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 Co-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 co-founder and 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.
Top 5 wedges of all time
Wedges. They are the “trusted old friends” in our golf bags. They inspire confidence inside of 100 yards and help us get back on track when we hit a wayward approach.
There was a time not too long ago when a bunker was considered a true hazard, but over the last 80 years, as agronomy has evolved on the same trajectory as club an ball technology, wedges have changed a great deal along the way—from the first modern prototype wedge built by Gene Sarazen to clubs featuring various plating and coatings to increase spin and performance. There are a lot of wedge designs that have stood the test of time; their sole grinds, profiles from address, and performance bring back memories of great hole outs and recovery shots.
With so many variations of wedges in the history of golf (and so much parity), this is my top five list (in no particular order) of the most iconic wedges in golf history.
Original Gene Sarazen Wedge
Gene is famous for a lot of things: the career grand slam, the longest endorsement deal in professional sports history (75 years as a Wilson ambassador), the “shot heard around the world”, and as mentioned earlier—the creation of the modern sand wedge. Although not credited with the invention of the original “sand wedge” he 100 percent created the modern wedge with a steel shaft and higher bounce. A creation that developed from soldering mass to the sole and flange of what would be our modern-day pitching wedge. Born from the idea of a plane wing, thanks to a trip taken with Howard Hughes, we can all thank Mr. Sarazen for the help with the short shots around the green.
The next evolution of the original Sarazen Design, the Wilson R90 was the very first mass-marketed sand wedge. Its design characteristics can still be seen in the profile of some modern wedges. Although many might not be as familiar with the R90, you would almost certainly recognize the shape, since it was very often copied by other manufacturers, in their wedge lines.
The R90 features a very rounded profile, high amount of offset, and a great deal of bounce in the middle of the sole, with very little camber. Although not as versatile as modern wedges because of the reduced curve from heel to toe, the R90 is still a force to be reckoned with in the sand.
You know a name and design are classic when a company chooses to use the original notation more than 30 years after its initial release. The 588 was introduced as Cleveland’s fifth wedge design and came to market in 1988—which is how it got its name. Wedges were never the same after.
The brainchild of Roger Cleveland, the 588 was made from 8620 carbon steel—which patinad over time. Not unlike the Wilson before it, the 588 had a very traditional rounded shape with a higher toe and round leading edge. The other part of the design that created such versatility was the V-Sole (No, not the same as the Current Srixon), that offers a lot more heel relief to lower the leading edge as the face was opened up—this was the birth of the modern wedge grind.
Titleist Vokey Spin Milled
The wedge that launched the Vokey brand into the stratosphere. Spin-milled faces changed the way golfers look at face technology in their scoring clubs. From a humble club builder to a wedge guru, Bob Vokey has been around golf and the short game for a long time. The crazy thing about the Bob Vokey story is that it all started with one question: “who wants to lead the wedge team?” That was all it took to get him from shaping Titleist woods to working with the world’s best players to create high-performance short game tools.
Honorable mentions for design goes to the first 200 and 400 series wedge, which caught golfers’ eyes with their teardrop shape—much like the Cleveland 588 before it.
Ping Eye 2 Plus
What can you say? The unique wedge design that other OEMs continue to draw inspiration from it 30 years after its original conception. The Eye 2+ wedge was spawned from what is undoubtedly the most popular iron design of all time, which went through many iterations during its 10 years on the market—a lifecycle that is completely unheard of in today’s world of modern equipment.
A pre-worn sole, huge amount of heel and toe radius, and a face that screams “you can’t miss,” the true beauty comes from the way the hosel transitions into the head, which makes the club one of the most versatile of all time.
Check out my video below for more on why this wedge was so great.
Honorable mention: The Alien wedge
To this day, the Alien wedge is the number-one-selling single golf club of all time! Although I’m sure there aren’t a lot of people willing to admit to owning one, it did help a lot of golfer by simplifying the short game, especially bunker shots.
Its huge profile looked unorthodox, but by golly did it ever work! Designed to be played straight face and essentially slammed into the sand to help elevate the ball, the club did what it set out to do: get you out of the sand on the first try. You could say that it was inspired by the original Hogan “Sure-Out,” but along the way it has also inspired others to take up the baton in helping the regular high-handicap golfer get out of the sand—I’m looking at you XE1.
That’s my list, WRXers. What would you add? Let me know in the comments!
The 19th Hole: Meet the world’s most expensive putter and the man behind it
Host Michael Williams talks with Steve Sacks of Sacks Parente Golf about the idea and implementation of their revolutionary Series 39 blade putter. Also features PGA Professional Brian Sleeman of Santa Lucia Preserve (CA).
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
A day at the CP Women’s Open
It’s another beautiful summer day in August. Just like any other pro-am at a professional tour event, amateurs are nervously warming up on the driving range and on the putting green next to their pros. As they make their way to the opening tees, they pose for their pictures, hear their names called, and watch their marque player stripe one down the fairway. But instead of walking up 50 yards to the “am tees,” they get to tee it up from where the pros play—because this is different: this is the LPGA Tour!
I’m just going to get right to it, if you haven’t been to an LPGA Tour event you NEED to GO! I’ve been to a lot of golf events as both a spectator and as media member, and I can say an LPGA Tour event is probably the most fun you can have watching professional golf.
The CP Women’s Open is one of the biggest non-majors in women’s golf. 96 of the top 100 players in the world are in the field, and attendance numbers for this stop on the schedule are some of the highest on tour. The 2019 edition it is being held at exclusive Magna Golf Club in Aurora, Ontario, which is about an hour north of downtown Toronto and designed by noted Canadian architect Doug Carrick. The defending Champion is none other than 21-year-old Canadian phenom Brooke Henderson, who won in emotional fashion last year.
From a fan’s perspective, there are some notable differences at an LPGA Tour event, and as a true “golf fan,” not just men’s golf fan, there are some big parts of the experience that I believe everyone can enjoy:
- Access: It is certainly a refreshing and laidback vibe around the golf course. It’s easy to find great vantage points around the range and practice facility to watch the players go through their routines—a popular watching spot. Smaller infrastructure doesn’t mean a smaller footprint, and there is still a lot to see, plus with few large multi-story grandstands around some of the finishing holes, getting up close to watch shots is easier for everyone.
- Relatability: This is a big one, and something I think most golfers don’t consider when they choose to watch professional golf. Just like with the men’s game there are obviously outliers when it comes to distance on the LPGA Tour but average distances are more in line with better club players than club players are to PGA Tour Pros. The game is less about power and more about placement. Watching players hit hybrids as accurately as wedges is amazing to watch. Every player from a scratch to a higher handicap can learn a great deal from watching the throwback style of actually hitting fairways and greens vs. modern bomb and gouge.
- Crowds: (I don’t believe this is just a “Canadian Thing”) It was refreshing to spend an entire day on the course and never hear a “mashed potatoes” or “get in the hole” yelled on the tee of a par 5. The LPGA Tour offers an extremely family-friendly atmosphere, with a lot more young kids, especially young girls out to watch their idols play. This for me is a huge takeaway. So much of professional sports is focused on the men, and with that you often see crowds reflect that. As a father to a young daughter, if she decides to play golf, I love the fact that she can watch people like her play the game at a high level.
There is a lot of talk about the difference between men’s and women’s professional sports, but as far as “the product” goes, I believe that LPGA Tour offers one of the best in professional sports, including value. With a great forecast, a great course, and essentially every top player in the field, this week’s CP Women’s Open is destined to be another great event. If you get the chance to attend this or any LPGA Tour event, I can’t encourage you enough to go!
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