Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Survival of the Fitted: Profiling Four Carolinas PGA Professionals

A quartet of Carolinas PGA professionals and expert club fitters incorporate expertise and technology to improve golfer’s play and increase their enjoyment of the game.

(GREENSBORO, N.C.) — In the world of golf club fitting, one thing on which all experts seem to agree is that every serious golfer should be fitted – or at least looked at. Even, it seems, those who may not end up needing it.

Take for instance current PGA Tour professional Tim Clark when he was an up-and-comer attending N.C. State University in Raleigh. Back in the 1990s, as the story goes, he and one of the coaches from the Wolfpack football team took a ride “to the beach” in Wilmington to check in on Carolinas PGA teaching and master professional Drew Pierson.

Pierson says, “[Clark] came to see me with his set of clubs that had been specially made in Scotland. I ran him through some tests and afterwards was asked about the clubs. I said, ‘That was the best set of clubs I’ve ever checked.’ Someone had clearly done something right when putting them together for Tim.”

During the session, Clark kept hitting ball after ball squarely on the clubface. At one point, the football coach complained that the monitor Pierson was using must have been broken.

“Why?” Pierson asked him.

“Because the same number keeps popping up every time,” replied the coach.

Pierson’s explanation was classic.

“I told him, ‘the way Tim hits shots, I could shag them with my hat.’ He was that precise,” Pierson added. “I’ve been around a lot of great players, but I’d never seen a guy do that, other than maybe Ben Hogan.”

Like many other Carolinas PGA pros who give lessons and stress the importance of a club fitting during the learning process, Pierson has seen his share of golfers (admittedly not at the skill level of a Tim Clark) that weren’t nearly as well in tune with their equipment. Take, for instance, a tall player with short arms using standard clubs. He or she may be forced to hunch over and possibly strangle the life out of the grips to hold on to the “shorter” sticks.

What this golfer along with many others needs is a lesson, practice — and somewhere along the way, a club fitting to make all the moving parts work.

While most players realize the importance of the first two components, a smaller percentage of golfers take the extra step to make sure their equipment complements their physical makeups. But thanks to several talented golf professionals like Pierson who have made club fitting a priority at their facilities across the Carolinas, more and more golfers are “putting it all together” out on the fairways.

Here is a rundown of four such “fitters” who help make the beloved game that much more enjoyable.

Bo Bowden — GolfTec, Greenville, S.C.
Bo Bowden, PGA made the move from “the green grass side of our business” into full-time teaching at a new GolfTec inside the newly opened Golfsmith in Greenville, S.C. In previous stints across the Southeast, the native of Macon, Ga., had been a golf professional in Valdosta, Ga.; Pensacola, Fla.; Salisbury, N.C. (at the Crescent Golf Club located 40 minutes north of Charlotte); Sunset, S.C. (at the Reserve at Lake Keowee); and Badin, N.C. (The Badin Inn & Golf Club).

He also played at Georgia Tech and was on the golf team there playing with eventual Masters champion Larry Mize.

“At GolfTec,” Bowden says, “we employ a very unique system of teaching. I would say that 85 to 90 percent of the time [off-the-rack] golf clubs are going to fit the person. Of course, if we get a golfer who is short, he or she probably shouldn’t be using the same club as a much taller individual.”

According to Bowden, the $60,000 question about club fitting is when it should be done – right off the bat or three or four lessons into the process.

“We believe in taking them and fitting them initially and if they are off later on, it won’t be by much,” he adds. “Get the loft and lie corrections done on that first lesson. And of course in our lesson plans we include the fitting either for irons or woods.”

Bowden says that he will have a golfer hit at least five balls with each club and the computer will tell him the rest.

“It’s a comparison,” he adds. “We use their original club as the ‘control’ club. Occasionally, it shows us that their clubs hit better than anything we have on the floor. It’s very rare, but it does happen. The same goes with the driver. There’s not a lot of human error involved in what we do. It’s truly one of those situations that you have to see it to realize it.”

Though he believes that only 15 percent of all golfers have an appreciable problem with their golf clubs, he still sees a need to investigate.

“We provide the service to check that out, and the results of the fitting will either confirm or deny that,” he says. “Persons taking the lesson series then can decide if they want to get their clubs worked on or to get fitted clubs. They will have that information in their hand when they leave. We very much recommend that they go ahead and get a fitting. Once it’s done, their swing may change some but usually not that much.”
Other variables include newer golf shafts and the adjustability of club heads. These are things golfers couldn’t even do 15-20 years ago but now have to be considered when doing a fitting these days.

