Confessions From a Golf Addict In Search of Grace on the Greens


July 24, 1994|By Bob Verdi

It is a beautiful morning in Florida, too beautiful to attempt fixing what is seriously broken. But I have no choice. I must play golf, or at least my version of it.

I am one of 18 students participating in the Nicklaus/Flick Golf School, a three-day session at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. Despite my polyester presence, this is no joke.

First of all, the "Nicklaus" on the duffel bag we receive upon registering does indeed belong to Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, the greatest golfer in the history of this blasted game, winner of more than 70 tournaments during his career.

The "Flick" is Jim Flick, perhaps the most revered golf teacher in the United States. For 14 years, Flick was director of instruction for Golf Digest, a popular monthly magazine. Flick, a bundle of energy at 64, has authored four books, 15 videotapes and numerous articles on golf, spread the gospel to 23 nations and personally tutored dozens of touring pros. Flick's next assignment is to visit none other than Nicklaus, who lives down the road with his family.

"But only after I'm done with you," Flick says during our introductory breakfast in the PGA National clubhouse. When I hear that, I imagine that Flick is staring directly at me. I bite hard into a bagel, then look up at him. We are making eye contact. I am petrified, and I haven't even touched a club. My fear is allayed by his friendly manner, but then horror returns with Flick's next sentence.

"You know, the short game is 65 percent of golf," he says. "If you don't have a short game, get a tennis racket."

By now, the bagel is on the floor, as is my jaw.

"Do any of you have particular problems with the short game?" Flick inquires.

I raise my hand, lower my head and look through the window at those peaceful tennis courts.

"Good," Flick says. "That's one of our opening drills."

Ah, the short game. As the cliche goes, you drive the ball for show and putt for dough, which means it's a good thing I have a real job. Shortly after signing up for this Master Golf I course, I receive a questionnaire from the school. It requires that I list my handicap, which is 18. Also, I must grade the various aspects of my game, using a point system. I don't drive the ball very well for show, but I'm acceptable. My putting is erratic, yet passable. But, ah, the short game.

The telephone rings a week or so later. It is a very nice woman from the Nicklaus/Flick School headquarters.

"Mr. Verdi," she says, "I see where you write down a comment that the closer you get to the green, the worse you get. But you put no grades down on your pitching and chipping."

"You see those dots next to pitching and chipping?" I say.

"Yes," she says.

"Those are decimal points," I say.

"Oh," she says.

Martin Hall has seen this report card. I know that, even though I do not know Martin Hall. He is a former professional on the European Tour and the short-game guru among Flick's staff. Each instructor has his own specialty and Martin's field of expertise happens to be my minefield. The 18 students are divided into three groups of six, and by sheer coincidence, my five schoolmates and I begin our three-day trek to golf respectability with a drill on the short game.

"We're going out on the course to try some shots of maybe 20 yards," Martin says. "Bring whatever you feel most comfortable with, a lofted club of some sort."

"Where's the bathroom?" I ask Gray, my cart partner, a brawny college football player whose mother has given him the Nicklaus-Flick School as an early Christmas present.

"Something wrong?" he says. "You sick?"

"No," I say, "but you will be soon when you watch me."

Moments later, I see three balls near my feet. Martin wants me to loft them, one by one, from the medium rough beside a putting green toward the flagstick, slightly elevated. It is about 20 yards yonder, as he promised. My questionnaire did not lie, either. I clutch a pitching iron in my hands, take a practice swing, try to stay steady, keep my head down, pray.

Regrettably, the blade of the club embeds itself in the grass, several inches before intended impact with the ball, which dribbles about five or six feet. It is very quiet.

"Try again," says Martin, a very polite Englishman, writing something on his clipboard.

By now, my knees feel like boiled spaghetti. It is no later than 8:30 a.m., the sun is still hiding and I wish I could, too. I'm sweating grenades. I take one practice swing, then two. I think relaxing thoughts. I could be back home shoveling this past winter's snow. Then I think again. I wish I was home shoveling snow. The second ball travels as if shot from a cannon, about a foot off the ground, until it screeches to a halt in a sand trap beyond the green. I turn to find my five classmates, standing safely behind me. They are all looking at the sky.

"OK," says Martin. "One more."

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