A Tale of Two Academies

Take golf lessons on Maui with academy pros.


Matthew Thayer

David-Leadbetter-golfHave you ever had a ratty old sweatshirt you just couldn’t throw away? Even though there were holes aplenty and mustard stains down the front, it was warm, comfortable and just, well, a part of you.

That was my golf swing. It wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t up to today’s long-hitting standards, but I had it tamed to the point that I could often go out and play eighteen holes without losing a ball. My friends out-drove me, and my looping slices spent a good deal of airtime over the left rough before curving back to the fairway. I had given up trying for birdies and just worked on grinding out one-putt pars and bogeys. When I won a match, my pals scratched their heads and wondered just how I did it.

Truth be told, however, I was tired of seeing their drives sail fifty yards past mine. I longed to regain my edge without going through the “tinkering” process that replaces consistency with a feeling of unease on the tee.

So, I was both apprehensive and excited about taking a pair of golf lessons for this story. My fear was that the instructors would chuck my forty-plus years of golf swings into the hamper and try to replace them with one tailored to a limber, twenty-five-year-old pro. Turns out, my old sweatshirt of a game didn’t need such a complete makeover after all. The lessons helped straighten out my slice, added distance to my drives and gave me better “touch” around the green. Best of all, they rekindled my interest in the game.

Lights . . . Camera . . . Swing!

My first stop was to see Eddie Lee, director of instruction at David Leadbetter Golf Academy Maui, located on the hillside above the clubhouse of the Wailea Gold and Emerald Courses. Lee met me in his office and listened intently as I answered a few questions and outlined what my goals were for our one-hour session.

On the practice tee, Lee watched me hit few balls before getting straight to the crux of the matter. “You set up as a classic slicer,” he said.

He videotaped my hacks at the ball from three different angles and then gave me a few corrections to work on while he went to his office to load the video into the school’s state-of-the-art digital system. When he called me in, I was able to see in stop-frame just what I was doing wrong. And what I was doing right.

His corrections were simple, straightforward, and presented in a way that made them easy to remember. He showed how to improve my grip by rolling my left wrist to the right on the club. By standing more vertical to get my weight off my heels and more on the balls of my feet, I was in a better “athletic position.” Also, I needed to cock my torso and head a little so I could see the back of the ball and not look straight down on top of it.
Lee says school founder David Leadbetter’s approach is to lay a solid foundation.

“David’s philosophy is holistic; it’s based on solid fundamentals,” Lee said. “There are three P’s—preparation, pivot and position. A lot of the problems that people have, whether it be slicing or hooking, involve their set up.“

We here at the Leadbetter Academy look at the root cause instead of cause and effects. [Other instructors] may be looking at the seventh or eight domino and we look at the first. We’re considered experts in video analysis and video preparation. I’ve yet to see an academy do video like we do, and really break it down.”

The Leadbetter Academy enjoys a commanding view over the Wailea golf courses and South Maui coastline. The panorama includes Makena’s Pu‘u ‘Ola‘i, the neighboring islands of Molokini, Kaho‘olawe and Lana‘i, and an up-close look at the rolling ranchlands of ‘Ulupalakua. I tried to ignore the scenery and concentrate on my game, but it was such a clear, sunny day, I’ll admit it was sometimes difficult.

But with my grip, posture and angle of swing corrected, I was soon hitting balls that were straighter and longer. We hit the practice tee three times during the hour and the video room twice. When we said goodbye, Lee encouraged me to make the improvements stick by working hard on them at the driving range.

The Short Game

My next lesson took me to the Kapalua Golf Academy to see Senior Teaching Professional Gregory Fields. Fields suggested we tackle the short game during our one-hour session. We rode in a golf cart down to one of the expansive academy’s practice greens. Chipping and putting are the strongest parts of my game and I was interested to see if he could help me improve.

The lanky pro started by tossing a ball on the fringe of the green and asking me to see how close I could pitch the ball to a pin about thirty-five feet away. I passed the first test when I elected to roll the ball instead of lofting a high chip. My first shot settled eighteen inches from the cup. The second was also within two feet, but my third sprayed to the right, twelve feet away.

Fields said he could help me become more consistent. He explained that the key to the short game is to make things as easy as possible. Why be tricky when a simple shot will do? He showed me how to set up with my weight on my front foot and to keep the ball aligned with the back foot so I would make contact in a descending arc. By keeping my arms and wrists stiffer, and held in position like a lowercase “y,” I would gain consistency and have a standard follow-through. By seeing where my arms finish after impact, I can tell if I was in proper position or not. When I took this technique to the golf course, I found my chip shots were far more consistent.

The Kapalua Golf Academy instructors, like the ones at Leadbetter, help mold your swing to match your own capabilities and strengths.

“We believe it’s not one way or the highway,” says Kapalua Golf Academy’s Director of Instruction Jerry King. “It’s all about creating the most effective foundation for each golfer. It’s all about each person as an individual.”

King said the Kapalua staff breaks it down into four basic categories.

“We call it BPGA—ball position, posture, grip and aim or alignment,” he said. “You are coming to get your answers to what is most important for you to work on. It is targeted to give people their answers so they can practice with a purpose. We’re giving them a road map so ultimately they can go out and have more fun. That’s the bottom line.”

As part of a land company, Kapalua’s Academy has a lot of room to spread out. Overlooking the scenic coastline and boasting views of Moloka‘i and the West Maui Mountains, it covers twenty-three acres of manicured grass, including 85,000 square feet of grass tee area, an eighteen-hole putting course, specialty short-game area, several practice putting greens and a separate practice hole. King says the 3,000-square-foot learning center is the only one of its kind in the state.

“We have the largest club-fitting program in the state,” King said. “We look at ourselves as the home of golf instruction in the State of Hawai‘i.”

Thinking about getting a golf lesson? Do it. Trying to fix your swing by reading tips out of a magazine doesn’t address root causes. Your friends may have good intentions when they tinker with your grip or stance, but they usually do not have the training and experience to really make a long-term difference.

After you schedule an appointment, show up at least thirty minutes before your lesson and warm up a little. Have a game plan on what you want to discuss with your instructor, and be specific. They’ll really listen intently to the first couple of sentences that people say.

It felt great when I finally tossed my ratty old slice in the dumpster. If you want to take your game to the next level, give a pro at Kapalua or Leadbetter a call.


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