I have been playing golf for almost 20 years, and have had the good fortune of living in good golf places like Seattle, Palm Desert and Orange County. Each offer facilities where golfers of all income and ability levels can enjoy and improve at the game throughout the year. Being an avid golfer in the greater Los Angeles area is far from marvelous, however, and has been a totally different experience all together.
The main obstacle to Los Angeles golf is that there are only two ways to play. The first option is the best; you’re lucky enough to call Riviera, Bel Air, Los Angeles Country Club or Wilshire your golfing home. For most golfers, however, option two is the only choice: playing one of the very few (and very crowded) municipal courses in town. Much like the U.S. economy, Los Angeles golf has no middle class.
There’s no question that there’s great golf to be had in Los Angeles. Rancho Park Municipal is legendary, and designed by William Johnson and William Bell, famous for their work at Bel Air and the Stanford Golf Course. Good luck getting a tee time, though. The course is visited by more golfers every year than any other municipal track in the country. Golfers can also find gems if they’re willing to drive 30 miles or more away from the city. Rustic Canyon in Moorpark, California, for example, is one of best the hidden masterpieces in all of the U.S. The links-style Gil Hanse, Geoff Shackelford and Jim Wagner course was voted Golf Magazine’s No. 1 Best Value in the U.S. in 2010. At $43 during weekly prime hours and $66 on the weekends, it’s almost like stealing. But Rustic Canyons are few and far between in Los Angeles county.
Let me be clear: I don’t think using public or even private money to develop more courses is necessarily the answer for Los Angeles golf. The city has extremely limited space, and land is very expensive. Better utilizing the space Los Angeles DOES have is the key. That will take people who care about growing golf, and are willing to innovate the system. The good news is I found a few of them, and I think they can change Los Angeles golf for the better.
Urban Golf Performance
I’ve been a GolfWRX Member since the site was founded in 2005, so it’s no coincidence that I discovered Urban Golf Performance in my search for a new custom club fitter. UGP was recently voted the Best Place to Get Custom Fit in Los Angeles by Golf Digest, and a Top-100 fitter in the U.S. But being a GolfWRXer, I looked deep into the UGP’s Yelp page before I decided to give them a call. Most of the reviews seemed to contain the same phrases: “Everyone at UGP was either amazing, helpful, patient, knowledgeable or passionate,” and five-star ratings were plentiful. That prompted me to reach out to UGP Founder, Mackenzie “Mac” Todd, for this story.
I walked into Urban Golf Performance on a cool crisp morning. It’s in West Los Angeles, in an unassuming, cement-colored building wedged between local sandwich shops and furniture outlets. Once you walk thru the door, though, the experience is full golf bliss. To put it simply, it’s an elegant space with all things technology built into it. I was greeted by a friendly staff member, who took my clubs, parked my car and got me a beverage. Country-club treatment, but you don’t get the vibe that you’re at a country club. Case in point, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall was blaring from the house speakers when I arrived.
UGP’s space is set up in a very specific way, complementing the approach the company takes to help golfers improve their scores. The first thing I noticed was the fitness/rehabilitation area. In some cases, the UGP team won’t put a club in a golfer’s hands until they have been throughly evaluated from a health standpoint. That’s rare in this industry, given the turn-and-burn mentality that often dominates the golf instruction. It’s risky, too. Most golfers want to be hitting shots as soon as they arrive for their lesson or fitting, and to risk disappointing a consumer by challenging their expectations takes a lot of conviction.
Past the main greeting area and fitness lab is a set of French doors, which lead golfers into UGP’s golf laboratory. It’s literally wall to wall with indoor hitting bays, each of them equipped with a Trackman and a SwingCatalyst mat. There are tables of golf clubs components that will make most GolfWRX members drool, too: PXG, Ping, Mizuno, Edel, Miura, Titleist… on and on.
After taking the tour, I sat down with UGP head swing coach Ben Smock, as well as Kris Brennan who specializes in bio-mechanics. I wasn’t conducting the interview, though; they were. Why did I love golf? How did I start? Who coached me? What sports did I play as a kid? Did I have any injuries? What was my handicap? What were my golf goals? It was like golf emotional therapy, and I could feel that the plan wasn’t to fix anything that day. They were learning who I was as a student, first and foremost, and I was, too.