“Every golf teaching system has its own selling point,” Bowden says. “Ours is that we use sensors attached to the back of the neck and the tail bone. We get motion measurements from them. We conduct a 90-minute evaluation and from that we determine how many lessons are needed and agreed to by coach and student. Then we start sequential lessons. We have to know that our students are committed to a schedule. Our company spent a lot of time figuring out what makes people tick.  A schedule is one of them. Complete the lessons. We stress that they be committed and know what their goals are.”

Which brings us back to the $60,000 question: At what point do you fit?

“It is a very hard question to answer,” Bowden says. “You can ask four different people and you may get four different answers.”

Says Bowden: “I’ve been teaching golf for 32 years. I’m learning that I could have helped people learn a lot faster had I been working for a company like GolfTec all along.”

Rod Thompson — Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
According to Rod Thompson, PGA, going through a club fitting is a “no brainer.”

And Thompson has an equally clear opinion on what can happen when you get a club fitting: “It’s like a custom suit,” he says.  “A $1,000 suit from Brooks Brothers will fit different than a $100 suit off the rack from Joseph A. Banks.”

Thompson is actually one of an elite group of Plane Truth instructors throughout the nation, meaning that he had to serve an apprenticeship under Jim Hardy of the Plane Truth Golf Institute in Houston, Texas. Thompson has been certified for 10 years and he’s up to a level 2 out of 3.

“It’s a different philosophy,” he says. “It is all based on impact and ball flight. It’s a significantly different way of looking at a student.”

Thompson also believes that the brand-new golfer doesn’t necessarily need to be custom fitted. Still, he lists a few categories of them that probably should.

“One is a tall golfer with short arms,” he says. “Two is a short golfer with long arms. And three is any player who cares about getting better at golf. I do the fitting and always start with the irons because the ground is going to give me a lot of information. Also my eyes will show me the ball flight and my ears are going to tell me how it sounds. A lot of information comes out of a club fitting.”

Thompson feels it is better to get a person’s swing a little oriented before starting a fitting. He also prefers doing it outside where true ball flight analysis can be calculated.

“The tall and short golfers are very likely going to need something,” he continues.  “Golf clubs right off the rack probably won’t work for them because their bodies aren’t normal in proportion, regardless of their swing shape.”

Thompson, a native of Orchard Lake, Mich., started making golf clubs in 1986 while at Kenwood Country Club in Maryland. Previous to that he turned professional at the age of 18 and eventually became a head pro at Burning Tree Country Club in Michigan.

He applied for the head job at Kenwood in 1977 and moved South. It was there where he honed in on ball flight.

“If I saw that a swing was working but the ball flight told me something different, then that threw up a red flag,” Thompson says. “That’s what got me into fitting. Golf clubs are expensive so it’s important that they fit. I like to say, ‘clubs that fit better hit better,’ and they really do. Women, juniors and seniors in particular usually need fittings and I do the fitting complimentary.”

According to Thompson, it’s all about ball flight and impact.

“It’s fun for me,” he says.  “But I also know it’s especially fun when you are the person who is getting properly fit, I can tell you.”

Drew Pierson — Wilmington, N.C.
Pierson, a native of Cromwell, Conn., and a former Wake Forest Demon Deacon golfer, turned a six-month favor for a famed golf course architect back in 1986 into more than a quarter century of golf instruction in the Wilmington area.

“Pete Dye had designed a golf course I was at in Connecticut and when he was building the Dye Course at the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington he needed someone on site to help gets things started,” Pierson says. “I came here to be here for six months and have been here ever since. And that was back in 1986.”

So the Carolinas’ gain have been New England’s loss, especially in terms of having one of the foremost authorities on club fitting nearby.

“I just feel like it’s the most important part of the lesson,” he begins. “I look at everybody’s equipment.”

And that even included Wilmington native, NBA legend and former UNC Tar Heel Michael Jordan’s.

“I watched Jordan swing one day and told him his clubs were too long: that he had too much golf club,” Pierson adds. “He said that his clubs were made longer for him because he was so tall, but I told him he also had very long arms. It’s about width versus height. His wingspan made up for the height. He later went and got some shorter irons I know. He also had the biggest golf grips I’d ever seen, but he needed them because his hands are so big.”

In today’s world golf is big business, and the big golf club manufacturers don’t always cater to the specialized needs of individuals. Over time, companies with huge advertising budgets have squeezed many of the smaller and more personalized custom club-building operations out of the market.

“To me, the golf instructor is still the person who should fit the clubs,” Pierson says. “The instructor who works with you knows best, not just some salesperson. The best thing is for the pro to say to the golfer, ‘this is what you’ve been playing with, this is what you need now.’  Once that happens, invariably a player will call you up a couple of months later and tell you that he or she is doing great with his or her clubs. That’s what great about club fitting. It makes you feel like you’ve helped.”

