Every doctor needs an office, an exam room, some place to keep an eye on patients. Doctors have specialties, and their work environment is often a reflection of that specialty.
Matt Ruehling, head golf professional at Panther Creek Country Club, specializes in tending to ailing golf swings. He's a swing doctor, a healer. As a club pro, his job is part diplomat, part sports expert and part guru, to name only a few.
Teaching something as complex and as capricious as the golf swing requires a mix of athleticism and engineering, psychology and religion and plenty of kindness, encouragement and empathy. His goal is to get his members playing to their fullest potential, so they can enjoy the game to its fullest.
Dr. Ruehling's patients ... er, his students are often as hopeful as they are hopeless. Just think of how often you've stretched out in bed on dark nights or dark mornings, in all kinds of weather and seasons, and meticulously analyzed your golf swing and how it's carried you to glory or robbed you of the same. It's a never-ending, lifelong quest, that stuff of golf glory.
The golfer's path is no easy saunter; it's fraught with peril and drama. Sometimes you're cruising right down the middle of a green fairway, and other times it's like walking a ledge with a wedge in your sweaty hand. The game provides plenty of highs and lows -- think golf the game and golf the metaphor for life. But golfers have a stick-to-itiveness; we know that. Scientists, if they studied it, would likely tell us a golfer's dedication and devotion to the game have a shelf life of at least 10 decades. The proof is plain to see and easy enough to quantify. I'm sure you can find 100-year-old golfers practicing their air golf swings in assisted living facilities all around the globe.
To stay on such a course for all your life and to hope for improvements in your game as you go, you must enlist the help of a guy like Ruehling. The Matt Ruehlings of the world will save you strokes. He has the knowledge you seek. And here's the thing, you don't have to go off to some far flung mountaintop to seek wise counsel. Just head out to a guy with PGA credentials and get a lesson, or better yet, a series of lessons.
That's all fine, but what do you do to get your fix in the cold, Midwestern weather? How do you stay sharp in the cold and wind and ice? Ruehling's got that figured out for you.
Panther Creek has a new indoor, all-season practice facility. It's open to all Panther Creek members, their guests and LPGA players (if a tour player should find herself in Springfield during inclement weather). Players hit balls from one of three heated, indoor stations out to the driving range. It is the first of its kind in our area. It's like standing in your garage (only the door is taller at 10 feet) and ripping drivers out over your neighbor's house. It does look a bit like a garage, actually, trimmed in brick, but it serves a higher purpose than providing shelter for your expensive gas-guzzlers and maybe your golf cart. It provides shelter for the golfer who is on a mission to practice. Yeah, that's right, we're talking about practice.
The building sits at the far end of the range, out past where your good drives land. Amenities include state-of-the-art technology for game improvement: a launch monitor, which measures clubhead speed, ball speed and back and side spin rates; computer-based video teaching software; and an indoor putting and chipping green. The grass, while fake as some 18th-green handshakes, is about as close to the real thing as you can get. The longer stuff around the green has what, by golly, looks like actual blades of grass. The putting green itself is rolled with sand and looks and feels mostly like real grass.
The putting green is laid out over a base of crushed limestone that raises it a few inches above the floor, enough room to put in cups. The turf is rolled with sand to smooth it out. The surface looks very much like a putting green near a clubhouse. It rolls pretty darn good, with a couple of exceptions where the surface needs rolling and kind of grabs your ball and changes its direction.
Ruehling had the bad luck of having to watch me hit a few recently. One of the challenges hitting the ball from the indoors to the outdoors is getting used to the idea of a wooden tee hitting against drywall or the metal garage door frame just after you've launched your shot. Out on the course, your tee always lands silently in the grass. Ruehling said it takes a good 20 swings to get over the accompanying flinching. I actually didn't flinch at all when hitting an iron from the turf with no tee. The tee hitting the wall seems to send a message to your brain that you've hit an overhead light in your basement when you've taken a full swing.
This facility is ideal for the grinder who likes to practice and keep sharp even in winter, and it's great for someone preparing to leave snowy Illinois for Florida or Arizona. A player can get in four or five sessions before jumping on the plane.
The heaters in each of the practice bays should raise the temperature by about 20 degrees, which could still put you at a pretty cold temp, but as Ruehling said, the wind is blocked out, and you can always chip and putt in the 1,200-square-foot practice paradise.
Eventually, Ruehling will use two cameras for teaching -- one from down the line, or from behind the player, and one from directly in front of the player. For our session, we looked at my swing from behind. Had I known videotape was going to be involved, I might not have shown up. I could have made some lame excuse about my back, my wrist or my lack of guts.
The software can show your clubhead path frame by frame. Ruehling then places your swing up on the screen side by side with a tour player's move. That gets a little uncomfortable. My swing was up against the classic move of Adam Scott. Ruehling drew a line on the screen showing the proper swing plane. I did OK on my takeaway, and even at the top my position was pretty decent -- not perfect, but workable. Once I got to the top, that's where Adam and I parted company. He, of course, brought the club back to the ball in perfect position, right down the line that he took it back on. Me, well, I added a little loop that had me coming into the hitting area at a pretty steep angle. Kind of reminded me of the grotesque Quasimodo yanking straight down on the rope ringing bells in the belltower. Not pretty and all the proof I needed for why I'm not so good at this confounding game.
Ruehling uses the pictures to make suggestions to his students on what to work on. He saves the tape, and in a couple of weeks they meet up again for another lesson. He can bring the old swing up on the flat screen next to your new swing.
"I can tell just how hard you've been practicing," he said.
He can save the videotape for you, put it on DVD, or send it to you in an e-mail, complete with voice-over commands: "Hey, John, I'd like to see you suck that gut in at address." Stuff like that. A nice guy like Ruehling wouldn't talk that way, but you get the idea.
It's high tech and practical and a way to stay sharp all year long. If you can practice what your teacher preaches, you just might get better.
God or some Scottish sheepherder or whoever came up with this cruel but wonderful game must have known early on that most of us were in for a struggle. It's the hardest game and the best game, a game for a lifetime. Why not get some professional help? Go on, take your best shot.
Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )