Golf: From the Kingdom to the Classroom

A mystifying game, golf. An irritating, frustrating game that may be clutched for a while but even by the experts rarely for long. “You think you have it,’’ said the late George Archer, 1969 Masters champion from San Francisco, “and then you don’t. Like catching lightning in a bottle.’’

A good walk spoiled, wrote Mark Twain. Deceptively simple and endlessly complicated, confirmed Arnold Palmer. The only sport where the most feared opponent is one’s self. We are alone on a golf course, without a coach, without a teammate, succeeding or maybe merely surviving. Digging that errant drive out of the rough, keeping that skulled wedge barely on the green. Then at the most inopportune moment, everything comes apart and, feeling like Humpty Dumpty, we wonder if it ever will be put together again.

“Most people are clueless,’’ insists Kris Moe. He played the PGA Tour in the 1980s and early ’90s. He now directs the Kris Moe Golf Schools, based at Chardonnay Club in Napa.

“It’s funny,” says Moe. “In every sport you need a good coach, help with technique, with ways to become comfortable and confident. Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world, and he has a coach. But the average golfer just goes out and plays. Everybody would benefit from instruction. Yet not a lot of people get instruction.’’ The great Jack Nicklaus put it succinctly. “Don’t be too proud to take a lesson. I’m not.’’

The most rewarding lessons arguably are at golf schools or clinics— “I don’t like that word,’’ says Moe. “Sounds too much like something to do with medicine’’— or academies, where the individual finds reassurance in a group setting. Places professionally operated and technologically advanced, with instructors who understand the swing and, no less significantly, mood swings. They utilize intuition, experience and devices such as videotape machines. Places where golfers get a grip on their putters and their emotions, joining others of similar abilities and intent.

Places that, like the Kapalua Academy on Maui, Pebble Beach Golf Academy on the Monterey Peninsula or Old Greenwood at Tahoe, also provide an opportunity to escape the daily grind as well as the skill to escape a bunker.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Practice, practice, practice? Not exactly. Unlike the old line about how one gets to Carnegie Hall, the issue isn’t one of doing something repeatedly, if it’s wrong. In golf it’s about doing something properly. This is where a golf school enters the equation.

We deal here with nine schools. Three are in Hawaii—Kapalua, David Leadbetter Academy at Wailea, Maui and Darrin Gee’s Spirit of Golf Academy on the Big Island. The others are in Northern California: Old Greenwood (May to October); Ben Alexander Golf Academy at Poppy Hills Golf Course, Pebble Beach; Extraordinary Golf, Carmel Valley Ranch, Carmel Valley (May to October); Seaver Golf Academy, Pleasanton; and the Pebble Beach Academy and Kris Moe School in Napa.

Each has variations on a theme, a personal difference or two, but any good school—and these nine come with high ratings and excellent reputations—gives students methods to improve and understanding of the reasons for the improvement. Then it gets down to location, price and personal preference.

Golf schools are work, but the pleasurable kind. The decision to attend is made voluntarily. You want to stop missing 3-footers. Or coming over the top with a 5-iron. Or topping tee shots. You want to end the misery of fading the final holes of a match. You don’t want to feel like the author George Plimpton, who wrote that when he committed himself to a swing he sensed his body “changed from its corporeal status completely and becomes a mechanical entity, built of tubes and conduits.…”

At Pebble Beach Academy, which has sessions lasting from a half day to three days, Laird Small, a former PGA of America teacher of the year, wants golfers to comprehend why they do what they do.

“We want you to be able to make on-court corrections,” Small says. “Most golfers get into a funk and they don’t know what to do. We want you to understand cause and effect. ‘Why did that happen?’ Then make it stop happening.” Pebble’s schedule includes a program in emotional management—how to control the stress factor when, say, you’re grouped with three strangers on a resort course. “No one else is doing this. People can transfer this over to their daily lives.”

Moe was a fringe player on Tour, which very well could be an advantage in teaching. In baseball, for example, the less skilled, needing to examine every phase of the game, end up as managers and coaches. They know exactly what to do, even if they could not do it.