One problem, according to Pierson — who qualified for a number of PGA Tour events back in his competitive days — is that most golfers think that they hit the ball consistently farther than they do.

“They are just kidding themselves,” he says. “The amateur’s errors are short and right. At the first club fitting, I’ll say ‘go ahead and warm up.’ Even without equipment, I’ll know if they have too much or too little club. If a player can’t hit the ball on the center of the face, they are just wasting their time.”

Ultimately, club fitting and choosing the right clubs come down to cost.

“I really feel like there are still plenty of young teachers out there who are aware that they can help a golfer with clubs without forcing that person to go out and buy a $1,000 to $2,000 set of clubs,” Pierson concludes. “I feel I can make a basic set of steel shafted clubs for someone for about $280 and he or she can go out and play with them and have a good time. The problem comes in when their partner shows up with expensive shoes, balls, a $400 bag and clubs that cost well over $1,000. All of a sudden, they feel they have to spend more money to get everything right. But they don’t.”

Pierson worked at Landfall until 1996. These days you can find him still giving fittings and lessons out of his house located near the bridge that leads to Wrightsville Beach.

Tom Ream — Prestonwood Country Club, Cary, N.C.
Tom Ream, PGA is a Michigan native perhaps more adamant about the advantages of this particular craft than most.

“I think everyone should get fitted,” Ream says. “[An off-the-rack club set] is like saying one size of jeans fits everybody. You might get your leg in it, but that’s about it. One size does not fit all.”

Fortunately Ream has one of the most state-of-the art facilities at his disposal in his learning center at Prestonwood. The club’s learning center has all the bells and whistles including complete fitting carts from nearly all the major club manufacturers. Still, he knows it takes a combination of things to get things right.

“We have a very solid facility with which to work,” he admits. “It is very complete.  We have two indoor/outdoor bays, Trackman in each bay with video.  We also have an indoor putting green with a SAM Putt Lab. However, nothing is terribly novel about our center — all learning centers are essentially high-tech garages. What makes the difference is the technology you have inside and the people you have using that technology. With seven qualified, knowledgeable instructors, we have that here.”

Like the others before him, Ream says that it’s important that the instructor does the fitting.

“I have been teaching and fitting for 20-plus years,” Reams adds.  “I think to be a good teacher you have to be a good fitter and vice versa.  I also feel that you should get fit from the person teaching you golf, otherwise the game plan from two different parties may be different.  Like many teachers and fitters, I have learned the craft over time – mostly from those who helped me learn about the golf swing (Matt Kluck/Drew Pierson).  I have also attended many club fitting workshops put on by the club companies as well as the PGA.”

“When done separately, there are two different agendas,” he says. “The question is, are you fitting for compensation or are you fitting for improvement? I think fitting for compensation is wrong.”

Says Ream: “Depending on the student (age/skill level), I want to help set the clubs where we want them to get to instead of just where they currently are.  Most of my fittings are for my students.  In the case of fittings for non-students who are not going to practice, on the other hand, I feel the fit-for-compensation method is then appropriate.  All fittings – like lessons – are how can I best help the individual? Getting to know them is very important.”

Ream, who took up the game at the age of 3, turned PGA professional right out of college. His got his professional start at Woodlake Country Club near Pinehurst before moving over to Pinewild Country Club located on the other end of town. Five years ago he migrated back to the Triangle where at Prestonwood he has a much larger population of regular golfers from which to draw. Though Prestonwood is a private club, the learning center is available to non-members and corporate clients but with members still having priority.

“Again for the non-student,” Ream concludes, “I feel you have to determine if he is going to practice or not first.  An example of when a lesson would need to come first [before a fitting] … a guy comes for a driver fitting but his swing is very out to in [attack angle negative five or more in Trackman].  This person needs to improve his or her swing before you can help with a driver.  Anytime someone has too negative of an attack angle he or she will create too low a launch and too high spin.”

Apparently, the need for a club fitting is universal.

Since its inception in 1923, the Carolinas PGA Section has been committed to nurturing and improving the quality of the game for the thousands of golfers using its member facilities.  Now the largest of the PGA’s 41 sections, the Carolinas PGA Section of the Professional Golfers’ Association boasts 2,000 professional members and represents more than 800 golf facilities within North and South Carolina as well as portions of southern Virginia. PGA Professionals are responsible for conducting a variety of golf-related functions which include human resource management, golf shop merchandising, golf instruction, tournament operations, junior golf programs, growth of the game initiatives, golf club repair, administering the rules, public relations, and much more. www.Carolinas.PGA.com

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