Finally, we made our way to the hitting bay, but before I touched a club Brennan put me through a full physical-capability screening. He tested my flexibility and rotary movement using specific movements as identifiers for the good, the bad and the ugly. In another assessment, Smock and Brennan pinpointed the things in my swing that I did well. They explained how my body moved from the ground up, and how my physical limitations “could” cause issues. They stayed away from discussions of swing theories or specific fixes, however.
“It’s easier to make someone worse than it is to make them better, so you have to be discerning, must have perspective, must have integrity and you need to know your stuff,” Smock said.
What I liked about Ben’s approach during the evaluation was that he wanted to build my swing around the functional, athletic movements I already had, because according to him, “You always want to hang on to the good stuff that you can’t teach.” It made sense. How could I not develop faster with a foundation that allowed me to move naturally?
I hit balls for 45 minutes with all my different clubs to gather launch monitor data, and then was taken to the fitness area to spend some time with Director of Physical Therapy Noolee Kim, which was by far the most humbling experience. The simple exercises Dr. Kim had me doing required every fiber of my being to accomplish. I’ve had a tight right shoulder for years, but I’ve never had any of feedback from a swing coach that identified this as a key area to work on or discuss. I always heard, “the club is too far inside” or “you’re across the line … you’re stuck and you pop out of your posture.” All true, but no one ever told me why. Why does my body move that way, and what am I physically doing to compensate for it? Good info to have, I think.
It’s not that I’m expecting my coaches to be doctors, but it does say something about the amount of thought that went into UGP. If Ben Smock was my regular instructor, he would have access to someone onsite who knew my physical limitations. The best example I can think of is for someone trying to lose weight; training at UGP is like having your nutritionist, trainer, cook and physical therapist all in one place at the same time. Sounds like fantasy land, right? For a lot of golfers, the cost and availability of such experts make the experience impossible. UGP is trying to change that.
At the end of my day, I sat down for the part of the experience that led me to UGP. Master club builder Matt Mora told me his philosophy on fitting and building custom clubs, and how it has evolved during his time at UGP. It felt different than I expected, though. Equipment was starting to feel like a piece of my golfing puzzle, rather than the object of obsession I’ve tended to make it in the past. And Mora explained why all the different clubs I’ve used haven’t done much to lower my handicap.
“I now understand why traditional instruction and fitting don’t improve handicaps by themselves,” Mora said. “In a traditional fitting session, the player is fit for clubs, swing flaws included. I’ve spoken with other fitters about improving the flaws, but majority feel it is not their place.”
There are two main obstacles Mora said he faces consistently with players; the first is preferred performance. What that means is, on average, most weekend players just want to hit a draw and will get whatever club allows that. This leads to the second dilemma Mora faces, which is re-educating players to seek what clubs they need to actually get better. It matters what clubs golfers like, but only to a certain point. This is where the focused teaching of UGP comes in, developing the whole player.
You might be surprised to hear that three notable equipment companies do not have a presence at UGP: TaylorMade, Callaway and Nike. It isn’t because they’re not up to performance standards, though. Mora called the products from all the leading equipment companies “exceptional,” but he chooses his components based not only on quality, but also release frequencies. From a builder standpoint, it’s hard to fine-tune a set for a player if their driver head changes every six months. It may work for PGA Tour players, but for the average player changing clubs can have the same damaging effect of changing swing philosophies every six months.
It’s also true that equipment sometimes has to change with the player, according to Mora. While instruction has improved with modern technology, it does not always address club specifications as the possible cause of swing flaws. Golfers can have a great practice session and feel really good about their game, but then find themselves struggling the next round. Sometimes it’s physical or mechanical, but poor-fitting clubs can also be the catalyst of reverting golfers into their bad habits. In a sense, clubs are living, breathing thing that can be adjusted, much like a golfer’s swing.
“For every development in swing dynamic, there should be a change within the club specifications to reinforce the changes,” Mora said. “My primary goal is to educate the player about how their clubs affect their swing, either positively or negatively. I then attempt to cater the club specifications to where the swing should be in order to ensure efficiency and consistency. I see the club as a template that should reflect proper swing dynamic in correlation with the player’s physical ability.”
Plans for growth
UGP’s plans to grow the are simple; do it organically. Short, specific expansion is refining the company’s second location in Inglewood near Los Angeles International Airport, where UGP will be the Swing Catalyst Research Center for the U.S. Over the next two-to-three years, the company plans to add locations in the San Fernando Valley, Orange County and establish a few more locations in Los Angeles.
