Ben Hogan once wrote:
“I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me … adopting it if it helped … sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition.”
In the decades since Hogan and Herbert Warren Wind penned Five Lessons, golf instruction has been dissected, codified and homogenized. It has become a cottage industry comprised of swing gurus, bio-mechanic experts and mental coaches always ready to help golfers shave strokes off their score or plunge elbow deep into a swing reconstruction.
There really isn’t any reason why the average weekend player should attempt to dig it out of the dirt with a homemade swing — what I affectionately refer to as the “swing and hope” technique of learning. Golf instruction is ubiquitous. Being a serious golfer or belonging to a private country club are not pre-requisites for getting help.
I’m like most people in that somebody else introduced me to the game. My father-in-law handed me one of his ancient Ping Eye 2 irons at the driving range and said, “swing away.” So swing away I did and from that moment four years ago I forged a love for the game and ingrained some nasty habits that I decided to break with the help of one-on-one lessons.
Working side-by-side with a PGA Professional is the most common and direct way to fix your game. There isn’t a sure fire way to be sure you and your instructor will form successful partnership — I’ve crashed and burned through three instructors — but there’s some rules of thumb that have to be followed.
Before you take a single lesson, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- What are your goals? Be realistic about them. If you are 40 years old and just starting out, a spot on the PGA Tour is probably out of reach.
- How much time do you have on your hands? Swing overhauls typically take one to two years to ingrain. Most people don’t have the patience or dedication of a Nick Faldo or Tiger Woods to take this on.
- Is it your swing that really needs work? Sometimes an adequate swing is all a person needs. You might get more mileage from your golf instruction if you take lessons on putting or short game.
- What type of learning do you best respond to? Some people are very analytical and every action needs to be explained; other people simply want to be shown what to do and don’t care about the causes and effects.
Of course, the average weekend player will probably disregard all sound advice. Messing around with one’s golf swing to wring out a few extra yards isn’t something only professionals do. I worked with “my guy” twice a month for the better part of a year on pretty much the same thing week in and week out — getting my body into a better impact position on my downswing. Lessons mainly consisted of my PGA pro grabbing me by the hips and shoulders and twisting me around like a G.I. Joe action figure with the kung-fu grip. For feedback, we’d watch the ball flight for answers.
Unfortunately, I felt like the answers never came, or like a shooting star, I might experience them for a brief instant before they vanished into distant memory. For a change of pace (translation: I wanted to hear the same things in a different way), I took a lesson with another instructor. I drove up to the golf course on a crisp, but not unpleasant October day and spent a half-hour laying sod over the ball. Don’t get me wrong, my instructor was a nice enough person and he was nobody’s fool. But the communication between us just wasn’t there. The brief and entire affair played out like that surfing lesson scene from the movie, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Instead of being told to “pop up,” I was asked to hit down. And yes, I was encouraged to “do less.”
In-person lessons being what they are (generally expensive, sometimes difficult to schedule), I decided to experiment with taking lessons online. Increasingly, this is becoming a more popular method of receiving golf instruction, thanks in no small part to the explosion of smart phones. If my 73-year-old father-in-law can take a video of his swing, chances are so can you. Once you’ve taken a video of your swing (you’ll need to film it both face-on and down-the-line), you upload it for analysis.
In my experience, you’ll receive feedback within 24 to 72 hours. Savvy golfers will quickly realize that in order to get better feedback it’s important to describe your swing issues in great detail. Don’t be embarrassed to treat your online lesson like a heartfelt submission to Dear Abby – after all that’s what these instructors are there for. However, do be prepared to accept that online lessons can’t take the place of the personal attention you receive with one-on-one instruction. If you end up feeling like a cog on the assembly line, well, it’s because you are.
That isn’t to say that online golf instruction is mediocre to it’s in-person counterpart. Some of the best golf teachers in the industry have turned to online instruction to cast a wider net and to offer students a less expensive alternative to taking an individual lesson. For those golfers who have always balked at taking lessons due to cost or time commitments, embrace technology if you haven’t already. To that end, embrace communication — it’s the common denominator in determining if your lessons are going to help or hinder, irrespective of how you take them.
To their credit, golfers are rarely shy about experimenting with any gizmo, swing tip or school of thought that can help their games. Driving ranges are always packed with old and young, men and women, scratch players and duffers beating balls from summer to winter with unrelenting optimism in their hearts. Pause for a moment and take a lesson or two. Golf instructors are here to help with keeping that beat going.
The Jamaica Golf Experience
I love Jamaica. I have been to the island for several trips with my family and the feeling I get every time I think about a next visit is always exciting. On past trips, I have made Jamaican friends that I will remember for the rest of my life. The people there are so happy and good. One Love. The “no problem ‘mon'” culture just becomes a part of you when you’re there, creating a special atmosphere that lets you escape it all. I keep Red Stripe beer in my fridge at home in Fort Worth, Texas, all year — a reminder of the island I love with every sip. So when I received an invitation to play in The Jamaica Pro-Am, I was quick to accept.
The Jamaica Pro-Am (aka Annie’s Revenge — more on that later) is an annual tournament held each year in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Four-man teams constructed of three amateurs and one PGA Professional, the tournament is typically played on three of Jamaica’s finest golf courses — Half Moon, Cinnamon Hill, and White Witch. I attended this year’s tournament as a playing observer, confined to the “media team” and partaking in the festivities. Ya’mon.
The tournament field gets to stay at the beautiful Iberostar Grand Rose Hotel, conveniently located near all three courses and more importantly, right on the beach. The hotel is indeed grand and all-inclusive, providing guests with a wristband that gets you whatever you’d like to eat or drink from any of the onsite bars and restaurants — no questions asked. Less than 30 minutes from the airport, if Montego Bay is your desired city for your next Jamaican vacation, I’d imagine this hotel is tough to beat.
The first night of the tournament is the welcome dinner and reception on the beach. A full Jamaican buffet complete with jerk chicken and pork, beef patties, fried plantains, rice and peas, and cabbage. A true taste of the Caribbean, accompanied of course with whatever rum drink your heart desires. Appleton is the island favorite, and it mixes well with pretty much everything when you’re toes are in the sand. There was a live reggae band playing the Bob Marley songs everyone knows.
While the festivities were for the tournament participants, there was still plenty of activity and vibe for the other hotel guests. This is Jamaica. There was music and fun all around the hotel every moment of this trip. No worries, everything is irie. I have a real love for the island. The people are kind, the food is fantastic, and the waters are the finest in the world.
Day One: Half Moon Golf Club
Quite understandably, Jamaica has been hit hard by COVID-19, with tourism taking a substantial dip in the past year and a half. The golf has seen a dip in numbers as a result, but the courses are in gorgeous shape with foot and cart traffic just now picking back up.
Half Moon was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and it opened in 1962. The course rests between the Blue Mountains and the sea, playing a mostly flat 7,120 yards from the back tees. Half Moon does offer several tee box options and could be played as short as 5,032 yards, making it a pleasant resort course, should that be your speed.
The course is beautiful and very well maintained. The greens were a bit shaggy, but luscious, playing at a slower pace than I am used to. I am not sure if that is by design or a side effect of the pandemic, as I do know the Jamaican golf courses have been short-staffed and without the usual supplies this past season. That appears to be a thing of the past, however, as the course looks to have turned a corner.
Most fairways are lined by palm trees, adding something to avoid off the tee, but there is enough space between each trunk to give you a full swing if you do miss left or right. The coconuts that drop, luckily, are loose impediments.
Half Moon is a resort course through and through. There are elements of character and excitement, but it mostly just provides a beautiful and benign setting for fun island golf. The fairways are dressed with multiple well-placed bunkers which provide the only designed protection against low scores. The driver could be used on virtually every non-par 3, but the course is better suited to be thought around and played to avoid the sand.
Built on a retired sugar cane estate, the other real hazard (water doesn’t come into play much at all) is the coastal winds that pick up mid-morning each day. With little besides the coconut trees to protect your ball from gusts, the wind becomes a real challenge on this bow-tie routed design. Holes into the wind were a beast, and when we finally turned with the wind at our back, it was time for a Red Stripe and a sigh of relief.
Those winds are a big reason why this tournament is called “Annie’s Revenge.” Named after Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rose Hall, the namesake is one of Jamaica’s most famous local legends. Rose Hall’s Great House, just down the road towards Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, was home to Palmer, a Haitian-born white woman who grew up studying voodoo and witchcraft. Thus the nickname, the White Witch. She moved to Jamaica when she married John Palmer, the owner of Rose Hall, and unfortunately, her practice of dark magic proved too powerful for those around her. Legend tells she murdered her husband (and two more after that) along with many of her slaves. She herself was eventually killed, but to this day, the locals claim to have witnessed Palmer’s ghost riding her horse around the Jamaican plantations.
The strong coastal winds are Annie’s Revenge on any golfer trying to enjoy the land she once owned. They got the best of me a time or two.
Days Two and Three: Cinnamon Hill
Both Cinnamon Hill and White Witch Golf Course are members of the Rose Hall family. Typically, in the “Annie’s Revenge” tournament format, the courses are played once each in the three-day event. However, White Witch is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its owners made the financial decision to proceed through these tough times with only one course due to the limited play and the costs of upkeep. While disappointed to not play White Witch, playing Cinnamon Hill twice instead more than satisfied my appetite for Jamaican golf. This is my favorite course on the island.
