Andreas Fault and into Joshua Tree National Park, going where few other tours are able to go due to the nature of the desert terrain.
HOW TO GET THERE: Fly into Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), which is served by 11 airlines including WestJet and Air Canada, through its Star Alliance partners, offering non-stop service from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto.
Take advantage of the free lodging promotion on a two or three day golf school package at either the Orlando or Palm Desert resort through the end of 2012.