It isn’t everyday that you get the chance to take a lesson from someone in the Teaching Golf Hall of Fame, or someone who worked with Jack Nicklaus, and quotes from his time with Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. But that was my experience today at “The Kingdom,” TaylorMade’s HQ north of San Diego.
I’ve been through these sorts of displays before, where I’m the guinea pig who is demonstrated on. I’ve wondered why this is the case. The last time it was at the opening on the Institute at Bond Head, under Bruce McCarrol. I was hooking the ball pretty badly and the institute demonstrated that my problem was part technique, part physical. I’ll admit I was pretty embarrassed at the time – and perhaps still am. I’ve been an erratic player for a couple of years now and that shone through at Bond Head. Of course it did lead to a couple of seasons working with Bruce McCarrol, as talented a teacher as there is in Canada, IMHO.
Which brings me to today. I was asked by Richard Sullivan, TaylorMade’s marketing guru, about whether I’d be up for a lesson with Flick. Sounded interesting, but I thought, frankly, that I’d be one of several quick lessons he’d give to the Canadian writers that came down.
I was wrong.
It was just me, in the spotlight after having hit balls exactly three times since November. Now my year ended up in fine form and my confidence had responded in kind. Still, this was a lesson in front of my peers by a man generally regarded as one of the game’s best teachers.
Here’s a little bit about Flick to get us started:
A native of Bedford, Indiana, Flick began teaching in his home state and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1972 he started working in golf schools, and over the past 30 years has taught more than 1,000 three-day programs. Since 1991, he has been the principal instructor for the Nicklaus-Flick Golf Schools, an affiliation that developed from his relationship coaching the Golden Bear himself.
Besides Nicklaus, Flick has been a longtime instructor to 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman. In all, more than 150 Tour pros have sought out Flick for advice. When not on the lesson tee, Flick is usually inspiring other instructors: He has been a speaker at more than 100 PGA and National Golf Foundation seminars.
At the heart of his methods is the idea that feel is golf’s soul. “Golf has been taught as an exercise in mechanics,” he explains, “when in fact it is a game of feel.” For Flick, this means helping golfers reduce tension and raise awareness for what the clubhead is doing during the swing.
I dutifully hit a handful of balls before being told to move (“The space is going to be used for Ian Leggatt,” one of TM’s instructors said curtly. I bit my tongue with my initial response, which is my game may be in better shape these days than Leggatt’s. I thought better of that – Ian is a nice guy, even if he’s struggling, and no one likes a smart ass). The swing wasn’t too bad. I didn’t hit any hozzle rockets, and even the new R9 seemed fine, though I did block a couple.
Which brought me to Flick. Nearing 80, he approached me, introduced himself and said he was going to have some fun with me. Fair enough. He asked me about my tendencies – block right with added loft, smothered hook left – and then had me hit a series of balls at some green targets, starting at less than 100 yards and progressing to the driver. I actually hit the ball pretty well, leading him to say I was either an 8-handicap having a good day or I was not being entirely truthful. Factually an eight cap might be understated these days – but who knows with Canadian courses covered in snow and ice.
He watched, asked one of his pros where the longer shots went (“Can’t see a damn thing with the cataracts,” I heard him mutter) and within a few swings he seemed ready to comment.
“As an athlete you are a 95,” he said. “And you’ve got a golf swing that’s an 85.”
That sounded encouraging. It was what came next that stopped me in my tracks. I’ll paraphrase – I was holding a club, not taking notes – but it was something to the effect that my tempo was akin to a drunk on a Friday night. Not exactly the picture I’d hoped for, but Flick said the swing wasn’t bad. I just needed to sync the downswing of my arms with my body. Sequencing has long been an issue for me, so I knew exactly where he was coming from. I just wasn’t prepared for what came next.
First of all he had me take my grip and lift the club perpendicular to the ground. That is where the club is lightest and therefore the grip is loosest. The proper grip pressure is when you hold the club between parallel and upright. So he had me work at that, suggesting to one of my peers that he “should imagine you’ve dropped a nickel down a women’s bra and you are trying to delicately extract it. That’s the pressure you should be using.”
He asked me further questions about when I hinged my wrists (I didn’t know, “and why should you?” he responded) and then had me close my eyes and make some swings. I was balanced through this process, so then he had me hit some balls with my eyes closed, something I’ve never done. I don’t think the results were spectacular – I did make contact – but he apparently liked what he saw. So we progressed to my grip, and specifically my tendency to regrip on the downswing. I hit a number of good long irons and the lesson became less about me and more about what Flick had learned from Nicklaus, or Snead or Hogan. It was fascinating to just listen – and I was relieved that I was no longer the centre of attention.
In the end, he said his strategy with me wasn’t to rebuild my swing, but to get me to start considering my tempo. I’d always have a fast swing, he said, but that wasn’t the issue. It was a question of feeling the clubhead and letting it do the work.
When it was over, the boys went to hit some balls and I hung about for a few minutes talking to Flick. He asked about my pending trip to Monterey and Cypress. He told me he has a couple of students who play at Cypress and he gets there a few times a year.
“It is my third favourite course in the world,” he told me.
“What are one and two?” I asked.
“Royal County Down and Ballybunion.”
With that he shook my hand and wandered off, and I was left pondering exactly what I had learned.