Choosing a Golf School

“How do you pick a school?” Moe asks rhetorically. “As you pick anything. Read about it. Ask your friends. Find out how long they’ve been in business. Teaching golf is about communication. To get someone to go from shooting 100 to 95 is not like learning calculus. Almost any place can teach. It’s a commodity.

“You have to have your goals. What do you want to do? Get better at the short game? We’ll work on that. You need a school that doesn’t get boring or tiring. You can’t guarantee anything, but I used to tell people we could probably take one stroke off their score for each part of the game: driving, putting, chipping, sand and approaches.’’

Jerry King is in charge of the Kapalua Golf Academy, which faces the Maui channel and the island of Molokai. Not a bad place to start any day. “It has reached a point where so many people have been to a golf school or taken a golf lesson,’’ says King, “some will say they’ve done it all before. So we offer a more comprehensive approach. We work on club fitting and physical fitness. We’re giving them an experience, not just lessons.

“Golf, after all, is supposed to be fun. Coaching is the biggest part of what we do, as opposed to teaching. Coaching is the holistic approach. We’re telling you, ‘Here’s the information. Here’s what you need to make your game better and here’s how to train yourself. You understand what is needed to produce change.’”

The David Leadbetter Golf Academy is at the other end of Maui, Wailea. David Lee has been instructor there since 1997. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among Lee’s former students. Lee says the cornerstones of golf are the three P’s: position at the start, the path of club and the pivot.

Darrin Gee’s Spirit of Golf Academy is held at two courses on the island of Hawaii: Hapuna at Mauna Kea Resort and Big Island Country Club. A pioneer and innovator, Gee created what he calls “the Seven Principles of Golf,’’ which he insists will help players of any ability.

At Old Greenwood, the Nicklaus-designed course in the Sierra, Keith Lyford has developed a program to identify swing faults and then, with the assistance of fitness consultant Mark Tedsen, prepare your body to eliminate the faults. Lyford speaks of a “nonintimidating environment.”

Not that any golf school should be intimidating. None of this old-style methodology that baffles the student. “We want the body to react differently than it did,” says Jo Hardy of Extraordinary Golf, who has a spring and summer school at Carmel Valley Ranch. “Otherwise, you’re just redoing what you did when you arrived.”

Ben Alexander, whose school is at Poppy Hills, one of the courses used in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am each February, requests students return for free sessions to make certain they are not backsliding.

At the Seaver Academy in Pleasanton, Eric Jones works mostly with juniors. But he also has parent-child weekend camps, teaching both good golf and good manners. Can anyone think of a better combination?

Swing Traning: A School for Every Golfer

Ben Alexander Golf Academy, Poppy Hills, Pebble Beach.
Alexander, the pro at Poppy Hills, was a nominee for 2008 National PGA Teacher of the Year and was chosen 2004 PGA Teacher of the Year for Northern California. He runs a three-day coed academy and also offers men- and women-only sessions.

“I give free coaching sessions when golfers return to make sure they are actually getting better,” he says. “I have them write down what they are taught so they don’t forget and have them e-mail when they might be having problems. You can tell somebody how to ride a bike, but he’s not going to know how until he gets on the bike.” Info: 831.277.9001,

Extraordinary Golf, May to October: Carmel Valley Ranch, Carmel Valley; November to April: Golf Club at Terra Lago, Indio.
An innovative program customizes lessons to a golfer’s physical abilities. The basic program is three days; there are also classes for couples and women.

“We also emphasize doing extraordinary business through playing extraordinary golf,’’ says CEO Jo Hardy, creator of the program with her husband, Fred Shoemaker. “We are a different animal. We take the culture of learning to the course. We try and strip away what people have done and rekindle all the instincts. Golfers are so buried under information, they sometimes forget just to play. We start early each day and personalize the lessons. We want the golfer to figure it out.’’ Info: 800.541.2444,

Kapalua Golf Academy, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.
Oh, those views—plus a 23-acre practice facility and top-level staff—helped make Kapalua one of Golf magazine’s Top 25 Golf Schools in America. Its two playing courses include the Plantation, site of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, the opener for the PGA Tour.