Cinnamon Hill was designed by Rick Baril and opened in 1969. It was later renovated and redesigned by Robert von Hagge. The greens here were much quicker than those at Half Moon, which I certainly appreciated. The two nines of Cinnamon Hill play in complementing contrast to one another, with the front providing low coastal play while the back nine rises into the tropical Blue Mountains.
Tipping out at 6,828 yards, the front nine marches and builds towards the ocean, with two phenomenal holes hugging the coastline. This is unusual for Jamaica, as most of the shore is saved for sandy beaches and rum-flavored sips under thatch umbrellas.
I played Cinnamon Hill with my cart partner, Jason Deegan of GolfPass.com. Our hosts for our rounds at Rose Hall were Keith Stein, the Director of Golf Course Operations for both Cinnamon Hill and White Witch, and Donnie Dawson, the Deputy Director of Tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board.
Keith is a very good golfer with a smooth swing. He is originally from Toronto but has lived in Jamaica for 30 years. Donnie is a world-class storyteller who grew up in Kingston and has been playing these courses his entire life. It was a real treat to be able to play the course with both fine gentlemen, see how they play each hole, and hear their tales. The best story came on hole four, a 170-yard par 3 over marshy ponds.
As we approached the fourth tee box, Donnie pointed out a concrete wall just behind the markers and informed us that a cemetery lay just beyond. Peering over, we could see the gravestones in this centuries-old burial plot for the family of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The grass is grown tall because the golf course staff, local Jamaicans, refuse to go inside.
Donnie told us 20 or so years ago, he was playing this course with a caddie named “Teeth,” a moniker he was given based on the looper’s colored and decorated top front teeth. As they approached the fourth tee box, a man was sitting on the concrete wall bordering the cemetery. He tossed Donnie a ball and said “hit this one, mon.” Donnie complied and the three men watched the shot bounce twice and roll directly into the cup. A hole-in-one with accompanied celebration. When they reached the green, Donnie and Teeth looked into the cup to retrieve the ball, and, to their surprise, it had vanished. Disappeared from the hole. They looked to the tee box and the kind stranger on the wall was gone as well. Perhaps a ghost from the ancient graves. Donnie said Teeth, a believer in local legend, took off running and didn’t stop for three miles.
Holes five and six provide tremendous views right along the quietly crashing waves. The par-3 sixth hole, arguably the prettiest hole on the island, is a 178-yard carry over the Caribbean with bailout room to the left. Just a gorgeous hole that I would have been happy to play all day. Cinnamon Hill does not waste their par 3s.
The course is also home to an ancient aqueduct that winds through both the front and back nine. The now-ruins provide an interesting backdrop to island golf, whereas they used to be a working part of the sugar cane plantation and used to grind and transport one of Jamaica’s top export products for commerce.
The back nine brings you up the mountains, with the 17th tee box sitting nearly 400 feet above sea level. What that provides, obviously, is wonderful views of the ocean through and over jungle leaves, along with challenging golf shots. On the fairway of the 14th hole sits one of the few homes on course, but one has some historical value: The Cinnamon Hill Great House was the second home of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash for 30 years.
The 15th hole is another tremendous par 3 measuring 220 yards from the back but playing much shorter straight down the hill to a large green nestled beneath a waterfall. The waterfall, in case it looks familiar, was the backdrop of a famous scene in “Live and Let Die” — one of the best James Bond films ever made. Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond series, lived and wrote many of the books here on the island at Golden Eye.
Cinnamon Hill takes the driver out of your hand on many holes, forcing you to find the right club on every tee shot. You need to be prepared to hit mid-irons off some par fours as angles are often more important than distance. And with the undulating back nine, distances are sometimes deceiving. Cheers to my caddie for keeping the right club in my hand all trip.
Back to the hotel for the final ceremony and last sleep on the island. The Jamaica Pro-Am is open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee, but if you come to Jamaica for just a family vacation, don’t forget about the golf. Most travelers to Jamaica come for the beaches and the island lifestyle, and they aren’t wrong to do so. But next time you visit, I suggest you bring your clubs, mon.
Club Junkie: Reviewing New Bettinardi BB and Inovai putters!
Bettinardi has new and updated putters for their BB and Inovai putter lines. I have been rolling a ton of putts (indoors, unfortunately) with both the BB-8W and the Inovai Rev 8.0 and they are really solid (read our launch piece here).
BB series is now made from stainless steel and has a new face milling that offers much better feel. The new Inovai 8.0 has a great, toned-down shape with the new Roll Control face for reducing hopping and skidding and producing forward roll.
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