The biggest roadblock? Like all premium products in the golf industry, it’s price. An assessment at UGP costs $195, and a single coaching session costs $165. There’s a discount for 10 sessions ($1,450), and the rate improves as golfers buy 20 sessions ($2,500) or 50 sessions ($5,500). Golfers will react to those price points differently, of course, but it’s clear that golfers aren’t just paying for a better game. UGP sees a broader path for its clients than lowering their scores and hitting better shots.
Founder MacKenzie “Mac” Todd told me a story about one UGP golfer in particular. His professional career was flourishing, but like most people he struggled to seriously improve his game. And with his busy schedule, he didn’t believe UGP could help him. He was gifted UGP sessions for his birthday, and decided to give it a shot. He would spend an hour at UGP, and then go back to living his life. After working with Todd and his team, the man is passionate about golf again. More importantly, his awareness of who he is as a golfer has transcended his game. Now he’s balancing his busy schedule better, despite spending more time on his golf game. He’s enjoying golf more, he says, and enjoying life more, too.
In my experience, it’s the golfers who are most resistant to change who tend to be the most vocal about how impossible golf is, and how it isn’t any fun. A case could be made that places like UGP should have been built sooner, before the game’s much detailed decline. The technology wasn’t really there yet, however. That being said, UGP really isn’t about its machines.
UGP and its staff are challenging what many golfers and many in the golf industry want to believe. There’s no new club, exercise or swing tip that’s going to immediately change a golfer’s game. It takes commitment, and an investment of time and money. In a nutshell the conviction to know what you are doing is the right path regardless of the obstacles: financial or social.
What kind of person has the money and time to engage in something like this? Truthfully, probably the same group of Los Angeles golfer who belong to the elite country clubs most of us yearn to play. But this Los Angeles case study still could be perfect. People are always moving in and out of the city, and for that reason they’re often compelled to try new things. If UGP is right, its practices could spread across the golf world and make an important difference. If UGP is wrong, we will know quickly; LA has a big mouth. But so far the proof is in the pudding. There are a lot of 5-star Yelp reviews, membership is growing by the week and the UGP staff is having as much fun as ever watching its vision becomes a reality.
The Wedge Guy: Practicing putting
I’ve always been a “range rat” – I just love hitting balls and learning more and more about my swing. As a result, I’ve always been a pretty solid ball-striker.
My driving and iron play have been my strengths my entire golf life. It probably goes back to the advice my father gave me when I was very young. “There’s nothing wrong with your game that another 5,000 practice balls won’t fix,” he would repeatedly tell me. And I took that to heart and pounded balls by the hundreds daily it seems.
As I began to focus on wedge design and wedge play, I took that interest in “banging balls” to all kinds of short shots. And my pre-round routine has become about 70% those swings and 30% full swings, working my way from wedges to middle irons to driver. Then I finish the warm up with about a half dozen short pitches of various types.
But I’ve never applied that same philosophy to my putting. Hmmmmmm.
I’ve had a nearly lifelong struggle with the yips, and have had plenty of advice on how to beat them, mostly unsolicited. But in my past, two things I have learned in my life seemed to come together to give me a new perspective.
First, back in 2012 I had the opportunity to listen to a full day presentation by Dr. Rick Jensen, renowned sports psychologist. Part of his topic was on the subject of “you’re not good enough to choke.” What he meant was that most are too quick to apply the “choke” label, when what really happened is that the golfer didn’t have his or her skills polished to an adequate level. It was a very interesting angle on the subject. I highly recommend his books.
The other piece of the puzzle came in a small book I came across. In “How To Make Every Putt”, Dr. Joseph Parent advocates practicing your putting like you do everything else. Work on your fundamentals, where a hole is not even in the picture. Approach learning how to make solid, sound putting strokes like you do making solid, sound full swings.
So, way back when, I put these two together, I took my 100-ball bucket to the practice green one afternoon and hit about 500 putts. Various distances, no target . . . just making good solid strokes, evaluating and correcting, until I felt my routine and technique were gelling to something I could count on. It was as much fun as going to the range, to be honest. A concentrated practice session that was totally focused on the process, not the outcome.
Then I took that same drill to the practice green before a tournament round. I put down six balls and putted them different distances, but never to one of the holes on the green. Just practicing my technique, rhythm and tempo. Then I finished my putting warm up by making about 10-12 putts of not more than 2 feet. I wanted fresh feedback of the ball going into the hole.
I’m going to revisit this drill for a while to see if I can’t get my putting back to where I’m proud of it, and where it contributes positively to my rounds. Sometimes you just have to remember what you know.
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