“We train you in every phase of the game,” says director Jerry King, five-time Aloha Section PGA of America teacher of the year. “People are now looking for an experience, so we take a comprehensive approach, whether it’s a half-day or three days: going club-fitting, a practice routine, and the best technology available. It’s all about the individual. Our student-to-teacher ratio is very small, never more than four to one.’’ Info: 808.665.5455,

David Leadbetter Academy, Wailea, Maui.
Hawaii’s top golfer in 2005 and 2008, according to Golf Digest, Eddie Lee has been at Wailea since 1997 and affiliated with world- famous David Leadbetter, whose pupils have included Nick Faldo and Michelle Wie, since 2006.

“We believe in the three P’s,’’ says Lee, “position, plane and pivot. Our teaching is based on a holistic approach. I have instructed Notah Begay and Dorothy Delasin, who have won on the pro tours.’’ Info: 808.281.4436,
Darrin Gee’s Spirit of Golf Academy, Hapuna Golf Course, Big Island Country Club, Island of Hawaii.
Gee, whose academy has been rated among the Top 20 by Golf magazine, has written two books on golf teaching. The course is designed to help players eliminate distractions lurking when out of a four-hour round there’s only three minutes of actually swinging a club.

“Our goal is to help every golfer be his or her best, to play to that potential,’’ said Lee. “We deal from the mental perspective, how to relax under pressure, and we do it in a fun-filled way.’’ Info: 808.887.6800,
Kris Moe Golf School, Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa. 
Moe, a onetime touring pro, runs a school dubbed one of the top 25 in the country in the November 2008 issue of Golf magazine. He and James Favel also give lessons at an indoor location in San Francisco’s Financial District.

“Before starting in any school, a person should know his or her priorities,’’ Moe says. “What’s the quality of the staff, of the resort? Some of the schools are based on volume.

“We don’t need a system,” he adds. “You might have totally different goals than the guy next to you. Some of the larger schools have a five-to-one ratio, students to teacher. Ours is three to one. We’re aware that after a couple hours people get tired just knocking balls, so we go out and play.’’ Info: 888.713.4653,

New Golf Academy, Old Greenwood, Truckee. 
A 900-acre resort community, Old Greenwood has an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus course and a 1,500-square-foot learning center fully dedicated to instruction. There are indoor and outdoor hitting bays.

“We want the golfer to know his own tendencies,’’ says former Tour player Keith Lyford, director of instruction and a Golf magazine Top 100 Teacher. “I try to concentrate on the movement of the club, the body and scoring. We want golfers to have a good pre-shot routine and to learn course management. Most golfers just want to go out and hit balls, but the short game is where you score.” Info: 530.550.2670,

Pebble Beach Golf Academy, Pebble Beach. 
Director Laird Small is a former National PGA of America teacher of the year. He’s joined by Katherine Marren, a Top 50 teacher in Golf for Women magazine. Students have the opportunity to play Pebble Beach, which in 2010 will be the site of the U.S. Open for a fifth time; Spyglass Hill; and Spanish Bay.

“We find out where you are in your game and how we can help make you better right away,” says Small.

“Why do things happen on a course, and how can we correct them? It’s all based on a client’s request. We use different tools, balance machines, the Sam Putt lab. Tiger uses that. There’s also an emotional management program. You go to the first tee and find you’re playing with someone you don’t know or with your boss. How do you handle the adrenaline, the emotions?” Info: 831.622.8650,

Seaver Golf Academy, Pleasanton Golf Center, Pleasanton.
Director Eric Jones won the 2003 ReMax Long Drive Championship with a knock of 381 yards. His curriculum is geared toward ages 10 to 17, but there’s also a weekend parent-child program in which moms and dads are reminded how to act when golfing with their offspring. There’s a nine-hole executive course adjacent to the center.

“Too many schools and instructors focus only on the technique,” says Jones, who has a master’s in sports psychology. “To me, golf is shot-making. We’re working on performance improvement, not technique improvement. Golf is the only sport where you don’t have a coach with you. So we created something called the coach program, a 30-day lesson plan in which you are in front of an instructor as much as possible. And (you learn) to visualize a shot. We have people come to a par-3 and describe the shot they want to make as if they were a TV announcer. It stays with them.’’ Info: 650.274.3890,